Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Time to Reflect

Fate has a funny way of intervening just when you’d thought you would never find the time to get that second book under way.

One of my most stubborn enthusiasms has long been working out at the gym. Not that I was ever some Herculean, muscle-bound type but rather, at the age of 56, I simply refuse to grow old any faster than is absolutely necessary. I push a fair weight for an old fellow if I must say so myself and nowhere is this more true when I’m doing legs, which have always been my particular strong point.

I say always, because that rapidly changed the Wednesday before last when my right foot inexplicably slipped off the plate just as I was in the middle of my third set of calf extensions, the resultant sudden trauma to my left leg leaving me with a ruptured Achilles tendon and the prospect of spending the next five weeks in a hospital cast boot which, most irritatingly of all, I must wear even in bed.


Many things that I had intended to do must now fall by the wayside. My expedition to Snowdon, planned for two weeks’ time, is still to go ahead but if I even go near the mountain it will be with a view to catching the passenger train up to the top, and then back again to the bottom. And whilst the need to earn a living dictates that I still find myself struggling up to London on my crutches two to three times each week, most of the other things I’d planned to do which cannot be done from a horizontal position have been shelved.

So it’s on with my second book, which I’d hoped would be on its way to the publisher by now but which is alas still in the very formative stages.

I can’t give much away, but there won’t be much to compare with The Best Year Of Our Lives. It’s of an entirely different format and genre, and much less exciting but is one which nevertheless has to be written before I can hope to progress with my new-found vocation. More on this anon.

Monday, 19 March 2018

The Best Year Of Our Lives: The Characters - Alison Summerfield

Alison has been described as "sweet", and she is, but she is not by any stretch of the imagination a shrinking violet. Yet her friendship with Debbie Stone, whose boldness is striking, coupled with the fact that she is one of the youngest members of the gang, a year Debbie's junior, inevitably creates a suggestion of such a contrast.

I decided not to "partner" Alison with any of her male counterparts, because there was no partnership to be had. Colin is with Beverley, Paul is by some distance too old, Jim is also too old and in any event goes out with Debbie, and Steve just isn't serious enough to have made for a convincing match with her. Alison is pretty, endearing and smart - she will find love, just not in this particular tale.


As the story develops and Alison and Debbie to a degree find themselves on opposite sides of the nebulous bridge between childhood and adolescence, it was inevitable that they would drift apart, not necessarily in terms of their friendship but in their interests and associations. That is why as Tina wanders inexorably into Debbie's orbit, so Alison identifies more closely with Beverley before introducing an entirely new acquaintance, Jackie, late into the story.

Alison and Jackie would have been an interesting pairing for any sequel, or indeed had the best year of their lives gone on to become two. Alas it wasn't to be, but more than one reader has pointed out to me how Alison grew on them, considerably, at the second reading. I don't wish to sound boastful, but that was precisely the intention.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Otherwise Perfect by Jenna L. Hughes - Review

Otherwise Perfect by Jenna L. Hughes, a Review by Phil Andrews, Author of The Best Year Of Our Lives

Written in diary format, this story is unusual in that the narrative flits between two friends as the chapters alternate, charting a period of their lives and the relationship that they have with one another.

It is often difficult when compiling a review to know how much of the plot to reveal. Too much and the story is spoiled, too little and the interest to the potential reader is negated.

But I will do my best. Jesse and Wes are two pals from a college in the US. Wes is in a relationship with a female student whilst Jesse is gay. The latter's parents are Christians, and in his father's case at least of that variety of Christian which regards being gay as a sin to the point of justifying his rejection not just of Jesse's lifestyle but indeed of Jesse himself. Unsurprisingly under the circumstances he and his father become estranged, so much so that in conversation Jesse addresses him by his forename, Patrick, rather than by any name which might suggest kinship let alone affection.


By the time we get to the meat of the story the already fractious relationship between father and son has been placed under a level of strain which Jesse struggles deeply to cope with, and the book revolves itself around his attempts to deal with the situation with the help of Wes and the wider circle in which both men move. This process is further complicated at times both by Jesse's emotional attachment to his best friend, and by the consequent reactions of Wes' girlfriend.

Any further detail would, I fear, lead me across the line that I have drawn between review and revelation. The special appeal of this book, for me, rests both in the untypical construction and presentation of unfolding events, allowing us the unique perspective of seeing them through two pairs of eyes, and the obvious empathy with which it deals with its subject. Reasonably the story could have ended in either of two ways, and the author teasingly retains our interest to the last by leaving it pretty much to the end before relieving us of our suspense.

Otherwise Perfect is a wonderful read, which kept me involved and immersed despite the fact that it isn't really of my niche. That in itself recommends it.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

An Evening With Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti

Mick Woody Woodmansey The Best Year Of Our Lives Phil Andrews

On Friday evening just gone I was lucky enough to have been given a ticket to see two men who, together but in their slightly different ways, played a major role in defining that decade of explosive creativity and unsurpassed musical innovation that was the 1970s.

Tony Visconti and Mick "Woody" Woodmansey worked with David Bowie on some of his earliest albums, the former as producer and (pre-Ziggy) bassist, as well as also producing much of his later material of course, the latter as drummer with The Spiders From Mars (and, alongside Visconti, with its predecessor The Hype). As I commented in my review of Woodmansey's book Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie, this early but thoroughly essential period of Bowie's long career was the closest, Tin Machine excepted, that Bowie's stage identity ever came to being submerged within that of a band. Whilst Bowie delivered a catalogue of ground-breaking and definitive material post-Spiders, such was the impression that this particular band made on the music of its time that it deserves to be considered in its own right, as a stand-alone chapter in the universal rock'n'roll story.


Held at the producer's own Visconti Studio on the grounds of Kingston University in South-West London (or Surrey for the traditionalists), this ninety-minute event focussed on two aspects of the work in which both men have collaborated, the album The Man Who Sold The World - released in the US towards the end of 1970 and in the UK in April 1971 - and the supergroup Holy Holy in which they both perform Bowie's music to impressively large audiences today. Visconti of course has been involved in more than just his work with Bowie, having produced material for T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, Morrissey, U2 - but even amongst that esteemed company his association with Bowie stands aloof.

The Man Who Sold The World David Bowie The Best Year Of Our Lives Phil AndrewsI ventured into the studio while most of the audience were still enjoying a beer or a glass of wine in the foyer (I'd brought my car, alas) and was chuffed to discover that I had been allocated a seat directly behind the front row. Before me was an unelaborate black settee and a large screen, a little to the right of which I could faintly see Visconti and Woodmansey, amid a small gathering of their closest, through a tinted window. Although predominantly (and reassuringly) the larger number amongst the audience were from roughly my own age group, it was noticeable that there was a not insignificant sprinkling of younger people too.

And then, when the time arrived, they came on, settling down on the settee as Leah, the young lady who facilitated the event, took up her place on an adjacent chair and ensured that the microphones were in position for the ensuing presentation. Leah introduced a slightly unusual adaptation of Memory Of A Free Festival which featured some intriguingly assertive instrumentation which didn't appear on the version that eventually made it onto Space Oddity.


Probably the longest part of the evening took us on a fascinating voyage through the various stages and processes which went into the production of this iconic album, which in places was so diagnostic and analytical that it left me feeling that I had never actually listened to it, despite my having heard it so many thousands of times. It is a mark of quality in any art medium that hitherto undiscovered nuances suggest themselves with every new visitation, no matter how broadly familiar one is with the overall work.

In its time The Man Who Sold The World represented an interesting foray into the realm of hard rock after the relatively folksy and ever-so-slightly psychedelic approach of its predecessor. By his own account this was very much in Woodmansey's comfort zone, and yet Bowie returned to his softer, folkish approach for his next work Hunky Dory, before drawing upon both influences for the band's concept album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, which very successfully fused the two. Perhaps surprisingly, Bowie and the band never toured The Man Who Sold The World. In retrospect it would have been interesting to know how it, and they, would have been received had they done so.


The second part of the presentation was concerned with Holy Holy, the supergroup which dedicates itself to keeping the early work alive and which, alongside Visconti and Woodmansey, is fronted by Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 and has featured such names as Marc Almond (Soft Cell), Gary Kemp and Steve Norman (Spandau Ballet), Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols) and Clem Burke (Blondie).

Having seen Holy Holy live, playing before packed houses, I know not just how relevant, but how important, their work is. Performing the classics from Bowie's early-seventies albums (and pretty much every track on every album is a classic), this impressive array of seasoned and dedicated musicians, in the midst of them two men who were seminal in the creation of those classics, ensure the music and the spirit that it invoked will never be allowed to die even though the man who was at the centre of it all sadly has.

Mick Woody Woodmansey Phil Andrews Tony Visconti Holy Holy The Best Year Of Our Lives Interestingly, and significantly, the common misconception that Holy Holy was formed in the aftermath of and as a reaction to Bowie's untimely passing is precisely that. Not only was the group launched some time before that unhappy day, but the man himself actually saw them perform, albeit via video, and was impressed by what he saw and heard. During the last days of his life he is known to have reflected upon how things might have turned out had the Spiders remained together. He certainly wasn't the only one.

Putting the music to one side for a moment, if such a thing were possible given their unique role and place in the history of rock music, Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey are an enjoyable, natural double act which is very easy to watch and to become immersed in. Visconti is modest, occasionally self-deprecating - and funny. Woodmansey is very Yorkshire, seldom modest - and hilarious. Between them they create an atmosphere and an ambience which I am sure would be enjoyed even by an audience which had no knowledge of their immense contribution to music.


After the talk I joined a very long queue, autobiographies of both men in hand, for a book signing. It was well worth the wait just to shake the hands of and exchange a few words with both, to thank them for the memories and for the work which they continue to do. They were both kind enough to sign not only their own books, but also a copy of my own novel The Best Year Of Our Lives, which of course has a 1970s theme and references Bowie and his music quite frequently. They even agreed to pose for a photo with me with their books, between which I, admittedly quite cheekily, inserted my own - as if there was any equivalence!

Well, if you don't ask…

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Best Year Of Our Lives: The Characters - Debbie Stone

Debbie is Paul's only realistic challenger for the leadership of the gang. Although younger than himself, Jim and Tina the power of her personality and the extent of her self-belief lead her inevitably to test Paul's resolve, and to probe his weaknesses. And despite the fact that he wins on those occasions when they do go head to head, he never quite manages to put her back in her box.

I worked hard on developing the contrast between Debbie and her best friend Alison, because they are not entirely opposites. Alison is not altogether retiring, simply less outward than her slightly older friend. The challenge throughout The Best Year Of Our Lives was to make them the same, but to such a varying degree that they were at the same time different.


Debbie is Jim's girlfriend, and though unlike Paul and Tina they are unambiguously joined I felt the need to overshadow them as the senior "item" within the group by the implied, almost-relationship of their respective elders. And yet when Debbie and Tina get together, it is the former who if anyone is in charge.

In a story which centres around the ego of one individual it is not easy to create and develop another leader, someone who is subordinate to the lead character yet at the same time so obviously free-spirited and instinctively dominant. Only by her being two years his junior could I manage to perfect the hierarchical balance.

I think that casting Debbie was my most challenging assignment, aside of course from Paul himself. The fact that my daughter captured her to a tee with her cover artwork before she had even read the book tells me, I think, that I managed to pitch her as I had intended.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Unjustly Accused by Susan L. Stewart - Review

Unjustly Accused Susan L. Stewart Review by Phil Andrews The Best Year Of Our Lives

Unconnected though it pretty much is from the theme or genre of my own work, I undertook to review Unjustly Accused for the benefit of a fellow author, and I'm really glad that I did.

This isn't the type of book that I would read ordinarily, but once I had got going I found myself impatient to learn what was going to happen next, and I was somewhat reluctant to put it down. Which, I guess, is the measure of a good story which is well written and presented.

Beyond a brief introductory piece by the author, Unjustly Accused is a story narrated in the first person by Corey, the lead character, who is one of two friends from the United States who visit the Dominican Republic for a break and end up undergoing an adventure of a kind they hadn't bargained for, being banged up for a crime of which they were entirely innocent and facing the daunting prospect of a trial which could result in them spending three years or more languishing in a seedy Central American jail.


As if this wasn't bad enough, their anxiety is made worse by the very serious shortcomings of the Dominican legal system. After having eventually been told of the allegations made against them they might have had cause to hope that the apparent inability of the prosecution to agree on where they had been arrested, by whom, and why would lead to a less than robust case against them when the time came for them to appear in court. Sadly their initial optimism took no heed of the possibility that their translator might not be able to speak or understand proper English, or of the fact that their lawyers might actually want them to remain locked up in order that they may extract more money from them.

All the time that this is happening Corey is having to constantly mitigate the words and actions of his un-streetwise friend Jeff who continually threatens to land them in even deeper trouble with his loose talk and general lack of nous. Unsurprisingly his moods swing as a result between depression, resilience and a grim resignation to his unfortunate predicament.


Quite aside from the injustice of their arrest and incarceration, the two friends have to deal with the ongoing demands upon them to pay their way inside, as it would seem that in the Dominican prison system there is paid-for time and another kind of time which one is compelled to do if one is unable to pay, which doesn't sound too appealing to say the least.

I enjoyed this book very much, it retained my interest throughout and always left me eager to take in one more chapter before resting it down. As a UK reader I felt like I could hear the American twang in Corey's voice as it called out from some of the terminology used and the attitude that it displayed. I'll not spoil the story by revealing its ending, but I will say that it had me captivated to the last.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Best Year Of Our Lives: The Characters - Colin Gray

Colin is the younger of two brothers within the gang. In actual fact he has another brother, Jason, who is three years his junior and who makes a brief appearance early into the story, but he is too young to have been a part of the experience and thus doesn't really feature.

But Colin is not just one of the founder members of the gang. He is quite central to the story if one looks at the gang as a fishing net, with its interwoven cords, rather than as a spider's web with all threads leading to and from the epicentre. In The Best Year Of Our Lives Colin is a boyfriend to Beverley and a brother to Jim, with whom he is fiercely competitive for Paul's respect, and indeed for the respect of others.

He is one of the four members of the eight who begin the story as first-years at their respective primary schools, but he is tall and strong and looks older than his eleven years. He lacks Jim's maturity but they are close enough to be competitive.

Loyalty is Colin's watchword - to Paul, to the eight, and in a sometimes less than obvious way to his big brother also. Most of all he is loyal to Beverley, which at their tender ages is no small achievement. Paul at one point in the story finds himself reflecting upon what might make two kids of their tender vintage an item as opposed to just friends, but whatever it is Colin and Beverley have it and retain it (more or less) throughout.