I should be so lucky ….

The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind by Dr Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman’s speciality is a fascination with the quirkier side of psychology, (his website and blog are here).  A magician and psychologist based at the University of Hertfordshire, (which is still Hatfield Poly in my mind), he and his team investigate the science behind the paranormal, luck, belief, self-help, deception and much more. He regularly pops up on TV to explain quirky behaviours, and pleasantly and wittily debunks liars and cheats.

In these turbulent days of recession, and all round insecurity, who wouldn’t hope for a bit of luck – winning the Euromillions would do nicely!!!  Few will get that lucky of course – but luck is more than just having pots of money. According to Wiseman, there are lots of little things that we can do to improve our Luck Profile, and from years of research and interviews, he has distilled it down into four principles – which I’ll explain in a mo.  However, one really important thing to realise is that we’re not born lucky – we make our own luck through our mental attitudes and behaviour, and optimism plays a large part in this.

The Luck Factor is not just a popular science book though, it’s also a self-help manual.  After the introduction, the first thing we’re asked to do is to make an initial Luck Profile, grading our responses to a range of questions – from talking to strangers in a queue, to degrees of optimism, and learning from mistakes.  The twelve questions in the Luck Profile between them subdivide into Wiseman’s four principles, and form the bases of the following chapters.  This profile will be referred to throughout the book, and your scores will indicate the main areas you need to work on to improve your luck.  Without further ado, they are:

  1. Maximise your chance opportunities.
  2. Listen to your lucky hunches.
  3. Expect good fortune.
  4. Turn your bad luck into good.

Simples!  However, of course it’s more complex than that, and may require some hard work, especially if, like me, you’re more of an introvert than extrovert. You’ll never know if you’re in the right place at the right time unless you make the most of each experience.  We’re encouraged to build a ‘network of luck’, to talk to people and be open to new experiences, but also to try to be relaxed about life. Lucky people make the most of intuition and learn when to trust their gut feelings – not just in love, but all areas of life.  According to Wiseman, one of the ways of boosting your intuition is meditation – something I’ve never done – maybe I should start now… I’ve always been broadly optimistic, never being Eeyoreish for long periods. Having had a few hard knocks over the past year and a half, I am trying to look forward to a positive future.  Banishing negative expectations is a key, and being optimistic about goals and people. Turning luck around is harder – finding the up side in bad experiences, learning from our mistakes, but not dwelling on it even if you have to take the long view – it’ll all end up alright in the end.

Each chapter of the four principles has loads of examples, interviews, quizzes and exercises and has illustrative charts and statistics. The final chapters show how implement what you’ve found out about your luck profile and how to put it into use – but one step at a time.

It’s all common sense really, but it’s always good to be reminded about things and this was a revealing read. Yes, I have a lot to work on – but I’m looking forward to it.  More a self-help manual than a pure popular science book, the rules do tend to become a bit repetitive like a mantra, but it was a quite interesting look into just one facet of the huge science of psychology.  (6.5/10)

Apparently lucky people are more likely to find coins on the street, unlucky people just don’t see them.  I found 5p last week, so maybe my luck is changing!

I’ll close with a memorable quote on luck from Dirty Harry, as uttered by the inimitable Clint …

 I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, click below:
The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mindby Dr Richard Wiseman, pub Arrow, 2003, 240 pages.

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He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!

Had to write a short post on the BBC4 drama Holy Flying Circus which aired this week, it was a mostly marvellous 90 minutes of real Pythonesque homage. It followed the life of the Pythons around the time that Life of Brian was released in the cinema (1979), the TV ‘debate’ between Cleese and Palin v Muggeridge and a bishop that made TV history for its time, and the battle to get the film off the screen.

Life of Brian is forever etched in my mind in rose-tinted memories…

I was a student at Imperial College in South Kensington in 1979. Wandering into the Union Bar one lunchtime, there were tickets being waved around to go and see a free screening of a new film.  I went with my then boyfriend.

The screening was in the basement cinema of one of the film distributors in Soho. There were beanbags all over the floor for the student audience to sit on, and a row of comfy armchairs further back.

So we all slobbed around in the beanbags, and waited for the film to start. Within seconds we sat up to attention, then fell about laughing for the next hour and a half or so.  The film we saw was the uncut and not quite finished version of Life of Brian – it was hilarious – scandalously funny. All Python fans to start off with, we couldn’t believe our luck, especially when we glanced behind and saw that the row of armchairs were now occupied by the entire Python team (Cleese excepted).  Palin documents the screening in the first volume of his diaries – making me almost feel that I’m in there!

There were a few changes in the final film.  The title animation hadn’t been added – instead the titles read ‘A title’, ‘Another Title’ Another F***ing title’ – echoing the short film about Gondolas that had accompanied Holy Grail.  This got us off to a good start.  A couple of scenes were cut; the soundtrack hadn’t been finished, but it was so fresh and funny.  What a great evening!

Now of course, with some maturity behind me,  I can see the serious points beyond the comedy about freedom of speech and individuality. This was the key theme of the TV drama too.   Holy Flying Circus was very cleverly done, using all of the Python’s tricks, surreal tricks and full of references to the film itself, but in an updated sort of way that if the Pythons were still together they would do themselves, including animations and fantasy sequences.

The best scenes by far were between Michael Palin and his wife, who was played by Terry Jones, played by actor Rufus Jones.  Slightly uncomfortable, but bloody brilliant!

Not all of the jokes worked – much like the original Python shows, but it was very engaging, chucklesome and wonderfully nostalgic.  I’m sure they’ll show it again (and again, and again) if you missed it.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:

Monty Python’s Life of Brian – The Immaculate Edition [Blu-ray] [2007][Region Free]

Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years 1969-1979 by Michael Palin

Guest reviewer: My Dad on ‘Being Boycie’

I keep on encouraging my Dad to write some reviews for me. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a publicist wondering if I’d like to read a showbiz biography – they said if I didn’t fancy it, maybe my father would. The lure of a free book hooked him! So please welcome Ray, my Dad …

Being Boycie by John Challis

When Annabel rang me recently and asked me if I’d like to review John Challis’s autobiography, my first thought was ‘What? He’s a nobody’. But being a sucker for showbiz auto/biographies and never one to turn down a free book, I reluctantly agreed. Being Boycie arrived a day later and now I’ve read it, so here goes.

My first thought was confirmed. Here is somebody who considers himself to be a pretty good actor but although he has played the odd big part, it’s a fact that most of the parts he played were on the small side with long periods with no work. One of those lasted a year during which he and a couple of pals set up the St Margaret’s Garden Centre. He did however appear in Tom Stoppard plays in the USA, in the Ray Cooney/John Chapman farce Move Over Mrs Markham in South Africa and performed in minor parts at the National but my opinion has not changed. He was however unlucky in that he was picked to play a good part in the Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour but the BBC would not release him from his contract at that time. So, Boycie he is and Boycie he will remain. Challis had played Detective Inspector Humphreys in one episode of John Sullivan’s Citizen Smith and that led Sullivan to cast him as Boycie in his new series Only Fools and Horses, only once in the first series and not again until the third episode of the second series. Subsequently he has gone on to be a staple character in OFAH as he likes to call it.

Boycie & Marlene

Strangely, this autobiography stops just as Marlene is about to be introduced intoOFAH, but I’ve no doubt that Challis, when he comes to write the follow-up to Being Boycie (perhaps to be called Still Boycie and assuming of course that this one sells – I have my doubts) will point to Boycie being a key character which led to his being given the dire The Green Green Grass. In the book Challis seems to be obsessed with all the women he has been involved with so much so that it could alternatively have been called Being Casanova or The Many Women I Have Loved and Left. I should perhaps balance this by saying that he insists he is now (and has been for the last 20 years) happily married.

Oh well, that’s done and I’ve now also read Joanne Harris’s blueeyedboy (very contemporary in that it consists of a series of blogs  – it’s weird, confusing but nevertheless entertaining) and am about to start on Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Being Boycie by John Challis
Only Fools and Horses – The Complete Collection [DVD]

Memories are made of this?

The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner

Sally Gardner is moving up through the ages with her books. She started off with illustrating and writing picture books, then she wrote a series of Magical Children novels for younger readers, before writing several brilliant historical novels for older children (see my review of The Red Necklace here).  Now she has written her first novel for older teens…

The Double Shadow is set during the 1930s, and after an intriguing prologue, starts off conventionally. Amaryllis is in trouble again at her boarding school. She crept out on a dare to go to a grown up party with a man she didn’t know from Adam.  Needless to say it didn’t go well, but she’s not going to tell the headmistress or her father that.  She gets sent home to her family pile, where she will be home educated alongside the son of the family’s cook. Ezra had been hoping to become an apprentice to the local garage owner, and is not overjoyed at this prospect.

Amaryllis, meanwhile, continues to rebel against the control-freakery of her father Arnold whom she doesn’t love.  Her memories of her childhood are hazy at best, and she can’t remember her mother who died at all.  Her father, (who is American and an oil magnate),  is rarely there, leaving his business partner Silas Molde to manage things. When he does appear, it is often with the ageing silent movie star Vervaine Fox who adores him, he has no time for her.

So far, so normal; a tale of the remains of a posh dysfunctional family living in a country house,  the workers who look after them, along with the possibility of a romance between Amaryllis and Ezra.  This is where the author introduces something paranormal which will take the story in a very different direction.

Arnold has long had a dream, and when he met the mysterious Silas he found the man to help him realise it. He has built a picture palace in their grounds, and within is a memory machine with which he intends to let Amaryllis experience all her good memories, erasing the bad, hoping to reclaim his daughter’s love.

Longbone slid open the glass partition. ‘Nearly home now, sir.’
Home, thought Arnold. He hadn’t been home since he was a boy of ten sitting in a picture palace in New York, his mother’s small gloved hand holding his.
Home was in the memory machine.

This machine is somewhat akin to a mechanical equivalent to Dumbledore’s pensieve in Harry Potter, but the reality is much more frightening. The machine makes the picture palace unstable, and it starts oscillating between realities and memories, physically trapping those who enter this most unconventional of home cinemas. Meanwhile WWII is starting, the men from the ministry are aware of Ruben’s machine and Ezra is recruited to find out what’s happening down in the woods where the picture palace hides.

As she has shown with her previous novels, Gardner has a sure touch when introducing magical, or in this case SF, elements into her books. The machine is there, always in the background, sleeping, waiting to switch into action. It’s a menacing presence, lurking in the basement and adding a slight edge of horror to this clever and complex tale. Amaryllis is a fascinating character, a girl with flawed memories searching for the love she’s never known; whereas Ezra is solid and dependable, yet never a bore. The supporting cast are well fleshed out and bring much to the reader, especially the enigmatic Silas.

I really enjoyed the way that memories are almost played out as film clips, and that cinema pervades the story all the way through, from Arnold’s youthful visits, to the Saturday morning cinema clubs that Amaryllis and Ezra go to, and the films of the beautiful Vervaine Fox – whose career foundered with the advent of the talkies. The duality of people’s different memories of the same event, how memories become distorted and a shadow of themselves is a powerful theme.

With some adult content and language and the complexities of the plot, this is definitely a novel for older teens upwards. Sally Gardner has again succeeded in raising her goalposts in this totally original novel which is very different to the usual YA fare, and again proves my strong belief that the best novels for younger audiences can have just as good writing as those for grown-ups and also be satisfying reads for adults too. Thank you Sally! (10/10)

See also Teresa’s review at Lovely Treez Reads

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My copy was supplied through Amazon Vine.
To explore Sally Gardner’s books further on Amazon UK, click below:

The Double Shadow– older teens
The Red Necklace– older children
Magical Children 3 books in 1– confident readers
Fairy Shopping– Lovely picture book

One man against a world of vampires …

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

When I first started reading science fiction in my teens, most of the books came in the distinctive yellow jacket with mauve font of publisher Gollancz. Scouting for the cover pic to put in this post, I saw that Gollancz, now the SF & Fantasy imprint of Orion books had included it in their 50th anniversary editions … It took me right back.

I am Legend was first published in 1954; it was Matheson’s third novel. His fourth would go on to make cinematic history – The Shrinking Man would become a huge film hit as The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957.  I remember adoring the film, and applauding the philosophical soliloquy at the end as Scott accepts his place in the universe.  I now read that this speech was not in the novel, but also that several scenes in the novel were not in the film too.

Anyway, back to Legend – which has been filmed four times over the years, most recently starring Will Smith in 2007.  A plague has infected mankind, mutating humans into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures – vampires.  Robert Neville could be the last man alive – he’s had to say sayonara to his wife and child, and despite the awfulness of his situation, something keeps him going on.  By day he goes out scavenging, and killing vampires; by night he boards himself into his house, turns the music up and often drowns his sorrows in whisky.  The vampires keep the pressure up, trying to tempt him out – especially the creature who used to be his workmate and neighbour Ben.

Neville is a practical sort though.  He has a generator, fuel and freezers full of food. He has set up a workshop in his late daughter’s bedroom – and he turns bundles of stakes on his lathe.  He grows garlic in his outhouse – true to form, the creatures appear to loathe it, they can’t live in the light either.  He starts going to the library to learn about blood and diseases, and his diligence appears to be paying off …

This novel has an excellent balance between SF and dystopian horror. The vampires are scientifically explained which makes a change, and they are more zombie-like than traditional vampires too.  The parts of the book in which Neville relives the demise of his family are inevitably sad, but he deals with it in the same dogged way that he deals with everything else.

All through the novel, you are dying to know whether he is  the last man alive, and this sustains the plot through to the end, where I was surprised at the twist in the tail. This gritty tale is another SF masterwork. (9/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
I Am Legend (Gollancz 50 Top Ten)
The Shrinking Man (S.F. Masterworks)
Incredible Shrinking Man [DVD]

Bookgroup Report – Always look on the bright side of life

Candide by Voltaire

This short novel is another one of those influential classic books that I had always planned to read. I’d bought a copy in preparation, and ten years later it was still sitting on the shelf. I was really pleased that we chose it at book group, and I’m mighty glad to have read it for it was really funny and not a chore at all – a verdict we all shared.

Candide, or Optimism as it is subtitled, is a fast moving romantic adventure published in 1759.  Starting off in Westphalia, young Candide falls in love above his station – with the Baron’s daughter, Miss Cunégonde, but is driven out of the castle, gets press-ganged into the Bulgarian army, flogged, shipwrecked then caught in the Lisbon earthquake (of 1755), tortured by the Inquisition (which wasn’t ‘expected’), he gets separated from his beloved again, goes to El Dorado, gets rich, gets robbed – suffering ever-worse calamities in his journey to get home and find Cunégonde again. Through all of this hardship, Candide fervently believes that he will eventually be reunited with his love.

Along the way he has many companions, the foremost of whom is Doctor Pangloss, the teacher,  philosopher, and believer in ‘the best of all possible worlds’, a personal philosophy he spreads far and wide …

One day when Miss Cunégonde went to take a walk in the little neighbouring woods, which was called a park, she saw through the bushes the sage Dr. Pangloss giving a lecture in experimental philosophy to her mother’s chambermaid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very tractable. As Miss Cunégonde had a natural disposition toward the sciences, she observed with the utmost attention the experiments which were repeated before her eyes; she perfectly well understood the force of the doctor’s reasoning upon causes and effects.  She returned home greatly flurried, quite pensive and filled with the deire of knowledge, imagining that she might be a sufficing reason for young Candide, and he for her.

Yes, this is the first of many occasions when Voltaire gets slightly saucy, rather than satirical, and very funny it is too.  I must admit, a lot of the direct satire was lost on me and the rest of the group as we were unfamiliar with the times the story was set in. It appears that the German philosopher Leibniz was a particular target as he believed in a benevolent God – however, we could all get the general themes. This was where an edition with good notes came in rather useful. One of our group who is a linguist read the book in the original French and was amused to find that the novella is billed as ‘translated from the German of Dr. Ralph’, Ralph being Voltaire.

In the end Candide’s optimism may have been tempered by the hard reality of life, but there are a lot of laughs along the way. Candide’s travels and encounters may owe a lot to Gulliver’s travels which preceded it, but what struck our book group most was the surreal edge to the humour – where else would you encounter an old woman with one buttock?  This led our book group to decide that Voltaire’s heir is none other than Monty Python, who in The Life of Brian, also simultaneously espoused and satirised optimism – here’s Eric Idle …

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best ….
And … always look on the bright side of life…

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I bought my book. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Candideby Voltaire
Gulliver’s Travels (Oxford World’s Classics)by Jonathan Swift
Monty Python’s Life of Brian [DVD] [1979]

A book of homecoming and letting go …

Like Bees to Honeyby Caroline Smailes

It was Juxtabook’s review of this book a couple of weeks ago, that made me pick this book up to read immediately, and she wasn’t wrong – this book is LOVELY!

It tells the story of Nina, a Maltese woman, whose rather traditional family disowned her when she got pregnant as a student in England. Marrying her baby’s father Matt didn’t help either. Some years on, she is drawn back to Malta, to see her family and ageing parents. Nina is depressed and grief-stricken and needs to lay her ghosts to rest, literally.

As Nina finds that Malta is both different and the same, we are treated to a tour of the island – all its best bits, as Nina sometimes feels like a tourist in the land of her birth.  Through some innovative touches the author brings the island to life, but also its culture and spiritual side for Malta is a place to heal.  Snatches of the Maltese language and their translations are wafted through the text, sometimes repeated, like bits of a favourite tune hummed in the background.

This is a book of strong emotions and equally strong contrasts – tradition vs modern liberal attitudes, homecoming vs letting go, and all through coloured by Nina’s battles with her depression.  If that makes the book sound rather dark – maybe it is in parts; however Nina is surrounded by people who care for her, and they’re not going to let her go down without a fight.  They bring some Mediterranean sunshine and much humour.

I’ve deliberately not told you much about the plot, because if you’re tempted to read this book, you should discover it for yourself. In the author’s safe pair of hands a story, that otherwise could have been overwrought or cloying, is instead a breath of fresh air, and you too will feel better for having read it.  (10/10)

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Like Bees to Honey by Caroline Smailes

Zombie mayhem to scare your pants off

The Enemy and The Dead by Charlie Higson

Last month I had the privilege of interviewing Charlie Higson for Gaskella – see my write-up
here.  He was in town for a big schools event, promoting the third volume in his series of horror books for teens.  So far, I’ve read the first two – The Enemy and The Dead.

His plan in writing them was to scare the pants off his son, who was ten at the time.  I don’t know about him, for I was scared and shocked a few times too, but in an adult, sort of knowing way. I was thoroughly revolted many more times, and found time to chuckle too. Let me set the scene …

A deadly virus has killed the majority of humans over 14 years old.  Those who do survive become zombies. The Enemy follows a group of children who had been holed up in a North London supermarket for some time after the outbreak of the virus. Hearing that another group of children has occupied Buckingham Palace and is successfully farming in the gardens, they set out to join them. The second novel The Dead, actually begins earlier in the virus’s timeline, following another group of children who start off at a school in Kent, and later end up at the Tower of London.

The groups of children quickly progress beyond the infighting one might expect in this dystopian Lord of the Flies type setting. Every time they have to venture out to scavenge for food, less of them come back – there’s no room to fight amongst themselves, they must join together in a common cause. Having said that though, each time one of the packs of children meets another pack, there has to be a squaring up and some posturing to sort out the natural order of things. However they all end up united against the enemy – the zombies!

Higson’s zombies are digustingly revolting. They are pus-ridden, covered with boils and blisters, necrotizing flesh, slobbering and slavering over their favourite food – children if they can get them. They tend to come out at night as strong sunlight can make them burst. But these zombies aren’t always just shuffling, they can shift if they want to. Some of them also still posess a glimmer of a brain – animal cunning if you will. There’s one zombie in particular – we meet him in the first book when he’s leading a group of them converging on the kids in the supermarket, but we find out more about who he is, or was, in the second. Through him find out a lot more about the zombification process of the disease.

If the gruesome horror in these books belong to the zombies and their never-ending quest for flesh to eat, the shocks often come from the way that Higson is not scared of killing off the children, especially those you least expected. There are no red shirts in these books – everyone is at risk!

The main characters are well-observed, and they’re not all boys either.  There is a group of bolshy girls in The Dead who are particularly good value, (I’m thinking Sapphire types in the TV Tracey Beaker here).  I particularly liked Ed, who starts off as weedy but has to find hidden reserves to get out of many very tricky situations.

A key moment for me came within the few chapters of The Enemy (p26).  Arran, in charge of the supermarket crew, is leading a scavenging party. They decide to go into the swimming pool to see if there are any vending machines left, only to find a zombie ambush…

When a mother came at Arran, long hair flying, he gripped her by the throat and squeezed. Her head thrashed from side to side, her scabby hands flapped at him. Her hair whipped out of her face so that for a moment he saw her clearly.
Her nose was half rotted away by disease. There were boils and sores covering every inch of skin. Her lips were pulled back from broken teeth showing black shrunken gums.
Everything about her was disgusting, inhuman, degraded – apart from her eyes. Her eyes were beautiful.
Arran looked into them and for a moment he saw a flash of intelligence.
He froze. Time seemed to stop. He had the sudden vivid notion that this was all a stupid dream. He had imagined the whole thing: the collapse of society, the fear and confusion, the months spent hiding out in Waitrose. It wasn’t possible after all. It wasn’t possible that the world had changed as much. So quickly. It wasn’t possible that he had become a savage. A killer.
The mother tried to speak, her lips formed in a ghastly pucker and a single syllable came out.
‘Mwuhh…’
Tears came into Arran’s eyes. He couldn’t do it any more.
He loosened his grip.
The mother wriggled free and sunk her teeth into his neck.

Wonderful stuff!  There is plenty of adventure in these books, but the shock and horror quotient makes them ideal for readers of around twelve – and upwards, for I really loved them too.  (9/10 for both)  There are currently seven books planned in the series – so bring on number 3 – The Fear!

I’d also recommend you watch Charlie’s trailers for the books – they’re great fun.

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I bought my copies.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Enemy and The Dead and The Fearby Charlie Higson