God’s Own Country (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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With the wind howling around the house in full throes of a storm the other night I fancied watching something which would match the bleakness going on outside.  I have seen this film before and it left a great impression.  I bought it on DVD just before Christmas but with a cat ensconced on my lap it was easier to watch it on Netflix.  It is also on the BFI Player where I viewed it the first time and where it was one of the most streamed films of 2018.

Set during an early springtime lambing season in a farm on the Yorkshire Moors, main character John Saxby (an outstanding Josh O’Connor most recently seen as Marius in the BBC adaptation of “Les Miserables”) is getting by through getting drunk each night and spending the day hung over and uncommunicative towards grandmother played by Gemma Jones and his ailing father, played by Ian Hart, who himself is reluctant to give up the running of the farm and vents this frustration onto his son. A young Romanian is brought in to help out with the lambing and sparks ignite between him and John.

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Josh O’Connor and Alex Secareanu

This is a love story but one carried out in the bleak harshness of the environment.  The two camp out on the Fells to be near to the sheep in a section reminiscent of “Brokeback Mountain” but this is a more stronger, more convincing film.  It also feels more grounded in reality, certainly for British audiences,  than a film that  tended to overshadow it in 2017, “Call Me By Your Name“.  The reason this works so well is largely through the dynamics between the two men, John, barely able to express himself or feelings other than lust and anger yet crippled by loneliness and Gheorghe thrust into this brittle set-up and accepting of everything because it is better than he had experienced at home.  You can certainly appreciate the appeal of the migrant worker played by Alec Secareanu and the hope that he brings with him.  It’s understandable how he can enrich the lot of those around him.

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It’s pretty much a four-hander and the performances are all excellent.  As John’s father’s health deteriorates Ian Hart’s performance becomes almost painful to watch and if asked to choose a career best performance from the ex-Duchess of Duke Street Gemma Jones between this and her excellent work on BBC TV’s “Spooks” I’d have to opt for the sublime, understated portrayal here.

 

Co-stars Ian Hart and Gemma Jones

True, this film might not be for everyone.  Some of the everyday scenes of life on the farm are brutal and challenging and there’s a couple of steamy sex scenes which may shock but are well within the context of the piece as shown by its 15 Rating (if they felt in anyway gratuitous I’m sure the rating would have been upped to 18).  It’s moving, satisfying and believably scripted.  It was written and directed by Francis Lee, whose sheer belief in his debut film is evident in every shot.  However, it is the performances that will stay with me, which definitely makes this a five star film for me.

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The stars with writer/director Francis Lee

God’s Own Country won the world crime directing award at the American Sundance Festival and garned a host of nominations worldwide.  Although Josh O’ Connor was singled out most often for acting awards, each of the four performances were up for awards.  In 2018 it was nominated for 7 Baftas of which it won Best British Independent Film with Josh O’Connor beating fellow nominee Alex Secareanu as Best Actor.  It also picked up gongs at the British Independent Film Festival, Chicago Film Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Empire Awards, Evening Standard Awards (where it won Best Film and Best Supporting Actress for Gemma Jones) amongst others including awards which highlighted the film’s LGBT+ issues.

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God’s Own Country was released in 2017 and is currently available on DVD.  It is also   available on Netflix as part of the subscription and can be rented on the BFI player

 

 

 

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Funny Way To Be A Hero – John Fisher (2013) – A Real Life Review

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I think we readers can always appreciate a book which has become lifeblood for its author. Although this writer and television producer has gone on to write other works, which have largely spun off from this title this will always be his special project and his feelings for this work and the individuals who provided the reason for the work are only too apparent.

It was first published in 1973 as a record of Fisher’s heroes from the world of comedy and variety, the latter still then playing a part of the entertainment industry of the day, but nowhere near as prevalent as it had been in decades past. This is the 40th anniversary edition of the book, which has been reworked and added to with lucid and involving afterthoughts at the end of most chapters. The big difference here is that 40 years on most of the artists accorded their own chapter had died and since publication of this edition six years ago they have all departed, the last survivor being Ken Dodd who left us last year. Of those mentioned in passing I think only a couple of the young pretenders Jimmy Tarbuck and Roy Hudd remain. This makes this work an even more important historical record of what are fast becoming lost days than it was on first publication.

Over 32 chapters Fisher shines the spotlight on those individuals who shone brightest from the Victorian performer Dan Leno (now best known as a title character in a Peter Ackroyd novel and its 2016 film adaptation) to the comedy stars of the 60’s and 70’s who attracted huge television audiences. This book is weighty and is a quality production through and through full of sumptuous photos, often over a whole page and many of which come from the author’s personal collection.

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The earliest performers will nowadays mean little to the reader (although it is interesting to note the source of some of the catchphrases still in modern parlance). If there is a central character than that is perhaps Max Miller, a comic I know by reputation only. The performers seem to fall naturally into a pre and post Miller division. Comedy is very much of its time. I wonder if anyone today would find Arthur Askey laugh-out-loud funny, some of the artists here remained at or near the top until their (often premature) deaths, some found themselves having to diversify somewhat (eg: Max Wall into serious acting, Max Bygraves into singing and quiz shows) and others found their stars waning (eg: Benny Hill) as tastes changed.

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Fisher is very good at including personal anecdotes of a lifetime both of admiring many of these performers on the stage and working alongside them in TV production. His first contact with a celebrity was aged 11 in 1956 when he won a competition to meet Norman Wisdom during the interval of “Aladdin” at the London Palladium. This was the encounter which set the seal on Fisher’s future interests. Wisdom was charming and relaxed. How easily it could have gone the other way with an 11 year old descending during the valuable interval minutes for a performer on what was the first night of the run! Many stars both past and present would not have been as accommodating!

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The focus is on comic performers from variety rather than comic actors so no Carry On Gang (apart from Frankie Howerd and “Carry On Teacher” star Ted Ray), no Alastair Sim  etc, although he certainly does not ignore film performers, in fact some of these took their stage characters to become some of the top domestic stars of their day, credited with keeping the British film industry afloat- so take a bow Will Hay, George Formby, Gracie Fields and Norman Wisdom.

Obviously the reader is going to seek out their own favourites. One who certainly predated me but who could silence the near-riot atmosphere of Saturday morning pictures when I was really quite young much better than the more contemporary Children’s Film Foundation offerings was Arthur Lucan, better known as Old Mother Riley. As a young child I was equally thrilled and scared to death of Jimmy Edward’s headmaster character in the TV revival of “Whacko!” In real life he was a man whose struggles with his sexuality led his brother to say after his death in 1988 aged 68 “It all got on top of him at the end.” Later on, my comedy heroes became Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill, The Two Ronnies and I defy anyone who was around at the time to read the chapters on both Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper without hearing the voices and laughing out loud throughout. (Why do I find Cooper’s “Glass, bottle! Bottle, glass!” still so funny?) I’ve actually discovered I have another book by John Fisher on my shelves, unread, his biography of Cooper, so when I get round to it I will certainly have a treat in store with this full-length expansion of the chapter here.

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It’s worth noting that the world of comedy and variety at this time was very male-centric and this is certainly represented here with only Rochdale’s Gracie Fields getting her own chapter. There is another section which groups together women who rose to as near the top as they could get in a difficult profession and here I found another real favourite, Hylda Baker, probably the Queen of the Catch phrase.

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Thank you Mr Fisher for this real blast of nostalgia I found lurking on the public library shelves. It brought back the excitement of knowing there was a new Morecambe & Wise, Benny Hill or Two Ronnies show on TV that night and it also taught me a lot about those I dimly remembered or knew just as names from previous generations of comic fun.

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This edition of “Funny Way To Be A Hero” was published in 2013 by Preface.

100 Essential CDs – Number 69– Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

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Hotter Than July – Stevie Wonder (Motown 1980)
UK Chart Position – 2
US Chart Position – 3

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Four years on from his essential “Songs In The Key Of Life” opus Stevie Wonder put out his next proper studio album. The result, was for me, even better than what had gone before. “Hotter Than July” is the Stevie Wonder album that has given me the most pleasure over the years. Part of this might be because it was the first of his albums that I did not come to retrospectively, I bought it as soon as it came out but I think it is also because these ten tracks encapsulate the magic and genius of Stevie Wonder in a concise. meaningful way.

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Stevie had not just been resting on his laurels since “Songs In The Key Of Life”. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at the Motown Offices when he announced that his follow-up to this huge selling classic album would be a double album movie soundtrack for a documentary about plants. The film is long-forgotten but with the music Stevie came very close to producing another essential work. It is certainly something I would consider as being five stars but just misses out on being essential. It’s very nature as a soundtrack meant it was a combination of songs with vocals, instrumentals and repeated themes which, although at times absolutely terrific, did not hold together as well as the best of his studio recordings. What it lacked was a big hit single like he had when he later worked on “The Woman In Red” Soundtrack, a much higher profile film which gave him his biggest selling hit in “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Nevertheless, “The Journey Of The Secret Life Of Plants” was not shunned by the record-buying public. In the US it reached number 4 in the album charts, number 8 in the UK. Every time I listen to it I am surprised by how good it still sounds.

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With “Hotter Than July” Wonder was back with a very commercial feel which produced a Top 5 and Top 20 hit in the US and really got the thumbs up in the UK with four top 10 singles including two which stopped just one place short of the top spot, very good going for a 10 track CD. And with these ten tracks we had very strong examples of what Stevie excelled at from uptempo funk, to social commentary, to political activism, to ballads which have become soul classics to those which edged towards the cheesy and as might be expected, everything was written and produced by the man himself. Technologically, he was once again using the latest equipment and although there was nothing radically different on this, his 19th studio album it certainly sounded fresh in 1980 and still, although not often critically cited as being amongst his very best, it still sounds good today.

Album opener “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” is a strong uptempo slab of funk which recalls the danceability of “I Wish” and “Superstition” without being as compulsive. This eases into “All I Do” which was a song from the Wonder back catalogue. He originally wrote it alongside Clarence Paul in 1966, in the early days of Stevie’s career, when he was aged 15 as a solo track for Tammi Terrell, best known for her classic duets with Marvin Gaye. I have always really liked Stevie’s version with its star backing vocalists including Michael Jackson, Miami hit-maker Betty Wright and representing Motown’s rival Philadelphia Sound, two thirds of the O’Jays, Eddie Levert and Walter Williams. It’s a really romantic track which oozes sincerity and there’s a good sax solo courtesy of Hank Redd. The original Tammi Terrell version was largely unheard of until Motown began raiding its vaults in its “A Cellarful Of Motown” series which appeared in 2002. Her version entitled “All I Do (Is Think About You)” is exceptional and completely blew me away when I heard it hidden on this CD set of unreleased tracks. It has become one of my all-time favourites, and so whilst I still enjoy Stevie’s very much, it is definitely the original version which really hits home for me.

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Tammi Terrell

With “Rocket Love” Stevie certainly approaches the cheese counter in the way in which he had done previously with tracks such as “My Cherie Amour” and would certainly do again with “I Just Called To Say I Love You” but once again he really gets away with it and comes up with a track which I should write off as cheesy but find it impossible to do. This one has lyrics like “A female Shakespeare of your time with looks to blow Picasso’s mind” for goodness sake. And yet, from its “do do do” introduction it weaves a laid-back hypnotic spell and if lyrically dodgy it is musically lovely with an exquisite swirling string arrangement by Paul Riser.

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The next track “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” was surprisingly chosen to be the second single from the album in favour of later singles which if released earlier would have surely topped the UK charts and in favour of another couple which remained on the album and which could also have been big hits.  In fact, this is probably the track I like the least. As a single it got to number 11 in the US and one place better over here. It goes for a slightly hillbilly country and western feel, especially in the verse which gives the suggestion that Stevie’s vocal is not quite up to scratch, especially on the lower notes but it has a good humoured feel about it, which makes it pleasant but slightly throwaway, which is surprising that Motown on both sides of the Atlantic went with this track to follow up what has been the big opening hit from the album. The first side of the vinyl album ended with the much stronger “If You Could Read My Mind”. This is reminiscent of the salsa flavour that Stevie brought to “Another Star” from “Songs In The Key of Life”, which was a great track which just went on too long. This is shorter, tighter and effective, even though the song itself is not as likeable as “Another Star”. There is another memorable harmonica solo from Stevie, however.

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With the lead single “Masterblaster (Jammin’) Stevie was largely giving kudos to another performer, in much the way he had celebrated the jazz greats in “Sir Duke”.  Stevie had flirted with reggae before, most obviously with his hit track “Boogie On Reggae Woman” from 1974 but in 1980 Bob Marley and The Wailers had been Stevie’s opening act on his US tour (they hadn’t made the commercial breakthrough that they had throughout much of the rest of the world) and this track was largely Wonder’s salute to another musical visionary, Bob Marley.  He gets a name check, “Marley’s hot on the box” and the album’s title is also referenced within this song.  The song itself is optimistic and  uplifting “When you’re moving in the positive/Your destination is the brightest star.”  It’s as if amongst all the social issues raised within the music from both artists there comes a point when you just have to enjoy yourself and get dancing.  Marley did not work with Stevie on this track but his influence is there.  It’s a reggae flavoured track rather than a reggae track and that ensured its commercial success in the US who had to this point not fully embraced reggae.  In fact, Marley would never have a US pop hit single.  Stevie’s attempt to introduce his music to America reached number 5 Stateside and was a number 2 in the UK (held off by “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police).

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Stevie with Bob Marley

“Do Like You” is more, like “Isn’t She Lovely”, paternal pride, this time a song about Keita who was three at the time of this album’s release.  It’s a musical anecdote about his love for dancing, learnt by copying his big sister, to winning a school talent show.  It’s an enjoyable enough track and ends with Mummy’s vase ending up in pieces. From the light-hearted we move onto “Cash In Your Face” , the most serious track on the album where Stevie adopts the role of social commentator again in the guise of a potent funk track.  It’s about insidious underhand racism with the title providing a clever play on words “You might have the cash/but you can’t cash in your face”.  A track which still feels relevant today.  Stevie here plays two roles, the tenant and the racist landlord and it all works very well.

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“Lately” is a little gem of a track and the album’s highpoint.  This was the one everyone was clamouring for in the UK and Motown eventually relented making it the third single release and it got to number 3 (I still say it would have topped the charts if it was put out straight after “Masterblaster”).  In the US something went very awry because it did not become a hit.  It’s a majestic, superbly structured sad soul ballad about facing up to emotional insecurity and jealousy within a relationship.  The piano work is beautiful and there is some real pathos about a blind man writing such lines as “But what I really feel my eyes won’t let me hide.”

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Perhaps the biggest surprise came at the end of the album.  Stevie had been a leading campaigner to recognise the birthdate of Martin Luther King as a US national holiday and here he advanced his cause considerably worldwide by putting the campaign to music.  The nature of the track “Happy Birthday” with its sing-along chorus may have been felt to have clouded the seriousness of the issue lying behind the song, the non-recognition of a man who had done so much to further the civil rights movement.  However, annoying the song might get it was effective in getting a message across to a wider audience.  In 1983 Martin Luther King Day was officially agreed upon for a  mid-January celebration and the first took place  (it wasn’t exactly rushed in) three years later.

In fact, the message would have hit home more outside his homeland as it completely failed to make the charts as a single in the US.  Perhaps a fourth single was asking too much of an American record-buying public who had already bought the album in droves.  Over here we loved it and it once again took Stevie to number 2 in the UK charts (this time it was the less worthy “Green Door” by Shakin’ Stevens which prevented Stevie from getting his first UK solo number 1 single during the summer of 1981).  I think we were looking for a viable alternative to the traditional “Happy Birthday To You” and both this and Altered Images’ 1981 hit with the same title which followed pretty hot on the heels of Stevie’s tracks provided this.  For the past nearly 40 years both tracks have provided radio and mobile DJ’s with the opportunity to dedicate a song to someone’s special day.  As an example of Stevie the political activist it fits nicely into the Wonder canon, but I’m not sure if it is going to be too many people’s favourite song by him, but it certainly gets people singing along.

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Despite welcoming Stevie into the 80’s, his third decade of hitmaking, this was the last time he produced an “Essential” studio album.  Much of the 80s were taken up with compilations or soundtrack work.  1985’s “In Square Circle” was a solid, enjoyable release (which did feature in “Overjoyed” one of my all time favourite tracks).  The nearest he has got to really blowing me away again was in his five star 2005 album “A Time 2 Love” in which he showed he was still a contemporary, extremely relevant performer.  Despite this being so good it was the last Stevie studio album to date.  Now in his late 60’s releasing new music is not so hot in his priorities.

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I really enjoy listening to “Hotter Than July” and more than any other Wonder album it takes me back to the time when it was released.  My only gripe is that my CD copy suffers from somewhat muted sound probably because of the way it was taken from the masters in the early days of CD releasing.  I’m sure the version currently available from Amazon which states it is “Remastered” has put this right.  It’s not really an issue in itself because I just turn the sound up a notch but these tracks don’t work so well in general playlists on the I-Pod.   I do have “Lately” on there however and just have to crank up the volume each time it comes on.

Hotter Than July Songs is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £5.69 and used from £1.88.  In the US it no longer seems to be on general issue and is available, other than as an impor, used from $3.89 but it is there as a download.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Devil Aspect – Craig Russell (Constable 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have not read Craig Russell before. Hailing from Scotland he has published five novels in his post-war Glaswegian series “Lennox” and seven set in Hamburg with his detective Jan Fabel taking centre stage. This is a stand-alone which could, especially with Hollywood interest in the film rights, be a big-selling title.

Set in Czechoslovakia in 1935 and it wasn’t long before I could appreciate Russell as a real story-teller with his fiction enriched by cultural stories, myths, urban tales and localised legends. Main character Viktor Kosarek begins work at the Hrad Orlu Asylum For the Criminally Insane housed in a foreboding castle. The Asylum houses just six inmates, the most dangerous and criminally insane of the lot. Dr Kosarek has a theory that pure evil lurks in an obscure part of the psyche and this “Devil Aspect” can be brought to the surface during therapy and then exorcised. Meanwhile, there is a killer stalking the streets of Prague viciously dismembering whilst clad in a blood- stained leather apron.

Russell is very good at cranking up the fear factor and tying it back to the darkness in our pasts. There’s even a scary clown, for goodness sake! The technique of the main character dealing with the six prisoners in turn and getting their backstories through the guise of therapy starts off extremely effectively but perhaps six were a little too many as it was here I found myself losing a little interest amongst their catalogue of hideous crimes.

Apart from this minor gripe the plot is handled well. I never saw what was coming with any of the twists in the tale. It is extremely dark and occupies the space where crime and horror blend which would make it a potent and highly commercial brew for a film adaptation.

Although at times some of the revelations seem audacious and over-the-top, Russell certainly gets away with it.  This is because of his seamless research, a good feel for the period and that enrichment of legends from the past juxtaposed with the psychological theories in his novel’s present which all builds up the spine-chilling elements.  This is a gory read, but a gripping one.

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The Devil’s Aspect is published in March 2019 by Constable in hardback.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (2018)

 

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Kate Atkinson’s previous two novels have been outstanding achievements based around the time of World War II.  The first, “Life After Life” played with structure in a way in which I (and many others including awards committees) found glorious and the second “A God In Ruins” had a more traditional narrative using characters from its predecessor.  Here, the author has kept pretty much within the same time-frame but produced a stand-alone novel.

 We meet main character Juliet Armstrong in two concurrent narratives ten years apart.  In 1940, as a young typist she is recruited to work for MI5 to produce transcripts of conversations between German sympathisers and in 1950 she finds she hasn’t fully escaped her wartime past whilst working for the BBC as a producer of Schools Radio programmes.  Atkinson gets the feel of London in both the war and post-war years perfectly, perhaps unsurprisingly as this is her third consecutive novel set in a period she must have certainly immersed herself in over the last few years.

 Juliet is involved in spying so the elements of who is finding out about who and who can be trusted provides a mystery element to the story which drives both narratives.  As always, characterisation is very strong and is written with the confidence, authority and playfulness that I have come to expect from this author.

It is a strong novel but I don’t think there is quite enough in the plot for me to consider it an excellent one, so no unprecedented three five stars in a row for Kate Atkinson.  I do very much like the juxtaposition of the war-time MI5 and post-war BBC and both work convincingly within the plot.  It does provide a fascinating insight into the workings of the secret service during the war, here involved in tasks which seem mundane but which can suddenly turn to the life-threatening and chilling and it is great to have Juliet’s back-room girl’s valuable contribution to all this given some limelight.

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Transcription was published by Penguin in September 2018.  The paperback version is due in  March 2019

The Chalk Man – C J Tudor (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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“Every kid wants to find a dead body. About the only thing a twelve year old boy wants to find more is a spaceship, buried treasure or a porn mag.”

These sentiments expressesd in CJ Tudor’s debut remind me very much of “Stand By Me”, the film based upon the short story by Stephen King and the King feel looms large throughout this book, there is even a front cover recommendation from the man himself who has obviously noted that he and Tudor are pulling in the same direction as he states; “If you like my stuff, you’ll like this.”

But don’t think this is some Stephen King rip-off as it is has an identity all of its own. For a start it is British set in a town called Anderbury located around 20 miles from Bournemouth. We have a narrative of two time spans – 1986 with the aforementioned twelve year old boys and thirty years later when a discovery made back then in the woods is still holding the main characters back.

I was really looking forward to the 1980’s setting and I think the author does a pretty good job of conjuring up what it was like to be twelve in the mid-80s but I think I was looking for a stronger feel of the period, but then again I suppose we can’t expect this particular group of adolescents to be too aware of what was going on around them, they are just living their last innocent summer before some horrific realities of life kick in.

What the author does do very well in her debut is to keep a tense atmosphere throughout. A terrifying incident at a fairground packs one hell of a punch early on and from then on we know that lives will never be the same again. I like the ambiguity in the title referring both to chalk figures used by main character Ed and his pals to communicate; to drawings which have resurfaced in the later narrative strand and to the nickname of an albino teacher who makes his presence felt in the summer before he joins the children’s school. This all adds to the richness and edginess of the book.

Characterisation is memorable, the resolution perhaps not as satisfactory as the build- up but I often feel that way about crime novels. I really like the idea of us having a budding Stephen King here in the UK and I could also feel the influence of another of the author’s literary heroes, James Herbert. This is well-written edgy crime, that never allows the reader to truly relax and which does hover towards horror on quite a few occasions. I’m not surprised that it has appeared on a good number of “Best Of 2018” lists.
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The Chalk Man was published by Penguin in 2018.

Snap – Belinda Bauer (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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One of the featured titles in my “What I Should Have Read In 2018” post which I’ve now put  right by making it my first read of 2019.  This attracted much publicity through its long-listing for the Man Booker Prize in a rare nod towards commercial crime fiction and recently took home the Crime/Thriller Book Of The Year at the National Book Awards.  The buzz around the title made it too good to miss, with expectations that this is going to be a top-notch title.

I have read Belinda Bauer before, her debut “Blacklands” was a very dark novel which certainly impressed me but I haven’t got around to reading any of her six publications between that and this.

I did have those high expectations which for me, is not always a good thing, as they tend to make me more disappointed with a book which doesn’t fully hit home than I would otherwise be.  The title refers to instant decision-making, also not always a good thing and which can have long-lasting repercussions.

A pregnant woman whose car has broken down on the motorway leaves her three young children in a car on the hard shoulder to seek a phone and is never seen alive again.  The plot focuses on this disappearance and her teenage son’s attempts to come to terms with her fate over the next few years.  His is the most vibrant characterisation in the novel as he attempts to hold the family together, tries to solve his mother’s case and becomes notorious around the Tiverton area where they live for his own crime sprees. 

It is a compelling read which I enjoyed immensely but I’m not sure how well it stands up to analysis as a crime novel.  A lot here hinges on coincidence (and I do acknowledge that a lot of real life crime is solved through coincidence) and some characters’ actions seem questionable, but then perhaps we’re back to that snap decision aspect again.

Given that the novel is about a horrific disappearance it is nowhere near as bleak as I was expecting.  Bauer’s writing style is lively and there is often humour and sharp observation which here works very well.

This book provided a very good start to my 2019 reading and hopefully this year I will be able to delve into Belinda Bauer’s novels I have missed out on.  She is a very good writer, confident in her genre but (and I think it’s down to those pesky expectations again) this didn’t quite blow me away in the way I was expecting it to.

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Snap was published in 2018 by Bantam

100 Essential CDs – Number 96– Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life

 

Songs In The Key Of Life – Stevie Wonder (Motown 1976)

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position – 1

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 There was a huge amount of anticipation surrounding the release of this album.  It had been two years since his US chart-topping “Fulfillingness First Finale” and the leaks emanating from his record label was that this was going to be an extremely special follow-up.  Potential release dates came and went and there was actually a mini-fashion explosion in “Stevie’s Almost Ready” t-shirts.  In September 1976 the album appeared and it was a biggie in very sense.  A double album and a bonus extended play seven inch single made it an expensive proposition.  I know that I couldn’t afford to buy it until I found it much cheaper after it had been out a few years.  On its CD release the 21 tracks fitted easily onto 2 discs.

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Despite the tongue-twisting title Stevie’s previous album had topped the US Charts and been a Top 5 success in the UK in 1974.

I do acknowledge the common perception that this is one of the greatest Soul albums of all time.  I do feel, however, that it could have benefited from a little editing, in the length of a couple of the tracks and I think there’s another couple that could have been dropped together without compromising this album’s status or reputation.  It is not the highest ranking Stevie Wonder album on my list but it is still an essential purchase.  The list of the Greatest Soul Albums of the 1970’s voted for by thousands on the Soultracks.com website has it at number 3 behind Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way Of The World” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.  It was very much Stevie Wonder’s statement on the mid 70’s which came exploding through the speakers like a torrent.

It contained two UK Top 5 singles and 1 Top 30, two US number 1’s and two Top 40 singles and a handful of tracks which although never released as singles are all-time classics and rank amongst the best of Stevie’s output.

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For an album which had such a big fanfare it has a rather muted beginning and does take a while to get into its stride.  Album opener “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is certainly a pleasant enough track but is an early example of a track which would have benefited from having a minute or so lopped off the end as it all gets a bit rambly and noodly.  I didn’t think it stands out especially amongst other tracks really until George Michael (who said “Songs In The Key Of Life” was his all-time favourite album) began  performing it on tour and as a B-side to his chart-topping “Father Figure” single.  Michael’s version seemed to me to breathe a bit of new life into this original and I think as a track it has dated quite well.  The insidious funk-lite of “Have A Talk With God” has not weathered the passing of time and sounded better on release than it does now.  Lyrically rather heavy-handed “He’s the only free psychiatrist that’s known throughout the world” this has never been one of my favourite tracks on the album.

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It’s the third track where things really crank up a gear when Stevie takes on his social commentator role on “Village Ghetto Land”.  One thing Stevie Wonder always does well is to dress up protest into something that sounds really good.  He’d done this before on tracks like “Living For The City” and here again.  There’s a majestic synthesized neo-classical orchestral opening, courtesy of the Yamaha- GX1and this is counterposed with some pretty hard-hitting lyrics of poverty and crime; “Families buying dog food now/Starvation roams the streets”.  It works superbly.

Next up is the bruising, funk instrumental “Contusion” (contusion/bruising see what I did there?) which is not exactly vital to the existence of the album.  It leads the way to the second US chart-topping single from the album (it reached #2 in the UK, his highest chart position for over 6 years) and is perhaps one of his most commercial tracks ever.  Stevie could sometimes veer towards a fine edge of the annoyingly poppy or cheesy but because of that little dash of Wonder magic he is able to sprinkle over he ends up triumphant.  This was certainly the case with his biggest UK hit “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, but also “My Cherie Amour”, with “Isn’t She Lovely” on this album and also “Sir Duke.”  This joyous blast of nostalgia serves very much as a history lesson for a new generation.  When I first heard this track as a young teenager I did not really know who Duke Ellington was nor his importance in the history of black music and here we also find out that “There’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo and the King of all, Sir Duke/And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out there’s no way the band can lose.”  This is all-time classic pop name dropping alongside Madonna’s rap in “Vogue” and the fashion designers in “He’s The Greatest Dancer”.  This is a lovely tribute track from its infuriatingly catchy brass introduction to singalong chorus.  It’s the musical equivalent to eating marshmallows but knowing just when to stop before they make you feel queasy.

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The second side on the vinyl version kicks off with the first single release which also topped the US charts and went Top 5 in the UK.  This is a track which I think has got even better with time and now ranks up amongst Stevie’s best.  “I Wish” reminisces on childhood and the passing of time in a storm of commercial funk.  The childhood depicted is not one of cosy innocence as its about sneaking out, hanging with hoodlums and playing doctor but whatever was going on Stevie wishes those simpler times would come round again.

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There’s a charming simplicity to “Knocks Me Off My Feet” as well as a strong melody which ensures this is a highspot.  And like all Wonder songs with strong melodies this has led to a number of cover versions over the year perhaps most strongly by Luther Vandross on his 1996 “Your Secret Love” album.  “Pastime Paradise” has a Hare Krishna choir on back-up and what I have always felt of as an African feel as Wonder dons the mantle of social commentator once again attacking those who view the world through rose-coloured glasses when the reality is; “Dissipation/Race relations/ consolation/ segregation/ dispensation/ isolation/ exploitation/ mutilation/ miscreation/ confirmation to the evils of the world.”  It’s a song which has been very much absorbed into hip-hop culture.  A sample took on a life of its own when it was used by Coolio on his “Gangsta’s Paradise” in 1995 where it was the biggest selling single of the year in the US, Australia and New Zealand and the second biggest selling (behind Robson and Jerome’s “Unchained Melody”!)  “Summer Soft” starts off as another pretty ballad, surges upwards for the chorus but is another track which ultimately goes on a little too long.  The first CD closes with “Ordinary Pain”, a song in two parts which has a first half which is a nifty little soul ballad which chugs along very effectively with Stevie very much in charge until it winds down almost to a stop before taking a funkier edge with a response from Shirley Brewer, aided by an impressive back-up group which features amongst others Minnie Riperton, Syreeta Wright, one-time Supreme Linda Laurence and Deniece Williams.  At over 6 minutes it is another track which could have benefited from fading earlier.

 

Luther and Coolio – two artists inspired by the tracks on this album

The second CD opens with the album’s high-spot and possibly Stevie’s best ever track.  “Isn’t She Lovely” a father’s song to his baby daughter could really have gone either way and versions of it being used in beauty pageants have pushed it well over the edge but taken here in its original full-length version it’s a powerful piece.  Stevie knew this and refused to allow Motown to release it as an edited single, which would have watered down its potency and its surprising funkiness.  In the UK, in particular, there was a great demand for a single release and there is no doubt that it would have topped a chart.  A limp cover by white session singer David Parton almost did but eventually stalled at number 4 and even the ignominy of this did not get the original out as a single.  The Parton release seemed to be the latest (and perhaps one of the last) of a long line of tracks where a white artist would water down a black artist’s vision and achieve great success, a situation which had been occurring regularly since the dawn of popular music.  I’ve said elsewhere that editing could have done a lot for this album but I would not edit one single section of this track, there’s brilliant use of harmonica and even daughter Aisha playing in the bath.

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After the bluster and grandeur of “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Joy Inside My Tears” feels understated, a mature, graceful, atmospheric ballad which sort of creeps up on you.  “Black Man” is another history lesson as Stevie aims to redress the balance of traditional American history lessons by stressing the importance of the role of people of colour in the development of the USA.  “It’s time we learned the world was made for all men.”  Musically, the first section is a good paced funky track but however worthy the second half call and response catechism section where Stevie uses 43 voices of the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble of Harlem to question and answer landmarks in the history of ethnic groups it does begin to grate on the listener.  Stevie is not usually as didactic as this and has been much better at getting a message across without compromising the musicality of the piece but this is more questionable here.

The simplicity of “Ngicuelela-Es Un Historia-I Am Singing” feels even more effective after the last track.  This is a quite lovely track sung in Zulu, Spanish and English and the high quality is maintained with “If It’s Magic” which beautifully and quite chillingly features just Stevie on vocals and harmonica and Dorothy Ashby on harp in probably the best ever use of this instrument in a pop song.  Extraordinary.

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“As”, the 4th single release brought out after the album had been around for a year unsurprisingly underperformed reaching number 36 in the US Top 40.  It is another one of those tracks that you get the message clearly long before it ends.  It’s a good track but for me had a new lease of life when turned into a 1999 duet between George Michael and Mary J Blige.  This is one of those rare occasions when a Wonder cover is better than the original.  Both turn out performances that rank up there amongst the best in their career and got a UK#4 hit.  Stevie’s version at over 7 minutes long pushes the song to the extreme.  This is also the case with the 8 minute plus track “Another Star” which in a slightly more edited form would have been one of the album’s highlights.  As it is, it starts to get on your nerves.  Motown did put out an edited version of this track as a single which got to #29 UK, 32 US.  In the edited version it is a thrilling salsa-influenced track with George Benson on guitar and backing vocals.  The whole thing gallops along at a fair old crack, but on the album version the repetition of the “la la la” chorus once again overeggs things.

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This is where the original double album ended and you had to fish around in the packaging to get to the bonus seven inch record.  I didn’t bother that often because it felt like these were tracks not considered to be good enough to be included on the album but here on the CD their importance has been reinstated.  In the mid 70’s we were all a little obsessed with things spacey, and Stevie ventures onto Earth Wind & Fire territory with “Saturn”.  This is a good quality pop track with fairly trite lyrics of a Saturnite returning to his planet because of disillusionment with the way the Earth is going.  It’s all rather grandiose, which because of that Wonder magic again escapes being pretentious and ends up being rather good.  Following that “Ebony Eyes” is a fun novelty-type song which reminds me a little of “Your Kiss Is Sweet” which Wonder co-wrote and produced for ex-wife Syreeta.  “All Day Sucker” has never really done it for me and is probably the weakest track on display and the whole thing is rounded off by “Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call) quite a mournful little harmonica-led instrumental.

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There is no doubt that this album represents Stevie Wonder at his creative peak and these 21 tracks have influenced many artists who followed Stevie into the charts at least over the next decade.  Prince said it was his all-time favourite album and artists such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston have also been keen to stress its importance for them and much of the solo career of George Michael derives musically from this recording.  It is a great album but I did come to it a little late and this might be the reason why it is not actually my favourite of Stevie Wonder’s studio albums.  That would come a few years later.  It is an unrestrained slab of big dollops of genius which must have delighted the record company and re-established Stevie Wonder as one of the most important artist of the 1970s.

The video chosen comes from a 2009 concert in London where Stevie sung a medley of “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely”.  One of the backing singers is daughter Aisha, to whom the song is dedicated and who was making those baby gurgling noises on the track all those years ago.

 

Songs In The Key Of Life is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £6.99 and used from £2.66.  In the US it is available for $11.85 and used from $4.36.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

Looking Around………

 

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For the last of my 2018 retrospectives I thought I’d have a little look at what some of the other bookbloggers out there have been saying about their favourite reads of last year.  This exercise means that I have now added even more titles to my Reading Wishlist and it may just introduce you to some other bloggers that you might not know about (but don’t stop following me!)

With so many books out there it is perhaps not surprising that I haven’t found any books on my Top 10 that have featured in others listings.  Also, we are each using our own criteria for inclusion, some restrict themselves to books published in 2018 others, like myself, believe if they read it this year then it’s up for contention.  I did find, over at Random Book Reviews Web , Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” which I had at #6 in my 2017 list at number 7 in Lou’s, who runs this site, 2018 list.  She, like me gone for a classic as her top read by choosing Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”.  I’m also intrigued by a book I have never heard of which she has her number 8, “The Star Machine” by Jeanine Basinger, which is a non-fiction expose of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

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One book which does keep cropping up is “The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle” by Stuart Turton.  This week it scooped the Costa Prize for Best First Novel.  It appears on lists by amongst others The Owl On The Bookshelf and over at Secret Library where Nicki has adopted a self-interview approach to 2018 which enables her to celebrate books in categories and  we get mentions of this title for most original book together with the longest book (512 pages) she read and the best book read based solely on others’ recommendation.  This has been a real word of mouth hit and I did feature it on my “What I Should Have Read” Post.

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There were other titles praised that I had already felt I had missed out and had included in “What I Should Have Read”.  Fictionphile  has 25 picks of the year and these include one that I had read and enjoyed “The Visitors” by Catherine Burns and two I should have read “Snap” by Belinda Bauer and “The Chalk Man” by C J Tudor (both of these I’m putting right so look out for reviews for these two soon).  Inexhaustible Invitations has already read one of the books in my Looking Back, Looking Forward post, “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean and has made it his non-fiction pick of 2018.  This is an interesting list which has Capote’s “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” as his classic choice and two titles sharing the fiction pick Edouard Louis’ “History Of Violence” (I read and enjoyed this author’s “The End Of Eddy” this year and another translated from the French title “Disoriental” by Negar Djavadi, which I had never heard of but I think I have been won over by (another one for the wishlist).

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Other books which I know I should check out include three of Books On The 7.47’s choices “Normal People” by Sally Rooney (winner of “Waterstones Book Of The Year”, “Tin Man” by Sarah Winman and the biggest book of the year “Eleanor Oliphant Is Competely Fine” by Gail Honeyman.  I have read and enjoyed Book On 7.47’s non-fiction choice “This Is Going To Hurt” by Adam Kay.  Another that I have been after this year appears on The Owl On The Bookshelf’s list “The Corset” by Laura Purcell, but I have decided I need to read her previous publication first.  Cathy at 746books  has “The House Of Impossible Beauties” by Joseph Cassara on her list and I have nearly bought that book a number of times over 2018.  I know that I am going to love it and because I have to read things in chronological order it is probably going to be some time before I get round to Fiction Fan’s choice, the large tome that is C J Sansom’s “Tombland”, a book which I know a lot of people have enjoyed this year, his 7th in the Matthew Shardlake series.

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Although I’m not sure how I will get on with Aperture Reads #1 pick “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers I am prepared to give it a go but Liam who runs this site does have a title in his Top 5 which I am aware of and which has also interested me this year, although I have not read it and that is “The Bedlam Stacks” by Natasha Pulley.

That leaves me with one title which I saw on a couple of lists (including  The Owl On The Bookshelf ) which I had not even heard of but which sounds a very good match for me.  It was Bookish Beck who won me over with her description of the book she had at number 3 on her list “Little” by Edward Carey which she describes as a “macabre Dickensian novel about Madame Tussaud”, I’m not sure how that passed me by in 2018 but I am adding it to my Wishlist.

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So that’s just a taster of what delighted some of us bookbloggers last year.  Now, let’s get on with 2019!!

 

 

Looking Back Looking Forward…..

 

Some I read, some I didn’t ………….

This time last year in my “looking back looking forward ” post I highlighted nine titles which I would be looking out for during the year.  I thought I’d take a look back at these.  In 2017 I managed to read four of the ten titles I’d focused on then, how did I do last year.  Just as a reminder here are the titles and how I’ve got on.

The Only Story – Julian Barnes (Cape) – Came out in February.  After mentioning this here I seemed to forget all about it.  Didn’t read it and it hasn’t even really been on my radar.

Bookwork: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg) – Read it, loved it.  Was number 3 on my Books Of The Year list.

Barracoon- Zora Neale Hurston (Harper Collins) Read it in September.  Based on interviews with the last known slave in 1927, Hurston’s non-fiction work remained unpublished to this year.  I said “This is a work which manages to be spine-chilling and endearing and is a thought-provoking and always relevant read.”  My four star review can be read here.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje – Didn’t read it and I do think I have missed out because it appeared regularly on “Best Of The Year” lists.  I did highlight it again recently in my “What I Should Have Read” post and I will get round to it sometime.

My Year of Rest And Relaxation- Ottessa Moshfegh – Didn’t read this when it arrived in July but did read her earlier novella “McGlue” which was published in the UK following the success of her “Eileen”.  I said of that “I can appreciate it as writing but it does not satisfy me in the way that I feel a novel should.”  Therefore, I did not rush to seek her latest title out.

Playtime – Andrew McMillan (Cape) – I said “Hopefully I will read more poetry in 2018.”  Unfortunately I did not read any.

The Lost Magician -Piers Torday (Quercus) – I also didn’t read as much children’s fiction as I had anticipated .  Due out in paperback in March so perhaps I will get around to it then.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) – This one I have scheduled as I have borrowed it in e-book form from the library.

Melmoth — Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) – I forgot I had this on this list.  I’ve toyed with the idea of reading it a few times when I’ve encountered it but haven’t done so yet.  Once again I am sure I will.  Got slightly mixed reviews (and I was a little disappointed I couldn’t buy into the hype of “The Essex Serpent”) but readers seem to think it is certainly worth giving a go.

 

Some potential highlights from 2019

Well that’s my excuses for these books done.  Reading takes a different direction than planned and that is what is exciting.  20 of the books I read this year were as part of the Sandown Library Reading Challenge which I was certainly thrilled to take part in as it introduced me to authors such as Susan Hill, Elizabeth Taylor and, especially, my book of the Year “The Count Of Monte Cristo” which I would never have got round to reading.

On so onto the forthcoming titles that have piqued my fancy for this year.

The Library Book – Susan Orlean (Atlantic) – just published in last couple of days.  This non-fiction work examines a 1986 fire at the New York Public Library and becomes a love letter to libraries and how essential and relevant they are to modern societies.

What Hell Is Not – Alessandro D’Avenia (Oneworld) – Due Jan 24th- From one of my favourite publishers, a translation from the Italian of a best-selling novel set in the mafia run slums of Palermo

Out Of The Woods – Luke Turner (W&N) – Due Jan 24th – A memoir with Epping Forest at its centre which according to Olivia Laing is “electrifying on sex and nature, religion and love.”  There’s quite a buzz about this book

Black Leopard, Red Wolf – Marlon James (Hamish Hamilton) – Due in Feb – How do you follow a Booker Prize winning novel about an attempted assassination of Bob Marley?  I know, begin a fantasy trilogy set in mythical Africa.  There are “Game Of Thrones” comparisons being bandied about and I’m not a huge lover of fantasy novels but this seems such a brave (and potentially foolhardy) move that I’m certainly going to be looking out for it

Zuleikha – Guzel Yahkina (Oneworld) – Due in Feb – Books in translation seem to well in my end of year Top 10.  This one is translated from Russian and is apparently a stunning debut set in a Siberian camp in 1930.  A tale of survival and conquering terrible conditions can be a life-affirming read.

Narrow Land – Christine Dwyer-Hickey (Atlantic) – Due in March – I really liked this author’s “Tatty” published back in 2004 and this new title set in Cape Cod in 1950 looks stylish and highly promising .  We are promised a novel which takes in loneliness, regret and the myth of the American Dream

New Daughters Of Africa – Edited by Margaret Busby (Myriad) – Due in March- An anthology which takes in different types of writing from 200 women writers of African descent.

Confessions Of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins (Viking) – Due in April- This is a big buzz debut which sounds right up my street.  A nineteenth century tale with a good feel of the Gothic about a Jamaican slave girl ending up at the Old Bailey in London.

Big Sky – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) -Due in  June – A new Jackson Brodie novel after a nine year wait.  Hopefully I can read those I still have outstanding before June.  I’ve been promising myself this for some time and I have most of them on my shelves so maybe this new arrival will be the impetus I need.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead (Fleet) – Due in August.  In his first publication since the five star rated, Top 3 Book Of The Year “The Underground Railroad” 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.

I think it’s going to be good year….Happy reading!