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2000-2015, 886 reviews. Thanks all - it was fun while it lasted, but nothing lasts forever.

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The Trigger: The Hunt for Gavrilo Princip - the Assassin who Brought the World to War - Tim Butcher 29/07/2015

The bullets which led to war

The Trigger: The Hunt for Gavrilo Princip - the Assassin who Brought the World to War - Tim Butcher The trigger of the title is that which featured in perhaps the most far-reaching assassination in history – that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary, and his morganatic (unequal in rank) wife, Sophie Chotek. On the morning of 28 June 1914, they were being driven through the streets of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, when a young Serbian self-styled ‘freedom-fighter’, Gavrilo Princip, took aim and shot them dead at point blank range. Within six weeks the the double killing had triggered – excuse the pun – a war which brought three admittedly crumbling European empires to defeat and oblivion, and helped to redraw a very different map of the continent less than five years later. The book Almost a hundred years later, journalist Tim Butcher went ‘in search of Princip’, or rather the country in which he was born and raised. It took him from his birthplace in the hamlet of Obljaj in western Bosnia to Sarajevo and across the border to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. From the descriptions in his book, western Bosnia, an area of largely infertile terrain bordered by mountains, sounds like it has altered but little in the last hundred years. His odyssey begins in Obljaj, where he meets surviving members of Princip’s family, some now very elderly, who pass on memories and recollections handed down from the previous generation of the mischievous schoolboy who became a discontented teenager and then a passionate nationalist, obsessed with the ...

Chicago Town Pepperoni Deep Pan Pizzas 24/07/2015

Return of the Chicago pizza

Chicago Town Pepperoni Deep Pan Pizzas A few weeks ago my wife and I thought we would try the rather tempting-looking Chicago Town Deep Dish pizzas which were crying out ‘eat us’, in a manner of speaking. Having begun with the Four Cheese variety, we decided to go next for the ‘2 Pepperoni’. Every packet offers you two pizzas, approx, 5” in diameter, and 1” thick, and weighing 155 grams each. Appearance and smell Inside a compact and enticing-looking little box of 11in X 5½in (no details spared, folks) are two pizzas of similarly inviting appearance. Around the outside and on the base of each one is a crust, which makes it look less like the standard flat pizza and more like a quiche of sorts. They come on a thin cardboard disc, which as the packet says needs to be removed before you cook them in the oven. I did not find there to be much a smell to them before I started cooking. That’s probably my fault, as I don’t have a very strong sense of smell at the best of times. However, my wife confirmed that the aroma was indeed everything it ought to be while it was being gently savaged in the name of human hunger inside our Aga. Cooking According to the packet, it is quite in order to pop them in the microwave – but not more than one at a time. If doing so, keep them on the cardboard disc while you do so. Allow three and a half minutes’ cooking time at 750W, or three minutes at 850w, then allow them to stand for another minute. On tiptoe if you like. Before eating, make sure that the pizza is hot throughout ...

Very Best of Val Doonican [Universal] - Val Doonican 18/07/2015

Val Doonican, the Wonder of Waterford

Very Best of Val Doonican [Universal] - Val Doonican Val Doonican Michael Valentine Doonican (1927-2015) was for many years one of the towering names in television light entertainment. Those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s will almost certainly have fond memories of the Irish singer and TV show host who had a string of hits between 1964 and 1973 (14 singles, and at Christmas 1967 an album which dislodged the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’ from No. 1 in the chart for one week, no mean achievement), and is remembered for those colourful pullovers, rocking chair and novelty Irish folk songs. He continued to perform until he was in his early eighties, a few years before – to quote one of his daughters – ‘his batteries just ran out’. You could call him cheesy and old-hat, and he was never cutting edge. But I’d defy anybody to see the man on TV and not warm instantly to him, even if they did not enjoy his songs for their own sake. And as for me, I find it difficult to separate the charm of the man and his music, like an Emerald Isle version of Andy Williams. As an online friend told me in an e-mail while we were discussing him after his death, even for those who were not fans, he was a reassuring reminder of a more gentle age. The music With 26 tracks and 72 minutes playing time, this compilation (a Top 40 album on release in 2008) is probably as ample a helping of his music as you would need. Like many of his light entertainment peers, he and his management combed the repertoires of others for songs to sing, and with one ...

Various Pets Alive and Dead - Marina Lewycka 13/07/2015

Middle-aged hippiedom in a material world

Various Pets Alive and Dead - Marina Lewycka Having read and enjoyed Marina Lewycka’s ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ a few months previously, a gentle comedy with some poignant moments of a gentle collision between British and Eastern European cultures, I had high hopes when I began this one. The book Doro and Marcus are a couple of radical, middle-aged hippies who enjoyed ‘the good life’ in the 1970s. Unlike Tom and Barbara Good in the seventies TV sitcom, they went the whole hog, at Solidarity Hall, a commune near Doncaster. Life was an uncomplicated existence with an ever-changing population of adults, children, various pets alive and dead, free love and lentils, untainted by the worst materialistic excesses of the big bad world not far away. They named their children Clara and Serge after two renowned revolutionaries, and tried to bring them up to embrace their leftie ideals. They also have a younger adopted daughter, Ulyana – known as Oolie-Anna – who has Down’s Syndrome and a sometimes endearing, sometimes embarrassing habit of coming out innocently with embarrassing remarks. Unfortunately, the contrary little children grew up to regard their parents and their ideals as odd relics from another age. Clara, whose ambition in life (or one of them) is to have her own clean bathroom, has become a primary school teacher, while Serge is pretending to be working very hard on a PhD a Cambridge, in order to conceal the fact that he is – shock horror – a city trader in central London, dabbling in all that ...

Hand of Kindness - Richard Thompson 11/07/2015

'Writing cheques that my body couldn't cash'

Hand of Kindness - Richard Thompson Richard Thompson Richard Thompson (born in London in 1949) was a founder member of Fairport Convention, helping to form the group in 1967 as their lead guitarist and main songwriter. After leaving them in 1971, he recorded a solo album before teaming up with and marrying Linda Peters. Following several albums recorded by them as a duo, they split and he resumed his solo career. ‘Hand of Kindness’, his first post-duo album, was first released in 1983. The music Like pretty well all his albums, ‘Hand of Kindness’ is a thoroughly engaging combination of all the elements that make Richard’s work so distinctive. Entirely self-penned, there are rollicking up-tempo numbers, tender ballads, humour, sadness, and some utterly dazzling instrumental work. There is a theme running through part of it in a sense that, like Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’, some songs reflect the disintegration of his marriage. But it’s by no means a sombre, downbeat affair. Despite the title, ‘Tear Stained Letter’ is a spirited affair with some marvellous lyrics. An infectious chorus of ‘Cry, cry if it makes you feel better, Set it all down in a tear-stained letter’ sums up the mood. And what do you make of a verse which opens with ‘My head was beating like a song by the Clash, It was writing cheques that my body couldn't cash’? As for the music, it’s driven along in a brisk shuffle by a marvellous rhythm section and fronted by the twin saxophones of Pete Thomas and Pete Zorn, plus the accordion of ...

Waterllo: The Aftermath - Paul O'Keeffe 05/07/2015

A battle won and lost - and what happened afterwards

Waterllo: The Aftermath - Paul O'Keeffe As is to be expected, there have been several accounts of the battle of Waterloo and of the events that led up to it. But it is always interesting to discover a book which finds a different way of telling the tale, or in this case, one that focuses more on what happened directly afterwards. The book Strictly speaking, O’Keeffe begins this volume with the thick of the fight itself, although eschewing the political and military build-up. We are plunged headlong into a description of the nightmare chaos that was the field of battle, the sound of cannon fire and the screams of dying men and horses. For some soldiers and officers, ‘the continued discharges of the artillery during the battle had so affected the drums of the ears, that we could scarcely hear anything for two or three days afterwards but the roaring of cannon.’ There was another hardly more pleasant noise to be heard at the same time – that of hammers and chisels from the battlefield equivalent of the notorious grave robbers Burke and Hare, the opportunists who had travelled from England close to the armies and waited until the hostilities were over, in order to remove the teeth of dead soldiers and sell them to London dentists. They would be followed by members of the local population, who also swooped on the bodies for a similar reason. The bodies of deceased senior officers could be guaranteed to yield gold in their purses or valuable pocket watches for those who were lucky and shameless enough to get there ...

Up at the Villa - W. Somerset Maugham 27/06/2015

One night of passion - and the aftermath

Up at the Villa - W. Somerset Maugham W. Somerset Maugham William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was a prolific writer of novels, short stories and plays. This counts as a novella, being around a hundred pages long in paperback. Published in 1941 and set in Italy shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, it is one of his later works, and like many of his titles it has rarely gone out of print. It was filmed in 2000, starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Sean Penn. I have not seen it yet, though it attracted criticism from some readers for adding a few subplots to the original story – without which it would have naturally been a very short film. The book The central character is Mary Panton, a glamorous but bored and childless widow of about thirty. She has recently been liberated from a loveless marriage to a habitual drunk, gambler, womaniser and wife-beater who regularly used to force himself on her, then fatally injured himself while driving his car under the influence and died in her arms a few hours later. All things considered, it was as well for both of them. Now she is staying in a villa in Tuscany, awaiting a proposal from Sir Edgar Swift, who is about to take up an appointment as Governor of Bengal. (The last days of empire, and all that – granted, such a setting might seem a little dated these days). He is a good twenty years older than she is, and she does not really love him, but she is still making up her mind whether to accept his offer of marriage or not. Meanwhile, he is away for a ...

The Third Angel - Alice Hoffman 22/06/2015

Angels, three generations, and ghosts

The Third Angel - Alice Hoffman The author Alice Hoffman (born 1952, New York City) has written over twenty novels. The book I found this on the shelves at work and, although I had never heard of the author, I was immediately attracted by the blurb on the back. On first glance a novel spanning three generations, starting in 1999 and finishing back at 1952, with members of an American family gathering in London for a wedding, looked rather appealing. The story opens with Maddie, crossing the Atlantic with her parents, to be a bridesmaid at elder sister Allie’s wedding to Paul. Maddie and Allie, it soon becomes clear, are very different in personality from each other. Allie is the good sister, the perfect one, a writer who has just published a very successful children’s book. She is also very clever. The story is not really hers, having been adapted (or pinched, to be honest) from one their mother used to tell them when they were small. When Maddie, who has always been the rebellious younger one, arrives at the Lion Park Hotel in Knightsbridge where they are all staying, she immediately feels out of place. Then she meets Paul, who turns out to be rather unpleasant, and she strays into paths where the little sister should not go. Then it later emerges than he is not very well either. But the wedding still goes ahead… Then we leap back to 1966 and the previous family generation. It is the heyday of swinging London and nineteen-year-old Frieda Lewis (who will later be the mother of Maddy and Allie), the ...

Charlie Chaplin - Peter Ackroyd 17/06/2015

Charlie the conqueror

Charlie Chaplin - Peter Ackroyd Charlie Chaplin dominated the formative years of the cinema, as actor and director, like no other. As we are told in an early chapter of this book, on his first visit to America in 1910, he is alleged to have shouted, ‘I am coming to conquer you. Every man woman and child shall have my name on their lips!’ Within a few years he had indeed conquered the entire movie-going world. The book While there have been several more comprehensive biographies of Chaplin, this concise account sums up his lengthy life and career very well, providing more or less everything the casual enthusiast needs to know about their hero. Ackroyd has long been recognised as one of the major authors in English on anything to do with London, and he is therefore an appropriate choice for telling the story of one of the most famous men ever to be born and bred in the shabby, poverty-stricken south of the city during the late Victorian era. I was already vaguely aware that his childhood had not been a happy one. Here it is, painted in all its colours of misery, the son of a frequently absent hard-drinking father and a mother who could not care for them properly but who had a succession of lovers, resorted to prostitution from time to time, and who was probably suffering from syphilis and insanity. As he later told a reporter, his childhood ended at the age of seven when he was ‘incarcerated’ in an orphanage – which was probably marginally more comfortable than having to sleep on park benches, of which ...

Rocket Man (The Definitive Hits) - Elton John 11/06/2015

The sun rarely went down on the rocket man

Rocket Man (The Definitive Hits) - Elton John When somebody has notched up close on a hundred chart successes over a 40-year period, nothing less than a triple CD will really do the job of a proper hits package. Whittling Elton’s career down to 18, as this one does, means there will be glaring omissions. (Until you come to the alternative formats, which we will in due course). What we have here is a single CD anthology, released in 2007. The music As luck would have it, first off the block is ‘Bennie and the Jets’, a US No. 1 in 1974 and originally a British B-side, released half-heartedly as a British A-side in 1976 after he had left DJM Records, his original home, to establish his own Rocket Records label. (For those interested in such things, he later acquired the rights to all the DJM material, the Rocket catalogue was absorbed into Mercury Records, which became Universal, which became UMC…I think. Bet you wished you’d never asked). Frankly, the appeal of this one has always passed me by. I find it a rather plodding piece, with a rather uninteresting lyric about a fictitious band, full of dubbed-on applause and not a lot of tune to speak of. But friends of mine used to love it, so that’s only my opinion. Luckily the collection redeems itself next with ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ (No. 12, 1975). This is a real five-star cracker. I’m not just talking about the hook in the song, but also the spectacular arrangement and production, with simple but effective dark strings, booming trumpets, curling flute sounds that float ...

Sharps Doombar 06/06/2015

Prepare to meat (and drink) thy Doom (bar)

Sharps Doombar In my quest to sample and evaluate some of the best and most readily obtainable bitters on the market, for the benefit of ciao readers (it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it), and as someone who lives not far from the River Tamar, I now take a sip (or several, to make sure) of one of Cornwall’s finest. The name and the history Sharp's Brewery is one of the newer kids on the block, having been founded in 1994 in Rock, Cornwall by Bill Sharp. Owned since 2011 by Molson Coors, it is best known for Doom Bar, its flagship ale. The name of this enticing beverage is inspired by its namesake the treacherous sandbank at the mouth of the Camel estuary, near Rock, on the North Atlantic coast of Cornwall. The company makes a point of avoiding the use of artificial additives on principle. Unlike many breweries, it does not own or operate any public houses, hotels or restaurants, but concentrates wholly on brewing and supplying beer to outlets across the country and overseas. It produces regular cask ales, seasonal ales, and pasteurised bottled beers. Experience, appearance, smell and taste My wife and I were eating out one evening about three years ago at a pub close to our home in Devon. We generally sample a pint of what is on offer and looks interesting on such occasions, and although we had not come across Doom Bar before, the landlord had it on tap and recommended it. (Well, he’d hardly be likely NOT to recommend it in his own parish, would he?) We tried it and ...

The Forgotten Garden - Kate Morton 02/06/2015

A tale of time travel, weeds and brambles

The Forgotten Garden - Kate Morton ‘The Forgotten Garden’, the second novel by Kate Morton, was first published in 2008. The book The saga opens in 1913 when a small girl is found holding on to a suitcase containing a book of children’s fairytales inside for dear life, apparently abandoned, after a voyage on an ocean liner from England to Australia. All she knows is that a woman, who is known merely as The Authoress, was meant to be looking after her, but she has seemingly vanished. Once she arrives down under, she does not even know her own name. When nobody comes forward to claim or identify her, the harbour master and her family adopt her as one of their own. They give her the name Nell, and she manages to forget all about this turbulent episode, or at least put it out of mind – until her twenty-first birthday, seventeen years later, when the man whom she had always known as her father tells her about how she came to be there. In an instant, the bottom falls out of her till-then comfortable little world. Moving on almost half a century, by 1975 Nell is left with just a few surviving clues to her past, given to her after her father’s death. They inspire her to return to England to discover more about herself, not the least of her obstacles to overcome being that everyone thought she had been presumed dead for over sixty years. Finding her way to London, to the village of Tregenna and to a couple of places on the coast of Cornwall, notably the mysterious Cliff Cottage in the grounds of Blackhurst Manor, ...

Malice Aforethought - Francis Iles 28/05/2015

Murder most clever

Malice Aforethought - Francis Iles When is a crime story not a thriller? When it doesn’t ‘thrill’. In other words, when you know all along who the killer is. ‘Malice Aforethought’ was first published in 1931, one of three novels written by Anthony Berkeley Cox under the byline of Francis Iles. It caused something of a sensation at the time, and is now recognised as one of the first and greatest inverted murder novels. As a result it is regarded as something of a classic of the crime genre, has rarely been out of print, and was dramatized for TV a few years ago. (I missed it, so cannot comment). A spoiler-free review Let us go back to the late 1920s. Wyvern’s Cross is a picturesque little village somewhere in Devon, outwardly genteel and full of good polite churchgoing people, but deep down inside seething with a rather unfortunate form of class prejudice and thirst for gossip, preferably malicious. As a native of Devon for over half a century, I am rather relieved that no such place exists in our fair county – although there are doubtless some like it. Central to the story, if not the village itself, is Dr Edmund Bickleigh. A downtrodden little man, possibly modelled on the notorious, pathetic Dr Crippen, hanged for the murder of his wife in 1910, he (Bickleigh, that is) is married to Julia. She is eight years older than him, a good deal taller – and uniquely horrible, the kind of woman whom you would probably not wish on your worst enemy. In the first chapter we learn all this, and also that in the ...

The Complete Saki - Saki 23/05/2015

The dark disturbing wit of Saki

The Complete Saki - Saki ‘Saki’ ‘Saki’, a name taken from ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’, was the pseudonym of Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916). Although he wrote a couple of novels, three very short plays and a work on Russian history, he is best remembered for his short stories. The book First of all, let’s nit-pick. This book does not include the Russian history, although as it was his only example of non-fiction writing and was published under his own name, this is understandable. But the 950 pages do include the novels (which are quite short by modern standards), the plays, and above all the 135 short stories. How do you sum up the essence of Saki? Others have suggested that most of them have a theme based around ‘the conventions and hypocrisies of Edwardian England’ with the struggles of nature. So imagine, if you will, a combination of Oscar Wilde and a dark version of P.G. Wodehouse. Coincidentally, Wilde and Munro were both British authors who died in France at the age of 45/46, and were gay in an age when most gay men kept quiet about it if they wished to stay out of trouble. The latter was killed in action during World War One. Some of these stories are uproariously funny, if you can accept the slightly old-fashioned phrasing. But as with Tom Sharpe’s books, there is generally a sting in the tail as well, and a pronounced lack of happy endings. It goes without saying that they are somewhat dated. That’s as in ‘his work has a definite period charm’ if you wish to be complimentary, and ...

Tom Jones: The Life - Sean Smith 19/05/2015

What happened next to The Boy From Nowhere

Tom Jones: The Life - Sean Smith Few singers have sustained a career over half a century and appealed to succeeding generations in the way that the former Thomas John Woodward of Treforest, South Wales, has managed to do. Almost written off during a lean period or two, he proved himself the master of re-invention, and now in his mid-70s he is loved and revered as something of a national treasure. The book Sean Smith has charted the remarkable life and career very effectively in this volume. It is indeed more or less a ‘rags to riches’ tale, of a boy growing up in a small Welsh mining village or, to borrow a title from one of his most successful singles, ‘A Boy From Nowhere’. His early years were happy enough, apart from being briefly blighted by tuberculosis during his adolescence, which had the advantage of interrupting his never very congenial schooldays. Marriage at the age of sixteen out of necessity, and the speedy birth of son Mark to his wife Linda, followed very soon afterwards. A recurring theme throughout the book is that Tom is exceptionally fortunate in that Linda has been the forgiving type, prepared to put up with his numerous and rather too public infidelities over the years. One is reminded of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and the latter’s quiet acceptance of the realisation that ‘after all, he loved me the best’. There was also a neat symmetry in the fact that after Tom went out of fashion and was regarded as something of a has-been in the early 1980s, his original manager Gordon ...
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