Woolly Jumpers…

Breaking the Code by Gyles Brandreth

brandreth breaking codeI read this book just pre-blog back in summer 2008. Brandreth’s political diaries from 1990-1997 – the time that he was an MP (Tory, for Chester) were fascinating reading. They recount, with his customary wit, all the goings on in and out of the chamber, committee rooms and the Whips’ office. He was one of William Haig’s speech-writing buddies.

I enjoyed reading his diaries very much but have no desire to re-read them, so this book is going in the garage sale/charity shop box.  But – before it finds another home, I wanted to share the most hilarious paragraph in it – I bookmarked it all those years ago. You need a small bit of background to put it into context…

Before becoming an MP, Brandreth was particularly noted for being one of the regular resident wits/brains in Dictionary Corner in the teatime C4 TV show Countdown. In these appearances, he usually wore novelty jumpers – and people used to send them in for him. The extract below is from 1993 during the time that the Maastricht Treaty to create the European Union from the EEC would come into force later that year, the Railways Act would later enable Major to privatise parts of British Rail …

Tuesday, 20th April

The Maastricht nightmare drags on – we finished at 1.13 a.m. yesterday. The Railways Bill drags on – Roger Freeman is a joy to watch, but I’ve falled between two stools. You can either (like Sproat) ignore the whole thing, site in a far corner of the committee room, reading correspondence, signing letters, or (like Stephen [Milligan]) you can get stuck in and follow the Bill line by line. I’ve been following it, but not with sufficient attention to detail to make either a worthwhile contribution or any impact. (My only ‘moment’ was when Prescott started muttering ‘Woolly jumper! Woolly jumper!’ while I was speaking. I came up with a reasonable riposte: ‘The advantages of a woolly jumper is that you can take it off at will. The disadvantage of a woolly mind is that you are lumbered with it for life’)

Photos of Brandreth wearing the ‘woolly jumpers’ are not so prevalent these days – but I did find this one – from the 1000th programme of Countdown with L-R Brandreth, Carol Vorderman, Richard Whiteley, Richard Stilgoe (another regular trying to outdo Brandreth in the jumper stakes here!)

Countdown

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate link), please click below:

Breaking The Code: Westminster Diaries by Gyles Brandreth – new edition hardback 2014.
Breaking The Code: The Brandreth Diaries: Westminster Diaries, 1992-97 Phoenix paperback 2000 – with Gerald Scarfe cover above – S/h copies available.

Bookish and not so bookish distractions…

Usually I’m a serial monogamist where reading books are concerned. I have no more than one novel at a time on the go, with just occasionally a non-fiction book on the side.  Stupidly, I started three novels and have got a little stuck with all of them at the moment. The first was because I didn’t want to carry a larger book filling my bag, so I picked up a physically smaller volume, then I wanted a lighter read that I could read in smaller doses and picked up book number three. Now I’m a bit stuck on all of them, although perversely, I am enjoying all three, but can’t decide which to finish first! (Choose, Annabel, choose! – Ed)

I am also taking a serious look at my bookshelves (again), and playing with my books finding the odd volume or three for the charity shop piles (I’ve taken in three bags this week, nearly filled a fourth). I’d like to reduce the number of bookshelves in my spare bedroom which I used to use as a study, so I can redecorate and ultimately put a bed back in. It’s got four Billy bookcases, which all used to be double stacked – now down to two doubled, two not  – so I’ve a way to go, but am definitely making progress.

Then I realised I missed World Cat Day on August 8th – so I have to make amends! Here is Ginny, asleep in the beanbag in the conservatory. All snug and warm now the sun is out after the torrential rain this morning. Her fur is still dyed pink around her neck where she chewed her collar so much one of the pigments from that or the permanent marker we wrote her details on the inside of the collar with ran into her fur. (Chromatography in action folks – cat spit is obviously a good solvent).

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I’ve also been catching up with recorded TV series rather than reading … the hard disk is full so was time to get watching.

FargoFargo with Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton was absolutely fab – very funny, very dark indeed. I didn’t think they could stretch the Coen brothers’ film concept to a ten episode season – but they did, and it worked. Allison Tolman as the deputy Molly Solverson was also great.

Tom HollanderYesterday I watched A Poet in New York, which was a BBC4 film drama from months ago starring Tom Hollander as Dylan Thomas on his last weeks in the city where he died aged just 39. Made to celebrate the centenary of Thomas’ birth in 1914, Hollander, whom I adore in Rev, put on two stone to play the part. Sad, but I enjoyed it a lot – and I guffawed at the filthy limericks he came up with in one scene.

I still have two more whole series recorded to watch – Broadchurch and The Honorable Woman, plus the DVD of the first season of Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards.

Those are my excuses for not getting much reading done – what are yours?

The Divine Rev. Adam Smallbone …

The Rev. Diaries by The Reverend Adam Smallbone, (by Jon Canter)

rev diariesNow into its third short series on BBC2, the sitcom Rev continues to delight. It is simply hilarious, and absolutely hits the spot every time without being sacrilegious or blasphemous.  What is so lovely about it is that doesn’t make fun of faith per se; its targets are the people and organisations who practice it.

For those who are not so familiar, Rev. is about a young Anglican country vicar who transfers to a church in the tough, multi-cultural inner city in Hackney, East London, and the trials and ordeals he faces as a priest in an old church with a dwindling congregation and a management and money-oriented Anglican hierarchy. Added to which, he and his long-suffering wife (the brilliant Olivia Coleman) are trying for a baby, and their relationship is always under pressure from the needs of his parishoners. Is it any wonder that the Reverend Smallbone is always on the brink of a crisis of faith – although his talks with to God usually bring him around, (good psychiatry on God’s part that – make them talk it out). He has some regulars though – from Colin the drunk and smoking partner, to Mick the crack-head, from Adoha the adoring widow, to Ellie the headmistress of the local C of E school, plus curate Nigel. Archdeacon Robert can always be relied upon to turn up at inopportune moments too.

Rev was created by Tom Hollander (who plays Adam) and James Wood and is directed by Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty).  Now, inspired by the first two series, Jon Canter who is one of the show’s writers has written Adam’s diaries with Hollander’s cooperation. Canter has written scripts for many a comedian – he writes for The News Quiz on Radio 4 for instance, and he has authored a fine comic novel too – A Short Gentleman  (see Kimbofo’s review here) thus he has a good comedy pedigree.  Books inspired by or based on TV programmes can often fall flat, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Rev. Diaries.

The episodes from the first two series form the backbone of a year of Adam’s diaries. Adam arrives at St. Saviours at the beginning of Advent – a rather busy time for a new vicar – and he soon meets Colin…

Colin’s a serious drinker who tends to think of my home as a pub, The Reverend Adam. He doesn’t really have a home of his own, so I don’t want to judge him. The church itself is sort of his home, which is as it should be, that’s our purpose. Rev Roy, my mentor, used to call the drinkers who came to his church ‘alcoholys’. They were people in need of booze and God, and a priest was there to minister to human need. Alcoholys were trouble but a priest didn’t flinch. ‘Jesus loved trouble,’ he told me.
People in need. That’s always the problem. There’s the lost and the lonely and the sick and the dying and the homeless and the unlucky. But there’s me too. And Alex. We have needs as well.

You can imagine Adam finally getting a moment’s peace at the end of a long day and having a chat with God as he writes his diary can’t you, expressing all his hopes and fears and getting things off his chest.

Along the way he has to cope with parents who’ll do anything to get their kids into Ellie’s school, the opening of a lap-dancing club, and accidentally pinning to the ground the mugger who had stolen Adoha’s handbag amongst many other escapades.

Already being a huge fan of the TV series, I relished reliving it through the pages of this book.  Being a TV tie-in, it probably helps if you’ve seen the programme, but the main cast characters are all pictured on the back if you need an idea.   Adam is a wonderful character; for the most part his faith is unswerving and his love for his parishoners is paramount, but he smokes, he swears, he watches The Wire – he is a modern man underneath the bumbling vicar and that is why I adore him.

This book probably would stand up on its own, but why not watch the TV series too – it’s subtle and clever, wonderfully acted by everyone and there have been some great guest stars – Ralph Fiennes, Richard E Grant to drop just a few names.  The book, however, captures both the comedy and the heartache of Adam, perfectly developing his character further, and I’d heartily recommend it. (9.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Rev Diaries by Jon Canter, pub March 2014 by Penguin Michael Joseph, hardback 320 pages.
Rev – Series 1-2 Box Set [DVD]

‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood’…

The Almost Lizard by James Higgerson

almost lizardI’m twenty-one years old today, and once I’ve finished this little introduction I’m going to kill myself. …

Not many can spend their final few weeks on this earth writing their autobiography, a to-the-minute summary of all that has occurred within their lifespan. But most of us leave this world not of our own volition. Most of us make the decision to hang on in there as if life is some precious gift that we must savour every moment of. Not me. I’ve run my course and the day I finish writing my life story – today – is the day I have chosen to die.

Yup, we know how this book is meant to end from the first page.  This whole novel is in the form of ‘possibly the longest suicide ever committed to paper.’  The book is not about how it ends for Danny Lizar, but how it got to this point…

As in most memoirs, Daniel starts by telling us about his parents. His mother, Jacqui, was the favoured older half of a pair of identical twins, born either side of midnight August 31st, meaning they were forced into different years at school by an unbending system and never bonded the way most twins do. His father, Malcolm, was brought up in a Blackpool B&B where he learned the trade as a youngster and charmed the guests. They met when Malcolm, who had been dating twin Anne, unwittingly slept with Jacqui, and realised she was the real love of his life, further alienating Anne of course.

So the stage is set-up for family life chez Lizar, (Daniel never explains where his father got his surname from). As a child, Daniel has a fairly normal life, although his father works away during the week as a restaurant manager, and he doesn’t find out about bad Auntie Anne for years.  He does have a best friend though in Alex, and their parents also become best of friends too.

The seeds that will grow up to shape Daniel’s life are sown when he becomes addicted to watching soap operas on the TV with his mum, while his dad is working.  He cautiously tries some of the things he sees on screen  – he changes the story he was meant to read to a younger class to a deliberately nasty and provocative one he composed, and is secretly pleased by the reaction from the kids and their parents.  He seeds rumours to rid himself of friends he doesn’t want – this deals with the Dominic problem, but he upsets Alex to in the process – but not for long.

Daniel starts to get obsessed, and out on his paper-round, he replay scenes in his head, writing himself into the script.  Before long he has developed his own soap concept ‘The Almost Lizard’, and it stars him as ‘Danny’ – and his family and friends, he imagines the storyline, framing and filming it in his head.

But then, Daniel takes it to the next step. He makes his life into the soap, and begins to use anyone who can move the storyline along in real life.  He manipulates  them all – as Danny. He uses rumour, being disruptive in class, cultivating the wrong type of friends, saying things for effect – anything to get the scene in the can.

He saves being normal Daniel for home where he studiously makes sure he keeps up with his homework so his parents and the school aren’t too concerned with his behaviour.

However, Daniel is well aware of the power of the cliffhanger ending to soap episodes, and how they save major ones for Christmas.  The Lizars and Alex’s family, the Proctors always spend Christmas together, and Danny engineers a spectacular climax that took weeks in the planning and that will blow the two families apart.

Being Danny has become an addiction for Daniel. His real and fantasy personalities are becoming integrated into one. He tries to disengage from his soap, but when the sniff of a good new storyline comes along, he knows he shouldn’t do it, but he can’t resist, even if he has to play the victim sometimes – as a lead character, he has to keep his popularity up after all.  There is almost nothing that Daniel/Danny won’t do to get the shot.

It continues right up into college and one eventful holiday with friends to Majorca before something happens and real life catches up with Daniel – making him a character in someone else’s storyline…

Higgerson just about pulls it off with his creation of Daniel, whose voice tells his story with the requisite drama, leavened by humour – it’s not all darkness.  He manages to keep just enough of the normal, likeable teenager that Daniel can be in his narration to make us care about what’s going to happen.  All the time we’re waiting to see whether Daniel is able to snap out of being Danny, to stop being on the road to becoming a fully-fledged sociopath.

Knowing from the start of the book that Daniel intends to die at the end of it, we can read his story as a confession, finally atoning for all the wrong-doings, the manipulation, the hurtful deeds and words, all done to the people he cares for the most. This allows us to have some sympathy with him as he realises the repercussions of all that he has done.

Call me cynical, but you can also read this confession in another way – with Danny, not Daniel as its author. The arch-manipulator, an unreliable narrator making us, his audience – for we should never forget that he needs one, part of his story too. That thought gives me the creeps slightly!

At 460 pages, this book is long – although it does have two lives, Daniel and Danny to chronicle. It was in the best soap tradition, thoroughly page-turning and full of big moments and cliff-hangers.  Some actors in soaps end up typecast and mistaken for their characters in real life when their personalities are quite different; we the audience tend to encourage this in our celebrity-obsessed times. Daniel is sort of the reverse of this.

An interesting and thought-provoking debut from a promising young author. (8/10)

P.S. The quotation at the top is from the song ‘Don’t let me be misunderstood’ which was written in 1964 for Nina Simone.  I was previously only aware of the hit version by The Animals from 1965.

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.  To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Almost Lizardby James Higgerson, Legend Press paperback, March 2013, 460 pages

Benedict, you’re a very baaad man!

star-trek-2-into-darkness-poster

I couldn’t wait! Just back from the first screening (bar last night’s midnight one) at my local cinema of Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second outing for the young classic Trek crew.

I’m not going to tell you any of the story except that Benedict Cumberbatch, with a spectacularly basso profundo voice, was truly wonderful as Kirk’s adversary. However everything else was in place – here are a few slightly cryptic notes:

  • The crew from the previous movie are all present and correct;
  • Kirk breaks the prime directive – again;
  • Uhura and Spock have sparks flying off them!
  • There are plenty of laughs;
  • Simon ‘Fat boy’ Pegg gets to do lots of running as Scotty;
  • The Enterprise gets shot up of course;
  • It’s no tribble at all for Bones;
  • Future adventures are (retrospectively) set up, and references abound;
  • Spock gets to be an action hero – he melds, he pinches … and he cries.

LOVED IT!!!  Want to see it again.

The Women of Madison Avenue

Mad Women by Jane Maas

Mad Men still ranks amongst my favourite TV programmes ever. I love everything about it – the clothes, the campaigns, the decor, the lifestyle, the cast, (especially John Slattery as Roger Sterling).

But how true is the series?

I’ve already read one book by a guy who was there – Jerry Della Femina’s memoir (reviewed here), gave one man’s eye view – but his isn’t the only perspective available to help answer that question…

Mad-Women-cover-final

Jane Maas was there and saw it all. She was one of the pioneer ‘Mad Women’ of Madison Avenue. She started as a copywriter in 1964 at Ogilvy and Mather after several years working in TV production on Name That Tune, rising through the ranks to be a creative director and president of another New York agency along the way.

In compiling her memoir, she has spoken to many of her colleagues to build up her picture of working for and with the real Mad Men, giving a fascinating portrait of the advertising industry of the 1960s and beyond, and especially what it was like for women, although she didn’t have to start off as a secretary like Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson.

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

A petite redhead, Jane was married to architect Michael Maas in the late fifties, had kids and lived in central New York rather than towns outside like many of her colleagues.

She was also one of the first working Moms – ranking her ‘job first, husband second, and children third’ realising that her job and husband might go away, but that ‘the children would hang in’.  Jane was very lucky to have the services of her Mon-Fri live-in help Mabel though, but always felt guilty about not giving her children enough attention.

In chapter two, Jane gets straight to the subject of sex – apparently there was a lot of it about, although O&M was one of the more discrete agencies.  At other agencies, including Young and Rubicam, (the model for Mad Men), it was seemingly everywhere between employees outside the office…

The term ‘sexual harassment’ hadn’t been invented yet, or certainly wasn’t in our vocabularies. Most women then working in advertising were either secretaries or copywriters,  and 99 percent of us had male bosses.  The boss was in control of your salary, your raise, your career advancement … your life.  If he wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask yourself what mattered more: your self-respect or your career.
A number of people confided recently that women were sometimes the ones doing the seducing. The best way to get promoted from secretary to copywriter was for your boss to make it happen. And the fastest way to make that happen was to make it with your boss.

Mad Men's Peggy OlsenUltimately what I am most fascinated by in Mad Men and books like this are the advertising campaigns themselves. For me, many of the best scenes are the ones where the creative folk are at work, and pitching to clients.

Maas tells us about the good and the bad campaigns, and the good and bad clients.  She tells howit was common for rooms full of men to discuss the ins and outs of feminine hygiene products without asking their women staff of their opinions, except as an afterthought.  She recounts how it was usual for women copywriters to be put on accounts for household products, the men kept all the cars, booze, fags, etc for themselves.

i-love-new-yorkMaas was one of the few that did break through the glass ceiling though.  She was not only one of the first women to wear trousers to work, she went on to be the director of the ad campaign that put New York back on the tourist map, I ♥ New York with its iconic logo designed by Milton Glazer in 1977.

She is also quite clear where she thinks Mad Men (and she is a fan) gets it slightly wrong.  In the hippest times of the 1960s, the agencies were colourful places – not the beige, class and chrome we see on TV.  Most of all though, she stresses that they worked hard, they played hard, and most important of all, they had terrific fun doing this job that they loved so much – Don Draper and his colleagues don’t have enough of the latter.

This book was less rambling and much more entertaining than Della Femina’s, and confirmed most of what I’d always suspected happened in a woman’s lot in those glory days on Madison Avenue.  I’ve always been fascinated by the world of advertising, it’s long been one of my fantasy jobs from way before Mad Men, so I liked it a lot.  If you love the series, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. (7.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mad Women Bantam paperback, 218 pages.
From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-line Dispatches from the Advertising War by Jerry Della Femina
Mad Men – Complete Season 1 [DVD]

Sci-Fi Sound Effects

BBC Sci-Fi Sound Effects (Vintage Beeb)

Having built up a few reviews on Amazon, a couple of years ago I was lucky enough to be invited to be a reviewer for Amazon Vine. I get to pick items from lists they send out of all sorts of things. Usually I stick to books, but just occasionally I branch out and pick something different …

Sci-fi sound effectsI couldn’t resist this CD, which features sound effects from four classic SF programmes from the BBC: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (radio version), 1980 vintage Doctor Who, Blake’s Seven and the radio series Earthsearch.

Sound effects recordings are strange things. In its 45 minutes duration, this CD has 81 tracks, some a couple of minutes long, some just a few seconds. From alien soundscapes to various techy noises, and of course the Tardis from Doctor Who, it was easy to have a little nostalgia trip listening to this CD, and if I’m honest, I won’t listen to it in full again.

It is a shame that the Doctor Who effects by Dick Mills are only from series 18 (the end of the Tom Baker era), which apart from an encounter with the Master, only had the Marshmen to cope with monster-wise, else we could have had more interesting noises – there are no Daleks here sadly. (There are dedicated Doctor Who sound effects CDs available too it turns out).

blakes7gang3It was Elizabeth Parker’s effects for Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7 that I enjoyed the most.  Although it was a cheesy space opera with rickety cardboard sets, it lasted for four series from 1978-81 and for me it was must-watch TV. Political renegade Blake may have been a goodie, but the baddies in power were badder, especially Jacqueline Pearce as the dictator Servalan (centre left).  This brings me to the sound effects…

Towards the end of the first series, our crew of galactic freedom fighters acquired Orac – a perspex box with flashing lights that masqueraded as a super computer and had the irritating personality of a real smart Alec.  The good thing about Orac was that you could switch him on and off, two wonderful little sound effects – both on this CD.  I particularly liked the Orac Off one!  If you’d like to experience Orac for yourselves, watch this clip (they turn him off about 3 minutes in)…

This CD was previously available on vinyl, this is its first outing on CD. Although I won’t sit and listen to it as a while again I shall keep it for you never know when an alarm klaxon, laser blaster, alien soundscape, or indeed Orac off sound effect might come in useful!

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine – to explore further please click below:
BBC Sci-Fi Sound Effects (Vintage Beeb) – BBC records, 2012.
Doctor Who Sound Effects (Vintage Beeb)
Blake’s 7 – Complete Collection [16 DVD]

Who’s your Doctor?

Doctor Who: Dreams of Empire by Justin Richards

We will get to the book eventually, but first I want to talk about Doctor Who a bit.

Royal Mail - Dr Who Stamps Booklet

Things are hotting up for the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, and the memorabilia stakes are high. The Royal Mail have issued a set of eleven stamps with the eleven Doctors, a Monsters Minisheet, plus first class stamp booklets now (until stocks run out). I’ve bought one of each, plus a set of postcards of all the stamps – I’m such a geek!

Patrick Troughton - the 2nd Dr WhoBut then I have grown up with Doctor Who.  I was too little to really appreciate William Hartnell, the first Doctor, but I can remember it being on the telly as my parents watched it.  The first Doctor I actively watched was the second doctor – played by Patrick Troughton from 1966-69, whose persona of the Chaplinesque recorder-playing ‘cosmic hobo’ makes him My Doctor.

There are two serials (most early Who stories had 4 or 6 half-hour episodes) featuring Troughton that have remained imprinted in my memory since childhood – The Underwater Menace, and The Web of Fear.  Tragically, neither of these serials remains complete in the archives – episodes having been lost or wiped.

The Underwater Menace is set in an underwater city in which dwell the survivors of Atlantis. There was a horrifying scene in which the Doctor’s companion Polly, was going to be taken for conversion into a fish-person. Naturally she escapes, but as a not-quite seven year old, this scared me half to death – I couldn’t imagine a worse fate than being made into a giant pilchard – and I’ve never eaten that fish!

A Yeti - Dr Who - The Web of Fear (1968)The Web of Fear from 1968 however introduced another foe – The Yeti.  The costumes are laughable by today’s standards (the eyes glowed red), but the combination of Yeti and London Underground made me scared stiff of going on the old red tube trains (the newer silver ones were safe!) on trips up to London for several years. I was petrified.

Of course, part of the premise of Doctor Who has always been for the monsters to scare young children witless!  My daughter, now 12, is just about getting over her fear of the Weeping Angels from the current incarnation.

Finally, this brings me to a book.

There have been loads of Doctor Who adventures written, and as part of the 50th Anniversary celebrations, BBC books have chosen eleven books – one for each doctor, to re-publish in an Anniversary livery.  There are some well-known authors – Mark Gatiss, Ben Aaronovitch for instance, on the list but I opted for the novel chosen for the second doctor, by Justin Richards who is new to me.

50 Anniversary cover

Original cover

Dreams of Empire was first published in 1998 (right).  It’s slightly unusual for Doctor Who in that there are no monsters; instead it’s a novel of politics, that takes its inspiration from the Roman triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey, and a power-play staged as a game of chess.

The Haddron Empire is being torn apart by civil war. The one man, Hans Kesar, who might be able to unite the factions is held in a cell on the prison fortress of Santespri, sited on an asteroid.  Kesar is one of three Consuls, and had been imprisoned following impeachment after his habit of going it alone resulted in the loss of the Republic’s fifth legion of robot warriors.

Two sets of visitors arrive on the barren rock. The first, unannounced, dematerialising in the depths of the castle, is the Doctor with his companions Jamie and Victoria; the second, official, is another of the triumvirate, Consul Milton Trayx come to visit Kesar. Trayx is an honorable man, and it has become clear to him that the other Consul Mathesohn is trying to outmanoeuvre them to reinstate the Empire under his control.

So the Doctor arrives into this tense political situation, and after some cat and mouse games with the guards, is finally captured having entered Kesar’s cell, where he is playing chess with Cruger, Kesar’s second in command.  Of course, he soon proves that he is no threat, and will prove useful to Trayx.

Eventually there will be a battle on the asteroid when the lost fifth legion of robot soldiers arrives to either kill or free Kesar (we’re not sure which), but before the shoot-out there is much politicking, a little espionage, and a lot of chess.

I’m not a chess expert, but after the chapter in which we were introduced to ‘The Knight’s Tour’ it became clear that the Doctor is the white knight.  For he arrives, goes everywhere, get’s his fingers into everything, then arrives back at the beginning, whereupon he leaves!

knights tour (from Mathworld)

The Knight’s Tour is a chess problem in which you have to move the knight around the board in legal moves, never landing on the same square twice, except for returning to the starting position in a ‘closed tour’ comprising 64 moves. There are hundreds of thousands of different possibilities apparently.

This was, like a chess game, a complexly plotted novel in which not enough really happens. There was, however, more than enough blood and gore. This, and its complicated nature definitely make it a novel for older teens and adults,  people rarely die nastily on the TV.

I thought that the author captured the personality of the second Doctor rather well.  He was slightly batty, yet obviously learned, keen to educate the boorish Jamie and to protect Victoria, never letting on how much he knows – or doesn’t know, playing his recorder to give him thinking time.  He can also be a clown, and there is a running gag involving sandwiches.

It did lack real villains of substance though and there was too much politicking and not enough of the Doctor himself ironicall. It all seemed quite familiar somehow too  – I’ve watched too much Doctor Who and Star Trek over the years.  So, this is not the novel in this series to start with – unless the 2nd Doctor is ‘your doctor’ and you like chess.  However, I will happily read a couple more …

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Doctor Who: Dreams of Empire by Justin Richards, BBC Books paperback.

What a stinker! But in a good way…

Mr Stink by David Walliams

mr-stink-196x300After watching the BBC’s enjoyable TV version of Mr Stink at Christmas, I was inspired to read the book to see what Walliams, who adapted his own book for the TV, and put in a cameo as the Prime Minister, was like on the page. I had read somewhere that the book was more ‘Dahlesque’, so I passed a pleasant hour in bed this morning seeing if that was so.

Ironically, on first impressions you’re immediately drawn to comparisons with Roald Dahl by Quentin Blake’s illustrations, Dahl and Blake having had a long and profitable collaboration which Walliams looks likely to repeat. But onwards to the story.

1. Scratch ‘N’ Sniff
Mr Stink stank. He also stunk. And if it is correct English to say he stinked, then he stinked as well. He was the stinkiest stinker who ever lived.
A stink is the worst type of smell. A stink is worse than a stench. And a stench is worse than a pong. And a pong is worse than a whiff. And a whiff can be enough to make your nose wrinkle.
It wasn’t Mr Stink’s fault that he stank. He was a tramp after all. He didn’t have a home and so he never had the opportunity to have a proper wash like you and me. After a while the smell just got worse and worse.

So that’s every reader hooked and already chortling from page one.

After introducing us to Stink and his dog Duchess, we meet the other main character of the story. Chloe is a lonely schoolgirl, she’s slightly pudgy and shy. She gets bullied by Rosamund at school, and ignored by her mother at home, who dotes instead on her little sister Annabelle.  Her mother, who is a candidate for parliament is so driven, even her father is scared of her.

mr stink bbc

On the way to and from school, Chloe sees Mr Stink each day, sitting on the same bench in the park. One day she does something of ‘unimaginable kindness‘ and offers him a fiver. He refuses it, but lets her bring him and Duchess some sausages another day. Their friendship forged, things get complicated when Chloe offers him their family shed to live in…

pigpenUnderneath the malodorous humour is a serious story about bullying, compassion, and learning to stand up for and believe in yourself.  For most of the book though, the Mr Stink’s personal perfume is to the forefront, and like Schulz’s Pigpen (left), he’s oblivious to it, unless he can use it to get a seat in a coffee shop. There are some great asides about stinkiness of various sorts that couldn’t be portrayed in the TV film, and there’s a great B-U-R-P!!! that takes up around a page and a half, which is guaranteed a giggle.

The TV show was well done, Hugh Bonneville as Stink the gentleman vagabond in particular was fantastic. I liked how he lived in a big pile of leaves, which wasn’t in the book. Chloe is more attractive in the film, being tall, slim, and a bit soppy. There is much to like in both book and film, and the film largely remains true to the book, the changes being in the little details mainly.  I don’t know any children who, having read them, have not enjoyed Walliams’s books. I’m counting myself in with them now too. (8/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Mr Stink by David Walliams, Harper Collins paperback

An evening with Vera and Jimmy … and Ann Cleeves

I spent a great evening hearing about two fictional British detectives yesterday. Two totally different people – the frumpy, middle-aged Vera Stanhope (pronounced Stannup) from Northumberland, and the descendant a Spanish sailor from the Armada who was shipwrecked at Fairisle in the Shetlands.

Both were created by Ann Cleeves, who had escaped for the evening from a writers retreat at St Hilda’s college in Oxford to come and talk to us at Mostly Books in Abingbdon.

Anne talked at length about her two detectives, how they came to life and the experiences that gave her the ideas for the novels.  Ann was really witty and entertaining, telling us about some of the funny little details that she believes make novels. She also told us of her love of translated crime novels – particularly Henning Mankell’s spectacular beginnings, (cf Sidetracked).

She also spoke about the experience of having them transfer to the small screen: Vera is 2 series in on ITV starring Brenda Blethyn; and Shetland’s Jimmy Perez will be on the BBC this November, portrayed by Dougie Henshall, (who lacks the Jimmy of the book’s Mediterranean ancestry, but Ann thinks will be great).  Although having had to hand over her characters for the TV series, Ann was very pleased to have been involved throughout the process, and is particularly delighted that parts of Shetland were filmed in situ, bringing work there and helping to promote tourism.  She met her husband while working on Fairisle as a cook at a bird sanctuary many years ago, and they return to the Shetlands regularly.

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Which brings me to Raven Black – the first novel in the Shetland Quartet…

It’s New Year’s Eve and Magnus is ready for visitors, revellers, not that he’s expecting any, but you never know. He doses, then he’s woken up by a banging on the door …

‘Come in,’ he shouted. ‘Come in, come in.’ He struggled to his feet, stiff and aching. They must already be in the storm porch. He heard the hiss of their whispers.
The door was pushed open, letting in a blast of freezing air and two young girls, who were as gaudy and brightly coloured as exotic birds. He saw that they were drunk. They stood, propping each other up. They weren’t dressed for the weather yet their cheeks were flushed and he could feel the health of them like heat. One was fair and one was dark. The fair one was the prettier, round and soft, but Magnus noticed the dark one first; her black hair was streaked with luminescent blue. More than anything, he would have liked to reach out and touch the hair, but he knew better than to do that. It would only scare them away. (page 2)

It’s not giving the game away to tell you that one of the girls will soon end up dead, and that, for various reasons, suspicion will fall on Magnus who has a murky past. Inspector Jimmy Perez has to get the investigation started, and call in the crime scene experts from the mainland; it’ll be his first murder case. The pressure is on to solve it before Up Helly Aa – the Shetlanders’ Viking fire festival later in the month. They send in a team from Aberdeen to speed things up, and Inspector Taylor, a hyperactive Scouser, takes charge. He and Perez take to one another and work together to solve the case, (working together – unusual for a crime novel!).  Taylor’s expertise and Perez’s local knowledge will both be needed to unravel the tangled webs of relationships on this island where everyone knows everyone, or at least think they do.

As Ann explained, the major theme of this novel is outsiders.  The old guy Magnus is an outsider because of his past; the murdered girl’s family are incomers from London; and Perez – although an islander, is from Fairisle outside the main island group, and with his Mediterranean heritage is also an outsider of a sort. That’s not to say that Jimmy doesn’t know how Lerwick’s society works though – when he was eleven he’d had to come from Fairisle to stay with the other pupils from outlying islands in the hostel for school. Perez is conflicted between his love for Fairisle and the possibility of returning to become a crofter, and the love of his job and the possibility of a more exciting life.

I liked Jimmy Perez very much, and am really looking forward to the next in the quartet, White Nights, which is set at midsummer.  Raven Black won Ann the first Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award (which replaced the CWA gold dagger). If you’re not read any of the Quartet, Ann recommends starting at the beginning, whereas the Vera novels are more standalone.

Despite being a crime novel set in the depths of winter, Shetland is a really alluring setting. That, combined with Jimmy and a plot that is strong on interrelationships made Raven Black a brilliant read. (9/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Raven Black (Shetland Quartet 1) by Ann Cleeves. Pub Pan Macmillan. Pbk 320 pages.
White Nights (Shetland Quartet 2)
The Crow Trap (Vera Stanhope 1)
Vera Series 1-2 [DVD]