Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: August 2011 (page 1 of 3)

A Hollywood Musical Interlude

Hooray for Hollywood at the Proms with the John Wilson Orchestra

I was lucky enough to manage to get tickets for my Dad & I for what will be the musical event of the year for me –  to see the wonderful John Wilson Orchestra playing music from the golden age of Hollywood musicals.

This is Wilson’s third annual visit to the proms with his invitation orchestra and singers.  In 2009 they gave us an evening totally devoted to the MGM musicals – the scores of which Wilson and his team had had to re-create – the originals were lost.  Last year, they played Rodgers & Hammerstein. This year we got a grand tour of fifty years of Hollywood musicals with a brilliant array of songs from all the other major musical producers.

Wilson’s orchestra is something else! His handpicked orchestra produce a sound that is truly amazing.  The strings are so lush, the brass have a fantastic timbre, there’s a huge percussion section, a big band rhythm section, two pianos and two harps!  All this goes to make a truly authentic Hollywood sound and they are also the tightest orchestra I’ve seen. What’s more, all the players are really enjoying playing the music – even when they’re chugging away in the background accompanying the others.  They’re augmented by a small choir, the Maida Vale singers, who also sounded lovely.

Then there are the soloists – drawn from the world of Big bands, West End & Broadway musicals, and opera.  All were matched up with songs that showcased their own styles, and all were brilliant in their own ways.

The highlight for me was Broadway star Caroline O’Connor, who was in the Sondheim prom last summer. She sang Judy Garland’s The Man Who Got Away amongst other songs. During the encores, she did a near perfect Ethel Merman impression in There’s no business like showbusiness which brought the house down to end the show on a real high.  The jazz singer Claire Teal did a lovely job of Doris Day’s love song from Calamity Jane, Secret Love, she sounded rather like k d lang .  Lyric tenor Charles Castronovo charmed the whole house with Serenade from The Student Prince (1954).  The lighter songs were mostly sung by Matthew Ford, (new to me, but has sung with the Syd Lawrence orchestra for some time).  He had a lovely softer voice with a lot of humour, and dared to take on Dick van Dyke’s mockney accent in the one Disney song in the mix – Funny Holiday from Mary Poppins. Then there were the two sopranos, Sara Fox trilled the high notes in a Deanna Durbin number, and Annalene Beechey sang the lighter fare. Some of the men from the chorus also got little cameos and they ably stepped up to the mark too.

All in all it was a magical evening. John Wilson is a both a genial conductor, and a musical genius for recreating all the lost scores, and I cannot overstress how brilliant this orchestra is – if only my shaky flashless photo taken on my phone was so good! Our seats were great – in a box on the Grand Tier halfway down the side – we had a wonderful view.

The good news is that the concert will be broadcast on the BBC on Saturday 3rd of September.  I am so looking forward to seeing it all again from a different angle.

The other good news is that the CD+DVD of the first MGM musicals concert is now out too – click for a link to Amazon UK: That’s Entertainment: A Celebration of the MGM Film Musical.  The orchestra is also on tour in major UK cities at the end of November (click here for dates and more info).

… and finally, reading the programme, I saw that Wilson and his orchestra recorded the soundtrack for Kevin Spacey’s biopic of Bobby Darin – Beyond the Sea [DVD]. I thought this was a brilliant film, and Spacey sang all Darin’s songs with aplomb too!

I do hope he’ll do another show next year!

Generations of mothers and daughters

A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

This short novel by the fine Irish writer Roddy Doyle is written for teens, but I thoroughly enjoyed it on an adult level too…

Mary O’Hara is twelve. She’s feisty and rather cheeky – but then her Mum Scarlett was too when she was younger; it’s a family trait. Mary’s gran, Emer used to be like that too, but she’s nearing the end of her life in hospital, it won’t be long. Emer never really knew her mother, for Tansey died of the flu when she was only three.

One day as Mary is walking home from school, she meets a friendly old lady, who somehow seems familiar. They strike up a conversation, and the old lady is there again the next day. She says her name is Tansey. When Mary tells her Mum this, she’s shocked to the bone as the only Tansey she knows is her dead grandmother.

Mary introduces them, and finds out that Tansey is the ghost of her late great-grandmother who has come to help her gran in her last days. Together the O’Hara women hatch a plan to help Tansey and Emer meet properly before she dies, and to see what has become of the farm they grew up in.

Considering that death is one of the central themes of this novel, whether it be the impending demise of Emer, the sudden illness of Tansey, or the animals on the farm, there’s nothing shocking or unnatural about it at all, it’s part of the cycle of life. This allows the book to concentrate almost exclusively on the four women. The few male characters just pass through now and then, rarely stopping to join in the tale, like Mary’s teenaged brothers who only appear to eat; Mary finds Dommo and Killer, as Dominic and Kevin now monnicker themselves to be an alien species these days.

Doyle alternates voices between conventional story-telling and chapters narrated by one of the four women, starting with Mary. You can see their family resemblances clearly – not just in the way they look – for the O’Hara women are tall and slim like the greyhounds they kept on the farm, but also their inner strength, and cheeky forthright manners.  This allows for some typically humorous conversations between them, which gives a lovely bittersweet edge to this tale; not out and out funny like Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy (in which The Van just cracked me up), but it will make you smile, and that’s a good thing for a book about dying written for teenagers to do. (8.5/10)

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My copy was an ARC received through Amazon Vine.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle, pub 1.9.2011 by Marion Lloyd Books, 176 pages.
Also by Roddy Doyle: the Barrytown Trilogy: “The Commitments”, “The Snapper” and “The Van”

Paving the way for the bonkbuster …

Valley of the Dolls (Virago Modern Classics) by Jacqueline Susann

Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 novel was hugely influential; it paved the way for Jackie Collins and all the other bonkbusters that followed. I’d been wanting to reach this book for ages, but knew nothing about its plot. I imagined that with that iconic cover (left) of a pair of luscious lips biting a pill, (even though my own copy is the rather lovely Barbara Hulanicki designed Virago hardback, right), it would be one long tale of bored women looking for love, and hooked on uppers and downers…

Well I was completely wrong. VotD is the perhaps more the spiritual heir of Peyton Place (reviewed here), relocated to the big smoke, than the Desperate Housewives of its day. I was pleasantly surprised by this, and also that its timeline starts so early.

The book opens just after the end of WWII. Anne Welles arrives in a sweltering New York City from New England looking for a job and a place to live. She’s young and beautiful, and everything falls into place for her. Within days she’s found a room, a job she loves at a theatrical agent, made a new friend in Neely the girl next door, and met Allen – a nice guy who takes her out.

Everything’s going so well for Anne – then someone turns up to throw a spanner in the works – Lyon Burke. Agency boss Henry’s younger partner returns from the war and Anne is instantly smitten badly. Then Allen proposes, and it turns out he’s a millionaire. They see Burke out one night at a club. He’s escorting a beautiful young woman, Jennifer North – an aspiring model and actress. She’s green with envy – what’s a girl to do?!?

Meanwhile, Anne’s neighbour, Neely has a career of her own to forge. At seventeen, she’s already a vaudeville veteran, and is up for a job in a new musical starring Henry’s long-term client, and former lover, Helen Lawson. Neely is fiercely ambitious and with Anne’s help gets into the musical and launches her career as a star in the making.

So we’ve met the three women, Anne, Neely and Jennifer, whose careers we’ll follow through their ups and downs into the 1960s. There’ll be career successes, meltdowns and comebacks; lovers, marriages, divorces, and kids too. And there will be ‘dolls’ – pills – the little green amphetamines to keep the weight off, and the red ones, initially to sleep – we all know where that goes.

The three girls are all different types. Anne is mostly too good to be true, and having the largest chunk of the novel, can be rather irritating. With stardom, Neely gets too demanding and the pills get to her, but her spirit is indomitable and for all her bad decisions, she’s a survivor. Jennifer, however is the sweetest, all the while just looking for someone to love and love her back. As for the men … I liked Henry very much. He’s the surrogate father figure who has given all to his job, and missed out on love for himself. Lyon is irresistible, but a bastard – I’d have fallen for him too, but ultimately all he’s interested in is himself.

Although this book shocked when it was published with its permissiveness (although probably a true enough reflection of showbiz relationships), reading it now doesn’t shock in the way that Peyton Place did when I read last year did. It was a little long-winded in places, but I did devour it and enjoyed it – an ideal summer read. It also reminds me that I ought to read Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives. (8/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Valley of the Dolls (Virago Modern Classics) by Jacqueline Susann
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins
The Stepford Wives: Introduction by Chuck Palanhiuk by Ira Levin.

Gaskella goes graphic …

When I was a student years ago, I was rather fond of the early Cerebus the Aardvark comics, (swords and sorcery with an cute aardvark hero – yes I know!). After that I didn’t read any comics or graphic novels until 2007 when our Bookgroup read one of the classics of the genre, Watchmen – written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, which combined speculative science fiction with crime-busting superheroes and added a dose of mysticism. I enjoyed it, but couldn’t help wondering if it would have worked just as well as a normal novel; but maybe this was because I didn’t like the drawing of the female characters. When I was offered a copy of another classic graphic novel recently, I felt it would be a good time to read more of this format.

The Crow: Special Edition by James O’Barr

The Crow was first published in 1981, and added to in the following years, but has now been republished complete in a deluxe paperback with some additional artwork and a new introduction by the author. I only had a very vague awareness of the 1994 film starring Brandon Lee (right), who tragically died from an accidental gunshot on set making the film a cult classic – this new edition of the novel is dedicated to him.

The story of the Crow took me completely by surprise. There is a lot of violence, complete with cartoon sound effects, the swoosh of an axe, the boom of a gun, the klik klak tlink of shell casings falling on the floor. Many of the pages are peopled with totally unsavoury types, gang members, small time hoodlums and junkies – all of them are ugly with exaggerated features. This action all takes place at night too, so the backgrounds are all dark and the shadows are long.

The story starts with the Crow, a tall, dark and raincoated punk with spiked up hair, a scarred face and rather distinctive make-up, going out looking for TBird, Funboy, and the rest of the gang. He finds Jones and gives him a message for the others, ‘Tell them I’m coming, Mr Jones.’ There are many more similar scenes as the Crow systematically searches out this gang and deals with them.

But interspersed between these violent chapters is the real heart of the book, and it’s the complete opposite – a romance. Eric and Shelly are young, engaged and completely, head over heels, in love. They’re so in love, they can’t keep their hands off each other – but not just in the bedroom, they kiss and canoodle, hold hands, and are generally soppy about each other all of the time.

Then one day, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time in a broken down car. Along come Tbird and the gang and they end up gruesomely dead.  Eric will come back from the dead as the Crow, to avenge their murders.

This book is intense, and then some. It wasn’t surprising to read that the author created it as an act of personal catharsis after his girlfriend was mown down by a drunk driver. The book is totally seared through with his pain.

The Eric and Shelly sections are drawn in pencil with subtle shading giving a soft focus on the love story, which totally contrasts with the sharp black lines of the inked avenging angel Crow scenes. Every frame was hand-drawn, and the author obviously had some good days and some bad ones, for Eric/The Crow and Shelly do change slightly in appearance, but that doesn’t matter to the story at all. Love struck Eric’s mullet haircut was endlessly fascinating though – I shouldn’t really make fun of such a serious work that was created during a grieving process, but sometimes I needed to lighten up a little reading this book.

Another surprising thing to me was that, due to the necessity of speech and thought bubbles not totally filling up the page, the dialogue has to be economic in words, which gives a prose poem feel to it – as a play script written in free verse even . Indeed, between chapters, O’Barr often gives us poems too – his own, those of his beloved French poets (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine amongst others), and song lyrics from bands like Joy Division. The we add in oodles of symbolism: the Crow itself – the dream catcher of the ancients, plus the white horse, death, angels on tombstones, and the Crow’s habit of posing with arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross.

The whole was intense, gripping and an emotionally draining read. I have no particular desire now to see the film having ‘read’ the book – I feel I’ve ‘seen’ it already. I enjoyed the intensity of the immersive experience that this graphic novel gave me, indeed it temporarily took me out of my cosy comfort zone into O’Barr’s world of pain and despair. If you can stand the strong emotions, I recommend this book highly. (8.5/10)

Is my flirtation with graphic novels done? I don’t think so – I’ll happily read more, but not necessarily ones with such a dark theme. I have Posy Simmond’s so English satire Gemma Bovary in the pile somewhere which would be a total contrast.

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My copy was kindly sent by Simon & Schuster – Gallery Books – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Crow: Special Edition by James O’Barr, published 2011, 272 pages.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Cerebus (Cerebus, Book 1) by Dave Sim
Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds

A renowned children’s author goes mainstream…

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Deanby David Almond

David Almond’s first novel, written for older children, was Skellig (1998). It parallels the stories of two children who find and help an ailing creature who may or may not be an angel, with that of the boy’s little brother who is ill in hospital. It won loads of prizes and has become a staple text of teacher training courses – I read it a few years ago when I was considering applying for a PGCE teaching course. It was a good story, and challenging too in its scope, but it’s true to say that although I enjoyed it a lot, I admired it rather than loved it. When I read that he had written his first novel for adults, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, as I felt it could be equally challenging, which brings me to The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean.

First off, it immediately became clear that this novel was being marketed as a crossover book rather than a purely adult one – the YA cover is on the right. Content-wise there’s moderate swearing and sexual references, and some strong violence.

Secondly, it’s a novel written as a first person account by a teenager who has never learned to read or write as we do – his spelling is largely phonetic. I thought I’d find this irritating but I quickly got used to it and, with practice, Billy’s reading and writing improves over the course of the story. There were a few inconsistencies in the spellings, particularly near the beginning where the phonetic talk is densest but I could ignore that.

The setting is a bombed out village in an unspecified war-torn country, similar to England’s north-east and Scottish borders. The time is now-ish – maybe a few years into the future. Those who remain in the village of Blinkbonny try to carry on life as normal. Veronica Dean is a home hairdresser, much loved by all her clients, but she has a big secret. She has a son – Billy. Billy has been brought up in isolation by her, living only in the back room. The only other people who know of his existence are Mrs Malone who helped to bring him into the world – and his father, who comes to visit now and then. Billy is a good little boy, waiting patiently at home for years while his mother works and looking forward to those visits from his father.

But now he’s a teenager, and it’s time for him emerge from hiding. Mrs Malone has plans for him, for she believes he’s the ‘anjel childe’ as Billy puts it, that he has a gift. Told by Billy, we find out his truths: the story of his childhood, his begetting, why he was hidden, and who his father really is. Once he is introduced to the real world outside his room, we also find out what he makes of it, and it of him. I must admit, it did bug me why Billy’s mother had appeared to teach him nothing during his hidden years in his room – what did the poor boy do all that time? It was amazing that Billy grew up to be such a compliant boy, coming to terms with his eventual freedom rather than running at the first chance, however he will show that he has metal underneath.

Comparisons abound in this novel: Billy is unknowingly imprisoned for his childhood like the boy in Emma O’Donoghue’s Room, however his mother is not incarcerated, she is at least partially free. Billy’s language and coming of age story did bring Russell Hoban’s brilliant Riddley Walker to mind – but that was set millennia ahead, and the language had (d)evolved to reflect the loss of understanding of technology, whereas Billy is just technically illiterate.

The author’s decision to use the phonetic spelling may be off-putting to some readers and maybe wasn’t strictly necessary – Billy could have dictated his story rather than write it down. This also slowed down the action and it didn’t always feel that there was enough to it for me. Although Billy is no angel, they obviously fascinate Almond, and religion – for good or bad – underpinned this novel all the way through which did give a spiritual dimension that was interesting. Ultimately  this novel was another case of an intriguing read, but a book which I didn’t love. (6.5/10)

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My copy was kindly sent by Penguin – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean – pub 1st September by Penguin Viking/Puffin, Hardback, 256pp,
Skellig

The bookish equivalent of shouting at the telly!

The Testament of Jessie Lambby Jane Rogers.

This was one of the few titles on the 2011 Man Booker longlist that excited me from the short descriptions I’d read. I was familiar with Jane Rogers, having read Mr Wroe’s virgins, and Promised Land, some years ago; (she adapted Mr Wroe’s virgins for the BBC in the early 1990s; it starred Jonathan Pryce as the preacher gone mad, and was directed by Danny Boyle).

Her latest novel is one of speculative fiction, set just a few months into the future. Biological terrorists have created and let loose an airborne killer virus that causes what they call ‘Maternal Death Syndrome’ to any pregnant woman. The mother –to-be and her foetus both die shortly after the pregnancy is established. No more babies will lead to the death of mankind within a generation.

Jessie Lamb is nearly sixteen. She’s yet to discover the joys of love. Her Dad is a scientist working on a cure for MDS. Jessie meanwhile, is more concerned about the environment; she’s a teenaged green policeman to her family. She joins a positive action group of other teens with her friend Baz, (whom she’d like to be her boyfriend, but she’s not sure if he feels the same way).

The world is going mad and women are dying. Cults are springing up, gangs too – it’s not safe for young girls to be out on their own in many parts of town. The battle of the sexes has reached new heights. The scientists have come up with schemes to save babies – but at a cost, the mothers still die. Who will be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice? It’s a legal minefield and the protesters are on the case. Jessie is just an ordinary girl. She is conflicted – caught between her lofty ideals, her Dad’s day-job and the stress all this is putting on her parents and friends. What can she do to help?

Usually I don’t have problems suspending my disbelief at speculative fiction. I did this time though. It was fact that the book was set in ‘now + a couple of months’ and in a world which is so manifestly the same as ours. I couldn’t believe that a mega-contagious airborne virus based upon AIDS and CJD that could infect every woman in the world was possible in ‘our world’ – a strong sense of denial kicked in. As the story is narrated by Jessie, we learn virtually nothing about the virus and its effects itself – something I was screaming out for.

Jessie is not an unreliable narrator as such; she’s a typical teenager with teenager’s concerns who is rather blinkered and self-centred, not often seeing the whole picture. Adding a counter point of view from her father or mother may have stopped me getting worked up, but then it wouldn’t have been just Jessie’s testament. Of course, getting readers shouting at the book may have been the author’s plan all along – it certainly kept me reading, as I had to know if Jessie was going to do what I reckoned she would.

Comparisons have been made elsewhere with P D James’s foray into this realm with her novel Children of Men, which I read and enjoyed back when it was first published. It has the advantage of being clearly set in a world which has moved on and as such its central premise is more un-disbelievable (!).

Primarily, it was the ‘nowness’ of The Testament of Jessie Lamb together with the unexplained scenario that made me dislike this book. I have nothing to say about the quality of the writing except that it washed over me completely, I was too busy being cross with the story.

Not a Booker contender in my view, however it is an interesting love-it-hate-it type novel. I’ll enjoy reading your comments about this one … (6/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Testament of Jessie Lamb,
Mr Wroe’s Virgins, Promised Lands – all by Jane Rogers
The Children of Men by P D James

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