Madame Tussaud: A Legend In Wax (BBC4 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I can’t say that, up until recently, I’ve given much thought to Madame Tussaud. I knew she was a real person with obviously a savvy business brain in giving people what they wanted as she established a brand which has lasted for over 150 years. Her Baker Street attraction I associate with long queues of people waiting to get in, my only visit was when I was about 15 which I remember loving although I’ve never been back. What changed things for me was Edward Carey’s excellent 2018 novel about her which I finished a few weeks ago, “Little”, which has got me thinking about her quite a bit recently and so seeing this one hour BBC4 documentary on the schedules seemed a bit of good timing.

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Made by Nina Barbier and narrated by Ben Crystal this used a French cast and subtitles to dramatise important times in her long life. I’m not a huge fan of the dramatised documentary which was here interspersed by talking head experts such as author Kate Berridge, Professor Pamela Milburn from London University and Vanessa Toumlin from Sheffield. There was no involvement from Edward Carey which I was a little disappointed by.

This hour took as its basis Tussaud’s 1838 memoirs as dictated to her friend Francis Herve. In this account truth was twisted as a means of marketing her and her brand, an early and effective example of the “celebrity” biography where events are tweaked somewhat. Marie had altered her birthplace and background from a family of executioners probably because tradition dictated that she would only be able to marry the son of executioners. (Perhaps the most fascinating fact in the programme).
The novel “Little” makes much of her diminutive size, using it as her nickname and for the book’s title. This was not mentioned here.

The most important relationship in her life was the professional association between the young Marie Grosholtz and her mentor Philippe Curtius and it was explored here but  the family dynamics were different from the novel and the fascinating section of the young female waxworker joining the court of Versailles (where she slept in a cupboard) seems to have been total fabrication by Tussaud in her memoirs, but there were enough points of contact between Carey’s fiction, Tussaud’s reworking of her life story and what were the agreed events to make things intriguing.

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What should not be overlooked, and which comes largely after the events of the novel is the great business sense of a woman whose business model was unusually matriarchal, who knew how to use, manipulate and exploit publicity, who knew how important it was to both give people what they paid for and offer them a little bit more if they were prepared and able to pay more and who was able to so successfully and independently assimilate business strategies from other forms of entertainment. (Monsieur Tussaud himself had no significant role in the business, other than spend the proceeds, and was a fairly disastrous match who remained in France when his wife came over to Britain to make her fortune). Like many successful business ventures since she aimed to provide education and wholesome entertainment to those aspiring for improvement as well as recognising our more baser instincts (the “Chamber Of Horrors” set-up was a reason for the waxworks’ lasting success). All in all, Marie Tussaud was a woman who should be remembered for her extraordinary entrepreneurial talent perhaps more so than her abilities with wax.

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Tussauds, London

Truth be told, this drama documentary might have felt a little pedestrian in structure for the casual viewer but it was certainly informative and thought-provoking and because my interest had already been piqued by its subject I was involved throughout.

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Madame Tussaud: A Legend In Wax was first shown on BBC4 in February 2017 and has been transmitted a few times since then. I caught the showing at 8 pm on Saturday 27th July 2019 which means it is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.

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The House Of Impossible Beauties – Joseph Cassara (2018) – A Rainbow Read

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I feel like I’m on familiar ground here. Since publication I’ve been aware of this title and was delighted to see it chosen as an end of year pick by Cathy @ 746 Books as featured in my “Looking Around…” post in January. Familiar because this is the third work I have experienced this year that has taken as its source the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning”, which I have also re-watched this year and which once again blew me away (it’s on Netflix). Actually, it may very well be the 4th because the whole set-up of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” is indebted to the 1980’s New York Drag Balls scene which is the subject of this documentary but more explicitly this year we’ve had the Ryan Murphy TV series “Pose” which aired on BBC2 to much acclaim. British author Niven Govinden’s take on this with his 2019 novel “This Brutal House” and now American author Cassara’s debut which was published last year.

Comparisons are inevitable especially as the source material and all of the off-shoots have so far all impressed. Govinden’s novel had as its centre a silent protest against official incompetence in a narrative stream of great energy and rhythm in what was very much a literary take where the plot was less essential than the language and its cast of characters seeking their own family groupings for support and safety. This is also very much the case in “Pose”, character led with great performances and an unprecedented visibility of trans actors but had the Drag Balls themselves more as its focus.

Cassara has focused even closer on the characters, here, the real-life House Of Xtravaganza family, mothered by Angel and comprising of runaways; her lover Hector, transsexual Venus, “banjee boys” Daniel and Juanito and the older observer Dorian, characterisation which will feel familiar to those who have watched “Paris Is Burning” from where their stories are developed.

“The House Of Impossible Beauties” has a wider chronological spread from 1976-1993 which for gay New Yorkers means it has an essentially epic sweep featuring a remarkable period of their history. This encompasses the defining of identity in the hedonistic days of disco, to the forging of their own groupings through the “families” and Drag Balls in the early 80’s leading to a move towards their own self and society’s acceptance and having that shattered through the years of the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath.

I think the subjects Cassara deals with are always going to draw me in. This novel is sparky, touching, funny, fiery and yet becomes increasingly tinged with the inevitability of tragedy. Cassara has both followed the plotlines of the Xtravaganzas as featured in “Paris Is Burning” and broadened their existence with his fictional twists. Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter. That is why, like “Pose” this is an important piece of work, which in terms of the journey the author puts the reader through does outshine the slightly later-to-be published “This Brutal House”. For this reason I am awarding it five stars but take note, this is enough now. No more Drag Balls or “Paris Is Burning” inspirations for a while. I am very happy having this novel, “Pose” and “This Brutal House” all representing this era because they are all high quality works, let’s not oversaturate this particular market.

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The House Of Impossible Beauties was published by Oneworld in 2018.

100 Essential CDs – Number 36- After The Dance

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After The Dance (Telstar 1991)

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This 32 track double CD which came out on the TV promoted Telstar label in 1991 puts together a collection of some of the best sweet soul tunes from the 70’s and 80’s.  It is a sophisticated listen with quality performers and a good mixture of the well and lesser known, of hits and tracks that did not make it. There’s a smattering of Motown, Philadelphia International releases alongside Stax and Atlantic with the soul groups who were popular in the early 70’s alongside a few more mid-tempo offerings from artists associated with disco and a few R&B influenced tracks from the 80’s.  The earliest dates from a slab of pure soul from Aretha in 1967  and spans to a debut minor 1987 hit for British soulster Paul Johnson of whom big things would have still been hoped for when this album was released in 1991.  Once you get by the disturbing cover art there are a lot of gems to be found within.

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

Track Listings

CD 1

1.Me And Mrs Jones – Billy Paul (1972) (UK#12, US#1)

What a gem of a track to kick things off with.  A song about adultery written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff with Cary Gilbert would not have seemed an obvious pick for a debut number 1 pop hit but Billy Paul’s superb, tender performance won over audiences worldwide and introduced us all to one of the most unique voices in soul music with his jazz style phrasing .  Amazingly, Paul only scored one more US Pop Top 40 hit, the sublime uptempo “Thanks For Saving My Life”.  Like most artists who relied on the songwriting talents of Gamble & Huff his material alternated between out and out romance of tracks such as “When Love Is New” and the mawkish “Let’s Make A Baby” and social commentary such as “Am I Black Enough For You?” and “Bring The Family Back”.  He was also a great song-stylist as his versions of his trio of 1977 UK hits, in particular, Elton John’s “Your Song” (a UK#37 hit), but also Paul McCartney’s “Let Em In” (UK #26) and Jerry Butler’s “Only The Strong Survive” (UK#33) testify.  But it is for tale of a secret rendezvous for which he will always be remembered.  Billy Paul passed away in 2016 aged 81.

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2. Love Won’t Let Me Wait – Major Harris (1975) (UK#37, US#5)

Perhaps one of the all-time tender love songs Major Harris, is here like much of Barry White’s output concentrating on the bedroom in this soft-porn epic with heavy breathing which would have denied it much daytime radio play and might explain its lowly UK chart placing.  The Major had a member of the Delfonics in the early 70’s (but after the hit for the group which appears on this CD) and Atlantic Records had high hopes of him becoming a major solo star but this was his only US chart placing.  He continued to record on various labels until the mid 90’s with only his 1983 London label release “All My Life” attracting any attention in the UK.  Once again this great performance is what he is remembered for.

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3. I’ll Be Good To You- Brothers Johnson (1976) (US#3)
4. Peek-A-Boo- The Stylistics (1973) (UK#35)
5.Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time) – The Delfonics (1970) (UK#22, US#10)
6. Homely Girl – The Chi-Lites (1974) (UK#5)
7. You Are My Starship – Norman Connors ft Michael Henderson (1976) (US#27)
8. Games People Play – Detroit Spinners (1975) (US#5)
9. Walk Away From Love – David Ruffin (1975) (UK#10, US#9)

Another of the great voices of soul music.  Ruffin’s gravelly voice blistered its way through many Temptations hit and as a solo artist did not reach the heights expected of him, although this was at least in part to his own personal demons.  For me, his greatest association was his mid 70’s teaming up with Van McCoy. This is where McCoy’s work was strongest, the albums he did with Ruffin, with Melba Moore and Faith, Hope & Charity had powerful gospel-drenched voices cutting through his Soul City Symphony lushness in a way that his work with the sweeter voiced Stylistics did not.  This is one of Motown’s great 70’s singles and a welcome comeback for the man whose only US hit had been six years previous and who in the UK was overshadowed by brother Jimmy.

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There was a lot of hat-wearing on 70’s R&B album covers!

10. Loving You, Losing You – Phyllis Hyman (1977)

And whilst we are talking about personal demons, the hugely under-rated Phyllis was plagued with them which led to her taking her own life in 1985.  Album releases on Buddah, Arista and Philadelphia showed huge potential but she may have been too sophisticated for the commercial masses.  There were business disappointments throughout her career, a James Bond theme recording never made it on to the film, collaborations with artists ranging from Barry Manilow, The Four Tops and Michael Henderson (whose “You Are My Starship” also appears here) did not pay the dividends expected  and a dependency on cocaine sealed an inevitable and tragic early demise. It’s inexplicable how this club classic from her debut album failed to make chart headway in 1977.  It opens with an epic sweep, a great introduction before Phyllis performs beautifully on this Thom Bell song.

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11. Risin’ To The Top – Keni Burke (1982)
12. Love Me – Diana Ross (1974) (UK#38) (also on Motown Chartbusters Volume 9)
13.Still Water (Love) – Four Tops (1970) (UK#10, US#11)
14. I’ll Be There – Jackson 5 (1970) (UK#4, US#1)
15. Winter Melody – Donna Summer (1976) (UK#27)

The first indication that Donna Summer would survive the disco boom was this under-stated ballad track from her themed “Four Seasons Of Love” which surprisingly became a hit in the UK over Christmas 1976.  It’s ethereal, whispy Donna and it is always a joy to hear.  Because of it’s non-success in her homeland it often does not appear on Summer compilations, for example, its not on the essential “Anthology” release nor on “Hit Singles & More” nor “I Feel Love: The Collection” but can be found here as well us on the three CD “Ultimate Collection”.  It’s a lovely track which shows a different side of Donna.

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16. Natural High- Bloodstone (1973) (UK#40, US#10)

CD 2

1.Rolling Down A Mountainside – The Main Ingredient (1975)
2.Freedom For The Stallion – The Hues Corporation (1974)
3. Shake You Down – Gregory Abbott (1986) (UK#6, US#1)

What on earth happened here?  The title track from Abbott’s debut self-written and self-produced album leapt to the top of the US charts and was a big hit worldwide introducing us all to a classy, slick piece of mid-tempo sing-along soul.  Record label Columbia must have thought they had the next big thing on their hands.  A gifted good-looking all-rounder the album went platinum and then… well, nothing to bother chart compilers although he has continued to record to the present day.  It’s one of those weird occasions when the world fell in love with a performer and then fell out of love just as quickly with this highly talented singer becoming one of the ultimate one-hit-wonders on both side of the Atlantic.  Obviously, the real strength here must be the song, which Abbott wrote, and it still sounds good.

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4. You Can’t Change That – Ray Parker Jnr (1979)
5. Let Me Make Love To You – The O’Jays (1975)
6. When Love Comes Calling – Paul Johnson (1987) (UK#52)
7. Private Number – William Bell & Judy Clay (1968) (UK#8)
8. I Surrender -Heatwave (1990)
9. Could It Be I’m Falling In Love – Detroit Spinners (1973) (UK#11, US#4)

Or the Spinners as they are known in their homeland but here we need something to differentiate them from the folk group of the same name.  Whilst at Motown they were known as The Motown Spinners and recorded some great tracks but it was after the move to Atlantic where they really came into their own.  There are two of their very best tracks included on these CDs and this is one of their best known although I’ve always been a big fan of the slightly less slick “Games People Play” which was not a UK hit but a Top 5 hit stateside.   The magic kicked in when they began working with songwriter Thom Bell and vocalist Phillippe Wynn joined the group.  Lead vocals were shared between three members which gave them longevity and yet meant their sound was not as instantly recognisable as some of the  R&B groups of the time.  They had two chart-topping singles, in the US it was with a duet with Dionne Warwick in 1974 but they had to wait until 1980 to do it in the UK with their medley of “Working My Way Back To You” and “Forgive Me Girl” which sounded a little pedestrian compared to some of the great tracks that came before.

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10. I’m Doing Fine Now – New York City (1973) (UK#20, US#17)
11. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – Aretha Franklin (1967) (US#8)
12. Free- Deniece Williams (1977) (UK#1, US#25)

With hindsight there wasn’t a more influential American R&B group in the 1970’s than Earth, Wind & Fire but the only UK number 1 single they were involved with came not from themselves, despite so many classic tracks, nor with The Emotions, who had one of the 70’s biggest hits in the US with “Best Of My Love” but with this subtle, sophisticated performance from Deniece Williams who had moved from working with Stevie Wonder as one of his backing singers to a debut album produced by Maurice White and Charles Stepney. This track doesn’t even feel that commercial even compared to some of the other songs on the album and feels more like a vocal performance highlighting her incredible range than a song yet it topped the charts and Deniece Williams became a much-loved artist in the UK.  Amazingly, Deniece became the first black American female solo singer to top the UK charts since Diana Ross in 1971.  Post the EWF connection she scored two US chart-toppers which were also Top 3 hits in the UK, helping Johnny Mathis to a resounding comeback with the too warbly “Too Much Too Little Too Late” and the crowning glory of the “Footloose” soundtrack “Let’s Hear It For The Boy”, but this is where it all started for her.

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13. Honey Please, Can’t Ya See – Barry White (1975)
14. Superstar/ Until You Come Back To Me – Luther Vandross (1983)
15. Baby I’m Yours – Linda Lewis (1976) (UK#33)

Another huge vocal range and a greatly under-rated performer who should be treated as a British National Treasure.  Too versatile to fit into the constraints of a 1970’s pop career Lewis touched on rock, folk, show tunes, operatics and soul music and was a highly regarded songwriter.  Here she is in disco mode which had earlier in 1976 seen her score one of her biggest UK hits with her phenomenal version of “It’s In His Kiss” where her vocals swooped and soared over a huge production.  Here she covers a Van McCoy penned song first recorded by an inspiration of hers, 60’s US soul singer Barbara Lewis from whom she took her surname.  (Linda’s real name is Fredericks yet even her sisters Shirley and Dee record under the Lewis name).  Once again it’s first class, yet did not get the chart position it deserved.  Everything is thrown into what is perhaps even a bigger production than its predecessor and even if some felt Linda was selling out in conforming to the demands of the commercial market she certainly gives it 100%.

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16. I Want Your Love – Chic (1979) (UK#4, US#7)

A great way to finish this CD is perhaps the classiest thing Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards ever did with Chic.  Best known for more out-there disco tracks everything is reined in a little here with a great build, superb orchestration and that familiar scratchy Chic sound.  Nile of course, is still very much influencing the music business, a favourite at festivals and it is because of tracks like this that his music has transcended the decades.

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After The Dance is currently available on Amazon in the UK for £4.97 and used for £0.62.  I think I would be hard pushed to recommend a finer compilation of 70’s/80’s soul sounds.

The Meaning Of Night- Michael Cox (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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“Revenge has a long memory”

My first re-read for some time is this historical thriller which was my Book Of The Year back when I read it as a new paperback in 2007. It has sat on my shelves since then and the reason I picked it up for a revisit was although revenge may have a long memory (a dominant theme in the book) I obviously do not as I could remember nothing about it other than I loved it. I wasn’t alone in my admiration as at the time it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award but was beaten by the eventual overall winner Stef Penney for “The Tenderness Of Wolves”.

I can remember feeling that Michael Cox, a writer and academic known for anthologising Victorian short stories was a major new novel writing talent. Sadly, there was only to be one more novel, a sequel “The Glass Of Time” before he succumbed to cancer aged 61 in 2009. His debut was a work in progress for decades before reputedly a prescription for a steroid drug as preparation for treatment for tumours and loss of sight caused a significant burst of energy which resulted in him beginning to put this work together and saw him bring it and the sequel to completion following his temporarily successful treatment. This moving sequence of events of a writer driven to finish his magnum opus seems fitting for this large, intense, dark novel and this truly is a testament to the talents of Michael Cox.

The author’s feel for the Victorian period is evident throughout and it has real authenticity with strong elements of Wilkie Collins and Dickens making it a rich but in no way a quick read. It begins with a random murder carried out on the streets of London in 1854 by the narrator Edward Glyver whose confession we are reading. The reasons for this, the events leading up to and following this crime form the whole narrative. It is a tale of revenge and betrayal with the central location the country estate of Evenwood and the family who live here. The usual suspects of opium, prostitution, class and hypocrisy are all present but none of it feels any way cliched. This is because the author has really assimilated the period and obviously knows so much about it, garnered from years of research and this permeates the text in a natural and convincing way, particularly in the field of book collecting. An “editor’s” footnotes to the text gives the fiction a further air of authenticity as do other documents pertaining to the events in much the same way as Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project” (2015).

I will admit there were times when I felt I was ploughing through this somewhat (as indeed I have done with many Victorian novels that I have ended up loving) and throughout I was concerned about how little I had remembered from last time round but like many of the novels from the period it emulates it did pull me right in and any effort in the reading was rewarded. On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.

I haven’t read the sequel from 2008 (this was so far under the radar that I didn’t even know it existed until researching for this but given the circumstances of the author’s health issues at the time this is not surprising) but have just ordered it hopefully to read while this novel is still fresh in my mind and I will not be parting with my (now quite well worn) paperback copy of “The Meaning Of Night” anytime soon.
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The Meaning of Night was published in 2006. I read the 2007 John Murray paperback edition.

Tribute to Ian McKay

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On a comment on my last post I was informed of the passing of author Ian McKay on Sunday 7th July following a battle with lymphatic cancer.  Back in 2015 I reviewed Ian’s debut comic novel “Something Fishy” and he agreed to be interviewed as part of my Author Strikes Back Thread.  This established a connection with Ian’s wife Monika who has since then been one of the main contributors of comments to this site and has initiated many discussions here over the past four years.  My thoughts are with her and with Ian’s family and friends at this sad time.  As way of a tribute I thought I would repost the interview which first appeared here in August 2015.

The Author Strikes Back – Ian McKay Interview

I am absolutely delighted to welcome Ian Mckay to take part in the third interview in my Author Strikes Back category.   Ian has recently published “Something Fishy” – a comic novel centred around a fishing trip and I am very grateful that he has found time to respond to my questions.

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It has taken you quite a time to put out your debut novel.  How did this come about? 

I suppose that the best way to answer your first question would be to say that I’ve been so busy ‘living an  eventful life’ that I haven’t really had much time to sit down and devote the time I needed to actually write my first book.  So, as you can imagine, apart from a few sporadic forays into the worlds of short stories and poetry writing, the economics of paying the bills and putting food on the table for a wife and four children: plus the emotional trauma of an acrimonious divorce 22 years later, left me with very little time to pursue my passion for writing. For anyone who cares to know a little more on the reason why I didn’t publish  my first novel until the age of 76, the ‘About Me’ page on my web site, http://Ian-McKay.com will tell you more.

Ian is certainly an inspiration for all of us who have put the writing on the back burner and is proof that it’s never too late to realise your dreams .

Your Disclaimer at the front of the book states it is based on “some true events”.  Without giving too much away could you reveal one of those true events for us?

In my disclaimer I did, indeed, say parts of my book were based on ‘Some true events’, one of which was the incident that happened on the charter fishing boat. When, much to the amusement of the other fishermen, the character ‘Mara’, sneezed and his false teeth shot out over the side of the boat and into the sea. 

One of the other anglers, who also wore false teeth, covertly took out his     dentures and tied them to the end of his fishing line, to fool Mara into thinking that he had ‘caught’ the set of dentures that Mara had sneezed out over the side. What he hadn’t counted on was that, when Mara popped the dentures into his mouth; and, realised that they didn’t fit, that he would take them out and throw them over the side, back into the sea.  

  The subsequent discovery of the teeth inside a large cod was pure invention on my part; and, believe it or not, the episode, back in Liverpool, when they ‘took Charlie Abbott home’ did also actually happen, however, to protect the guilty, I can’t say any more about that!

What books have made you laugh?

The books that have made me laugh are those written by Tom Sharpe, such as ‘Porterhouse Blue’; and, in particular, the ‘Wilt’ series, absolutely hilarious!

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Who are your comedy heroes?

My comedy heroes are many; however, if I had to make a choice, it would have to be the inspired ensemble of the whole cast of ‘Only Fools and Horses’.

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I think that the writer of the series; who, sadly, died of viral pneumonia in 2011, was a comic genius.   Most people will remember the names of the main characters Del-Boy & Rodney, but how many remember the name of the man, without whom the series would never have been born, John Sullivan, the man who wrote ’Only Fools and Horses’?

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I also have been found, on occasions, collapsed in a heap, laughing at the ‘Allo Allo’ series, a brilliant comedy set during the second world war, in Nazi occupied France; incongruously brilliant.

What’s next for Ian McKay?

Well, as my M A degree is in writing for film and television, I have one or two comedy film scripts to my name that I intend to re-format into books: and, as a point of interest, ‘Something Fishy’ started its life as a feature length comedy film script too.

Paradoxically, I am also writing a factual series called ‘The Nazis’, which covers the period from the end of the 1st World War up until the Nuremburg war crimes trials. The first two books are titled as, ‘From The Kaiser to Weimar’ and ‘From Weimar to Hitler’. The third book in the series, ‘Hitler’s First Year’ is still a work in progress.

I would like to thank Ian for providing me with a copy of “Something Fishy” and for answering my questions and I’d like to remind you that this comic novel is available from Amazon both as a paperback and as a Kindle edition by following this direct link. Ian’s non-fiction titles mentioned above are also available from Amazon or by following the link from his website http://Ian-McKay.com

Buy “Something Fishy” from Amazon.co.uk

My original review of “Something Fishy” can be found here

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape 2019) – A Rainbow Read

 

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Thirty-one year old Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-born poet who moved to Connecticut with his extended family whilst still a toddler. Dyslexic, gay and agoraphobic his first collection of poems which explored some of these areas together with his experience of being from a background influenced by traumatic experiences was entitled “Night Sky With Exit Wounds” and achieved huge critical acclaim including the TS Eliot Prize in 2017.

Vuong has decided to follow this up with an autobiographical novel focusing on his childhood which has the main character exploring his relationship with his mother to whom the narrative is addressed in the form of a letter. Vuong’s gift for language rings clearly throughout as his writing is full of vivid images and episodic snapshots of memory that are clear and powerful. This is obviously a novel written by a poet. In fact, it was the deliciously poetic title that first drew me to this work. Having said that there is enough plot narrative in his tale of the boy known as “Little Dog” to ensure that this works very well as a novel.

Little Dog’s mother is a manicurist who works long hours and can erupt in explosions of violence. His grandmother, Lan, far more uprooted from her Vietnamese life than the other characters is ailing and is very much seen in terms of the damage inflicted on her via years of conflict, becoming increasingly distant to her family, but whose strength of spirit is evident in Little Dog’s memories. Perhaps more than the relationship between mother and son it is with the grandmother and grandson where the heart of this novel really lies.

The bullied, abused Little Dog has to grapple with his sexuality in a tough world of prescription drug addiction and struggling to get by. Alongside the narrative it is the visual images conjured continually by Vuong’s writing which brings this debut to life. Recurring images including butterflies migrating long distances and  herding buffalos plunging off a cliff top feel very appropriate for the fragility, tenacity and bewilderment of these characters’ situations.

This work is less plot-driven than I would normally recommend but its sensitivity and power and linguistic richness would ensure a valuable reading experience.

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is published by Jonathan Cape in June 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Bridge Of Clay – Markus Zusak (2018)

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It’s been a long wait.  13 years since the publication of one of my all-time favourite novels “The Book Thief” Australian author Markus Zusak is back.  For a writer of an acknowledged modern classic this book snuck out last year and has recently appeared in paperback.  This relative lack of fanfare and the time between the two novels made me a little anxious but when I saw a copy on the library shelves I knew I just had to rejig my reading schedule to fit it in.

 This is actually Zusak’s 6th novel, those before his major breakthrough being aimed at the young adult market, one of which “I Am The Messenger” (2002) has been sitting on my shelves unread for some time but I have not dared to read it in case my admiration for this author is any way diminished.  In fact both “The Book Thief” and this latest novel could be seen as being appropriate for young adults but both demand a wider audience.

 There are elements of the predecessor in “Bridge Of Clay”, especially in the narrative style.  Here, Matthew Dunbar slowly weaves the tale of his family, jumping backwards and forwards in time, half-revealing events that are explored fully later in much the same way as Death does when he narrates “The Book Thief”.  Here, however, the stakes are not so high, the plot is a family tale without the huge issues that makes “The Book Thief” such an important read.  Books are once again important, a well-thumbed biography of Michelangelo spans the generations and there’s a lot of running which reminded me of Rudy and his Jesse Owens obsession.

 Matthew narrates the story of his parents and his four brothers but especially Clay, a gifted runner who is attracted to his neighbour Carey, an apprentice jockey, and who is torn by the loss of both of his parents and determined to build bridges in every sense when a face from the past shows up.  To start with it does feel all over the place, as did “The Book Thief” (I always advise the many people I have recommended the book to stick with it until they are used to the narrative conceit) as initially some of the events are hard to follow but it all makes sense as we are drip-fed the story of the Dunbars.

 Its chatty, scattered narrative actually masks the emotional depth of the content.  It was only looking back as I neared the end that I realised how much I knew about the characters’ lives and how involved I had become, a testament to a great novel.  Like “The Book Thief” which improves with each re-read I think the events that washed over me on first reading will have a much deeper significance on a revisit.  This is one of those books that when you finish you will be tempted to start all over again.  I’ve got to hand my library copy back but I will be purchasing this so I can read it again.  True, thematically, it is all on a much smaller scale than “The Book Thief” and lacks the power and perhaps some of the lasting resonance of that work but it is high-quality fiction which did everything to me that a very good book should.  After over a decade of waiting my expectations were shaky but really I couldn’t have asked for more from this book.

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 Bridge Of Clay was published by Doubleday in 2018.  I read the 2019 Black Swan paperback edition.

100 Essential CDs – Number 73- Disco Classics

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Disco Classics  (Sony 2005)

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Now, you’ve seen what has come before so it can be no surprise that there is going to be more than a little smattering of disco compilations in my Essential CD List.  The uplift I get from listening to disco music hasn’t dampened any since these tracks featured in the charts.  I’ve gone here for a double CD 34 tracker which has a mixture of the obvious and expected to the more unusual which makes it a great choice as far as I am concerned.  It’s a pretty broad collection featuring four UK and 6 US chart-toppers and chronologically spans from well before the disco era with 1968 uptempo funk by the pioneering Sly & The Family Stone to a Megamix of Earth Wind and Fire’s greatest which dated from 1989 and features a whistle-stop tour through “September”, “Let’s Groove”, “Rock That”, and a twice-featured “Boogie Wonderland” with as much conviction as a late 80’s megamix could have.  Mid 80’s sophisticated uptempo groove “Midas Touch” is hardly disco but would work well in a club setting and The Buggles UK chart-topper is an odd way to round off the selection but there are enough tracks here that fulfil the brief very nicely and can be considered “disco classics”.  This CD was released in Germany and has the look of a Hed Kandi compilation which would have been popular at the time.  I have no idea how I acquired  it but it has been played regularly since I did so.  On Amazon some reviewers have attacked this for being “live re-recordings” but it’s not, it’s the original tracks.

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

 Track Listings

 CD1

 1.No Doubt About It – Hot Chocolate (1980) (UK#2)

 Throughout the 70’s it seemed like the voice of Errol Brown was always on the radio notching up a string of UK hits.  The RAK label they recorded on wasn’t the coolest around but was one of the most successful UK labels with Mud, Suzi Quatro, Kenny and Smokie all doing very well for label owner Mickie Most.  As a result Hot Chocolate were seen as a more pop band than they actually were and perhaps were not always given the credit they deserved.  1975 hit “Emma” was an anguished soul track about a suicide, “You Sexy Thing” gave them a Top 3 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1975 at the midst of Disco Fever, but best of all is this 1980 track which became their 18th Top 40 hit in 1980 which dealt with UFOs and had a great singalong chorus.

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2. Let The Music Play – Barry White (1975)  (UK#5, US#32)

3. Rock Your Baby – George McCrae (1974) (UK#1, US#1) 

And this arguably, was where the Disco Era began during the summer of 1974 when debut hitmaker George McCrae topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.  It’s rather sparse, almost minimalistic compared to what would come after but it introduced the shuffling Miami sound which would go on to feature in many more hits.  McCrae himself, blessed with a thrilling falsetto only had one more US Top 40 hit but we rather took to him in the UK giving him another 6 Top 40 hits over the next couple of years, my favourite of which “It’s Been So Long” made it to number 4.  George also featured his voice to great effect in 1974 in the debut hit “Queen Of Clubs” the first hit for label-mates KC & The Sunshine Band (who also features on this CD with their late in the day 1983 UK#1) who wrote and produce George’s chart-topper and who themselves would go on to have a more successful career than George.  Now aged 74, George is still going strong and in good voice.  And all this happened because his then wife, Gwen, who “Rock Your Baby” was written for was late for the recording session!

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4. Boogie Wonderland –Earth Wind & Fire with The Emotions (1979) (UK#4,US#6)

5. Pick Up The Pieces – Average White Band (1975) (UK#6, US#1)

6. Play That Funky Music – Wild Cherry (1976) (UK#7, US#1)

7. Vertigo/Relight My Fire – Dan Hartman & Loleatta Holloway (1978)

 One of the few tracks on the album that was not a hit although a cover version in 1993 topped the chart for Take That and Lulu.  This is a real epic of a track presented here, thankfully, in its 9 minute version with it’s brilliant orchestral build-up “Vertigo” into Dan’s light voice singing “Relight My Fire” then bam! it’s only Loleatta Holloway tearing into the track.  Nine minutes and not a second feels wasted (hard to say that about a lot of extended disco tracks).  Dan is also on this compilation with his better known but not as good “Instant Replay”, which with his mammoth “Countdown/This Is It” represented three classic disco tracks.  As a song-writer he penned one of James Browns’ biggest hits “Living In America” and for Loleatta, who features here, “Love Sensation” which became the blueprint for one of the biggest tracks of the 80s, “Ride On Time”.

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8.Last Train To London – Electric Light Orchestra (1979) (UK#8, US#39)

This is a track that I didn’t especially appreciate at the time.  I did quite like ELO, especially “Mr Blue Sky” and “The Diary Of Horace Wimp” which seemed to be pointing back to the 1960’s.  This, however, saw them embracing disco and at the time it felt a little like bandwagon-jumping.  However, the passing of the decades has been very good to this and it sounds like the creative tour-de-force that it is.  There’s a sense of urgency about this last train which is very appealing. 

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9. T.S.O.P (The Sound Of Philadelphia)– MFSB ft The Three Degrees (1974) (UK#22,US#1)

10. Boogie Nights- Heatwave (1977) (UK#2, US#2)

11. Blame It On The Boogie – Jacksons (1978) (UK#8)

12. Midas Touch – Midnight Star (1986) (UK#8)

13. I Can Make You Feel Good – Shalamar (1982) (UK#7)

14. Got To Be Real – Cheryl Lynn (1979) (US#12)

 Truly a disco classic and I knew it was back in 1979 when it was one of the first twelve-inch singles that I purchased.  It feels like an Earth Wind and Fire/Emotions track with its spiky touches.  This is another track which has stood the test of time, kicks off with a great intro and never lets up.  Cheryl puts in a great vocal here but she was actually an exceptional vocalist with a huge range as tracks like “Star Love”, which became a follow-up single and “Come In From The Rain” from the debut album attested.  In later years the material was not as strong and she faded from view without reaching the Top 40 again. 

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15. Give It Up – KC & The Sunshine Band (1983) (UK#1, US#18)

16. Theme From “Shaft”- Isaac Hayes (1971) (UK#4, US#1)

 

CD2

 1.I Feel Love – Donna Summer (1977) (UK#1, US#6)

2. Nights (Feel Like Getting’ Down) – Billy Ocean (1981)

3. Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel –Tavares (1976) (UK#4, US#15)

 The five piece Tavares brothers are up there with the all-time great family groups as far as I am concerned.  They had been making inroads in the US singles chart for three years before this grandiose slab of pop disco including a US Top 10 placing for “It Only Takes A Minute” (later covered by Take That in the UK).  On single release it was split into two parts but the full album version is what is on offer here and it is great.  The lyrics may be cheesy  (but not as cheesy as they would get with “Whodunnit”) but it’s all done with such conviction from producer Freddie Perren that it turns out a gem.  Also on their album “Sky High” produced by Perren was the almost as good “Don’t Take Away The Music”.  The Tavares’ association with disco was permanently cemented by the inclusion of the Bee Gees’ song “More Than A Woman” on “Saturday Night Fever” but their music encompassed slick R&B and commercial soul music. A remixed version by Ben Liebrand took this song back to the UK charts in 1985 when it reached number 12.  

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4. Dance To The Music – Sly & The Family Stone (1968) (UK#7, US#8)

5. Best Of My Love – The Emotions (1977) (UK#4, US#1)

6. Instant Replay – Dan Hartman (1978) (UK#8, US#29)

7. Oops Upside Your Head – The Gap Band (1980) (UK#6)

8. Lady Marmalade – Labelle (1975) (UK#17, US#1)*

In 1975 futuristic space-age funk hit the mainstream.  True it was more in the visuals and image than the sound as girl group Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles made the transition on the advice of Dusty Springfield’s manager Vicki Wickham to don elaborate costumes using what looks now like vast amounts of tin foil.  The music was a kind of dirty gospel with the girls giving absolutely everything (sometimes too much!).  It worked best of all on this tale of a New Orleans prostitute encouraging men to abandon “their grey flannel life” with the song’s hook “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi”.  How our knowledge of French improved overnight in 1975!  The US were impressed as it topped the charts, as it did in Canada and the Netherlands.  The song, written by Bob Crewe (best known for his work with The Four Seasons) and Kenny Nolan has been covered many times, including a version in 2001 from “The Moulin Rogue” Soundtrack which wasn’t a patch on the original but topped both the US and UK charts for Christina Aguliera, Lil Kim, Mya and Pink.

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9. I’m On Fire – 5000 Volts (1975) (UK#4, US#26) *

 Sounding like Los Bravos’ “Black Is Black” this introduced us to the (uncredited) voice of Tina Charles, who would become one of the leading lights of the British Disco Scene with her worldwide hit and UK#1 “I Love To Love”.  Here, she was a session singer brought in to front the track whilst another girl Luan Peters was used promotionally.  Tina’s vocal is appropriately blistering and it unsurprisingly became a UK Top 5 hit and made the US Top 30.  The success of this probably led to the more explicit discofication of “Black Is Black” by French girl group La Belle Epoque which became a huge European hit in 1977 (and a UK#2) and French disco legend Cerrone including a version on his 1976 debut album.  5000 Volts carried on without Tina Charles and scored another very worthwhile hit with the slightly menacing disco track “Dr Kiss Kiss”.

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10. Can You Feel The Force – The Real Thing (1979) (UK#5)

11. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – Santa Esmeralda (1977) (UK#41, US#15)

12. One For You One For Me – La Bionda (1979)

13. Megamix – Earth Wind & Fire (1989)

14. Queen Of Chinatown – Amanda Lear (1977) 

 You couldn’t make Amanda Lear up.  Statuesque blonde model of questionable age and heritage (Wikipedia places her date of birth as sometime between 1939 and 1950!), muse to Salvador Dali, girlfriend of Brian Ferry which led to her appearance on iconic Roxy Music album covers.  She ditched Ferry for David Bowie whilst rumours of her emerged that she was a vampire from Transylvania and actually a man called Alain Tap.  She posed naked in “Playboy” to dispel such stories and launched a pop career with her drawling Marlene Dietrich style vocals.  Sounds like a fame-hungry flash-in-the-pan right?  Well, her singing was an acquired taste but Europe lapped it up and to date there have been 27 albums, the last released in 2016, with her not altering her style a great deal.  No Madonna like reinvention for her- she had all the reinvention one could need at the beginning of her career.  Amanda Lear has just drawled her way sales of over 27 million.  Still a big star of European television, in the US and UK we might just wonder why.  A real-one off, in the way that Grace Jones is a one-off who lit up the discos and gossip columns.  Lear’s most critically acclaimed recording was the album “Sweet Revenge” from 1978 which Jussi Kantonen and Alan Jones in their survey of disco “Saturday Night Forever” (1999) describe as “a Faustian fable enlivened by one of the most fabulous orchestral disco productions the entire era had to offer.”  I personally have always preferred her vampire tale “Blood and Honey”.  The track here is some nonsense about a woman running an opium den which was a very big hit in Germany and like all of Amanda Lear tracks need to be heard to be believed.

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15. Love Really Hurts Without You – Billy Ocean (1976) (UK#2, US#22)

 A hugely likeable slab of pop soul which launched Billy’s career becoming his debut hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  There were a run of similar tracks including my favourite of all of his songs “Red Light Spells Danger” and then a commercially lean period of some seven years (the other Ocean track on this CD is from this era and is fairly forgettable) before hitting big and re-emerging as one of the biggest stars of the mid 80’s off the back of his Grammy award winning “Caribbean Queen”.  This track will always be a huge crowd-pleaser every time Ocean performs live.

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16. Video Killed The Radio Star – Buggles (1979) (UK#1, US#40)

Disco Classics is currently available from Amazon in the UK from £9.97 and used from £3.98.  Make sure that it is this version you are purchasing as some reviewers seem confused and seem to be reviewing a different CD.  Most of these tracks can be found on  other disco compilations.

Ten Second Staircase – Christopher Fowler (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Christopher Fowler is the clear leader on my most read authors list. Since first discovering what is still my favourite of his books, the Faustian “Spanky” as a new publication in 1994 I have now read 16 of his works. He is strongest with horror novels with dark comic undertones, both “Soho Black” and “Calabash” have impressed me and last year I was inspired by his “Book Of Forgotten Authors” to make a reading list from which I’ve sampled so far Patrick Dennis, Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin and Barbara Pym.

Since 2003 Christopher Fowler has really established himself with a crime series featuring elderly detectives Arthur Bryant and John May from The Peculiar Crimes Unit. I have read now four of the to-date 18. This is obviously a very successful enterprise for him – I have still to be convinced.

In a number of ways these novels strengths are also their weaknesses. This is written with a playful quirkiness which when it works well explores the puzzle-solving aspect of the crime novel making the author’s role in manipulating and misleading readers more explicit but there is a danger this can make the book seem gimmicky. There’s also an odd use of time which I find disorientating. Nobody knows how old Bryant and May really are but judging from what they say about their past they are very old indeed which makes them feel less plausible as characters in this modern-day setting. But does that matter? Well, it does and it doesn’t. The plots are led by the detectives’ eccentric approaches of dealing with crime with much referencing to their past and sometimes this feels like a distraction to what is going on.

What is done well is London itself, whose history and mythology is incorporated to give a sense of timelessness to the piece. It can at times feel like an alternative reality novel where octogenarians are still putting themselves professionally into precarious positions but it is not as references are regularly made to past events we all know about. It’s clear from the above that I am still struggling to make full sense of the concept and feel of this series.

In this fourth instalment a killer in highwayman garb is killing celebrities which may possibly have links to an unsolved crime Bryant and May were involved with decades before which ended in personal tragedy for them. It begins with their immediate boss contacting the Home Office to get the detectives removed because of their age and competency and Bryant goes on to show how out of touch he is with the modern world when he addresses a group of private school boys where neither his past nor the boys’ present rings true to me. It twists and turns with some memorable characters along the way, yet at this stage, some of the series regulars are still feeling underdeveloped (but admittedly, I do have a lot of the series to go).

Summing up, I very much enjoyed aspects of this book but its unorthodox approach to crime solving did cause my interest to wane. I think it is better than both the first and third of the series neither of which I particularly enjoyed and I do feel that there is so much potential and that seeds are being sown which will elevate this series once I get more of a complete grasp of what is going on.  My befuddled view is reminiscent of what I felt about much of the BBC TV adaptation of “Sherlock” and look how popular that became. I wouldn’t have read 16 books by this author, however, if I didn’t feel in some way committed to his writing (and I do have a few more unread copies of this series on my shelves) so I’m not giving up yet.

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Ten Second Staircase was published by Doubleday in 2006

Little – Edward Carey (2018)

 

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I think I have my ear fairly close to the ground when it comes to new books but I must admit that this one passed me by completely until researching my “Looking Around” post at the beginning of the year and finding Bookish Beck having it at number 3 on her Books Of The Year list.  Her enthusiasm piqued my interest.  I was not disappointed.

 Edward Carey has written a marvellously entertaining original fictionalised take on the life of the diminutive Marie Grosholtz, nicknamed “Little” who would achieve huge and long-lasting recognition following her marriage to a M. Tussaud.

 The tale begins in eighteenth century Switzerland when the orphaned child works for Dr Curtius, a wax-worker involved in medical models.  The two relocate to Paris and together with a tailor’s widow and her son move into an old building formerly used to house and exhibit monkeys.  This is the story of how the business repeatedly flourished and faded amongst the extraordinary backdrop of the French Revolution.  I waited until finishing the book before checking autobiographical details and much of the basis of Carey’s fiction is there.  It does seem that anyone who lived through and emerged from this time in French history would have a sensational story to tell and Marie is certainly no exception.

 Through a first-person narrative Carey has created an enthralling character I will probably remember forever.  Written with gusto and an eccentric energy “Little” will not be beaten down however bad circumstances get.  There’s a naivety and optimism which fuels this novel- she is certainly no “Little Nell” yet the skill of storytelling here will suggest comparisons to Charles Dickens.  Through this narrative a rich cast of characters is created and anyone looking for an original, gutsy historical novel will find this a delight.  Her account is punctuated throughout by pencil drawings which give the novel an added quirkiness and depth.

 I very much hope that this will be one of those books whose reputation will spread by word of mouth.  It  currently has a 93% 5 star rating on Amazon with just two detractors opting for four stars.  I fully expect to be mentioning it again in my end of year Top 10.

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Little was published in 2018.  I read the Gallic Books paperback edition.