Wednesday, January 28, 2009

‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ by Stef Penney

28 January 2009

1867, Canada: the setting for ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’, the debut novel by Stef Penney. When it won the 2006 Costa Book of the Year prize there was some media fuss about the fact that Stef Penney had never actually been to Canada (let alone Canada in the 1860s!). Well, call me old fashioned but I’ve always thought it an asset for a fiction writer to be able to make things up! ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ is a gripping tale told from the various viewpoints of an engaging cast of Dickensian characters. It opens with the discovery of a murder in a remote community of Scottish settlers in Ontario and the narrative follows various trails through the snowy wilderness to unravel this and several other mysteries. And throughout there is the constant sense of being watched by the lurking, unseen menace of wolves. The story is revealed through chapters which each take the perspective of one of the principal characters – all in the third person with the exception of the first person narration of the central figure, Mrs Ross. The alternating viewpoints reminded me of Matthew Kneale’s wonderful novel ‘English Passengers’ though the humour of ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ is more restrained. The Dickensian tone and unravelling of family mysteries also made me think of ‘The Little Friend’ by Donna Tartt – another recent favourite. I liked the way the reader’s understanding of what happened grows only in line with the characters whose viewpoints we have been following – meaning that at several points we think we have discovered the truth, only to have to adjust our understanding again later. While some key puzzles are resolved by the end of the book, there are plenty of remaining loose ends which help to avoid the story seeming tool artificially neat and tidy (or leave you frustratingly scouring the internet for answers!). And there’s a small, final twist which alerts you to a further mystery that you haven’t noticed was there all along, lurking in the shadows with the wolves. A very impressive, gripping and entertaining debut.


Friday, January 23, 2009


23 January 2008

This week I’ve discovered ‘Spotify’ – a new online music streaming service. If you’ve got a broadband connection and you’re willing to put up with listening to a very occasional advert you can listen to a massive catalogue of recorded music completely free of charge. You download a small program which handles the streaming (without any of the buffering delays you get with most streaming audio) and the interface looks very like itunes. It works remarkably well and the choice of popular, classical and world music seems pretty good. At the moment you can only sign up for the free service by invitation but, if you’re interested, you can get an invitation by using this link: 

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Friday, January 16, 2009

'Smoke of Home' by Megson

16 January 2008

I’ve been enjoying ‘Smoke of Home’, the 2007 album by English folk duo Megson. Stu Hanna and Debbie Palmer come from Teeside and sing uplifting folk/pop with interesting lyrics – similar territory to Karine Polwart (reviewed here in November 2005, April 2006 and April 2008). The rhythmic guitars and catchy tunes sound a lot like Seth Lakeman (reviewed here in April 2006) – though with North East rather than South West accents. If you’re looking for an antidote to the post-Christmas blues Megson might be the answer. Take a look at

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Friday, January 09, 2009

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Viennese New Year Gala

9 January 2009

We brought in the New Year in a cottage in Herefordshire and, not being able to manage the journey to Vienna, decided instead to join the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for a Viennese New Year Gala concert at the Malvern Theatres. A packed house enjoyed a marvellous evening of works by Mozart, von Suppé and the Strauss family culminating in the inevitable ‘Blue Danube’ and the ‘Radetzky March’. Austrian conductor Carlos Kalmar was the perfect host, providing fascinating introductions to each of the pieces, entertaining with his exuberant, choreographed conducting and looking the part with wild hair and a mischievous grin. Two days before the concert soprano Gillian Keith was looking forward to a quiet New Year at home when she got a call from the CBSO asking if she could step in to replace an ill Mary Hegarty. Gillian Keith gave a great performance: I particularly enjoyed her ‘Spiel Ich die Unschuld vom Lande’ from ‘Die Fledermaus’ by Johann Strauss II. A lovely way to start 2009. 

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'The Wizard of Oz' by L. Frank Baum, with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg

9 January 2009

On Christmas Eve we made an impromptu journey up the yellow brick road to the Royal Theatre, Northampton, where we bought the last two tickets for Laurie Sansom’s wonderful production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’. It was a magical show – managing both to recreate faithfully many of the iconic moments from the 1939 MGM film and to demonstrate ingenious and original stagecraft. Sara Perks’ colourful design gave each scene a different colour scheme until Dorothy had travelled through an entire rainbow. I particularly liked the stilt-walking apple trees and the use of a trap-door which allowed Kate Russell-Smith’s Wicked Witch of the West to melt before our eyes. Once again Laurie Sansom presented a seamlessly integrated cast with the professional principles supported by 15 local amateur actors and 3 rotating groups of 20 local children as the Munchkins. Natalie Burt (who we had previously seen at the Royal in 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' – reviewed here in September 2008 – and ‘The Glass Cage’ – reviewed here in November 2007) was a brilliant Dorothy. But the undoubted star of the show was the Scottish terrier Parker (or Bradley – not sure which we saw) as Toto. Wonderful.

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