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since 28/03/2001


The Interpretation of Murder - Jed Rubenfeld 01/07/2007

Freud, Hamlet and a Most Confusing Murder

The Interpretation of Murder - Jed Rubenfeld This is one of the books doing the circuit of book groups across the nation at the moment, as it's in a popular genre (the whodunit) yet has plenty to talk about. Psychology, Shakespeare, American society, sexuality, jealousy, class and politics all play a part in the tale, leaving endless threads for discussion. The plot focuses on a fairly mysterious episode in the life of Sigmund Freud, who had a very peculiar reaction to his one and only trip to the United States. Jed Rubenfeld (a first-time novelist) speculates about what could have caused the father of psychoanalysis to turn against the country and weaves a tale involving a whole host of dastardly doings. As Freud arrives in New York, the coroner is investigating a mysterious death while another young lady reports an attack remarkably similar to the one already under investigation. At Freud's suggestion, an American psychoanalyst talks to the girl, who displays symptoms of amnesia, in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery. Meanwhile, he and his colleagues meet resistance to their theories (and indeed their very presence), and bodies begin to disappear or turn up unexpectedly. In many ways, this is a standard period whodunit. We have different aspects of the investigation being headed up by the city coroner, a lowly police detective and our protagonist, psychoanalyst Stratham Younger. Threads are uncovered which seem unconnected, but which ultimately come together to present a picture of what really ...

Dracula - Bram Stoker, Elizabeth Kostova 09/04/2007

Bloodless vampire

Dracula - Bram Stoker, Elizabeth Kostova Dracula is a strange book. Everyone knows of the title character, and possibly even the rest of the dramatis personae, particularly good old Van Helsing. But each new version that comes out tends to spin the tale in a new way, and very rarely reflects what Bram Stoker actually wrote. In Dracula, Bram Stoker basically condensed all of Europe's varied vampire myths into one, creating a compelling character and ultimately leading to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Anne Rice's books, both of which take many of their cues from Stoker's template. The novel tells the story of the immortal vampire's attempt to make a new life in England, where his power and evil are unknown, and the efforts of a strange band of people to stop him. A solicitor, an aristocrat, a wilful woman, a random American, the man in charge of an asylum and a specialist in strange diseases are hardly the most obvious crew to assemble for vampire hunting, but hunt the vampire is what they do, both at home and abroad. The novel is told in a series of letters, diary entries and terrible stories from local newspapers (which one hopes are written so badly deliberately). This can mean that the pace drags horribly, particularly as the author makes no effort to differentiate between the different diary authors (the letters do at least manage to have different styles). Sometimes you wonder how the characters have time to write such a lot, particularly once Mina Harker takes it upon herself to make multiple typed copies ...

The Sixth Lamentation - William Brodrick 22/12/2005

A moving lamentation

The Sixth Lamentation - William Brodrick I didn't quite know what to think when I was told that my book club would be discussing a book called 'The Sixth Lamentation'. Would it be some sort of apocalyptic fiction loosely based on the visions in the Bible? Would it be a case of 'the best thriller since the Da Vinci Code!'? As it turned out, it's neither, which was a great relief. It's a rather powerful, yet low-key examination of the effects that an ancestor's actions can have on their descendants' lives. Dramatic events in occupied France cause much emotional upheaval in the lives of various English men and women of today, most of them descended from the key players in the sixty-year-old drama, the facts of which are slowly revealed to the characters and the readers. This is the first novel for the author, William Brodrick, and it displays an astonishing level of control over his plot, characters and structure. Facts and misinformation are laid out at the perfect pace, and the characters learn, grow and change as the plot progresses. There is a mingled sense of sadness and hope throughout the narrative, but the source of hope switches frequently as events take unexpected turns. Of course, the book includes an 'Author's Note', telling us where the boundary between fact and fiction lies. I wonder if this is a legacy from Dan Brown's 'It's all true' at the beginning of 'The Da Vinci Code' (by the way, it's not) to avoid crazy people who don't really understand the concept of fiction. Anyway, back to the ...

Sin City (DVD) 27/11/2005

Sinful city wins me over

Sin City (DVD) Sin City is just that. A city of sin. Most of the police are corrupt and those that aren't have a low life expectancy. Mercenaries come here, knowing there's bound to be someone who'll give them a job. Politicians run the mob. The clergy commit outrageous acts and get away with it. A portion of the town is run with an iron first by the prostitutes, each of whom is an expert with one or more weapons. Truly good people are thin on the ground. It's a fascinating place. If you have a strong stomach it's well worth checking out. Sin City the film is based on a number of graphic novels by Frank Miller, one of the comic book world's deities, ranking probably a little lower than Jack Kirby and Alan Moore. The comic books, graphic novels, books (call them what you like), have a distinctive visual style as well as a bleak outlook with a blackly humorous twist. Director Robert Rodriguez worked closely with Miller (plus a little bit of help from Quentin Tarantino) to replicate the look and feel of Sin City from the page to the big screen and the results are stunning. Innovative effects techniques have been used so that the characters walk through environments as drawn by Miller himself, and although much of the film is in black and white, there are splashes of colour. A red dress. Women's eyes. Blood. A blue car. A man with bright yellow skin. The scarcity of colour makes it that much more important and eye-catching whenever it does creep in, and the preponderance of black and ...

Abarat - Clive Barker 23/10/2005

Beautiful fantasy

Abarat - Clive Barker A fantasy aimed at both children and adults, written and illustrated by a master of the horror genre? Can such a thing exist, and if so, could it possibly be any good? Surprisingly, the answer to both of these questions is 'yes'. It most certainly does exist and it's both good and compelling. The wonder of this book begins with its cover, even down to the title. The script used looks very odd, so much so that you could misread the 'b' as an 'r', thus making the title 'Ararat. However, the reason for this becomes apparent if you look at the book upside-down and the title reads in exactly the same way. 'Abarat' is 'Abarat' whether it's right-way-up or topsy-turvey. A small indication of the magic inside the book's covers. One of the most obvious aspects of the book is the impeccable design, which continues through from the title design to the interior pages. The hardback edition (and one would assume the paperback edition as well) is adorned with dozens of paintings by the author, each depicting a person, place or thing encountered during the story. These vivid illustrations serve to make the book a feast for the eyes. While they are not masterpieces, the paintings are all engaging and serve to make the reading experience that bit more enjoyable. So, aside from looking beautiful, is the book worth reading? What's it about, and why should we care? Well, the story centres on an ordinary American girl called Candy Quackenbush who finds life in the tedious Chickentown to ...

The Bourne Identity - Robert Ludlum 07/09/2005

A Man With No Past

The Bourne Identity - Robert Ludlum I'm a firm believer in reading a book before seeing the film version, if you see it at all, but this is one case where I made an exception. Come to think of it, I don't think I knew that the Matt Damon film 'The Bourne Identity' was based on a book at all. So I saw the film, thought it was wonderful and sought out the book. I found that although there are some names and ideas shared between the book and the film, they are very different in terms of plot and characterisation and not just because the film takes place in a different decade to the book. However, once the spectre of the film is banished as an annoying distraction, this is a riveting book - different, certainly, but very good indeed. I shall try to keep references to the film to a minimum from this point onwards! The central character of the book is a man with no past. He can't remember anything about himself, and yet he can speak multiple languages fluently and he has a number of unusual talents. Skills he can remember, but facts are inaccessible. Befriended by an English doctor, this man sets out in search of his identity, in a quest that leads him to Marseilles, Zurich, Paris and beyond, learning fragments about his past as he goes along. As he is confused, so is the reader, unsure who is telling the truth and baffled about the meaning of things, people and events. Slowly certain words acquire significance. Treadstone. Cain. Carlos. Medusa. And Jason Bourne, which may or may no be the man's real ...

Reflections from Broadway - John Barrowman 10/08/2005

Beautiful reflections

Reflections from Broadway - John Barrowman You may know John Barrowman for his exquisite rendition of 'Night and Day' in the film De-Lovely. Or maybe for revealing almost all in the newest version of Doctor Who. Or perhaps you have childhood memories of him as a presenter of Live and Kicking and the Movie Game on Children's BBC. But he is most at home on the musical stage, whether in cabaret or treading the boards on Broadway or the West End. This CD includes numerous songs which he has sung on stage but not previously recorded, as well as a number of others that he just happens to like. Accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra, the songs are given a grand treatment, just as they would do live on stage. The majority of the songs are from 'modern' musicals (from the 1980s and 1990s), but there are a few golden oldies thrown in as well. The CD design is simple and clear. The front cover of the booklet is simply a head shot of Barrowman and the interior includes a couple of other pics of the singer (one is a tad odd as it features that perennial fashion problem, the 'visible panty line'). The text includes the usual thanks and credits, plus plugs for a couple of other CDs which feature John Barrowman on the JAY label and an introduction from John himself which explains his reasons for including each of the seventeen tracks, which is a most welcome personal touch. Anyway, on to the music, which is more important than the packaging, after all! As the album's title suggests, most of the songs are on the tender ...

Hey Nostradamus! - Douglas Coupland 08/08/2005

Is there any hope in this world?

Hey Nostradamus! - Douglas Coupland Hey Nostradamus is one of those books that stays with you, that haunts you, that you can't get out of your head. The themes, the issues, the characters and the events replay constantly, and can jump out at you unexpectedly for a long time after the book has been replaced on the shelves. It deals with many of the deepest concerns of early twenty-first century humanity - the capacity for violence and for love, the power of the media, trust, faith, truth and certainty. Clearly inhabiting a post September 11th 2001 literary landscape, though the terrible events of that day are never mentioned, the book does not offer answers, but explores the questions in a profound and moving way. Told by four people over the course of fifteen years, the book's central focus is a high-school shooting which has profound effects on the lives of the people involved and the people who know them. Everything else in the narrative is seen in the light of the moment when three students chose, for reasons which remain unclear, to shoot many of their classmates in cold blood in the summer of 1988. The first portion of the book is told from the perspective of one of their victims, Cheryl. Then, eleven years later, her boyfriend Jason takes up the tale, followed five years later by his lover Heather, and finally, after another year's gap, by Jason's father Reg. Each of them remains haunted by the events of 1988, even Heather, the only one of the four not intimately connected - she is forever aware of the ...

Saint She Ain't (Original Soundtrack) - Soundtrack 05/08/2005

Fun this ain't

Saint She Ain't (Original Soundtrack) - Soundtrack Pastiche, the imitation of a literary or musical style for (generally) comic purposes, can be a wonderful thing. The songs of Tom Lehrer and the musical The Boyfriend spring to mind as great examples. Unfortunately, not all pastiche is good pastiche, and 'A Saint She Ain't' certainly ain't good pastiche. Written in a style reminiscent of film musicals of the 1940s and accompanied by piano (possibly two pianos, judging from the sound of the overture), the show features thirteen different songs which echo the list songs, novelty numbers and lovestruck duets remembered fondly from so many Hollywood singalongs. But it's not much fun, when it comes down to it. Music is by Denis King, lyrics by Dick Vosburgh and the cast of eight features Barry Cryer and Gavin Lee (who went on to create the stage version of Bert in Mary Poppins). The plot is apparently based on one of Moliere's farces (as a set of singers labelled the Andrews Sisters and singing in a similar style to that group tell us), but you get little idea of it from the disc, so the show may well have worked much better on stage than it does here. The tinkling overture soon gets boring, regardless of how many pianos are actually playing, and the first track, the 'Andrews Sisters' singing Mister Moliere, doesn't exactly inspire the listener with enthusiasm, despite some skilful harmony singing. Many of the other songs are merely functional, as well hitting one note (e.g. I like singing, or my life is a mess) repeatedly ...

You're Never Fully Dressed (Sings Strouse/Original Soundtrack) - Jason Graae 05/08/2005

Makes you wear a smile

You're Never Fully Dressed (Sings Strouse/Original Soundtrack) - Jason Graae It's a Charles Strouse album! Possibly THE Charles Strouse album. Most of the time, when musical theatre stars, or other artists for that matter, record an album devoted to the work of one composer, the composer in question will be Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber. So a Charles Strouse album is a nice change, but who is he? He's a prolific composer for the musical stage, but only two of his shows have achieved lasting success - Bye, Bye Birdie and the huge hit Annie. Often a very bouncy composer, he can also write some lovely ballads, and both sides of his talent are displayed by Jason Graae on this album. Strouse has worked with quite a number of different lyricists - five wordsmiths, including Strouse himself, are credited on the album's track listing. Again, I can hear people saying 'who is Jason Graae?', because he is even less well known than Strouse. He's a musical theatre performer who rose to prominence in the late 1980s and, during the 1990s, recorded songs for many compilation albums of rarely-heard Broadway material, and appeared in juvenile lead roles in various shows. He has a clear, light voice and is principally noted for his comic talents - from all accounts, he is absolutely hilarious live. But is the combination of Strouse and Graae a good one? Yes, absolutely yes. This isn't one of the 'best' albums in my rather eclectic collection, but it does get played a lot more than many others, because it's so darned ...

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - J.K. Rowling 30/07/2005

At last, something good about Harry Potter -UPDATE

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - J.K. Rowling Back in 2001, when I originally wrote this review, the Harry Potter phenomenon had not grabbed my attention the way it grabbed the rest of the universe, and yet I enjoyed this slim volume immensely. It was sold, along with a book about J.K. Rowling's invented wizard game quidditch, to benefit the work of Comic Relief, and inevitably raised an awful lot of money for the cause. The book is a very clever one, and obviously well researched, both from folklore and fiction. J.K.Rowling has compiled a collection of magical beasts, some original to the Harry Potter books and others borrowed from the great mythic traditions of the world. Presented in the form of a textbook for wizards, written by one Newt Scamander, the book is very entertaining reading, offering explanations for the Loch Ness monster, the yeti and other phenomena. As a fan of myth and fable, I thoroughlly enjoyed reading her account of the magical animals of the world, spiced up with 'real life' stories of Wizards' encounters with them. Coming back to the book now that I've been sucked in to Pottermania, it serves as a handy crib sheet to some of the creatures which pop up in the books from time to time, and it's intriguing to see the hints of revelations that Rowling has made in the books published since this guide came out - a reference to thestrals, which were a secret until Order of the Phoenix, for example. I have also had a good chuckle at the numerous footnotes, which refer to other wizarding ...

Swings Cole Porter - John Barrowman 29/07/2005

Great songs, great singer, disappointing CD

Swings Cole Porter - John Barrowman John Barrowman has recently leapt into the spotlight due to a major role in the first series of the BBC's 'Doctor Who' relaunch, but has been known as a star of musicals for quite some time, and has also made various appearances in films and sitcoms. This album was presumably inspired by his recent involvement in two Cole Porter projects - the National Theatre's revival of Anything Goes and the Porter biopic De-Lovely, where he dueted with Kevin Kline on the song 'Night and Day'. Barrowman is one of those implausibly talented people - he's ludicrously handsome, he has a great singing voice, and he's an accomplished singer and dancer. The sort of man that inspires much jealousy, in short. His singing style is open and approachable, no nasal whining here. He has a wide range (he doesn't strain on any of the high notes) and you can make out every single word he sings, which makes a pleasant change! On this album he sticks entirely to songs with both words and music by Cole Porter, and the track list includes some of the greatest songs of the early-mid twentieth century. It is hard to dispute the greatness of 'It's All Right With Me', 'Just One of Those Things' and particularly the heartbreakingly simple 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye.' With arrangements by Larry Blank, he is accompanied by a large, accomplished orchestra - the Pro Arte Orchestra of London. The strings section is particularly beautiful on 'In the Still of the Night'. So this should be an incredible CD, right? ...

A Darkness at Sethanon - Raymond E. Feist 28/07/2005

Can anyone say 'Helm's Deep'?

A Darkness at Sethanon - Raymond E. Feist Raymond E. Feist's first novel, Magician (1983), is a classic of the fantasy genre, greatly admired for its sens of grand adventure, its characterisation and for being an all-around rollicking good read. Unfortunately, it's two sequels, Silverthorn (1985) and A Darkness at Sethanon (1986) don't match up to the first book in any way. Silverthorn is basically a generic fantasy quest (hero must get hold of a particular, heavily-guarded object and thus sets off with a ragtag bunch of companions to face a variety of obstacles) and is not very good at all, but A Darkness at Sethanon does manage to redeem the trilogy (known as the Riftwar Saga) somewhat. Setting and Plot A Darkness at Sethanon, like its two predecessors, is set mainly on the world of Midkemia, which resembles feudal Europe in many ways (as so many fantasy worlds tend to do), complete with vaguely enigmatic Arab-like nation to the south, plus the usual goblins, elves, dwarves and dragons. We do encounter a few more intriguing and original races, though, including the moredhel, who were once elves, but now follow a darker path through life. Parts of the novel also take place on Kelewan, the world of the Tsurani race, which has elements of Rome, China and the South American nations in its interesting cultural mix. A few of the characters also take a whistle-stop tour of the universe (or maybe universes, it's not entirely clear), stopping off at vrious places with interesting architecture and encountering ...

Batman Begins - Original Soundtrack 27/07/2005

Does it come in black?

Batman Begins - Original Soundtrack Batman Begins is a complete departure from the previous four Bat-films (which went from very good to unbelievably bad, in my opinion), and the soundtrack is as different as everything else. The first of the films had Danny Elfman's wonderful score with that unmistakable theme for the Caped Crusader, and later films relied to a certain extent on the chart-topping singles that could be launched from them. Batman Begins has neither themes nor chart hits. The soundtrack features a collaboration between two great composers - Hans Zimmer (Gladiator etc.) and James Newton Howard (recently associated with M. Night Shyamalan). I'm not sure exactly how this collaboration worked, but it produced a very atmospheric score which suits the film perfectly. An hour's worth of the music has been released and gives a satisfying listening experience on the CD, which not all film scores manage to do. Presentation Even before listening to the music, I had to give this particular soundtrack quite a number of bonus points just for style and presentation. The front cover and the CD itself both feature striking images of the hero, and quite a number of stills from the film (sadly, very small ones) are used on the back of the case and inside the brief liner notes. The notes just give a track listing, credits and the inevitable thanks. Where the presentation stands out, though, is in the naming of the tracks. The album consists of twelve tracks, named Vespertillo, Eptesicus, Myotis, Barbastella, ...

Something for Everybody - Baz Luhrmann 24/07/2005

Trust me on the sunscreen...

Something for Everybody - Baz Luhrmann Director Baz Luhrmann is most famous for his 'red curtain trilogy' of films - Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (which from here on is abbreviated to Romeo and Juliet) and Moulin Rouge. However, as this eclectic collection proves, his career has included far more than this, including various theatrical productions. The seventeen tracks on the album cover the first two of the films, plus four varied stage shows from Hair to La Boheme. This leads to a somewhat surreal, perhaps even schizophrenic, listening experience, but the album is definitely fun. Great, bizarre fun. The first two tracks usher us into the world of Bazmark (Lurhmann's trademark) with a fanfare and a version of 'Young Hearts Run Free' from Romeo and Juliet, which mixes in excerpts from other tunes associated with Luhrmann, most notably Strictly Ballroom's 'Love is in the Air' and another Romeo and Juliet track, 'Everybody's Free.' The first is a throwaway, but the second is great - upbeat, fast, exciting. The tracks that follow range from sublime to bizarre. Doris Day's 'Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps', used in Strictly Ballroom, is definitely in contention for the crown of most sublime track on the album. People familiar with the TV show Coupling will know the tune from that show's credits sequence, and this is one of the few tracks on the album which is completely 'straight', with no remixing of any kind. I suppose when you have a strong performer like Doris Day singing something ...
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