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Sid Nuncius (London)
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Schoendorff: Complete Works by Cinquecento (2011-05-10)
Schoendorff: Complete Works by Cinquecento (2011-05-10)

5.0 out of 5 stars Another cracker from Cinquecento, 30 Mar. 2017
This is another absolutely cracking disc from Cinquecento - their sixth, in each of which they have sought to record some of the less well-known works of the Renaissance repertoire. They continue to show here that there remains a huge untapped well of first-rate music from Renaissance Europe. Schoendorff was a musician in the Hapsburg court in Prague from about 1590 until his death roughly 30 years later. Of his work, only two mass settings, a Magnificat and two motets survive, all of which are recorded here. Schoendorff was a student and protégé of Philippe de Monte and the two mass settings here are based on motets by de Monte, both of which are also recorded here, and a de Monte Magnificat setting completes a very rewarding programme. It is all very fine music, beautifully sung.

Cinquecento are, as always, excellent. Countertenors take the top lines, making the pitch lower and the sound rich and resonant. They are technically superb with impeccable intonation, a lovely blend and a very direct engagement with the text, highlighted by having one voice to a part which to me brings a real personal immediacy to what they are singing. The acoustic is ideally resonant without blurring the parts and Hyperion's recorded sound captures it perfectly.

With excellent notes and very attractive presentation, this is an excellent disc all round and on a par with Cinquecento's superlative discs of Regnart Regnart: Missa Super Oeniades Nymphae, Vaet Vaet: Missa Ego Flos Campi, and Willaert Willaert: Missa Mente Tota (Missa Mente Tota/ Motets) - three of my personal favourites. Very warmly recommended.


Where She Went
Where She Went
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoable read, 30 Mar. 2017
This review is from: Where She Went (Kindle Edition)
This is a decent psychological thriller and I enjoyed most of it.

The story is narrated by Melanie Black. Within the first few pages it emerges that she is dead. She comes to in a strange house to find that she is a "g-word" (this is rather amusingly handled). The story of how she came to die, and why she has ended up in this house with this family emerges skilfully and it's a well told tale. Melanie was a broadcast journalist when alive, which is the author's profession, too, and there are a lot of shrewd, often quite scathing comments and interludes about TV news. B.E. Jones creates pretty believable characters, I liked the Swansea setting (although we don't get all that much of it) and it's an enjoyable read.

I have to say that it got a bit silly. The character back-stories were OK for a while, but lost some credibility as more things emerged. Nonetheless, I found this a well written and pretty engaging, if disposable read and I can recommend it.

(I received an ARC via Netgalley.)


The Gustav Sonata
The Gustav Sonata
Price: £4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book, 29 Mar. 2017
This review is from: The Gustav Sonata (Kindle Edition)
I thought The Gustav Sonata was excellent. It is extremely well written and quietly but penetratingly perceptive about a lot of aspects of life and relationships.

The story is of Gustav Perle, who is born in wartime Switzerland. We get three separate time periods: when he is a young boy growing up, the years before his birth when his parents met and began their life together, and the 1990s as things play out in late middle age. In fact, there's not much action, but a lot happens, as Gustav befriends Anton, a Jewish boy of his own age whose family, in contrast to his own are well off, and who is encourage to become a professional pianist by his parents. The meat of the book is an examination of the relationships between parents and children, how even small acts of selfishness or of nobility can have profound, lasting consequences, the nature if fulfilment and so on.

It all sounds rather hard going, but I found it griping and very easy reading. Rose Tremain has a fine, subtle psychological grasp of how character may be formed, which is refreshingly far removed from the current lazy fad for "serial-killer's-motivation-explained-by-childhood-abuse." Here we have clear-eyed views of how poverty, love or the lack of it, misguided parental pressure and so on may affect people, and there are a lot of other very powerful insights.

The prose is excellent. It is clear and straightforward, but has real power in its apparent simplicity. In the first section, Gustav's childhood outlook is brilliantly evoked in short, simple, almost childlike sentences, for example. It felt fresh and drew me in very effectively. I also liked the subtle, unshowy way that the injunction to Gustav to "master yourself" and show no emotion is mirrored in Switzerland's coldly brutal refusal to admit Jews who are then condemned to die by the Nazis. It's all done without fuss or melodrama and is all the more effective for it.

This is a book which, in my view, lives up to its hype, I found it readable, touching and rather haunting, and I can recommend it very warmly.

(I received an ARC via Netgalley.)


By Maylis De Kerangal ; Maylis De Kerangal ; Sam Taylor ( Author ) [ Heart By Feb-2016 Hardcover
By Maylis De Kerangal ; Maylis De Kerangal ; Sam Taylor ( Author ) [ Heart By Feb-2016 Hardcover
by Maylis De Kerangal ; Maylis De Kerangal ; Sam Taylor
Edition: Hardcover

2.0 out of 5 stars Not for me, 28 Mar. 2017
This is a brilliant idea for a novel and the author shows real insight and intelligence in dealing with a complex, highly emotional subject but in the end I found that the excessive "style" completely drowned out the quality of the insight. Ludicrously long sentences and the persistent and sometimes simply incorrect use of obscure vocabulary meant that I was forever aware of how show-offy the writing was, which too often prevented me getting involved with what the writing was about.

Maylis de Kerangal examines the death of a young man and the subsequent transplantation of his heart by telling the story over a 24-hour period of the various people involved. She is very keen to give us rounded portraits of real characters, which is commendable and which she does by giving us some of the minutiae of their everyday lives. However, it's terribly overdone; for example, as the story of the death and subsequent transplant begins she introduces us to a nurse thus:
"…if he had looked more closely he would have seen that there was something a little odd about her, eyes clear but marks on her neck, swollen lips, knots in her hair, bruises on her knees, he might wonder where this floating smile came from, the Mona Lisa smile that doesn't leave even when she leans over patients to clean their eyes and mouths, inserts breathing tubes, checks vital signs, administers treatments, and maybe if he did he would be able to guess that she had seen her lover again last night, that he had phoned her after weeks of silence, the dog, and that she showed up on an empty stomach, beauteous, decorated like a reliquary, lids smoky, hair shining, breasts warm…"
And so on and so on. There's no trace of a full stop for another entire page and to me it all seemed excessive and, just as they're preparing to treat a critically injured young man, very out of place. That gargantuan sentence also eventually ends up telling us that as a result of all this she is "someone he would be able to rely on," which seems a very questionable and peculiarly French idea of a guarantee of reliability to me. (Mind you, de Kerangal does give this nurse the sublime name of Cordelia Owl, for which I can forgive her a great deal.) Lots of characters get this sort of treatment, and it really does get a bit much.

As another example, the moment when the doctor breaks the news to the mother of her son's death could have been excellent and full of genuine human insight and compassion, but again was spoiled by overblown language and nonsense like the mother wishing for an "acidulous happy ending," and a little later going past a waiting room containing magazines with "mature women smiling from the covers, with healthy teeth, shining hair, toned perineums..." I was so startled that had to check that perineum meant what I thought it meant - which seems to be more than the author or translator did. It does, and frankly, that really isn't the sort of magazine cover I'd expect to find in a hospital waiting room. Somewhere under all this I suspect that there is an evocative and compassionate portrait of a mind struggling with the shock of sudden grief, but I only got an occasional fleeting glimpse of it among all the I'm-so-clever writing.

I also found the style intruding in plenty of other places, like the surgeon who loves the pattern of his shifts because of (among a long, florid list of other things) "…their alveolar intensity, their specific temporality…" Er…what? And "alveolar"? Come on! Neither the phonetic nor the anatomical meaning makes any sense here, and this is far from the only example of adjectives and adverbs thrown in for no discernible reason which are recondite, arcane and abstruse. (See? We can all do it, you know.) Early on, two doctors speak to each other in medical shorthand which de Kerang describes as a language which (among a long, florid list of other things) "banishes the verbose as a waste of time." It's a phrase of which I was forcibly reminded more than once while reading this book, I can tell you.

At one point, a doctor enters and walks across the lobby of the hospital, which is described like this: "…Thomas knows this lobby with its oceanic dimensions by heart, this emptiness that he must cleave in one shot, drawing a diagonal across the space to reach the stairway…" He's just arriving at the front door and walking to the stairs, for heaven's sake! With absolutely everything presented with this pitch of ridiculously over-written intensity, the scenes and episodes which should have been really affecting lost almost all their power.

I'm sorry to go on so much (although this review is probably still shorter than some of de Kerangal's sentences) and to sound so critical, but this should have been a really fine novel, and for me it was destroyed by self-conscious literary tricksiness. (And if I'd read the Translator's Note first, I might well not have bothered at all.) I think this is a terrible shame; I was very disappointed and in some places made very cross by this book. I can't recommend it.


Classic Piedmont Blues From Smithsonian
Classic Piedmont Blues From Smithsonian
Price: £14.36

5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant compilation, 27 Mar. 2017
Needless to say, this is excellent. It's another in a virually flawless series by Smithsonian Folkways, this time of blues from Piedmont, the foothills of the Appalachians. It's a wonderful, varied tradition with some very well known exponents like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Doc Watson, but even the obscure stuff here is quite brilliant. This is knowledgeably chosen, well recorded and hugely enjoyable; no one who is interested in the blues or in superb acoustic guitar playing could possibly be disappointed in this compilation.

As there is no track list on the product page (yet) I have added the list below.

1 Truckin' Little Baby - John Jackson
2 Maime - John Cephas / Phil Wiggins
3 Hey Bartender, There's a Big bug in My Beer - Eddie Pennington / Warner Williams
4 Confusion - Brownie McGhee / Sonny Terry
5 T.B. Blues - Josh White
6 If I Could Holler Like a Mountain Jack - Baby Tate
7 Clog Dance - Hobart Smith
8 Daisy - Brownie McGhee
9 Going Down the Road Feeling Bad - Elizabeth Cotten
10 I Got a Woman 'Cross Town - Pink Anderson
11 Red River Blues - John Jackson
12 I Ain't Gonna Pick No More Cotton - Jay Summerour / Warner Williams
13 Sweet Woman - Brownie McGhee / Sonny Terry
14 The Train That Carried My Girl From Town - Doc Watson
15 Mountain Jack - Blind Gary Davis
16 Crow Jane - John Cephas / Phil Wiggins
17 Fore Day Creep - Brownie McGhee
18 Sittin' on Top of the World - Roscoe Holcomb
19 Meet Me in the Bottom - Pink Anderson
20 Dirty Mistreater - J.C. Burris / Brownie McGhee / Sonny Terry
21 The Road Is Rough and Rocky - Archie Edwards


Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy (2014-06-19)
Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy (2014-06-19)

3.0 out of 5 stars Good in parts..., 27 Mar. 2017
This book has some good things about it, but as a whole novel I found it unsatisfactory. Kate Clanchy is a fine poet and a very good writer of short stories but this, her first full-length novel, isn't of the same quality.

It is a character-driven story set in 1989, the tale of a very bright, but unworldly 17-year-old from a small run-down Scottish town who comes to Hampstead after taking his Higher Exams to care for an ageing, once-lionised playwright who has had a major stroke. There isn't a lot of plot per se, but there's plenty of interplay between the characters as changed circumstances and the outsider in their midst cause them all to interact, change and mature. Clanchy writes well in a gently ironic tone, she sets the period convincingly and she is extremely deft at conjuring characters and attitudes in a few telling phrases - an essential attribute for a poet and short-story-writer, of course.

I like a good novel of character. I was in something of a minority in thinking that Sadie Jones's The Unexpected Guests and Mark Haddon's The Red House were both excellent. Here, however, Clanchy gives us some pretty crude stereotypes, almost all thoroughly self-centred and self-regarding: the obnoxious, fading Literary Figure; his once-beautiful, grasping, property developer wife; the shallow, arrogant son at Oxford with theatrical pretensions; the intellectual who lives for a few months in a small working-class town and then smugly tells its people and the rest of the world what is wrong with them...and so on. It all felt very tired, and I really am not sure we need yet another novel satirizing the Hampstead literati.

The book did have its memorable flashes of insight, like the nice man who, "when he's being nice, he's always in there thinking how nice he's being," for example. For me, though, there's not enough to sustain a whole book and the ending where everyone learns their little Life Lesson felt false and saccharine. I'm afraid I can only give this a very qualified recommendation.


WRITER LP (VINYL ALBUM) UK A&M 1970
WRITER LP (VINYL ALBUM) UK A&M 1970

5.0 out of 5 stars Still a cracking album, 26 Mar. 2017
This is Carole King's first album from 1970 and to me it still sounds just great. It's not the towering classic which Tapestry was to become the following year, but Carole King has always written great songs and performed them really well. That's certainly true here.

This is a fine collection. All these songs show King's magnificent melodic gift and her wonderful ability to set her melodies with intelligent, often beautiful harmonies and arrangements. Gerry Goffin wrote the lyrics, of course, and by 1970 the two of them had been writing superb songs for others for many years. Up On The Roof, for example, had been a hit for the Drifters in 1962 and is still a classic song; King closes this album with her own, excellent version of it. Goin' Back has been a standard of the repertoire since Dusty Springfield recorded it 1966 and the version here is terrific, I think. There's not a duff track on the whole album and some are simply brilliant.

Carole King is in excellent voice throughout this album and her piano playing is terrific. Any two seconds of the album would be instantly recognisable as Carole King and probably recognisable as coming from around 1970, too. That makes it just fine with me; it's a cracking collection of fine songs by one of the greatest of singer songwriters and I can recommend this very warmly.


How the Hell Did This Happen?: The US Election of 2016
How the Hell Did This Happen?: The US Election of 2016
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Funny and insightful, 25 Mar. 2017
This is a collection, with minor subsequent editing, of some of P.J. O'Rourke's journalism and speeches on the 2016 US Presidential election…which pretty much tells you all you need to know. My politics are most certainly not the same as his, but I always find him both amusing and thought-provoking (and occasionally just provoking). This is, as usual, full of wit, bile and genuine erudition, and if you like O'Rourke's work, you'll like this.

There are, of course, plenty of laughs. He hasn't lost his ability to come up with a scathing one-liner or a crushing put-down. A couple of examples I liked are:
"…a progressive Republican. This is a creature something like the pshumi-pullyu in the Dr. Dolittle stories but with two butt ends." Or the (in context) slightly self-mocking "To me, most popular music sounds like angry potty mouths falling down a flight of stairs while carrying a drum set." He excoriates pretty well all the candidates, because he thinks that they are a bunch hopelessly unfitted for the office of President, but deluded enough to think they have what it takes. He is merciless on both Trump and Clinton – but does manage to be very graceful about both Ben Carson (Republican candidate) and Joe Biden (Democrat who didn't stand), which I found very refreshing.

It's not all brilliant; it gets a bit repetitive at times, and there are some longish passges which didn't do much for me (like an extended riff on the wives of past Presidents), but this is an amusing and insightful read which I can recommend.


Voyageurs
Voyageurs
Price: £5.90

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, 23 Mar. 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Voyageurs (Kindle Edition)
I thought Voyageurs was excellent. I tried it on the recommendation of a friend and I'm very glad I did: it was involving, fascinating, extremely well written and completely gripping.

Set in 1811, the story is narrated by Mark Greenhow, a Quaker farmer in Cumberland whose sister travels to Canada and goes missing in the Canadian wilderness. Mark travels after her to try to find her, following the fur-trading routes in canoes paddled by the voyageurs of the title. It is a long, hard but fascinating journey; Margaret Elphinstone paints a remarkably vivid and superbly researched picture of life at the time, with wars, political chicanery, the lives of the native tribes and the perils of frontier life. She also brings us very believable characters and some exciting adventures, and makes subtle but important points about family ties, friendship, integrity and much else.

It is beautifully written. I found Marks' voice utterly convincing and a pleasure to read. It's a very rich book, but one of the things I loved was the way Mark struggled with his feelings and the strict Quaker rules he has always lived by, and how he manages to adapt and sometimes "fall" while never losing his fundamental integrity and principles – and how his reputation as an honest, principled man can sometimes protect him where the threat of violence would not.

I found this gripping, touching and full of thoughtful, readable stuff. Very warmly recommended.


The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend (Penguin Classics) by Peter Ackroyd (2011-06-02)
The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend (Penguin Classics) by Peter Ackroyd (2011-06-02)
by Peter Ackroyd
Edition: Paperback

2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 22 Mar. 2017
I have been an enthusiast for the Arthurian legends ever since reading Roger Lancelyn Green as a child, and I have enjoyed many of Peter Ackroyd's previous books so was looking forward to this very much. Sadly it was a considerable disappointment. It is an abridgement and "translation" of Malory's Morte d'Arthur, but I am afraid that it doesn't really capture Malory's spirit, nor the high, myth-like drama of the tales of magic and flawed heroes.

Ackroyd's prose is generally very flat which robs these odd stories of their magical air, so that much of the book seems like a series of rather similar vignettes involving knights jousting, enchantments and deceptions, ladies whose virtue is in peril and so on. The Quest for the Grail and the Death of Arthur do work better, but still failed to grip or involve me in any way. Part of the problem is a noticeable inconsistency in language - a real surprise from such an accomplished writer as Peter Ackroyd. For example, in the same paragraph at the start of the Quest for the Grail we get Arthur saying in a flat modern vernacular "...you have come close to killing me by making that vow..." and then "Why should I not grieve?" - two wholly different styles. A few pages later Galahad says "I await your return with interest," which sounds more like the close of a modern business letter than a knight talking to a loved friend who is going to mortal peril. I'm afraid it just didn't work for me.

I am sorry to be so critical of a book I expected to like very much, but it's not a patch on Malory's original. This will do as a serviceable summary of Malory for reference, but for a really involving (if eccentric and personal) re-working of the Arthurian legends, I'd recommend T.H. White's fabulous The Once And Future King.


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