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Jeremy Walton (Sidmouth, UK)
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The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music
The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music
by Richard Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Golden blue, 19 Mar. 2015
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Richard Williams gives a detailed analysis of the genesis and recording of Kind Of Blue, the 1959 Miles Davis album which has been described as the best-selling, and most popular, jazz record of all time. Those who - like me - have fallen under its spell will find this book fascinating for the new light it sheds on how it came to be made. It's a subject which has already been covered elsewhere in "Kind of Blue": The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece and Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece (which were published within a year of each other at the start of this century), but this book goes further than that.

Specifically, it traces the influence of "Kind Of Blue" on the music that followed it: at first explicitly in the subsequent work of Davis's collaborators (particularly Bill Evans, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley), and then ranging further afield. This latter part of the book - which touches on artists like John Cale, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, James Brown, Duane Allman and others - is the most intriguing, and perhaps open to debate. For example, I've read elsewhere - but not here - that Richard Wright was strongly influenced by this record at the time of the writing of Dark Side of the Moon (most explicitly in the use of a 7#9 chord in "Breathe"). And, at first glance, it can be hard to see what a lengthy discussion of Maureen Tucker's leaden drumming style in the Velvet Underground is doing in the same book as a paragraph pointing out the subtleties of when and why Jimmy Cobb switches from brushes to sticks in "All Blues", but the writer's skill is of such a high standard that the reader is carried along with his argument.

The quality of his writing is demonstrated in many places - my favourite is the description of Coltrane's "gaunt, anthracite tone and his roiling jagged phrases" (p142), which neatly encapsulates his playing style (and when was the last time you came across the word 'roil', anyway?). It's backed up by a judicious use of quotation throughout the book, culminating in Gil Evans talking about the arrangements he was writing in the build-up to Davis's 1957 Birth Of The Cool which I think also describe the "relaxed intensity" of the masterpiece which is Kind Of Blue [p45]:

"Everything was lowered to create a sound, and nothing was to be used to distract from that sound. The sound hung like a cloud..."


Fox - Complete Series [1980] [DVD]
Fox - Complete Series [1980] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Peter Vaughan
Price: £18.00

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Blast from the past, 23 Feb. 2015
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I remember seeing parts of a couple of episodes of this series when it was first broadcast in 1980, and thinking it a compelling story. Later on, I picked up its novelization (issued as a couple of paperbacks) in a second-hand bookshop; memories of reading that made me buy this box set last year. It's a 13-episode saga about the eponymous Fox family living in South London at the end of the 1970's, highlighting the relationship between a redoubtable father and five sons who are all very different from each other. I've seen it referred to elsewhere as "The Godfather of Clapham", which is understandable when you consider the strength of the characters, the realistic portrayal of tensions within the family and the added dash of criminality in their backgrounds.

Although the story is indeed gripping, watching it after all these years shows it hasn't dated well in its production. It seems to come from a time when TV producers were trying to break away from using studio sets for interiors, switching to location shooting throughout. It's a laudable attempt, but doesn't look good here - mainly because of the way the interior scenes are lit. Parts of rooms (and of some of the characters) are invariably in shadow, while the actors often appear to be squinting because of the brightness of the lights.

These glitches, coupled with a surprising degree of woodenness in the acting of some very emotional scenes, interfere with today's enjoyment of what would otherwise be a classic piece of TV. On the other hand, the breadth and depth of the cast provide the viewer with some surprising opportunities to spot those members who would find fame in other roles in later years - specifically, Theoden from The Lord of the Rings, Eileen from Jam and Jerusalem, Gal from Sexy Beast, Mr Carson from Downton Abbey, Mick from Gavin And Stacey and Bill Nighy from just about everywhere.


Life After Life
Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.19

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Here we go again, 23 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Life After Life (Paperback)
Kate Atkinson tells the life story of Ursula Todd: born in 1910, growing up in the family home in the country outside London, and living through the Blitz. Or does she? The conceit of this story is that Ursula is continually being returned to the day of her birth, whilst other episodes in her life are repeated as alternative scenarios are explored. Some of these scenarios (including her births) end in her death, and the reader develops a feeling that the author is still experimenting with her character. Thus, if one course of action doesn't turn out so well, she simply moves her onto a neighbouring track which runs alongside the original trajectory for a short time, but then diverges wildly owing to a seemingly inconsequential action or meeting.

You would have thought that this peep behind the scenes at the mechanism of how a narrative is constructed would confuse the reader, or make them lose interest in the character - thus, if we know that the author's going to give her life an explicit nudge onto a different path, or rewind things back to give her another chance, why should we care so much about her? It's a tribute to the strength of Atkinson's storytelling ability that this isn't the case: I found several episodes in this book emotionally gripping - in particular, those which appeared to illustrate the capriciousness of fate as Ursula is cruelly used by a couple of peripheral characters, one of which shockingly turns out to be another fabricator of alternative personal experiences. And the gradual emergence of the idea that Ursula is becoming aware of the previous wrong turns which earlier versions of her life have taken - and tries to act on them - is intelligently achieved.

I enjoyed reading this cleverly-written book, although my attention was diverted in one or two places by what I thought was the grammatically incorrect choice of a comma to conjoin two sentences - e.g. "Her French pronunciation was spot-on, how odd, Ursula thought." [p487]. But, leaving aside such niggles, a stimulating and engrossing reading experience.


Becoming Almost Famous: My Back Pages in Music, Writing and Life
Becoming Almost Famous: My Back Pages in Music, Writing and Life
by Ben Fong-Torres
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.95

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Like a Rolling Stone?, 10 Feb. 2015
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I was vaguely aware of Ben Fong-Torres for some time as a writer for Rolling Stone, but he leapt into focus after being featured in Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's excellent film about the US music scene in the early 70's (which is also autobiographical: Crowe began his career as a - startlingly young - writer for the magazine, and Fong-Torres was his editor). This collection of his pieces was released in the wake of that movie (and contains a brief account of what it was like to see an actor portraying him in the story), following on from Not Fade Away, his first anthology. I haven't read that but, based on my experience of this collection, I'm sure it won't be long before I do.

The author has an easy, unforced style which is showcased nicely by this collection of thoughtful and engaging stories. Beginning with a classic interview with CSNY in 1969, there are pieces on Al Green, Paul McCartney, Lou Reed and Michael Nesmith, amongst others. The second part of the book sees the author branching out from Rolling Stone into more mainstream media such as GQ and the San Francisco Chronicle; this diversification is reflected in some more personal topics which includes a moving account of a trip he took back to rural China to visit his extended family for the first time, and a description of the life and death of his elder brother. None of the articles here are very long, but they've all been so skilfully honed by the master journalist that is their author you get the picture immediately. Recommended.


The Equalizer [DVD] [2014]
The Equalizer [DVD] [2014]
Dvd ~ Denzel Washington
Offered by Champion Toys
Price: £3.66

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars DIY hard, 4 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Equalizer [DVD] [2014] (DVD)
Actor Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua belatedly follow up Training Day, their 2001 collaboration, with this thriller. I found Washington compulsively watchable in the earlier film, and it's the same here. He plays a quiet, solitary clerk in a DIY store who spends his nights in a diner reading classic works of world literature and dispensing gnomic advice to a teenage prostitute, until Something Bad happens to her and he's forced to reveal his secret identity as a super-spy ninja assassin.

The scene in which this happens - when he's compelled to hand out some rough (if not fatal) justice to a roomful of Russian baddies on account of What They Did - would come as a shock if it hadn't been heavily featured in the film's trailer, thereby blowing his cover before the movie starts. Be that as it may, I found myself re-viewing this part several times (usually in slow motion) to fully appreciate the dispassionate way in which Denzel dispatches the bad guys with an attention to detail that sees him making use of improvised weapons around the room and moving with an almost balletic grace.

Of course, they're soon replaced with an even badder guy (scenery-chewingly played here by Martin Csokas), who eventually gets what's coming to him in an still more elaborate and satisfying fashion, during which the excellent background music throbs threateningly, Denzel signals uncontrollable depths of emotion by frowning slightly, and the camera zooms in for an arty close-up of droplets of water slowly trickling down his handsome face. Overall, a preposterous and yet compelling tale, made cool by its star. File under guilty pleasures.


Steppenwolf (Essential Penguin)
Steppenwolf (Essential Penguin)
by Hermann Hesse
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Born to be wild, 14 Jan. 2015
Like, I guess, many others, this book makes me think first of the band (whose 1967 hit single I've pinched for the title of this review), but it's worth paying attention to in its own right. I first came across a reference to it many years ago in The Outsider, Colin Wilson's compelling exploration of alienation and existentialism. It inspired me to read a couple of Hesse's other works (most notably Siddhartha), but hadn't got round to this one till I picked up a copy in a second-hand shop last month.

It's a story about a middle-aged man who feels so cut off from the world of everyday people that he imagines himself divided in two: a civilized man who loves order, cleanliness, poetry and music, and a savage wolf-like being who loves darkness, lawlessness and wildness. The implications of this division, the associated internal conflict, and his spiritual crisis are worked out as he moves (or is moved) through scenes that are increasingly vivid and bizarre. Along the way, the story touches on aspects of music, war, sex and drugs (which made this a popular read for the sixties counter-culture). There are also intriguing references to future technologies and communication (this book was published in 1927), for example [p123]:

"The discovery would be made - and perhaps very soon - that there were floating round us not only the pictures and events of the transient present in the same way that music from Paris or Berlin was now heard in Frankfurt or Zurich, but that all that happened in the past could be registered and brought back likewise. [...] And all this, I said, just as today was the case with the beginning of radio, would be of no more service to man than as an escape from himself and his true aims, and a means of surrounding himself with an ever closer mesh of distractions and useless activities."

Ignoring the pessimism of this prediction about distractions, its sense of wonder at the possibilities enabled by technology struck a chord with me, partly because of its echoes in the previous book I'd read: William Gibson's Distrust that Particular Flavor - in particular, his piece "Dead Man Sings", which expresses his amazement at how we can access so much of past culture.

I enjoyed reading this phantasmagorical tale. Although my attention wandered in parts (for example, during the theoretical discourse on divided personalities), I was always compelled to see what was going to happen next, and to reflect on its psychoanalytic message. The dream-like quality of the story might not be to everyone's taste, but I found it a rewarding reading experience.


Distrust that Particular Flavor
Distrust that Particular Flavor
by William Gibson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Distrust of dystopia, 5 Jan. 2015
Gibson's fiction - for example, the classic Neuromancer - provides a clever, challenging and imaginative view of the world's future which is usually, but not always, dystopic. Here, he collects together several short pieces of non-fiction (together with a contemporary post-script for each one), some of which provide a partial background to how his novels come to be written. Others contain his thoughts and observations about Japan (a location he returns to many times over the course of this collection, since, "[i]f you believe, as I do, that all cultural change is essentially technology-driven, you pay attention to Japan" [p157]), Singapore (memorably described here as "Disneyland with the Death Penalty"), Steely Dan, film and the internet.

I found his pieces about this final topic to be the most interesting, since a number date from very close to (or perhaps just before) the explosion of that technology into general use. Presumably, he's included them here to indicate a degree of justification for his standard appellation of "visionary"; on this evidence, it's pretty good - for example, back in 1989, he predicted the erosion of the distinction between family media appliances (TV, CD player, computer,...), and in 2000, he views our interactions with the net as communications with a global computer. However, I found other items - such as the one about Skip Spence's jeans - to be more throwaway, and the overall length of the book (which - as has been pointed out by others - contains some degree of padding in the form of blank pages and a generous line-spacing) to be unsatisfactory, particularly when compared to - for example - Some Remarks, Neal Stephenson's recent collection, which appears to be aimed at the same market.

Perhaps the book is ultimately a good illustration of Gibson's preference for fiction-writing, which he in fact refers to several times throughout the comments on these pieces. There are some nice insights in here, but I could have done with more of them, I think.


How to Be a Husband
How to Be a Husband
by Tim Dowling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The mystery of marriage, 23 Dec. 2014
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This review is from: How to Be a Husband (Paperback)
I first came across Tim Dowling as the author of a hilarious piece describing how he came to join a "middle-aged man band" (the difference between which and a boy band being that "the biggest technical hitches come when no one remembers to bring reading glasses"). His wife was mentioned in passing as being openly alarmed that he might have been having a midlife crisis. In this book, she moves to centre stage as Dowling tries to describe what he's learnt about being a husband and father.

His tone is relentlessly self-deprecating (chapter 4, for example, is called "How to be wrong"), which probably isn't a bad thing when you're trying to deal with the give and take of a relationship, even if it's exaggerated for comic effect. For example, that chapter opens: "Take a moment to cast your eyes around my domain: this blasted promontory, wracked by foul winds, devoid of life, of cheer, of comfort. This is my special place - my fortress of solitude. I've been coming here on and off for the last twenty years. Welcome, my friend, to the moral high ground. [...] It's like a VIP room for idiots." [p57]. His ability to slip jokes like that in under the radar can cause the unsuspecting reader to suddenly snort with laughter. Here's another example [p82]:

"I hate having dinner parties," says my wife.
"You're not supposed to say that while everyone's still here," I say, indicating our guests.

In between the laughs however, there's some serious stuff about commitment, complements (and compliments), and the changing role of men in society (Dowling and his wife have three sons). It's not intended to be a how-to guide, but I learned a lot from it - perhaps you will too.


The Beginning of Spring
The Beginning of Spring
by Penelope Fitzgerald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Changing times, 15 Dec. 2014
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I first read about Penelope Fitzgerald in an essay by Julian Barnes (in his Through the Window collection), and, selecting more or less at random from her books, bought this novel for my daughter last Christmas. It's the odd tale of Frank Reid, an Englishman adrift in the rapidly changing setting of pre-revolutionary Moscow. As the story opens, Frank's wife has just run away without explanation, leaving him to look after their three children, and he's obliged to try and re-construct his relationships with his servants, colleagues, the expatriate community and various acquaintances. This is achieved (if that's the right word) with characteristically Russian misunderstandings, muddles and confusion - particularly when Frank's colleague inserts a young girl from the country (ostensibly to look after the children) into the household. It's a short book and an easy read, partly because of the deftly gentle touch of the author, her exactly visual description of a vanished city and time, and the occasional flashes of humour - e.g. "Frank had a room in a boarding house where the landlady, probably unintentionally, as it seemed to him, was gradually starving him to death" [p28].

And yet, I kept thinking of Sebastian Faulks' description of her novels as like being taken for a ride in a car whose structure and fittings all fill you with confidence, until someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window. There are lots of subtleties in the story which closely engage the reader's attention as they travel around Moscow with Frank and take part in his encounters with characters having a varying degree of trustworthiness. By the time you reach the end of the journey, you're not quite sure where you've been or how you ended up here, but you're sure it's been a worthwhile experience.


Bathed In Lightning: Bonus Chapters and Appendices: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond
Bathed In Lightning: Bonus Chapters and Appendices: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond
Price: £3.46

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Echoes from then, 28 Nov. 2014
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This ebook complements the print edition of Bathed in Lightning by collecting together supplementary material which would have made the physical version too big or expensive. The electronic version of Bathed In Lightning contains the text of the print edition followed by this supplementary material, so the present item is only of interest to people like me, who've already purchased the physical version and want more of this stimulating story.

It consists of four chapters relating to McLaughlin's pre-1969 work in London, three chapters which describe in detail the journey of the second and third incarnations of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and handy reference material for completists which includes a detailed discography and chronicle of gigs played. It's a mixed bag (whose contents could probably be read in more or less any order), but it does contain some extremely interesting stuff such as detailed accounts of the recording of the three albums from the latter part of the Mahavishnu Orchestra's life: Apocalypse, Visions Of The Emerald Beyond and Inner Worlds.

I enjoyed reading it, although I'd characterize it as even more specialized than the physical book, and I don't think you could really read this without having read that first.


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