Libraries Week 8th-13th October

libraries1

This week is National Libraries Week in the UK.  The theme this year is to promote wellbeing and is being promoted with the tagline “My Time.  My Space.  My Library”

Being a discerning and intelligent bunch reading this I hope I don’t have to tell you the key thing about libraries is use them or lose them.  With local councils continuing to make cutbacks library services  continue to be vulnerable.  If you haven’t visited your local library for a while this week would be an excellent time to put that right.

Before you go check out your local council’s websites as there may very well be special events going on to celebrate the week.  Libraries are no longer just about books and you may discover a whole range of activities which will get you socialising and lift spirits.  Here on the Isle of Wight, where, as I’ve mentioned many times before I am employed as a relief library assistant in a number of the libraries ,  this week we are offering activities such as talks about the history of libraries, art courses, Scrabble Club, initiatives to make poppies to commemorate the fallen of World War I in visual displays, reading , dancing, colouring, music and knitting groups as well as special rhyme times, story times, art activities, Lego and Minecraft challenges for children.  We will be running sessions to get people to use library resources online.  Many areas now offer an on-line book, magazine and audio books facilities free to use for library card holders (here we have recently moved over to Borrowbox and Press Reader which are proving very popular).

libraries3

On Saturday at Sandown Library I will be doing something which proved to be very successful last year.  I am holding a Readers Advisory Day.  Hopefully, people will be coming in for advice as what to read next and I’m planning to introduce them to their next favourite author.  I will let you know how I get on.  Those near enough to the Isle Of Wight can find information about the events I have just mentioned by following this link.

The rest of you will just have to look up your local council website to find out up-to-date information on events throughout the week.  Even if your area is not celebrating National Libraries Week why not visit your nearest library sometime during the week for your own celebration.  You might just find what you are looking for.

We have been provided with some fact around the use of libraries from the good people at http://www.librariesweek.org/facts.

libraries2

Be good to yourself.  Visit a library this week.  Let me know how you get on………………..

Advertisements

100 Essential CDs – Number 17– Barry White – All Time Greatest Hits

images 

All Time Greatest Hits (Polygram 1994)  

barrywhite1

This twenty track CD released in 1994 gives a great overview of the work of Barry White.  Less well known than his 1988 “The Collection” which reached number 5 in the UK charts and hung around on the listings for over two years this was released as part of a very worthwhile “Funk Essentials” series and for me has the edge.  When I was looking for a CD to replace my vinyl edition of “The Collection” this was the one I opted for.

barrywhite2

 Despite Barry White being a household name I think his musical achievements are often underrated.  In the mid 70’s his musicality was unprecedented in the world of Soul Music as he launched in rapid succession tracks which were orchestrated like mini symphonies topped with lyrics like mini soap operas.  This was a man with a huge talent and a great understanding of how music worked. This was largely instinctual.  In the sleevenotes to this CD David Ritz says; 

“White neither reads nor writes music, yet hears it all in his head, dictating each line for each instrument, honing his own harmonies, flavouring the stew with wildly flavourful ingredients.” 

barrywhite3

In the UK this meant 16 Top 40 hits over a twenty-three year period.  In the US the total is 11 over a similar period, which includes both chart-topping albums and singles.  There is a timelessness about his material which meant that although at times the music he was making fell out of favour he was never too many years away from a comeback.  Not bad for someone who was not fussed about being a singer in the first place.

 Barry White had been involved in music production since the mid 60’s and one of his tracks “I Feel Love Comin’ On” a joyous slab of Motown-ish pop-soul by Felice Taylor became a sizeable hit in the UK, reaching #11 in 1967.  Barry, together with arranger Gene Page was keen to put together a girl group, who he trained and rehearsed with for a considerable time before recording.  This group he named Love Unlimited and the lead singer Glodean would go on to become Barry’s wife.  The track which broke big for them “Walkin’ In The Rain With The One I Love” got to number 14 on both sides of the Atlantic in 1972 and introduced the world to the voice of Barry White as mid-way through the song Glodean takes a phone call and the voice on the other end dripping honey down the phone is Barry White’s. 

 

 

Felice Taylor and Love Unlimited

 With chart success Barry was going to be in demand as a producer and he put together some tracks that he wanted a male singer to record.  The label heard his demos and were convinced that they wanted Barry himself to record them.  He took some persuading but the rest is history.  The first Barry White album “I’ve Got So Much To Give” was released in March 1973 and gave him his first two hit singles.  Towards the end of that year Barry was keen to produce an orchestral instrumental album.  The label, 20th Century,  needed some convincing as to the commercial viability of such a project.  White and Page put together the first tracks by the Love Unlimited Orchestra and the end result opens this CD.

barrywhite6

“Love’s Theme” is a magnificent opener.  The strings just ascend heavenwards from the first bars and the whole piece is redolent of sunshine and possibility.  In the US it topped the pop charts.  It had been four years since a purely instrumental track had reached the summit and that had been by orchestral stalwart Henry Mancini with his “Love Theme From “Romeo & Juliet”.  This was a very different proposition, it felt both contemporary and classic, it could be danced to and it contained the uplift that is felt in the best disco and dance tracks.  In his history of disco “Turn The Beat Around”  (2005) Peter Shapiro, never one to mince words, has this to say;

 “In many ways “Love’s Theme was the perfect disco record; its unabashed celebration of ‘beauty’ and lushness and its complete willingness to go over the top in the pursuit of that goal, its swooning strings,…….and ultimately its utter lasciviousness..”

barrywhite7CD from the same Funk Essentials series – worth seeking out

 That really sums up the whole of the Barry White sound in a nutshell.  From this point on the tracks follow in largely chronological order but is rounded off with another Love Unlimited Orchestra track “Satin Soul” which reached #22 in the US.  The Orchestra released ten albums over their career.  Listening to much of their output now is a little like stuffing yourself with sugar, it all becomes a little too much.  To cut through the sweetness something more astringent is required and Barry’s gravelly voice could certainly do that.

barrywhite8

 

When it comes to Barry White I think I am probably more of a singles man than an an album fan. Sometimes his album tracks are overly elongated and the highlights can be more effective when encapsulated in a three minute single. And the longer the track goes on the more likely it is that he will start to get seductive. Contrary to what he is famous for, his much quoted notoriety of being the cause of many babies being conceived by listeners, I prefer him when he is pleading or lamenting lost love than when he is on full seduction mode which I find a tad embarrassing.

barrywhite9

Certainly this seduction patter is what he became known for in the early part of his career. Debut album “I’ve Got So Much To Give” had just five tracks. His first two hits which came from this clock in at 8 mins 11 and 7 mins 20 in their original album version but work better at just over 5 and under 4 in their hit single versions. There are also two tracks on this CD from his second album “Stone Gon” another five tracker, both of which were edited for single release. These four tracks certainly put Barry White on the map. Debut solo hit “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby” reached US#3, UK#23. Its follow-up “I’ve Got So Much To Give” was not one of his strongest efforts and that was reflected commercially with its US#32 placing. He was back in the US Top 10 with the very good “Never Never Gonna Give You Up” (U#7, UK#14) but faltered somewhat with the still strong “Honey Please Can’t You See”.

barrywhite10

From late 74 around a year on from his chart-topping instrumental he began a run of classic singles which took him until mid 76 and seemed to see him almost continually in the charts. These kicked off with the soul classic “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love” which became his first US solo chart-topper and marked his first appearance in the top 10 (#8) in the UK. His next release from the same US#1 UK#4 album “Can’t Get Enough” stalled at number two Stateside but took him to the top of the charts in the UK. “You’re The First The Last My Everything” is a classic love song, which certainly doesn’t get too steamy by Barry’s standards and was not significantly edited for single release. Unfortunately, on this CD you do not get the spoken intro which I really love and which sets up the track so well. It doesn’t sound as good if it launches straight into the Orchestra’s stabbing string refrain. The song itself was apparently a re-written version of an unrecorded country song called “You’re My First, My Last, My In-Between” which does not work nearly as well.

barrywhite11

From this chart-topper onward Britain got the Barry White (Love) bug and his singles often performed better than they did in his homeland. “What Am I Gonna Do With You” (US#8,UK#5) and “I’ll Do For You Anything You Want Me To” (US#40, UK#20) came along next but even better was the track he closed out 1975 with. “Let The Music Play” (UK#9, US#32) sums up everything I like about Barry White. There’s a brief talky bit, we’re plunged into the middle of the situation, he’s turned up at the disco without his woman “she’s at home, man/she’s at home” and he’s certainly pained and going to use disco as his escape. So you get this man almost howling in agony in a stonking uptempo disco number. It’s a gem and may very well be my favourite of his tracks.

barrywhite12

But it’s a close run thing because he came up with another classic with “You See The Trouble With Me” (co-written with Ray Parker Jnr) which amazingly did not do very much in the US pop charts but got to number 2 in the UK. This features very effectively another White technique of it all becoming too much for him and his part coming to an end leaving the orchestra to play things out without him. This track had a new lease of life in 2000 which sampled the Barry White vocal onto a club track which I think had then to be re-recorded by a Barry White soundalike due to copyright reasons and that version topped the charts and was one of the biggest records in the first year of the Millennium. The beat and the sample made it incredibly powerful but this release by Black Legend wasn’t a patch on the classy original.

barrywhite13Barry with Love Unlimited

Before that record had died a death in the UK Barry was back again with a track which pushed Love Unlimited far more to the fore. Glodean and the girls had scored another UK hit (#11) in 1975 with the sublime “It May Be Winter Outside (But In My Heart It’s Spring) (itself a very close ringer to The Supremes’ “Everything Is Good About You” from their  essential “I Hear A Symphony” album so their unique harmonising would be familiar to British audiences who took the strong “Baby We Better Try To Get It Together” to number 15. He was back again in another couple of months with his number 17 hit “Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long”. From Track 6-13 on this CD I am transported to musical heaven with these examples of Barry White at his very best.

barrywhite15

However, in the US his sales had slowed down and for me the quality stuttered for “I’m Qualified To Satisfy You” which barely crept in the UK Top 40 and missed out in the US altogether. Barry’s response was to turn to different writers for the first time in his singles career. The fabulously named Nelson Pigford and Ekundayo Paris certainly fulfilled the lengthy title brief with “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me”, perhaps a track which moved away from the orchestral towards a stronger R&B groove. At the time I remember thinking it was disappointing but it has grown on me over the years. Response in the UK was also lukewarm as it dribbled into the Top 40, Stateside, however it gave him his biggest hit since “First, The Last My Everything” getting to number 4. It remains an influential track as it the groove has been sampled many times over the years, perhaps most familiarly to us Brits in “Rock DJ” by Robbie Williams.

barrywhite16

The resulting seven track album 1977’s “Barry White Sings For Someone You Love” also used more writers than before and was one of Barry’s most successful in the US and spawned another US hit in “Oh What A Night For Dancing” (US#24) and another popular track from this “Playing Your Game Baby” is also featured on this CD. Barry White’s last great hurrah, as far as I am concerned, during his tenure at 20th Century Records is when he played it very simple and came out with a cover of Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are”, a lovely version of a track which had been a hit for the composer earlier on in the year. In the UK Barry bettered Billy’s number 19 position by getting to number 12 at the end of 1978. In the US where Billy’s version had been much bigger (#3) it did not chart. But this track seemed to me a great direction for Barry to go into -as a song stylist, because his performance on this track is both exemplary and very Barry White and fits into exactly what he was known for but not going over the top on the cheesy seductions. In 1978 Disco was flooding the charts yet here was the man who was one of the original Disco Kings moving away from the dancefloor and it felt right.

barrywhite17

Barry White left the label which had been the home for his hits in 1979 and this is where this CD comes to an end. He kept recording, most notably for A&M and actually in later years his studio albums became much better value and two of his albums “The Right Night And Barry White” from 1987 and “The Icon Is Love” from 1995 are, apart from this CD, those I play most from this artist. He came up with some more great singles. I’ve always had a soft-spot for the strangely off-ley “Sho’ You Right” (UK#14-1987) in which he really bellows his way through and he scored his last transatlantic hit when the impressive “Practice What You Preach” got to number 18 in the US and 20 in the UK in 1995. His last slice of pop chart action came in 1996 when a duet with Tina Turner “In Your Wildest Dreams” got to number 32. I feel that this should have gone higher but it was one of those “cynical” duets. The track was a highlight on Tina’s “Wildest Dreams” album as a duet with Antonio Banderas. With White looking to be hot property again Banderas’ vocal was lifted and White’s phoned in. I’m sure they did not re-record the duet together.

After a long battle with health conditions, largely attributed to his size, Barry White died in 2003 at the age of 58. His is a lasting legacy in the history of pop, R&B/Soul and Disco music and the many highlights can be found on this CD.

is currently available from Amazon in the UK new from £6.27 and used from £0.09.  It is available to download from £7.99.  In the US it is currently available new from $7.97, used from $1.14 and as a download for $9.49.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.  Other Barry White compilations are available, the current big seller is the three CD box set 46 tracker “The Complete 20th Century Singles” released in April 2018.

100 Essential Books – The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne (2006)

imagespyjamas

Irish author John Boyne has been one of the best finds for me in recent years.  My introduction to his work is my 2017 Reviewsrevues Book of the Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and this year both “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” and his latest “A Ladder To The Sky” have been five star reads.

 This is the book which made his name and although I have had it on my shelves for some years had never got round to reading it, despite my partner telling me it was one of the best books he has ever read.  I have seen the 2008 film adaptation and it’s taken me quite a while to get over it!

 This may very well be one of the saddest books ever.   I knew what was going to happen because of the film and yet I consciously chose to read the ending in the public place of on the bus, thinking I would be less likely to break down in tears but it was a close run thing!

 Boyne adopts an impassive narrative style making his writing reminiscent of a fairy tale or something within the oral tradition with its matter of fact sentences and fair amount of repetition for emphasis (for both the listener and the main character).  This is a book which would read aloud extremely well.  (Philip Ridley also did this very successfully with his much lighter tale “Krindlekrax”- a huge favourite of mine).  This oral feel is powerful and draws the reader in but also provides some emotional distance from the action which may initially protect from some of the horror but it also carefully and cleverly informs the plot making it all very believable.  The narrator sees everything from nine year old Bruno’s point of view but allows us to read between the lines with ever-mounting trepidation. 

 Like Pierrot in “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” Bruno is forced to relocate to a home very different from what he has been used to.  For Bruno this means with his family but away from his beloved grandparents left behind in Berlin.  In this new place which he pieces together is called “Out-With” there is no one to play with and instead of the view of Berlin from his bedroom window he sees groups of men and boys in pyjamas behind a wire fence.  His decision to go exploring to combat his loneliness cannot end well.

 Also like Pierrot in the later novel at times Bruno’s interpretation of events feels insufferable but perhaps more comprehensible because of the lack of communication with his family, which allows such a distorted picture of his environment to be developed.  His view of the world is formed solely through his ignorance, there is not much that he gets right and that is a powerful thing to take from this novel.

 Despite John Boyne’s development as a writer in the 9 years between this and the unofficial companion piece of “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” this eclipses it in terms of power and importance.  It is a book which works well in the Children’s, YA and Adult sections of the bookshop.  Frankly, everyone should read it.  The film version, although good lacks the power of Boyne’s words and style.

 Of those novels I have read which gives a child’s perspective of wartime only “The Book Thief” is better and that is arguably my all-time favourite novel.  John Boyne continues his ascent as one of my all-time favourite authors.

fivestars

 The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was first published in 2006.  I read the 2008 Definitions paperback version.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

watching

crazy rich

In my review of Kevin Kwan’s debut novel posted this week I said I thought it was ;

“an obvious choice for a film adaptation if Kwan’s balance between the slight plot, winning characterisation with great cameo parts and sheer opulence is maintained.” 

Yesterday I took my chance to find out.  I rarely go to the cinema, probably once a year is a reasonable estimate, despite me having the two-for-one-deal for Tuesdays and Wednesdays from those pesky meerkats.  We have two cinemas on the Isle Of Wight, one the multi-plex Cineworld in Newport where I can use my two-for-one vouchers and The Commodore in Ryde which is continuing to battle alongside the big chains with its staff of what seemed like yesterday one person and cheap entry prices.  I paid £4.50 a ticket for the afternoon showing of “Crazy Rich Asians”, which makes it comparable with the two-for-one at the other cinema which was showing the same film but at a less convenient time.

Ryde_Commodore_Cinema_2

The Commodore, Ryde -a cinema from another era! (Free bingo available)

There were just four of us in the auditorium to witness Kwan’s novel come alive on the screen, which might have been the smallest audience I have been in ever.  (The other couple did not even sit next to another but had a couple of seats between them which meant when they talked they had to do so across a bigger space, reminding me of one of the main reasons I don’t go to the cinema that often- the other main reason being the film trailers for forthcoming productions which end up showing so much of the film that when you watch it on DVD some six months later you end up believing that you’ve seen it before).

crazyrich2

I did enjoy the film but the richness that I wrote about in Kwan’s cataloguing of the wealth is largely lost in making a fairly standard rom-com.  What I really liked about the book was that it dealt with a level of richness that was beyond the norm, so much so that it became unobtrusive, the Youngs were so wealthy that normally wealthy people did not know who they were.  When Rachel Chu visited her college friend’s opulent mansion in the book her family did not know of the Youngs nor of the grandmother’s vast estate that was situated in their neighbourhood.  In the film they knew all about the Youngs.  I was looking forward to seeing this extra level of wealth portrayed but obviously it couldn’t be conveyed successfully, so we got a super-wealthy family rather than a super-super wealthy and throughout I felt that the richness was toned down.

crazyriich3

The book offered a wealth that we had never seen before in its description of the stag and bachelorette parties and the wedding that provides the main focus.  In the film these came across as less splendid, even a touch tacky.  The only thing I’d never seen before was the bride and attendants wading through a water-filled aisle.  Who wants that?!

crazyrich5

Stars Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh and Henry Golding

Other than that niggle (quite sizeable as it was my fascination about this that made me want to go and see the film) it more or less had everything I was looking for.  There was a playing down of some of the characters – the subplot of Astrid and her husband’s philandering was much pared down and you did not get that same great sense of family and the inter-relations between the characters.  One character who had their part beefed up was Rachel’s friend Peik Lin played by American rapper Awkwafina.  She, together with her trashily rich dysfunctional family stole the show as far as I was concerned.  They lit up every scene they were in.  Constance Wu was spot-on as Rachel Chu.  She brought a maturity to the part (Wu is 36) that lifted it above many rom-com heroines.  I had never seen her before but Time magazine have her listed in their current 100 Most influential people in the world list, so a great choice to play Rachel.  British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding was also spot on to play Nick Young and his dazzling handsomeness shone through even in a cinema of four people.  Although how Rachel did not know he was from at least a well-off family with such a posh British accent was a little mystifying.

crazyrich4

Awkwafina, Constance Wu and Nico Santos 

Kwan’s vision of the film has hopefully been rendered successfully with its all-Asian cast.  He reputedly optioned the film rights for $1 with the proviso that he remained in creative control after a suggestion to turn Rachel into a white American rather than Chinese-born American.  The whole thing is light and frothy, with a plot as slight as the novel but like the book it managed to win me over.  In the book v film argument I would say that this time it is the book that has the edge.
fourstars

 

 

The Way Of All Flesh – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

imagesN8KPZ1YT

ambroseparry

This Edinburgh set Victorian crime novel (not to be confused with the classic novel by Samuel Butler with the same title which was very much a reaction against Victorianism) is the first collaboration between husband and wife anaesthesia expert Marisa Haetzman and crime novelist Chris Brookmyre, (he has some 23 novels to date none of which I have read) written under the pen name Ambrose Parry. 

Chris has never before written a novel set in the past but with Marisa’s knowledge of the history of medicine and especially the development of anaesthetics which has a significant part to play in this they have produced a thoroughly entertaining joint effort, a good slab of historical crime fiction, the first in a proposed new series.

 There are two very good main characters here.  Will Raven has a background from the tougher parts of Edinburgh Old Town and the night before he begins an apprenticeship with esteemed childbirth specialist Dr Simpson he encounters a corpse and is beaten and badly cut up giving him both a disreputable appearance and rendering him a marked man in his new environment of the respectable New Town.  Simpson’s housemaid Sarah, fascinated by the medical goings on in the house is held back because of Victorian society’s view of women and the two are forced by circumstances to come together to investigate agonising deaths of young women from both sides of town.

 Alongside the involving plot we have the growth of the use of ether in routine procedures and the search for more effective and safer methods to sedate patients.  The medical history aspect is inserted seamlessly into the plot and adds much to the enjoyment of the novel.

 I felt that the Edinburgh location with its split personality of the poverty- stricken Old Town and the comparative grandeur of the New is very effective, especially with childbirth happening in both areas causing the medical men to adapt to all kinds of patient.  Plot-wise I thought I had worked out what was going on but I hadn’t. The twists did surprise me.   I would certainly be on the lookout for future collaborations as well as digging into the sizeable Brookmyre back catalogue.

 fourstars

The Way Of All Flesh was published by Canongate in August 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan (2013)

 

kwan

Kevin Kwan’s debut novel has been made into a film which is currently on general release in the UK.  Reading this has certainly made the film into “a must see” as far as I am concerned.

Rachel Chu, a New York Economics Professor is invited by her boyfriend Nicholas Young to attend his best friend’s wedding in Singapore.  What Rachel does not know about Nick is that he comes from a super-wealthy Chinese family.  So far, so fairly standard chick-lit, but where this book comes alive is with Kwan’s almost obsessive detailing of this wealth written with such gusto that any niggles about reading about such privileged characters are soon dispensed with.  Rachel is propelled into the world of multi-million and billionaires whose ability to spend is only matched by their ability to bitch about one another.  The designers, cars, gadgets, clothes and food of the super-rich are catalogued in his tale in such detail that it turns what on the surface appears to be a quick read into far more substantial fare.

Nick’s world is populated by families obsessed with their standing, their background and their lineage and it’s unlikely that they’d ever accept Rachel into their circle.  We have here a class-based British Victorian novel transported to twenty-first century Singapore and it is quite a heady combination.

A sizeable family tree opens the novel and I consulted it many times to see who fitted in with who and Kwan is generous with his footnotes for definitions and for unlocking some of the mysteries of this world to our western eyes (he’s particularly fond of explaining food dishes).

There is almost an overload of the senses here with the whole thing being extremely visual which makes it an obvious choice for a film adaptation if Kwan’s balance between the slight plot, winning characterisation with great cameo parts and sheer opulence is maintained.

I read this book because it was getting very good word of mouth from people who borrowed our library copy and I found Plum Sykes’ on-cover recommendation of Chinese Dallas meets Pride and Prejudice irresistible.  I can certainly see where she is going with that.  Kevin Kwan has now completed a trilogy of novels with “China Rich Girlfriend” and “Rich People’s Problems” available.  This debut is highly entertaining.

fourstars

Crazy Rich Asians was first published in the UK by Corvus in 2013

Strictly Come Dancing 2018 – BBC1 – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

watching

strictly20182

It’s back! Here comes the first TV show to be reviewed on this site twice.  Last year I wrote about The Movie Special, which I think was Episode 3 and complained that the series opener had “seemed to go on forever and was just a conveyor belt of people you either vaguely knew or hadn’t heard of.” 

Well, it was a fairly miserable Saturday night weather-wise last night so I, probably alongside most of the rest of the UK settled down for how long was it140 minutes !!! of the BBC’s (glitterball) jewel in the crown.

If last year I thought the contestants were not well known this year they are even less recognisable to the average television viewer.  There was almost a palpable despondency in the nation as contestants were named over consecutive days in a ploy to get our interest but which for many compounded their confusion.  What has happened to the big name contestants of yesteryear?  Or was that in fact just like long hot British summers of the past (not counting this year of course when we really had one)  something  that we all claim to remember but which never happened.  Certainly if you look down the cast lists of the first couple of series there are names you will struggle to recall.  Also, with the proliferation of easy-money celebrity reality shows perhaps on “Strictly” they have to work just too darn hard for their money.

strictly2018

The show began with the professionals competing with water spouts on a mash-up of what we know now as the Moulin Rouge version of Elton’s “Your Song” peppered with some operatic voices.  This began outside at (I think) Somerset House and by “the magic of television” (and a Strictly Come Dancing staple) was transformed mid-way through into the studio.

With a long evening ahead of me (and a long week behind me which could have caused Saturday night fatigue- a posh way of saying falling asleep on the sofa) I  decided to be my own judge and give scores to the celebrities and their first offerings.  So here is my very own Strictly Score Card in ascending order.

strictly20183Something you won’t see in Week 1

Susannah Constantine & Anton – Week one and Anton has decided once again to play up the comedy in this samba.  The “visual trick” of appearing as if she was wearing a voluminous dress didn’t work as we could see instantly see she was just standing behind it.  Anton camped it up to the hilt but couldn’t hide the fact Susannah was being dragged around.  The weakest dance by some way but viewers vote for the pair at the bottom of the leaderboard and especially for Anton so we can expect more of this for some weeks to come.  My score 2.    Judges score 12

strictly20184

Seann Walsh & Katya – Seann is a comedian but I have not seen him before.  Tangoed to Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback” and was all the things Craig Revel-Horwood hates, stompy with splayed hands and overly aggressive.  Head judge Shirley Ballas suggested he “tidy himself up a bit” which seemed a bit off.  Two or three off the bottom of the judges’ leaderboard   is always a dangerous place to be when they start factoring in viewers’ votes so Seann will need to up his game a little next time if he isn’t going to be first off.  My score 4.  Judges score 18

strictly20185

Katie Piper & Gorka – Waltzed to Adele’s “When We Were Young” and was a bit jiggly and stumbly.  In the bottom two of the judges score but I think she will garner a lot of public votes (as will Gorka).  My score 4.  Judges score 17

strictly20186

Lee Ryan & Nadia – “Blue’s” Lee Ryan is always a little unpredictable on this kind of show.  He’s done a lot of reality TV in the past and you’re never sure what you are going to get or if he will last the course.  He’s taken a long time to do Strictly seeing as bandmate Simon Webbe did it quite a few years ago.  He also tends to muck things up when they seem to be going well, which may win the audience over.  I thought his waltz to the Eagles seemed quite safe and wasn’t that good but the judges were more enthusiastic.  My score 4.  Judges score  22

strictly20187

Kate Silverton & Aljaz– Certainly won’t be going anytime soon as this combination will be popular with the voting public.  News and current affairs people always tend to last longer than their abilities suggest as viewers like seeing them let their hair down and Aljaz is one of the most popular of the professionals.  This cha cha cha to “Kiss” took a little while to get going but there’s potential there.  My score 5. Judges score 20

strictly20188

Vick Hope & Graziano – With this pairing of probably the least well known of the celebrities and a new male dancer they really had to come up with the goods to put them on the map.  The choice of a potentially audience-pleasing jive might have been a little too much too soon but I actually thought she did quite well.  My score was as high as Bruno’s, the others marked lower putting her very much in the danger zone.  I would imagine that a slightly less demanding and frantic dance will lift her out of this next week, so perhaps lucky that we are not just voting on Week 1.  My score  6. Judges score 18

strictly201810

 

Lauren Steadman & AJ – Winning a gold medal in Australia just before training will certainly endear her to the voting public.  Their waltz had nice spins but otherwise felt safe.  Judges liked it more than I did. Got the first mention of the Dame Darcy Bussell staple “a strong core”.  What has AJ done to his hair?  My score 6. Judges score  25

strictly20189

Ashley Roberts & Pasha – Judges put this Viennese Waltz jointly on the top of the leaderboard.  Ashley will really have to prove herself to the British public with a dance background which led to a stint of judging on ITV’s “Dancing On Ice”.  We have fallen in love with her once before on “I’m A Celebrity” but she is really going to have to ensure she is quite high up the leaderboard week after week.  American competitors tend to go “before their time” on this show.  Came up with the truism of the week when she said of her dance “It’s just steps but it’s so hard.”  I like Ashley but I never totally rate the sheer twirliness of the Viennese Waltz so that might be why my score was lower than the judges.  Got the first “Gorge-ous” from Craig.  My score 6.  Judges score 29
strictly201811

Graham Swann & Oti – Not being a cricket fan I’d never even seen this competitor before  the launch show and he didn’t look like he would be up to much.  There is the thing that cricketers do well on this show and have won twice and get good audience support but I was expecting “Dad dancing”.  To pair him with Oti was genius as each season she proves herself to be a great teacher and choreographer and this once again showed in an enthusiastic samba to cricketing theme “Soul Limbo”.  My score 6.  Judges score 22strictly201812

Stacey Dooley & Kevin – I wouldn’t have known who Stacey was had I not seen a clip of her “Armageddon” documentary on “Gogglebox” the night before.  Did a crowd-pleasing quickstep with Kevin.  My score 6. Judges score 24

strictly201813

Joe Sugg & Diane – Youtuber Joe looked absolutely petrified every time you saw him in the background behind Claudia so wasn’t expecting much yet he turned out a much better than anticipated jive with lots of good kicks.  My Score 6.  Judges score 27

strictly201814

Dr Raj Singh & Janette –  A man who is going to be working long shifts in a real (not television) hospital during the week doing his day job and the odd spot on morning TV and fitting his training in around this.  You might as well give him the glitterball now and let’s move on to having Christmas.  The public will love him.  His cha cha cha to Whitney’s “How Will I Know” was overly gimmicky which was unnecessary as he was dancing really quite well.  Earned him the Dame Darcy Bussell difficult sentence of the week award (there’s always at least one) when she praised him on his smile; “Don’t wipe that ever off”.  I think we knew what she meant.  My Score-6. Judges score- 27

strictly201815

Danny John-Jules & Amy – I love the theme to “Top Cat” which they turned out a very proficient foxtrot to.  Opened the show so deep in most viewers distant memories.  He’s going to be a strong contender and an obvious all-rounder.  Don’t know much about him, never watched “Red Dwarf” but surely there’s considerable dance background there.  Seemed very balletic.   My score  7.  Judges Score  27

strictly201816

Faye Tozer & Giovanni – A predictably confident, long-legged cha cha which I really enjoyed but after over two hours of this I was decidedly wilted.  Chosen to close the show so obviously had impressed in rehearsals and put jointly on top by the judges.  My score  7. Judges score-29

strictly201817

Charles Venn & Karen – Don’t watch “Casualty” so had never seen this actor before the launch show.  I think his cha cha cha to “Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use)” was decidedly undermarked as it was dripping in style- although was it the red suit that distracted me.  Only Bruno marked it as high as I did and Shirley said it was too disco.  Perhaps that’s why I thought it just edged ahead as my favourite of the night.  Certainly one to watch.  I was a big Ore Oduba fan from the start a couple of years ago.  He had the same sort of easy style  and he really grew into the show. I think Charles could do the same here.  Don’t forget last year’s winner Joe McIntyre also came from the BBC hospital wards of “Holby City”.  My Score 7.  Judges score 25.

strictly101818

So no clear favourite after just one dance but as always I am going to be with this show for the duration.  When the cast were announced I wondered if I might give it a miss this year.  I did a one-man protest over the moving of Bake Off to Channel 4 last year and refused to watch and then wavered and had to watch the first four episodes one after another on Catch-up.  I watched the launch show but it still hadn’t totally convinced me (too set-up even for a show that pretends it’s Sunday when it’s Saturday night).  This first episode has brought me well back into the Strictly fold.  There’s going to be a whole lot of dancing to watch this autumn.

fourstars(but will proabably go back up to 5 when it stops being so longgggg!)

Strictly Come Dancing is on Saturday evenings on BBC1.  The first episode is available on the BBC I-Player catch up service.

 

City Boy – Edmund White (2009) – A Real Life Review

realives

cityboy

Edmund White is best known for his trilogy of autobiographical novels.  I read the first of these “A Boy’s Own Story” not long after it was published in 1982 and it has since become the classic coming out tale.  I’ve read all three as well as his 2000 novel “A Married Man” which probably ranks as my favourite out of these.  White is a highly esteemed novelist, literary biographer and essayist but I haven’t yet read anything by him which has really blown me away.

From a British gay man’s perspective I value very much his contribution to gay-themed literature but I have never had the emotional response from his work that I have had from Armistead Maupin, Alan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, John Boyne, for example.  Compared to these authors I think he can come across as a little too academic in his writing and lacking warmth- perhaps investing his novels with a richness of technical skills rather than empathy.  Admittedly, it has been a while since I’ve read anything by him and I’ve not read all but this is my impression so far and throughout the years I have been choosing my Best Books of the Year he has never featured in my Top 10.

Things could change with this.  Subtitled “My Life In New York During The 1960s and 1970s”, a memoir in which the struggling author relocates to New York and benefits from the cheapness of rents and the richness of the creative and literary minds he is able to surround himself with.  It is a significant period for New York as it heads towards bankruptcy and areas become violent and dangerous as well as a hub for civil rights and in 1969 a fracas at The Stonewall Inn changed lives for gay men and women across the globe.  White was there.

During these years White met many important figures in the Arts and provides almost rapid-fire character sketches and gossip.  Many readers nowadays will only recognise a handful of these names but that doesn’t matter as we’re drawn into White’s associations.  He also catalogues the increasing sexual freedoms of the era as lived mainly by those who escaped the repression of small-town America for New York City life. There are lovers, friends and sex partners and the many men he met tended to fall into one of these separate categories.  It was only in the era of AIDS, White proposes, that one person could fulfil all three roles.

My interest in this book was as much to do with the city in this period as much as the man and he conveys the feel of New York very well.  There are sojourns in San Francisco and Venice but the pull of Manhattan wins out. White takes us to the point at the end of the 1970’s where a new virus is looming menacingly, poised to wipe out many of the characters in this book.  (White moved away from NYC and lived in France for much of the 80’s).  He ends his account with a metaphor which I find effective and very much gives the feel of this book;

“I suppose that finally New York is a Broadway theatre where one play after another, decade after decade, occupies the stage and the dressing rooms- then clears out.  Each play is the biggest possible deal (sets, publicity, opening night celebrations, stars names on the marquee) then it vanishes.  With every new play the theatre itself is just a little more dilapidated, the walls scarred, the velvet rubbed bald, the gilt tarnished.  Because they are plays and not movies, no one remembers them precisely.  The actors are forgotten, the plays are just battered scripts showing coffee stains and missing pages.  Nothing lasts in New York.  The life that is lived there, however, is as intense as it gets.”

“City Boy” recounts Edmund White’s time in this vanished world.

fourstars

City Boy was published by Bloomsbury in 2009.  I read the 2010 paperback edition.

100 Essential CDs – Number 82– The Essential Collection – Dionne Warwick

 

images

The Essential Collection – Dionne Warwick (Global 1996)

UK Chart Position – 58

dionne1

Released to shift some units for the Christmas market in 1996 and no doubt accompanied by a TV advertising campaign I favour this 48 track two CD collection over other greatest hits compilations for this artist.  We get one album of Dionne Mark 1 – the Bacharach and David chanteuse with twenty-six of their compositions and a second CD of Mark 2 spearheaded by her biggest UK chart hit given to her by the Bee Gees which came after a period of 12 years without UK success.   CD 1 represents the 60’s and the second CD is slightly more all over the place with tracks from throughout her lengthy career.

dionne2 

Sometimes you just need a little class and there’s few artists more classy than Dionne Warwick.  An inspiration to so many other artists.  Dionne was born in 1940 and grew up in a New Jersey gospel music background.  She set up a group with sister Dee Dee and their aunt Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney) and as well as recording gospel material began to sing background vocals on pop recordings.  At a session for a Drifters track composer Burt Bacharach was impressed by Dionne’s vocals and asked if she would record demo tracks for songs he had written with partner Hal David.  The rest as they say, is history.

dionne3 working with Burt Bacharach (at piano) and Hal David

Dionne could be considered one of the unluckiest singers in pop music history.  Hers is a voice that has launched other careers as the Bacharach and David tracks first given to her became bigger hits for other artists.  A look at the track titles certainly bring this home.  Primarily, and probably most acrimoniously there is Cilla Black, whose career really took off in the UK when she recorded her version of Warwick’s first US Top 10 hit (#8 1964) “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and scored one of the big singles of the 1960’s but lets add to this list Sandie Shaw “There’s Always Something There To Remind Me; (first recorded by Dionne and a debut UK#1 for the ex-Ford, Dagenham worker); Dusty Springfield (An early B-side “Wishin’ And Hopin’ became a US#6 for Dusty in 1964.  In the UK the Merseybeats took their version to #13 in the same year); Walker Brothers (“Make It Easy On Yourself” was a 1962 demo by Dionne and became their first UK #1 three years later); Aretha Franklin (in the UK anyway Aretha’s version of Dionne’s US hit “I Say A Little Prayer” became her signature tune and a much bigger hit reaching #4); The Carpenters ( a 1965 B-side for Dionne which became a career launching US#1, UK#6 in 1970) the list goes on. Another demo recording “This Girl’s In Love With You” underwent a gender change and became a US#1, UK#3 for Herb Alpert,  although Dionne did strike back and got a US#7.

dionne3 

Even in later years The Stylistics eclipsed Dionne’s 1964 original of “You’ll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart) reaching U2#23, UK#24, “A House Is Not A Home” was transformed into an all-time soul classic by Luther Vandross and in the UK Dionne’s debut American hit “Don’t Make Me Over” (#21 in 1963) did not make the chart until it was re-imagined as a cool club track by Sybil in 1989 (UK#19).

dionne4

 

There are a number of reasons for all this.  Dionne was originally employed as a demo singer and some of these songs were intended to be picked up by other artists and Dionne’s versions only begun to see the light of day as B-sides and album tracks as her career took off, also, these were great songs picked up by great artists (most of those names above feature somewhere in my Essential Collection CD rundown) and sometimes us Brits couldn’t wait for the originals to be released so went for the cover version.

dionne5

 

Dionne also got her own back and recorded songs that some of these artists had scored big with.  Bacharach and David wrote “Alfie” for Cilla Black who scored a UK #9 whereas Dionne took it to number 13 in the US, she had a US#26 with a song better associated in the UK with Dusty Springfield “I Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” (although original of this was by Chuck Jackson).  “Message To Martha (Kentucky Bluebird)” had been recorded by Lou Johnson (another Bacharach and David demo-er) and Jerry Butler and had been a UK hit for Adam Faith.  Re-dedicated to Michael it went to #8 for Dionne in the US.  “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” had been a UK#1 for US country singer Bobbie Gentry but in the US it was Dionne who got the number 6 hit version.

dionne6 

All of these original versions/successful cover versions of these Bacharach & David songs can be found on the first CD of “The Essential Collection”.  That also leaves room for a couple of songs that Dionne had no problem with making her own. It’s hard to believe that pop standard, a touching tale of unrequited love “Walk On By”, an absolute classic pop tune only made it to number 9 in the UK charts of 1964 (#6 in the US).  At that point of her career it was her biggest hit on both sides of the Atlantic and the song is perfectly suited to her voice.  It has been recorded by countless other artists but the original has never been eclipsed.  Notable versions have come from Isaac Hayes (US#30-1969), who drew it out into a sweet-soul opus, Gloria Gaynor who disco-fied it, The Stranglers, who turned it into a punk hit (UK#21- 1978), the Average White Band who gave it a jazz-funk vibe (UK#46- 1979) and the aforementioned Sybil who put out a Stock-Aitken-Waterman version in 1990 which topped Dionne’s chart position by getting to number 6.

dionne8

 

“Do You Know The Way To San Jose” is the epitome of sophisticated lounge music and often features on compilations which feature the word “lounge” and “easy”.  It’s an all too familiar tale of failing to make it big and aiming to return to the hometown that had already been escaped from to avoid a life of “parking cars and pumping gas”.  This classy track became a Top 10 US hit in 1968 and became her biggest hit of the 1960’s in the UK by going one place better than “Walk On By”, explaining why this is the track chosen to open this CD.  Other highspots on the Bacharach-David CD include the slightly frantic “Promises, Promises” from the 1968 Broadway show of the same name (US#19) and “Are You There With Another Girl”, a US Top 40 hit from 1966. 

dionne9

 Not everything Bacharach and David turned out was a gem however.  I find the chauvinism of the song “Wives and Lovers” embarrassing, even given it Dionne’s female voice, rather than Jack Jones’ US hit version and the 1967 track “The Windows Of The World” may have given Dionne a #32 but does nothing for me.

 dionne10

It seemed like Dionne disappeared for most of the 1970’s but really that did not happen.  She certainly took a back seat when disco was dominating the charts but in 1974 scored her first US # 1 pop hit with the (Detroit) Spinners and the soulful “Then Came You” which got to an understated #29 in the UK, but that track is not included on these CDs nor is much of her 1970’s post Bacharach and David material.  Dionne moved to Warner Brothers and Burt Bacharach and Hal David fell out after their work for the movie flop “Lost Horizon” (the track “The World is A Circle notwithstanding). Warner had signed Dionne very much as part of the team.  The first she knew about the split was when she read about it in a newspaper, causing considerable tension between herself and the songwriters.  Five albums on Warners saw different production and songwriting teams including Thom Bell and Holland-Dozier-Holland but the hits were not forthcoming either in the UK or in her homeland.  To try and change her luck Dionne on the advice of an astrologer added an extra “e” to her surname in something to do with numerology but that didn’t work and was later abandoned with Dionne returning to the original spelling. 

dionne11

 

What did work was a move to Arista records in 1979 and all of the tracks on CD are from this association which lasted for fifteen years and eleven studio albums.  In the UK the return to the upper reaches of the chart came via the Bee Gees who still had the golden touch in 1982.  “Heartbreaker” had an old-fashioned feel in a UK Top 5 which included Culture Club, Tears For Fears, reggae star Eddy Grant and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” but us Brits took to it more than we had ever taken to a Dionne Warwick track and it ended up in the Top 20 Best selling singles of the year, the third biggest by a female artist below Irene Cara and Toni Basil.  In the US this track went to number 10, a position also attained in the UK with her follow-up “All The Love In The World”, which actually I like better than the bigger hit.  Her 1982 studio album became her only UK Top 3 success.

dionne12

 In the US the dry spell had ended three years earlier with a pair of consecutive pop hits.  “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” is an anthemic pop-soul ballad and certainly ranks amongst her very best tracks.  The producer for the album “Dionne”  was Arista label-mate Barry Manilow and at long last the fears that she could not survive without Bacharach and David were laid to rest as worldwide this became a million selling album, certified platinum.  Showing just how she straddles markets she picked up two Grammys in 1980 – “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” (US#5) won Best Female Pop Vocal and she took Best Female R&B Vocal for its follow-up, the US #15 “Déjà vu” which is not on this CD.  This double victory brought Dionne’s Grammy tally up to 4.  Dionne combined two of her career saviours in 1985 when she recorded a duet with Barry Manilow of the Bee Gees song “Run To Me” which is included on this CD.

dionne13

 Dionne and Barry Manilow

Perhaps more than any other multi-million selling artist Dionne’s biggest successes have been when she combined her vocal talents with other artists.  Collaborations with Johnny Mathis, Luther Vandross and Jeffrey Osborne gave her US Top 40 pop hits (with only the latter’s “Love Power” -US# 12- 1987 included here.  Dionne’s only US chart-topper to date had been with The Spinners and the Bee Gees were not too far in the mix in her pair of big UK 1980’s hits.  In 1985 we had the ultimate collaboration of four major talents on what I would consider the best charity single of all time.  Dionne engineered a track to raise funds for AIDS with a song written by old pal Burt Bacharach with his then wife Carole Bayer Sager which had been originally recorded by Rod Stewart.  For this new version Dionne recruited a trio of hit-makers with careers even more impressive than her own – Stevie Wonder (9 US#1’s to this point), Gladys Knight (who shared Dionne’s then tally of 1 US#1,) and Elton John (6 US#1’s).  They could all add one more chart-topper to their lists as “That’s What Friends Are For” lived up to expectations and spent four weeks as the US #1 and won them all another Grammy with Best Group Vocal Pop Performance.  Released towards the end of 1985 it was the biggest selling single in the US in 1986.  In the UK it certainly under-achieved reaching only 16.  It was a worldwide hit topping charts in Australia and Canada.  What really works for me is the easing in of each vocalist to do their bit together with great adlibs and an ear-worm of a chorus and Stevie’s harmonica stopping it all from getting too sweet.
dionne14 

Apart from the aforementioned “Love Power” this saw the end of Dionne’s pop hit singles but her reputation as a song stylist can be heard in a trio of sixties tracks, a solo version of a song better known as a duet , Marvin and Tammi’s “You’re All I Need To Get By”, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feelin’” and the Broadway standard “Who Can I Turn To” which Dionne recorded in 1965.  She does a very good version of Luther Vandross’ “So Amazing”.  I’m not so keen on the couple of tracks from her 1990 album “Dionne Warwick Sings Cole Porter” as there’s an emptiness in both “Night And Day” and especially “Begin The Beguine” which certainly are not essential versions of either song (and Dionne can certainly do these tracks- another compilation album of hers I play often a 1998 compilation “Sings The Standards” sees her tackling Porter’s “I Love Paris” alongside Gershwin, Bernstein and Rogers & Hammerstein songs with huge aplomb).

dionne15

 

This leaves just the album closer ,another career highlight and a great way to end this retrospective.  I don’t know what it is about the gentle, yet almost chilling “Theme From The Valley Of The Dolls” which I enjoy so much.  This was a US #2, UK#20 and was taken from the film version of the Jacqueline Susann novel I reviewed recently.  You might expect something glaring and brash to come out of this but this sensitive ballad written by Andre and Dory Previn was chosen to represent the film.  Gladys Knight also does a lovely version of this but I think Dionne’s original has the edge.

dionne16 

These 48 tracks give an excellent picture of the long career of the hard-to-define often under-rated Dionne Warwick.  The Bacharach and David tracks provide examples of the some of the best pop songs ever written, even if Dionne did not have the most successful version and the second CD proved there was more to her than the B&D muse as her quality versions of other songs and collaborations with some of music’s biggest players of the 70’s and 80’s ensured her a continued place in surely even the hardest of  hearts.

Even the wonders of 60’s television choreography cannot kill off Dionne’s seminal hit.  Watch and enjoy (don’t know who the Japanese lady is at the very end!)

And 21 years later

 

The Essential Collection is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.64 and used from £0.01. In the US it can be bought from $14.99 and used from $2.89

 

The Perfect Murder- Peter James (2010) -A Murder They Wrote Review

imagesN8KPZ1YT

peterjames

My second Peter James novel I’ve read this year is a much slighter affair than “Dead Man’s Grip” which will be in contention for my Book of The Year this year.  “The Perfect Murder” takes my tally of James’ novels to eight which eases him into the anchor position of my Top 10 most read authors alongside Martina Cole and John Steinbeck.  This was because I selected “A Quick Read Novel” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge.  This was published for World Book Day in 2010 and can be polished off quite easily in an hour.  The whole Quick Reads enterprise is to tempt people back into reading primarily but it can also provide a cheap, easy read for fans of the author.  Last year I read Minette Walters’ “Chickenfeed” from the same series.  You are not going to get the very best work from an author but hopefully a sampler of what they do in order to tempt you into finding out more.

“The Perfect Murder” is a stand-alone novel set like James’ Roy Grace series in Brighton, although on this occasion it could have been set anywhere.  Victor and Joan Smiley, a rather elderly-seeming pair of forty-somethings are so stuck in the rut of their marriage that the only way out seems to be murder and both are planning to bump the other one off.

Characterisation is broadly drawn yet effective and there are twists to the tale, some of which I didn’t see coming, some I did.  There is a danger when writing these Quick Reads to order that the more limited vocabulary and length these demand can mean that the actual defining style of the author does not come through.  I think this is, to an extent, a valid point in both the James and Walters novellas I’ve read but the Brighton location and very Peter James front cover goes some way to rectifying this.

I know that Peter James has produced at least one collection of short stories and here he displays that he has the knack of conveying a sinister involving tale in a succinct fashion.

threestars

The Perfect Murder was published by Pan Books in 2010.