Bootlesquith Manor, NaNoWriMo, and Ambivalence

Well, it’s been a busy couple of weeks here at, um… well, I feel like I should call my office Bootlesquith Manor or something now. Anyway, it’s been a busy time, getting a new ebook ready and published and starting to make people aware of it…

Yes, the project formerly known as Bootlesquith Manor is now available, under its proper title, The Ballad of Matthew Smith. This was my 2012 NaNoWriMo novel, tidied up over the last year in between other projects and now released into the wild.

This has been a labour of love for me, just something I wrote as a bit of fun, and not a work of world-changing literature, so where possible I’ve made it free – the exception being amazon, where you are invited to report it as cheaper elsewhere – all the links are on the sidebar.

There’s a lot I could have done with the story, a lot of ideas that got cut, including some philosophical meanderings about the nature of the house, Frank and Matthew’s different worldviews, and there was a whole bit about Matthew being his own grandfather that was both fun and brilliant, but never got expanded upon and was completely cut from the published version. Ged Williams’ storyline never really felt complete, and Bryonetta Bootlesquith too is a much better character in my head than she appears in the story. I could, circumstances allowing, build the existing story into a full novel – a Director’s Cut, if you like – and put some of those ideas back in; however, I suspect it will remain as it is, warts and all. Bryonetta, however… she may well find her way into The Ambivalence Chronicles at some stage.

The Ambivalence Chronicles is among those ‘other projects’, a comic fantasy/sci-fi epic I’m planning as 8 short novellas, the first of which I have been promising to release this autumn. Which is to say, now (ish).

And given that it is now November, this leaves me in something of a dilemma: to NaNo, or not to NaNo? Can I possibly come up with 50,000 new words at the same time as getting Ambivalence Bit#1 ebook ready and holding down a day job?

Well, clearly not, and to attempt it would be crazy. So, my NaNo challenge this month is to get Bit#1 ready and released (an interesting challenge in itself, since it doesn’t even have a title at this point!), and – to make it sufficiently challenging – get Bit#2 to a state of completeness so that only final edits are needed prior to release early in 2016.

Looks like a couple more busy weeks then!

Game Review: Back to the Future Part II

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You’ve probably seen Back to the Future mentioned on the internet quite a bit of late, and as I had a few minutes to spare after rewatching Jaws 18 in readiness for the sequel, I fired up my hover-converted Spectrum in an effort to find out who this Scott person is, and what’s so Great about him.
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The Facts

Back to the Future Part II was released by Image Works in 1990 as a tie-in with the movie of the same name; as is the nature of movie tie-in games, it has a somewhat tenuous link to the film. It will work just as well on 48k and 128k machines; but it’s a big game, requiring several multi-loads even on a 128k Spectrum. For this review I have been mostly playing on my 128k Spectrum +2.

The Game


What we have here is effectively five mini-games, ostensibly set in the various time zones used in the film – the present day (1985), the temporal nexus of 1955, and the incredibly futuristic October 2015 – each representing a key scene from the movie.

Level 1 is a hoverboard chase through Hill Valley – and I’m here to tell you that hoverboarding is not as easy as it looks, especially while having a fight with some 21st century goon or trying to avoid Old Biff (who will take you down with that cane of his if you get close enough).

Along the way you can pick up plutonium and other random goodies to replenish some of the energy you lose trying to fight off Griff and his minions. It’s kind of a variation on the Paperboy theme, only with a hoverboard instead of a BMX, and punching bad guys instead of delivering papers. And you thought Back to the Future was a wholesome family movie!

It’s a single long level but with a few save points along the way, so after a bit of practice you reach the courthouse, get Griff arrested, save Marty Junior and move on to level two…
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Which I found immensely confusing; in theory it’s a puzzle game based (loosely) on some kind of automatic door system the film-makers think homes might have in 2015. You have to figure out how to open these doors in combination in order to lead Jennifer safely out of the house without meeting her future family, all the while battling the colour clash which makes it nigh on impossible to even see the characters at times, never mind figuring out which is which. Colourful, but mind-bending (and not always in a good way)!

Level three sees us safely back in 1985 – but it’s gone wrong! We’re in an alternate timeline where Hill Valley has become the set of a pants beat-‘em-up, and the only way to fix it is to mash keys wildly whenever someone approaches and hope you manage to, well, beat ‘em up.

Seriously, I know Marty never really got violent in the films, but this level could have done with some decent combat moves. On the plus side, the background music is nicely atmospheric, the graphics are nice, and I’m pretty sure I recognised the alternate Strickland, which is impressive. Also, the bad guys’ bullets seem to pass right through Marty, just as if he isn’t there – which he won’t be if he doesn’t get back to 1955 and sort this mess out!

level5Which is of course done by means of a sliding block type puzzle game in level 4. It’s colourful, animated, and accompanied by a jolly little tune that may or may not have been Johnny B. Goode; a good little game if you like that sort of thing, and a break from the action sequences either way.

But level 5 gets straight back into it, with another hoverboard chase through Hill Valley, this time with 1955 style set dressing. And it seems like even more bad guys out to beat you up, which makes the whole thing a little too long and difficult for my liking – I wish I could figure out how to get a tow from a passing car!

Sound & Vision

The artwork throughout is very good, with recognisable landmarks like the Texaco star and Café 80s in level one, the Lyon Estates lyons in level three, and some nice old-timey cars in level five. Scrolling on the hoverboard levels is smooth and features a few nice little animations like Marty’s foot pushing off as he hoverboards along, and the recognisably hunched figure of Old Biff.

The 128k version makes good use of the enhanced sound capabilities, with a rather good rendition of the main theme accompanying level one and a variety of other suitable tunes throughout the game.bttf

Retro Appeal

The game does make some effort to follow the plot of the film – no small feat for the film concerned – which definitely adds to the retro appeal.

Back to the Future Part II is not a bad game overall, if you can get your brain around the puzzle sections. If I had a time machine though, I’d go back and ask them to do something better with alternate 1985 than that awful beat-‘em-up level…

Another month passes…

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…and another month with no updates here. But! I have been working even harder at finally getting Bootlesquith Manor out of the door. So hard, in fact, that I decided it was time to give it its official title and artwork.

Yes, that is a rather primitive cover knocked up on canva, but it actually does the job surprisingly well. You can find out more about The Ballad of Matthew Smith at stevetrower.co.uk.

Also happening recently:

Editing.

It has been a month heavy in edits: the final final touches to The Ballad of Matthew Smith are almost done of course, and Bit #1 of The Ambivalence Chronicles will be following soon after.

Planning.

NaNoWriMo is on my mind, naturally; I’m thinking I’ll enter, but whether I win or not will largely depend on how well the final edit of Ambivalence #1 goes. On the plus side that’s a much shorter work than Matthew Smith, but getting it out during November (which is my self-imposed deadline) will still be a challenge! My NaNo project may well end up being a ramshackle collection of shorter works, possibly including later Ambivalence stories, the children’s story inspired by my daughter, and some science-fictiony stories I’ve had rattling around in my brain for ages.

Website updates.

I’ve had stevetrower.co.uk for ages, but it’s been pretty much dormant since I moved the blog and everything else over here. But given that both The Ballad of Matthew Smith and The Ambivalence Chronicles are heavily influenced by my own particular breed of British humour, I thought a .uk domain would suit them. And so that’s where they are, primarily. There have been (and will continue to be) a few minor changes here to accommodate those works and other behind the scenes tweaks.

Coming soon…

The Ballad of Matthew Smith will be released on all ebook platforms by the end of October – a firm release date will be announced as soon as I’ve got all the files ready and checked over. Bit#1 of The Ambivalence Chronicles will be available during November – again, firm release dates to follow. And whatever comes from NaNo, will come from NaNo.

Obviously, with all this going on, expect blogging to be sporadic, although it is my plan to post roughly weekly updates during November.

But you know what they, the best laid plans of mice…

Re-Dwarf: Terrorform

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Red Dwarf V has some great comedy and some great sci-fi – sometimes both in the same episode. Terrorform, though, doesn’t really deliver.

It’s a half-decent concept – Rimmer and Kryten crash land on a psi-moon which then proceeds to mould itself around Rimmer’s mind – and there are a few amusing lines in there along the way (mainly, of course, at Rimmer’s expense) but for me the whole thing plays out as more of a fantasy tale than a sci-fi one. But then again, if that kind of science-light approach to sci-fi works for Doctor Who, why not for Red Dwarf?

So putting that objection aside… well, I still didn’t like it that much. Krytens system messages in the opening scenes are quite fun – words like ‘magenta’ and ‘taupe’ have probably not been used to such good effect before or since – but after that it was missing something, at least for my taste. Or maybe it just doesn’t stand up well alongside the rest of the series.

Anyway… Due to an inadequately explained but convenient side effect of the psi-moon, Rimmer has a physical presence on the moon – as do various aspects of his personality. Most of the good aspects, however, exist only in a graveyard, having been slain early in life by the dominant inner demon: self-loathing. An it is this monster of self-loathing that wants to kepp Rimmer in prison and do unspeakable unpleasantness to him, and from which the boys much rescue Rimmer and escape.

Annoyingly, Starbug has got stuck in the undergrowth near the Swamp of Despair (which sounds like something out of Pilgrim’s Progress), and the only way they can get enough lift to escape is my some completely over the top male bonding and getting into ‘kind of a four-way hug situation’in order to make Rimmer feel better about himself, thus weakening self-loathing monster’s grip. And then all his good traits rise from the grave dressed as the Lilac Musketeers and save the day, which is all rather silly really.

Come quickly, I think I’ve found a metaphor!

In defence of the story, it is an interesting and sometimes fun way of exploring the psyche of one of the characters, and in particular the very personal hell he creates for himself. I haven’t had time to compare Rimmer’s psi-moon to any kind of Biblical representation of Hell, but I think being left alone with nothing but your worst character traits for (presumably) a near infinite period of time would draw parallels somewhere. Even if not it could be quite an interesting compare & contrast (if you happen to be interested in that sort of thing, anyway).

There’s certainly a parallel to be drawn from the idea that all Rimmer needed to do in order to escape this version of hell was to believe that somebody loved him.

And I think that is a suitably positive note on which to close for now – but please, if anyone has thoughts on how the psi-moon compares to Hell (or anything else about the episode), do leave a comment!

 



This month, I have been mostly…

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…working on Bootlesquith Manor, actually. And it’s now so desperately close to finished that I’m going to keep this short. So here’s a quick summary of what’s been going on and what you can expect to hear from me soon:

Writing.

Nothing really new, although I have had a couple of reviews over at Indie Retro News recently (Splat! and Penetrator, for those who may be interested).
 

Editing.

Bootlesquith Manor has been undergoing various levels of re-writing and editing for at least six months, but a real concerted effort (and actually finding a creative groove that works for me) over the last month have got it pretty close to finished; I am saying with some confidence that it will be released this month – watch this space!
 

Planning.

The ongoing Ambivalence Chronicles, are still in mind, of course, but it is also fast approaching November. Current thinking is that I’ll be writing a children’s book for NaNoWriMo – partly for and inspired by my then-to-be-ten-year-old daughter. Should be interesting anyway…
 

Coming soon…

First, Bootlesquith Manor – or the story which will continue to go by that alias until I’m sure it’s ready for release into the wild. The plan is to follow it pretty quickly (before or during NaNoWriMo) with Bit#1 of The Ambivalence Chronicles. And I’ll be announcing a freebie soon for signing up to my mailing list, so go ahead and hit the button now if you want to be somewhere near the front of the queue for that.
 
And you may have noticed that in order to fit all this in, I’ve slowed down to blogging once a week (plus once a month or so at Indie Retro News and Christian Geek Central). I decided it was best to find a routine I can actually keep up with, so I can keep some fresh content coming out here without taking up too much of my book-producing time.
 
So, until next week…

Book Review: The Long War by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

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So here we are, a generation after the literally world-changing events of The Long Earth, and the human race has spread throughout the many and not-always-that-varied worlds opened up by the invention of the Stepper.

And for reasons more to do with continuity than plot, Joshua Valiente and the now multiverse-spanning artificial intelligence known as Lobsang are once again embarking on a jolly. Which is all well and good; as a continuation and expansion of the world-building masterclass that was The Long Earth, it works perfectly well.

The problem is, I’m not sure that’s really what the franchise needed at this point; it certainly isn’t what the title leads us to expect – and therein hangs the source of my uncertainty about this book. It’s not that it’s a bad book as such; it’s just… somewhat disappointing on a number of levels.

To start with the elephant in the room: There. Is. No. War.

There are rumours of war, some sort of Long Earth Cold War, maybe, but… no. The title just doesn’t reflect the content of the story, and maybe that just set me up to be disappointed by the book as a whole.

I said in my review of The Long Earth that both Pratchett and Baxter have written stuff that I didn’t much care for, as well as stuff I’ve absolutely loved; and as if to prove that point, they join forces and put out a mediocre sequel to their first collaboration. There just isn’t enough depth to this beyond the world-building, which is a shame.

There were some nice ideas – like how those in power want to exert their control over a group of ex-pats a million worlds away based on something as arbitrary as geography – that didn’t quite get explored deeply enough; and there were other things, like the Chinese expedition to East five squillion or something, that filled pages without really adding to what plot there was.

Given that this is not the last book in the series, I remain hopeful that volume three will live up to its potential and redeem the series for me.

So, I liked it, but it doesn’t add enough to the first book for me to give it a resounding thumbs up – at least, not yet. It was just good enough for me to go on to book three, The Long Mars, and see if the wider story can live up to its potential – but if nobody goes to Mars, we’re through.



Re-Dwarf: The Inquisitor

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Get ready for more wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, as the boys from the Dwarf are about to encounter The Inquisitor… a creature of myth, known only to Kryten as a dark fable, a simulant who outlasts time, and having discovered that there is no God, takes it upon himself to go back and prune away the wasters, expunge the wretched and delete the worthless. So our heroes are in deep smeg when the Inquisitor turns up, briefly possesses Lister in order to announce himself in the voice of Zuul from out of Ghostbusters, and sets up his court on board Red Dwarf.

It’s a fun little episode that threatens the status quo, really raising the stakes for at least half the team; it helps that the story plays with time to good effect, and I’m a big fan of stories that do that. And at the same time, it throws up a lot of philosophical questions – not least of which is ‘what is the purpose of existence?’

The first thing that strikes me about the Inquisitor is that he’s just like Douglas Adams’ Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged but with a bigger chip on his shoulder.

The first thing of any consequence that strikes me about this episode is that the authors have very definitely set out the theology of Red Dwarf: there isn’t one, because there is no God, there is only justice as meted out by the Inquisitor. It even appears that Kryten has lost his belief in Silicon Heaven during this episode.

Nonetheless, I’m going to go right ahead and find some theology in this episode, because, well, with its themes of judgment and a Godless universe, it’s pretty hard not to. So here goes…

After millions of years alone, he finally reaches the conclusion that there is no god, no afterlife, and the only purpose of existence is to lead a worthwhile life.

Rimmer is first to face the Inquisition, having already been reduced to a blubbering wreck by Kryten’s helpful insistence that the object was to lead a worthwhile life; and the first to discover that you cannot lie to the Inquisitor – because you cannot lie to yourself.

Putting aside the argument that we are, in fact, quite capable of lying to ourselves on some level (most often about what constitutes a worthwhile life), I wonder if Rimmer was justified in complaining that no-one ever told him that it didn’t matter that he wasn’t a great philanthropist, he simply had to make a contribution, no matter how small.

Well – SPOILER ALERT! – apparently, because of his own low standards, Rimmer was judged to have done the best he could, therefore earning the right to live. I’m sure that should say something about our shallow and self-serving culture.

The Cat, on the other hand, is convinced he has lived a worthwhile life just by virtue of being so gorgeous. The fact that he – SPOILERS! – also gets let off the hook makes me wonder about this Inquisitor’s morals – but then I remember that they judged themselves, and no matter how much we’ve squandered our lives, somehow we can always justify it, by our own screwed up values at least.

Lister, on the other hand, knows there’s more to life, we’ve seen him being the philosopher of the crew in many previous episodes; he could be more than a space bum, and he knows it – but he’s lazy, and that’s what get’s him in trouble in the end.

But where it gets really interesting is with Kryten:

INQUISITOR KRYTEN: Well, Kryten? Justify yourself.
KRYTEN: I’m not sure I can.
INQUISITOR KRYTEN: But surely your life is replete with good works? There can be few individuals who have lived a more selfless life.
KRYTEN: But I am programmed to live unselfishly. And therefore, any good works I do come not out of fine motives, but as a result of a series of binary commands I am compelled to obey.
INQUISITOR KRYTEN: Well, then, how can any mechanical justify himself?
KRYTEN: Perhaps only if he attempted to break his programming and conduct his life according to a set of values he arrived at independently.
INQUISITOR KRYTEN: Your argument invites deletion.
KRYTEN: The rules are yours, not mine.

Taking Kryten’s character arc as a whole I think there could be some holes made in this argument, but rather than debate that, let’s just look at that conversation. If Kryten is selfless by programming only, his good works don’t count. But if he were to break that programming and make his own choices, based on his own values… he would have to justify himself. And as we see with poor Krytie, that’s easier said than done.

The_Inquisitor_(Red_Dwarf)It’s a sermon staple that God could have programmed humans to be selfless and serve Him/each other unquestioningly, but he chose instead to give us free will, so that our good works would be by choice and not some binary compulsion. Because of that, we will also one day have to justify ourselves – again, easier said than done.

So what’s the answer?

Well, in the Red Dwarf universe, we would stand before the Inquisitor, and see not him, but ourselves.

In a universe where the God of the Bible is real and is the ultimate judge of all, when we stand before Him and He lifts his visor, we will not see ourselves; but God might. If we accept that Christ is real, God – the Judge – will lift his visor and see not us, but His own Son.

OK, I know that metaphor needs some work, but the point is this: you don’t have to be a Saint, you don’t have to be anything special – just grab what God gives you, don’t be lazy with it, and if Judgment Day comes, well, you can’t say nobody told you…

 



When inanimate objects have birthdays…

a4000I didn’t mention it at the time, but last week (July 23rd, I believe) marked the 30th anniversary of the Amiga computer system. And as I was driving home from the celebrations last weekend in my classic Mini, it occurred to me that were a lot of similarities between the two – the Mini and the Amiga.

Not least of which was the fact that I had just attended a birthday party for the Amiga; an inanimate object, a tool or a toy, depending on your wishes, which had just had a birthday party – and has other parties planned around the world to mark this anniversary. Which is clearly a ridiculous thing to do – I haven’t even had a birthday party since I was in single figures!

mini30Way back in 1959, the original Mini broke all the rules of car design to create something new and different. No-one had seen anything like it at the time, but the new ideas it brought – like turning the engine sideways to drive the front wheels directly – quickly caught on and have been used throughout the industry in later years. Perhaps the full colour graphical user interfaces and multitasking abilities we take for granted on our modern PCs would be a digital analogue.

Workbench 1.0The Mini was designed to meet a specific brief, on a limited budget, in limited time; it was intended to be cheap to build, cheap to buy, and cheap to run. A runaround for the District Nurse. And had it been any other car, that’s what it would have stayed. But the Mini was not just a car. It did appeal to the District Nurse, but it also appealed to the Beatles and Steve McQueen. It appealed to Formula One team boss John Cooper – and I’m sure most of us know how that turned out.

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The Mini was still in production on its 30th birthday, but was already a cult classic, a car that brought people together like almost no other car. Own a Mini, you are automatically part of the club, part of this massive global community. During the car’s production run it struggled through crappy management decisions, numerous buyouts, and a lack of development (which in the Mini’s case ultimately added to its appeal), and eventually lived well beyond its expected sell-by date, even outliving its proposed replacement, before finally dying along with its parent company.

And much of that last paragraph was echoed on Sunday, by people speaking about the Amiga. At its peak it was about the people, the community. As it struggled on, it’s fans still loved it, and kept it alive as long as possible. And we still love it, the way we could never love a Windoze box or an iPhone. Or a Ford Focus for that matter.

x1000_systemWhat was also said on Sunday, is that the Amiga is still alive. The AmigaOS has been quietly advancing over the years, and new hardware is still in development to run it. You can, in effect, buy a new Amiga – just as you can buy a new MINI.

The new MINI didn’t revolutionise like the original, but it successfully built on what had gone before and went after those who had once enjoyed the Mini experience, but left it for something rather more… modern. The new MINI was much more expensive than its predecessor, but it was also much more up to date, while retaining just enough common ground to attract the nostalgic.

And I think that part of what A-EON’s Trevor Dickinson said on Sunday – about tapping into the latent love for the old Amiga that must still exist out there, and finding that audience for their new models – reflects the same approach. They may not be able to revolutionise like the original Amiga did – after all, there’s only so many times you can turn an engine sideways – but offer enough of the original in a more modern form, and who knows…

Unfortunately Trevor probably doesn’t have BMW’s marketing budget to play with, but hey, the principle is sound.

Sure, in comparison to a PC an AmigaONE seems ridiculously expensive and horribly impractical – a lot like the Mini I bought from the showroom in 1998. And just like that Mini, it’s sure to be a lot more fun than the alternative.

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Camp NaNoWriMo wrap

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It will probably come as no surprise to anyone who has been following my ramblings of late, that once again I have taken the Douglas Adams approach to CampNaNo’s deadline, and decided just to sit back and enjoy it wooshing by.

No, I have not finished Bootlesquith Manor. No, I have not reached my arbitrary target of 20,000 edited words during the month. Yes, I do still intend to have this thing ready by the end of summer. Yes, I am probably kidding myself.

In all seriousness though, some good has come of all this. I’ve got the first few chapters pretty roundly edited. I’m sure there will be at least one more round of edits as I get deeper into the story and find stuff I should have been foreshadowing and whatnot, but that can wait.

I’ve reached around 10,000 edited words; by a rough chapter count that should put the finished article at about 60k – quite a bit longer than I had anticipated, but no real surprise considering it started out as a NaNoWriMo project anyway. Although, the whole section where the protagonist turns out to be his own grandfather, while mildly amusing, doesn’t fit in with anything else and is going to be among the next darlings I humanely put out of their misery.

I’ve also got a vague marketing plan for this and The Ambivalence Chronicles – although, with Bit#1 queueing up for editing time behind Bootlesquith Manor, there is clearly more to be done before that becomes relevant. The plan, big as it is, is to have Bootlesquith and Bit#1 hitting the kindles before NaNo. Well, you have to have these lofty goals, right?

Oh, and a whole different potential book/series idea hit me just last night; one which may take less time to put out on kindle, but which can’t really be prioritised yet.

So that’s how Camp NaNo turned out for me… for now, it’s back to finishing Bootlesquith Manor – snippets will continue to be posted occasionally on twitter and my facebook page; and of course don’t forget to hit the sign-up page if you want release news for Bootlesquith Manor, The Ambivalence Chronicles and whatever other crazy ideas I come up with as it happens.

Tuesday Tunes: Muswell Hillbillies by The Kinks

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Time for a musical detour into the wonderful world according to Ray Davies again – and this time, as the title might suggest, we’re taking a British view of all things American.

Muswell Hillbillies was the Kinks’ first album for their new label, RCA, and marked a bit of a change in direction – from being a popular chart-topping band to being a bit rubbish. While that might be true as far as sales of singles is concerned, musically they still had plenty to offer, as the eclectic mix of styles offered here shows.

The album opens with a rant against the modern age, 20th Century Man, the only real rock number on the album, which then departs into music hall numbers Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues and Holiday and the more country tinged numbers like Complicated Life and closing number Muswell Hillbilly.

Along the way, Ray’s lyrics are on top form, running from the depressing monotony of working class life in Oklahoma USA, to the jaunty and jokey Have A Cuppa Tea, and name dropping mashed potato in Skin and Bone along the way.

muswell_hill_mapOverall, Muswell Hillbillies is a musically eclectic ode to working class life, and the impending rise of suburbia which Muswell Hill represents.

Stand-out tracks: Oklahoma USA and 20th Century Man represent the two extremes of the album’s style, but Have A Cuppa Tea should be the English National Anthem, and is reason enough for this CD to be in any English/Anglophile/tea lover’s music collection.

Listen along

Get a copy

Linky goodness

The Kinks Official Website
Ray Davies’ website
Dave Davies’ website
KindaKinks.net