Monday, October 29, 2007

'The Fourth Bear' by Jasper Fforde

29 October 2007

Having been charmed by 'The Big Over Easy' (reviewed here in April 2007), I had been eagerly awaiting the return of DCI Jack Spratt and DS Mary Mary in Jasper Fforde's second Nursery Crime Division novel, 'The Fourth Bear'. I wasn't disappointed. Goldilocks is missing, bears are buying and selling illegal porridge and Punch and Judy are turning out to be the neighbours from Hell. 'The Fourth Bear' is another mixing bowl of remarkably silly parodies which works because it has at its heart a solid and intriguing whodunnit. Slightly more focussed and less rambling than its predecessor it still manages to incorporate aliens, ancient Greek immortals and characters from Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Edward Lear. Fforde manages to make the most two dimensional characters both believable and sympathetic. There is a touching sub-plot about the stigma associated with being a PDR (Person of Dubious Reality) - though the closer you look the more it seems that everyone in this book is a PDR. This leads to some surreal metatextual moments (particularly Jack's psychiatric interview by Virginia Kreeper) with lots of characters clearly in search of an author. And 'The Fourth Bear' is extremely funny with some lovingly crafted and truly awful puns. The ten pages of Chapter Four serve purely to lead to a groan-inducing pun. A minor character is introduced on page 63 in order to lay the ground for a series of appalling puns on page 319. All great fun - and when you've finished, the book comes complete with 'DVD extras' - a 'making-of' documentary, deleted scenes etc which you can access through Fforde's website, but only by answering a question which requires you to have finished reading the novel. I'm very much looking forward to 'The Last Great Tortoise Race' which will be the next outing for the Nursery Crime Division.


Friday, October 26, 2007


26 October 2007

Last night I returned to the Pola cinema in Welshpool which reminds me a lot of my childhood film-going at the Scala in Withington - cinema as it used to be. I saw the children's fantasy 'Stardust' starring Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, the always impressive Mark Strong and a show-stealing Michelle Pfeiffer as a witch trying to regain her youthful beauty. With a wealth of cameos including Peter O'Toole, Ian McKellen and Robert De Niro and plenty of opportunity for spotting familiar British actors in bit parts it was lots of fun. Visually sumptuous with more than a hint of Terry Gilliam, it has a quirky but satisfyingly predictable plot - enjoyable baloney.


Monday, October 22, 2007

'Bleak House' by Charles Dickens

22 October 2007

Finished it! 'Bleak House' by Charles Dickens is a very long book but I've really enjoyed the journey. It definitely helped being familiar with the plot from the BBC TV adaptation and it actually felt satisfyingly indulgent to take so long over each of the key scenes I remembered. Like most Dickens novels 'Bleak House' was originally published in instalments but, unlike some of his other books, this didn't result in a rambling plot. 'Bleak House' is tightly plotted and covers a relatively short period of time - and a fairly limited geography. The various narrative strands are interlinked and draw together with a brooding sense of fate and inevitability - and only a small amount of cheesy coincidence. The murder mystery plot that seemed to dominate the TV version comes very late in the novel and is not exploited half as much as it could have been - the conventions of detective fiction having yet to establish themselves. The structure of the book is interesting with two alternating narrators: Esther Summerson recounts her own story with hindsight in the first person while an omniscient third person narrator in the present tense shows us what is going on elsewhere. The third person narrator adds some great poetic descriptive passages: the technique of 'floating' over the streets and buildings of the Inns of Court and dropping in on various characters before flitting on to another location reminded me of 'Under Milk Wood' by Dylan Thomas. But the main attraction of Dickens is the characters - and there are some wonderful creations in 'Bleak House'. To anyone who is familiar with the story, the names themselves will always instantly recreate the distinctive personalities: Tulkinghorn, Guppy, Krook, Smallweed, Lady Dedlock, Old Mr Turveydrop, Snagsby, Caddy Jellyby, etc etc. There is a dose of sentimentality and melodrama but the book also addresses an impressive range of social and political issues within its relatively small frame. And it is often very funny. Having worked for some years in the area around Chancery Lane, there was a particular attraction for me in the geography of the story. If you too have been expecting a judgement you can now release the birds - I recommend 'Bleak House' to the court.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

'The Flying Club Cup' by Beirut

16 October 2007

In 'Gulag Orkestar', the wonderful CD by Beirut (reviewed here in November 2006), twenty-something Zach Condon from Albuquerque, New Mexico, drew on the Gypsy brass sound of the Balkans. In his follow-up album 'The Flying Club Cup', which I've been listening to this week, he somehow manages to adopt a series of completely different styles whilst remaining distinctly recognisable. Here he travels across Europe, lingering particularly in France. Pulsating rhythms, mostly in quick waltz time, provide the landscape over which his languid vocals soar - often multi-tracked to create a chorus of Condons. His slightly strained, mock-operatic voice reminds me at times of Neil Hannon from The Divine Comedy. The songs all have a feeling of melancholy ennui. The instrumentation includes the ukulele and accordion of 'Gulag Orkestar' as well as strings and piano. The brass sound is more mellow: accompanied by a wealth of percussion including clashed cymbals and tambourine it conjures up the image of a Salvation Army band leading a particularly cool New Orleans funeral march. I can't wait to see what he does next.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' by Douglas Adams

12 October 2007

I'm loving the BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of Douglas Adams' novel 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' (Wednesdays at 6.30 pm - see Dramatised and produced by Dirk Maggs who so wonderfully realised the final instalments of 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' after Douglas Adams' death, for any Hitch Hiker's fans this is a real treat. And it's so long since I read the book I've completely forgotten whatever tenuous grasp of the plot I might have had at the time. Listen to it - and then listen again to try to work out what's going on! One of the best uses radio could be put to.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

'Time of My Life' by Alan Ayckbourn

9 October 2007

There's a particular satisfaction when the risk involved in taking a 'lucky dip' approach to selecting a cultural dish results in a delicious feast. We felt that satisfaction the first time we discovered the 2-for-1 ticket booth in Leicester Square. It was 1993 and we were rewarded with half price tickets to a matinee of the new Alan Ayckbourn play which had just transferred from its premiere in Scarborough to the West End. 'Time of My Life' starred Anton Rodgers and Gwen Taylor in a family drama set in an Italian restaurant. As with most of Ayckbourn's prolific output it is a deceptively simple play - with a single set and no difficult staging arrangements - intentionally giving it a sustainable life in the amateur theatre. The particular device in 'Time of My Life' is multiple timelines moving in different directions. We can see three tables in the restaurant: the first hosts a family birthday meal while the other two tables simultaneously show us members of the family moving forwards and backwards, respectively, through time. These windows on the present, future and past gradually reveal poignant depths to the story, exploring when it is that we are truly happy - and whether we ever realise at the time. Although this all sounds complex it is easy to follow and follows a typical Ayckbourn path of making us laugh while we slip along an inexorably sad trajectory. We really enjoyed that original production in 1993 and were surprised when its run ended prematurely. Fourteen years later Ayckbourn cites 'Time of My Life' as one of his favourite and most under-rated plays. Last Saturday we were at the Royal Theatre in Northampton to see Laurie Sansom's new production of the play. Sansom came to Northampton after four years working with Ayckbourn as Associate Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and has created an enjoyable and effective revival. Our fond memories of the play were reinforced - particularly fond because we originally discovered it by accident!

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

'Heimlich' by 17 Hippies

3 October 2007

I've been enjoying the album 'Heimlich' by the German band 17 Hippies which has been championed by Charlie Gillet on BBC Radio 3 over the last few weeks. Almost impossible to categorise, 17 Hippies sing in German, French and English and play instruments including clarinet, banjo and accordion. Mostly chirpy upbeat songs. Confusingly there are not 17 of them and they are not hippies! Catchy, quirky, refreshingly different.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

'Sinfonietta' by Leoš Janáček

2 October 2007

I've been listening to James Naughtie's history of Western classical music, 'The Making of Music', on BBC Radio 4 and last week one snatch of music particularly caught my attention - the 'Sinfonietta' by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček. I got hold of a recording and I've been playing it all week. I'm not sure how the piece had previously passed me by - it's fantastic. It was written in 1926 and there are five short movements - the whole thing only lasts about 26 minutes. There is some gorgeous brass writing (indeed the first movement is just brass) with a number of variations on the opening fanfare that first grabbed my ears. If you don't already know the Sinfonietta, I would recommend discovering it for yourself.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

'Donkeys' Years' by Michael Frayn

1 October 2007

On Saturday we were at Milton Keynes Theatre to see 'Donkeys' Years' by Michael Frayn. A group of middle-aged men assemble in "one of the smaller courts, in one of the lesser colleges, at one of the older universities" for a college reunion 25 years on. Finding themselves quartered in their old college rooms, they soon revert to their student behaviour and there is much drinking, running in and out of bedrooms, defacing the statue of King Henry and throwing people in the lake. Not much of a story but a very slick and well-paced farce. This is quite an early Michael Frayn play - later he would create the classic de-constructed farce, 'Noises Off' - 'Donkeys' Years' is more one-dimensional but very funny nonetheless. This production is now touring after a stint in the West End and boasts a cast of very familiar faces including Ian Lavendar, Richard Hope, Sara Crowe and Norman Pace but the evening belongs to Mark Hadfield - great physical comedy and timing.

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