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Any compilation trying to do justice to psychedelic rock is going to have a hard time getting it right. In fact it might not even be possible to 'get it right' since psychedelic rock as a musical genre or movement is hard to define and what constitutes a psychedelic song lies more in the eyes of the beholder than in the intention of the artist.
Broadly speaking the high point of Psychedelic movement was 1967 and could be said to have lasted from 1965 to 1969. It developed out of the earlier British Blues Rock and gradually morphed into progressive rock of the 1970's. The Pscychedelic 'movement' encompassed many different styles and types of bands who were all loosely brought together by a common inspirations or influences inspired in psychedelic culture, which attempted to explore the mind altering effects of mind-altering psychedelic drugs in music, visual art and literature. The music often used new recording techniques was often steeped in vestiges of eastern and oriental culture using traditional eastern instruments like the sitar.
The most well known and commercially successful exponents of the genre in the UK were bands like Pink Floyd, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and of course the Beatles. However these names are shunned in this compilation which attempts to gather together some of the lesser known artist associated with British Psychedelia. That is not to say we don't have some big artist included: Donovan, The Hollies, The Yardbirs are all present.
As a genre although lasting almost 5 years and comprising many bands psychedelia is not a huge genre and invariably in any compilation some track will also make an appearance. One such track is 'Sunshine Superman' which more than any other song seems to encompass the attributes of a psychedelic song. Donovan originally the British Dylan of the early 60's folk movement had like developed his music into other areas. This was one of Donovan's biggest hits and is a very catchy bright summer sing along a good lead-in to the stranger offerings of the album.
Many songs of the genre used common imagery to bring out an ethereal and mystical quality to the music therefore when you listen to psychedelic music you often hear about sunshine, bicycles, rainbows, stars, wind and kites! A perfect example of this is the second song on the album and a true classic or the period Kites by the fantastically named Simon Dupree & the Big Sound. Simon Dupree never existed and while the band did have a 'big sound' their adventures into Psychedelia could be said to be a bit of an accident. Originally formed as a R&B group by brothers Derek, Ray and Phil Shulman although achieving moderate success mostly on the live circuit their recording company decide to move the band into a different direction and get them to join the Psychedelic boom of 1967. Although the band were unhappy this change of direction led to 'Kites', which was their biggest hit and now considered a classic.
The song has an essentially ethereal quality to it and includes wind sound effects in the background. Just to add a bit more eccentricity to it we also get a woman speaking some Chinese at the end. Because of it quirkiness its clever production 'Kites' unlike many other songs of this period and genre sounds quite distinctive and has timeless quality to its sound. Like many bands of the era Simon Dupree and the Big Sound could not follow up their success and later became the Progressive Rock group Gentle Giant. The third song on the album is also another classic but one that shows you how loosely the term Psychedelia can be applied.
'The Days of Pearly Spencer' is perhaps the best known song and only hit of Northern Irish folk singer song writer David McWilliams. When you start listening to the song you find it hard to say why this should be considered part of this compilation. It's the story of a homeless man McWilliams met in Ballymena but then we get to the chorus, which sounds as if it is being sung through a megaphone or down the telephone and suddenly the song takes on a stranger quirky quality again a common feature of Psychedelia. The song became popular on pirate radio Caroline and McWilliams fame in Psychedlia was assured even though he didn't profit financially from his hit.
The compilation keeps up its quality and it's common motifs with songs like 'Mr.Rainbow', 'I Can Touch A rainbow' and the quirky 'Lady on a Bicycle' and 'My White Bicycle'...what is it with bikes and mind altering substances...or maybe it refers to how LSD was discovered...but that's another story. 'My White Bicycle' in particular by Tomorrow one of the most underrated of 60's bands really show off the quirky and often whimsical version of psychedelia that was very particular to Britain at the time.
Rather more unusual picks include track five 'Excerpt from a Teenage Opera' also commonly known as 'Grocer Jack' which tells the story of Jack the grocer and his life in a fantasy village. The track is accompanied by a children's chorus and recorded in the then very new true stereo. The song was a huge hit in the summer of 1967 'The Summer of Love', which cemented its status as a Psychedelic standard. It's an odd song sounding more out of a musical (which of course it is) rather than a radio friendly single.
Another two tracks worth a mention are by two of the biggest British 60's bands, 'Goodnight Sweet Josephine' and odd recording by The Yardbirds, which is a eulogy about Josephine a Clapham prostitute and 'King Midas In Reverse' by The Hollies which was an early single from their 1967 'Butterfly' album and was one of their early attempts to buy into psychedelia.
Going from the sublime to the ridiculous which is always a good thing to do in Psychedelic rock we find the legendary 'Were are Moles' by the Moles..." We are the Moles and we stay in our holes". This track was cloaked in mystery when it first came out, the band The Moles were said to be a front for The Beatles having a bit of a laugh. Ringo was supposed to have been the vocalist on this record and since it was recorded at Abbey Studios, George Martin the legendary Beatles producer was supposed to be behind the deception. With its striking electric guitar and use of sound effects and new recording techniques the rumours were plausible even more so when the track was recorded at around the same time that The Beatles were recording Hey Jude at Abbey Road. Well the truth is that there was deception going on in that The Moles didn't really exist as group but it wasn't the Beatles but Simon Dupree and the Big Sound.
Unfortunately when the identity of the real band was disclosed by ex Pink Floyd front man Syd Barrett of all people, interest and sales of the single waned, but it still remains an essential addition to any retrospective of the Psychedelic period.
Having just mentioned him we come again to Syd Barrett, the flawed genius behind many of the Pink Floyd's best early work. He was a key part of the Psychedelic movement and lived the lifestyle to the full which meant that his musical output became increasingly patchy. However he did record some important songs in this period and 'Octopus' is a reminder of why he is still a highly rated influence on 60's music. In contrast to many of the other tracks on the album Octopus is a simple production, just Syd and acoustic guitar, but as always Syd's lyrics paint a multilayer and eccentric pictures which require no more embellishment.
Although The Beatles weren't behind The Moles they still make it on the album in the form of the track 'Hey Bulldog' by The Gods one of my favourite tracks on this compilation. The song was a rather obscure Lennon and McCartney composition taken from Yellow Submarine and made in to a minor hit by The Gods a band who themselves would accrue some musical pedigree in the future. At various times The Gods included among their number two future Uriah Heep members keyboardist and singer Ken Hensley and drummer Lee Kerslake as well as Mick Taylor (The Rolling Stones) and Greg Lake later of Prog Rock monsters ELP.
The record ends well the last 3 track being real crackers. First up we get 'Mr Armageddon' by Locomotive who under various line ups were part of the Brummie 60's rock scene along with other notable bands like the Moody Blues, the Move and the Idle Race. Starting off a ska band with Norman Haines as their main songwriter they were part of the Blue beat label that specialised in Jamaican influenced music in the late 60's but instead of making the more natural progression from ska to reggae they took a rather more usual turn to Psychedelia. Mr Armageddon probably their best track is characteristic of their sound, much orchestrated and rather epic in nature. It's a great track and a good example of the more idiosyncratic British Psychedelia as opposed to the more blues/rock based US version. The band didn't last long after this but their sound was more indicative of what was to come a few years later in progressive rock.
The penultimate track is 'In the Land of the Few' by Love Sculpture, the track and the band are not recognisably psychedelic. The band would I am sure have been quite been forgotten despite being very good and producing some good songs including 'Land of the Few', they remind me a little of The Who and the quality of the musicianship on this track and in their music in general is notable. A more prominent place in rock history than their success would warrant is ensure by the fact that their lead guitarist was none other than Dave Edmunds that went on to have a lot of success in the 70's with his own band and various collaborations with Nick Lowe.
The final track is by Barclay James Harvest who went on to have success as a Prog rock band, their biggest song being Mockingbird. Once again it's an odd choice for this compilation being more of a highly orchestrated blues rock ballad owing a lot to the late Beatles sound but nonetheless is a good track and rounds the compilation off well.
1 Sunshine Superman - Donovan 4:33
2 Kites -Simon Dupree & the Big Sound 3:44
3 The Days of Pearly Spencer -David McWilliams 2:33
4 Mr. Rainbow- Steve Flynn 2:32
5 Excerpt from a Teenage Opera - Keith West 4:42
6 King Midas in Reverse - The Hollies 3:07
7 Lady on a Bicycle - Kippington Lodge 3:01
8 So Much - McGough & McGear 3:58
9 I Can Touch a Rainbow -The Lemon Tree 2:23
10 Goodnight Sweet Josephine- The Yardbirds 2:41
11 The Skeleton and the Roundabout -The Idle Race 2:21
12 My White Bicycle- Tomorrow 3:16
13 My Clown- July 3:23
14 We Are the Moles- The Moles 4:33
15 Octopus - Syd Barrett 3:46
16 10,000 Words in a Cardboard Box- Aquarian Age 3:26
17 Hey Bulldog- The Gods 3:14
18 Mr Armageddon - Locomotive 4:36
19 In the Land of the Few - Love Sculpture 3:56
20 Pools of Blue- Barclay James Harvest 3:07
This collection of song isn't all that bad, there are some obvious choices for a Psychedelic compilation to include and also some more obscure offerings. However not all the track are truly representative of the genre and that is what lets the record down a little in the end. Having said this the quality of the choices is good and it does give a representative slice of swinging mid sixties 60's rock to listeners if nothing else. Worth checking out and for some it will introduced them to bands that they might wish to find out more about.
'The Original Psychedelic Album' can be bought from Amazon UK for £19.99 including shipping at the time of writing this review.
Worth a listen...
© Mauri 2013
I love TGE (The Great Escape) festival, a Brighton based city based festival showcasing new music from all over Europe. Every year I go without expectations since I have hardly heard of any of the band and every year I came away with a whole list of bands that I need to download. This year was no exception but the stand out act for me was 'The Skints' a Reggae/Ska band from South East London.
Their live performance at the festival in a small venue on the Friday afternoon was the best live act I saw and when I went out and bought their CD 'Part & Parcel' I discovered a gem, which I am sure will go on to become a modern classic of the genre.
The band is a four piece from south east London comprising the multitalented instrumentals and vocal skills of Marcia Richards, Vocalist and guitarist Joshua Waters Rudge, vocalist and drummer Jamie Kyriakides and bassist Jonathan Doyle. The band has been together since they were at school with each other aged 16 in 2005 and as 'The Skints' they have been performing since 2010. 'Part and Parcel' is their second studio album released in 2012.
Those of us like me who are old enough can remember the late 70's when roots reggae especially British based reggae became popular and achieved a certain amount of commercial success. Bands like Aswad, Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots along with the like of UB40 and the Two Tone Ska revival bands showed that there a was a market for home grown roots reggae and ska that featured relevant social comment for the younger and diassfected generation of the time This music built upon the spiritual and political music that had come out of Jamaica a few years earlier. 'The Skints' may represent part of a small but new and growing revival of the genre which seems to be gaining pace at the moment especially in the London area. Although the musical influences of the band are there for all to hear this is not to say that their album or their music is simply trying to imitate what went before, like all good music based on a previous musical movements the best exponent try and bring something different to the table. On 'Part and Parcel' the band have manage this with great skill and innovation.
The album start with an up beat track 'Rise Up' which sets the tone for the rest of the record. By that I don't mean that it is representative of all that is too follow, quite the opposite. The track mixes musical genres, a bit of Reggae a bit of rap/hip hop and some ska beats. This is an early indication that The Skints are going to keep you on your musical toes and that you are going to be in for a bit of a treat. They effortlessly manage the trick of infusing a modern edge provide by the grimy rap of Joshua Waters Rudge to the rhythms and sounds that a Reggae fan like me who knew the 70's Roots sound would feel familiar with. This theme is kept going for the second track 'Rat-at-at' this time the rap section provided by the sweeter tones of Marcia Richards who in contract to Rudge has a delicate and soulful quality to her voice.
Just when you think that you've got a handle on the music and know what to expect the band throw you a perfect curve ball with the third track 'Just Can't Take No More'. For me this is the best track on the record and surprisingly the vocals are provided by yet another member of the band drummer Jamie Kyriakides. Kyriakides is blessed with a sweet tone to his voice the like that reminded me of Dennis Brown, praise indeed. The song is a beautifully crafted reggae ballad and it provided mewith the hook into the band when I saw them live. 'Just Can't Take No More' is seriously good and is one of those songs that you think of as a classic on only a couple of plays.
The record keep giving you fresh mixes and musical surprises. Joshua Waters Rudge once again takes the lead for the next track 'Live East Die Young' a cautionary tale of the danger that young people can face growing up in modern Britain. Once again the social commentary is beautifully accompanied by the insistent beats of music. And so it carries on for the rest of the album each track different from the last. Classic sounding rock steady one minute, then a bit of high tempo ska, more beautifully sung roots by Kyriakides who I have to say again a very good singer. One more track 'Up Against the Wall Riddim' for me stands out track in that it showcases all the bands vocal skills each of the singers contributing and featuring a slightly heavier dub beat. This si one of those records that I can't stop playing and that doesn't happen that often these days. I can honestly say there is not a bad track on the whole record...really... All killer, No filler!
Jamie Kyriakides - vocals, drums
Joshua Waters Rudge - vocals, guitar
Jonathan Doyle - bass
Marcia Richards - vocals, keyboards, alto saxophone, melodica, flute, guitar
1. Rise Up
3. Can't Take No More
4. Live East Die Young
5. Ring Ring
6. Lay You Down
8. Rubadub (DoneKnow)
9. Up Against The Wall Riddim
11. You Better
I can't praise this record enough. It is a finely crafted mix of musical styles wrapped up in a punk attitude that makes it relevant to a new generation of Reaggae/Ska music fans. The band are extremely talented musicians and vocalists as can be seen from their live shows and their record manages to capture the vibrancy and immediacy of their live performances. My favourite record of the year by far and it might turn out to be a bit of a classic!
'Part and Parcel' can be bought from Amazon uk for £8.50 including delivery at the time of writing this review.
© Mauri 2013
In western literature there are many examples of characters and stories that have since their first introduction become part of our everyday popular culture. So when we speak of Frankenstein, Dracula and Sherlock Holmes the vast majority of people know who we are talking about but very few I suspect have ever read the original source material. Another example of this is Tarzan. Tarzan was popularised in the 1930's by the MGM films starring Johnny Weissmuller and seen in countless TV and film adaptations in the 50's, 60's and 70's and through to the present most recently with a Disney animated version. I was one of these people who knew the character from the various films but had never read Edgar Rice's Burroughs's original 1912 novel 'Tarzan of the Apes', well I recently decided to remedy this and picked up a free Kindle version to see if the original story lived up to the ensuing iconic status of Tarzan as a fictional hero.
The first thing to remember when reading the novel is that it was written over a hundred years ago and it describes a world and social attitudes that are very different to those of today. The world of Tarzan is that of the old colonial Africa. To most readers of the time Africa was a mysterious place, wild and dangerous. The expression 'deepest, darkest Africa' conveyed this feeling of remoteness and dangerous fascination that westerners had for this still largely unknown continent. Europe considered Africa as a valuable commodity, its resources to be used to build up its empires and its people to be subjugated not only for the good of Europe's colonial ambitions but also for their own good. A feeling seem to run through western thinking that the native peoples of Africa were not much better than the savage animals that populated the continent. Fitting well into this way of thinking came also the ideas of Darwin and natural selection and with it the idea of the hierarchy of nature and races with the superior white western European race firmly taking its 'rightful' place at the evolutionary summit. Some modern readers may find many of the inherent beliefs underpinning the story and the attitude shown to the indigenous peoples of Africa to be at best old fashioned and laughable and at worst distasteful.
The story starts with John Clayton being born in the jungles of equatorial Africa after his parents John and Alice Clayton the present Lord and Lady Greystoke are abandoned by a mutinous ship's crew on a deserted part of the coast. Despite their predicament John and Alice being of noble birth and possessing all the admirable qualities of the English ruling class do not panic but set about surviving in the hostile environment never doubting that one day they will be rescued. Unfortunately when the child is still only a baby his parents are killed by a ferocious ape Kerchak. Left alone to die the baby is adopted by the she-ape Kala who has just suffered the loss of her own baby. Clayton is now named Tarzan meaning 'White Skin' in the ape language and is raised within the ape colony not knowing anything about his human heritage.
Never quite being able to fit in with his ape peers Tarzan one day accidently stumbles on his parents cabin, where through looking at book left there he first learns about humans and eventually over the years teaches himself to read. As Tarzan grows to manhood he uses his greater intelligence and human cunning to become the new king of the apes and he also begins learn more about humans by observing a tribe of men newly settled black natives in his jungle domain. His world is expanded even further and made more complicated when a group of western explorers including the beautiful Jane Porter are stranded along the coastal regions of the equatorial jungle. Will Tarzan's noble ancestry and human instinct win over his savage jungle upbringing? Will the true heir to the Greystoke title return to England to claim the fortune that is rightfully his?
Taken as a rip roaring, high octane adventure story Tarzan is an excellent read. Burroughs describes the early life of Tarzan amidst the tribe of apes in great detail and we learn about the frightening and dangerous life he lives as a small child among the apes. There are plenty of bloody and violent confrontations between the apes as they vie for supremacy in the group as well as deadly encounters with other dangerous residents of the jungle among them the ape's greatest foe Numa the lion.
"As the body rolled to the ground Tarzan of the Apes placed his foot upon the neck of his lifelong enemy and, raising his eyes to the full moon, threw back his fierce young head and voiced the wild and terrible cry of his people."
The story unfolds at great pace and is certainly a 'page turner', each of the book's chapters concluding on an expectant note probably due to its original publication in instalments in a pulp adventure magazine 'All-Story Magazine'. The description of the savagery of the apes and the brutality of the jungle existence is fascinating to read and Burroughs does a very good job of developing Tarzan's character from puny human boy totally reliant on his adoptive ape mother for survival to the ferocious human 'ape' who eventually learn to use his superior human intellect to gain supremacy over all of his jungle domain. The adult Tarzan is described as a giant amongst men, his years of competing for supremacy with the fierce apes giving him an outstanding physique and a wild savage beauty.
"When Tarzan killed he more often smiled than scowled, and smiles are the foundation of beauty."
It is worthy pointing out that the story is not meant to be an accurate portrayal of the day to day life of apes in equatorial Africa, we have to rely on David Attenborough rather than Burroughs to give us that! Even taking into account the scant knowledge of the time Burroughs takes some great artistic liberties when describing the jungle environment. It is doubtful that even in the early 1900's it was believed that ape colonies had the level of sophistication and the ability to use language in the way Burroughs suggests. Tarzan's colony of apes not only uses a rudimentary ape language but also engage in elaborate ceremonies and ritual execution of their enemies. It is also very doubtful that a human child could teach itself to read using only books without any help from a literate adult. It is also worth pointing out that lions don't prowl around the West African rain forest but are only found on the inland savannah. Yet despite the necessity to suspend ones disbelief at certain aspects of the story the reader is willing to do so in order to fully engage in the excitement and vibrancy of the story.
It is also interesting to examine the story in context of the times in which it was written. To a modern reader the story includes many racist attitudes; the depiction of the black characters in the story is not very flattering. The black tribe that Tarzan encounters (and frankly terrorises with little provocation) are seen as brutal savages practicing cannibalism. They conform to the stereotypes that existed at the time about black natives being uncivilised, superstitious and morally corrupt; the ape colony is treated in a kinder fashion by the author. Jane's black servant Esmeralda is seen as a fickle, weak willed and highly strung young woman where4as Jane although often frightened seems to have the strength of character to maintain her composure. Despite this it would be wrong to say that the author himself was racist, he is simply expounding the mistaken but commonly held views among westerners at the time.
Underlying the story is the idea that breeding and nobility of character will shine through whatever the circumstances. Thus Tarzan even though he is weaker physically than the apes manages to rise above his deficiencies and exert his human dominance over his peers. This is possible not just because of his humanity but because he is of noble birth, a 'lesser' working class baby would probably not have made it to the top of ape society in Burroughs's view of the world. Tarzan's father when faced with the hopelessness of the situation on being stranded in the wilds of the jungle with a pregnant wife doesn't panic but simply gets on with doing what is needed to survive, he has a confidence in his ability to survive and prosper that comes from generations of being part of the ruling class in English society. As he explains to his wife
"Hundreds of thousands of years ago our ancestors of the dim and distant past faced the same problems which we must face, possibly in these same primeval forests. That we are here today evidences their victory. What they did may we not do? And even better, for are we not armed with ages of superior knowledge, and have we not the means of protection, defence, and sustenance which science has given us, but of which they were totally ignorant? What they accomplished, Alice, with instruments and weapons of stone and bone, surely that may we accomplish also."
In the same way Tarzan innately shares his father's innate superiority over others and an inner belief that he is meant to rule over his peers.
The idea of nature versus nurture was very much in vogue at the time, building upon Darwin's ideas of natural selection. Many authors were either directly or subconsciously addressing the idea that if humans were simply just a form of advanced apes then there must exist an instinctive savagery within every man that is kept at bay by the thin veneer of civilisation and self imposed morality. Others would argue that man (predominantly western man in Burroughs view) has transcended his savage ancestry and by breeding been able to evolve away from the animal impulses and brutality of his ape cousins. These ideas were present in many classic works of fiction of around this time such as the likes of 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson or 'The Island of Doctor Moreau' (1896) by H. G. Wells and the debate still rages today although maybe on a more enlightened intellectual footing.
So despite its failings, its dubious colonial attitudes, its racist undertones and its scientific inaccuracies Tarzan is still a fantastic thrilling read and well deserves its reputation as one the classic adventure stories of the 20th century.
The story of Tarzan however doesn't end with this book, Burroughs went on to write a further 22 Tarzan adventures before his death in 1950.
If you like the films and want to see where the Tarzan phenomena all started I would urge you to read this book and enjoy the experience.
'Tarzan of the Apes' by Edgar Rice Burroughs is available for free as a Kindle edition or fro £6.99 as a paperback at the time this review was written.
Bryan Cranston is a great actor. Bryan who I hear you ask? And it is true that most people coming to this series cold will probably only know Bryan Cranston when he appears on screen and then you'll shout "Oh that's Hal Malcolm's dad from 'Malcolm in the Middle!". His performance in that classic US comedy invariably stole the show in most episodes and yet I don't feel he ever received the recognition he deserved. Well that has all changed when 'Breaking Bad' came out.
Walter White is a mild mannered Chemistry teacher in a middle of the road high school in the US. Earlier in his career he had been part of a successful research project that had gone on to win a Nobel Prize but through accident or fate and maybe some bad choices he never get the financial recognition he deserved for the work he did. Now fifty years old married with a teenage son and another baby on the way he has to struggle doing two jobs to keep his head above water. He does have a secure loving family but deep down he feels that maybe he should've have done more with his life. Unfortunately Walter's luck isn't about to change anytime soon has he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Stunned but this terrible news he begins to worry about how his family is going to cope with him gone and he decides that maybe he needs to do something that will ensure his family financial stability, the answer he comes up with is not what you'd expect, Walter White decided to use his scientific knowledge to making and selling Crystal Meths a highly addictive and illegal drug. This invariable leads the timid chemistry teacher to experience a much more brutal and violent world he hardly knew existed, but contrary to what we might expect he soon adapts and even begins to excel his new found career...
Although it is true to say the unusual story and frequent jaw dropping twists keep you totally engage breaking bad is really a character led show. Bryan Cranston performance is outstanding combining the fragility of a man facing his own death with the a inner strength that is borne out of a desire to see his family will be well provided for when he is gone. At the same time as sympathising with the character's plight we also feel uncomfortable by his actions as he get ever deeply more involved in a life of violence and drug dealing. Although undoubtedly Cranston is the star of the show is more than ably assisted by a top notch cast especially his wife Skyler played by the relatively unknown Anna Gunn and his disabled teenage son Walter White Jr. played by RJ Mitte and in the case of the latter it is refreshing to see that they decided to employ a disabled actor for the role. The supporting roles of Walter White's ex-student, bad boy drug dealing Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), White's sister in law the acerbic Marie (Betsy Brandt) and his testosterone fuelled DEA cop brother in law Hank (Dean Norris) all add richly to the varied tapestry of colourful characters in the story.
The beauty and skill of the writing of the show is that it can deal with such serious themes such as cancer or the drug trade with all the ensuing violence that in intrinsic in that and combine it with deft touches of dark humour. Walter's attempts to get into the Drug trade are initially farcical and his first few brushes with the criminal world is certainly full of dark humour at the same time his initial decisions to refuse cancer treatment on the basis that he didn't want to go through the trauma of the side effects and wanted to preserve his dignity to the end was touching and sensitively handled. The story also deals intelligently with the effects of the illness on the rest of the family. His son is disappointment in what he sees has Walter's cowardice for not wanting to fight against the cancer. His wife adopts a highly optimistic view and wants him to look at alternative treatments as well as the conventional and highly expensive private treatment that has been suggested.
From the very first episode I was hooked and luckily since I was watching on DVD with my box set given to me for Christmas I did not have to go through an agonising wait for the next episode to be screened on television.
Cranston deservedly won three consecutive 'Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series' Emmy Awards for his role as Walter White and Breaking Bad when it comes to an end will probably be remembered as one of the finest and innovative US TV shows eve made ranking alongside 'The Wire' in this respect.
Currently at the time of writing season 5 is being shown on TV and the previous seasons can be bought as box sets on DVD and Blu-ray. I have been told that the fifth season will be the last and although I will miss the show I'm glad the makers decided to give the series a finite story arc which hopefully will answer all the questions that are raised logically and comprehensively unlike the many other series 'Lost' or 'Heroes' to name just two.
'Breaking Bad' series 1-4 on DVD can be bought from Amazon.co.uk for £35.50 (free delivery) at the time this review was written.
On the 22nd January 1879 after the crushing the defeat of the British forces by the Zulu army at the Battle of Isandlwana a small contingent of British soldiers is left to defend the nearby mission station of Rorke's Drift. Just over 150 British and colonial troops faced more than 4,000 Zulu warriors in a desperate attempt to survive until reinforcements would arrive.
Was this going to be another British military rout in the Anglo/Zulu war? Was it a noble but ultimately heroic defeat or an unlikely victory for the outnumbered British forces?
The battle of Rorke's Drift has gone down in British military history as our own modern Thermopylae where a small group of Spartans faced the might of the Persian army and it remains the military encounter for which the most Victoria crosses were awarded to one regiment.
The film represents the events that took place at Rorke's Drift on that famous day and manages to bring to the screen the brutality and heroism of the men involved on both sides of the conflict. While some artistic licence was inevitably used in depicting the events for dramatic purposes it remains a fairly accurate, if rather sanitised historical account of the battle. Made in 1964 it includes a stupendous cast of top British character actors and represents a first starring role for a young Michael Caine.
The project was the brainchild of Stanley Baker a huge star and leading man in the 1960's who together with the film's director Cy Endfield set up a production company Diamond Films especially to make the film. Baker had known of the real life events of the battle and was keen to bring them to the screen. By taking the lead role of the garrison commander Lt. John Chard for himself he ensure the project had box office bankability and then persuaded some of the most talented British actors of his generation to also take part. Baker was a powerful screen presence and this role as the tough but beleaguered commander plays to his acting strengths. Over his short career, he died prematurely aged only 48 Baker specialised in tough, gritty unpredictable characters probably indicative of his upbringing in a welsh mining family and while not classically good looking his dark brooding and rather dangerous features hit the mark with many female fans.
Michael Caine gives an impressive performance as the inexperienced junior officer unprepared for the battle. In this early outing Caine's later loveable but roguish cockney persona is hidden away behind his clipped and at times rather unconvincing upper-class accent but despite this his screen charisma is obvious and it is this role which enabled him to go on to later iconic 60's starring roles in the 'Ipcress File' and 'Alfie'. The part only came to him through Baxter's insistence after the studio had originally wanted Terence Stamp then already a rising star for the role. What made things more difficult is the fact that Caine and Stamp were sharing a flat at the time.
Impressive supporting roles are everywhere to be seen. Patrick Magee is excellent as the hard pressed surgeon giving one of his trademark quirky and idiosyncratic performances which made him a favourite of the horror genre later in the decade. Also present is star of 40's and 50's movies Jack Hawkins as the fanatical Swedish missionary Otto Witt. Another young well-known actor of the time James Booth who also happened to be one of Baker's best mates got the role of ne'er-do-well cockney private Hook, a role originally meant for Caine and made it his own. The smashing supporting cast is rounded off by Nigel Green another familiar face on 60's and 70's movies as colour sergeant Bourne and of course there is a small voice cameo by Baker's fellow Welshman and friend Richard Burton as the narrator. The film also features Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi who later became an important leader and player in the struggle against apartheid as the chief Cetewayo of the Zulu warriors in the film.
Partly filmed on location in Natal province the film is justly remembered in large part for its realistic battle sequences shot in glorious old style widescreen Technicolor using a huge number of native Zulu tribesmen to represent Zulu army. The director Cy Endfield handled the action with great skill and masterfully increases the tension as the outpost faces wave after wave of Zulu attacks. The script which was a collaboration between Endfield and original writer John Prebble who first told the story in a magazine article. The film does a good job in getting beyond the events of the battle itself and to examining in more detail the relationships and characters of those involved. The tensions within the group of colonist and soldiers and between officers and enlisted men is cleverly highlighted in the build up to the Zulu attacks. To save money on travel costs the indoor scenes were filmed in studios in Twickenham and some of the actors never got to go to South Africa. In the end the film ended up being made for £2million a modest amount even from that period but it is to the credit of the director and producers that it doesn't come across as being a low budget movie.
As you would expect from a war film of this period the subject matter does not allow for strong female characters but Swedish actress Ulla Jacobsson gives a fine performance as Margareta the beautiful mismatched wife of reverend Witt.
Some may criticise the film for being a little jingoistic and glamourising the 'stiff upper lip' colonial role of the British in South Africa. It is easy to forget watching the heroic feats of the soldiers that the British were an invading force and instigated a brutal colonial regime of the Zulu nation. While these criticisms do have some merit it should be stated in the defence of Baxter and the other filmmakers that they were keen to see the conflict from both sides a difficult thing to do while filming in apartheid South Africa. Even though the Zulu warriors are not in any way personalised but are represented as a faceless horde of bloodthirsty warriors, their courage and heroism in the conflict is also acknowledged as is their some might say justified motivation for the war in general. It might have made for an even more interesting film if some of the Zulu fighters had been fleshed out as characters, if we could have seen the conflict more from their viewpoint but maybe this is asking a little too much bearing in mind the political situation in South Africa at the time and the legal constraints that had to be applied. As it was the south African authorities were not happy at the portrayal of the Zulus as equals to British soldiers.
One final feature to mention is the excellent soundtrack by supreme film composer John Barry who had already made his name with his previous work on Bond films 'Dr No' and 'From Russia With Love'.
THE DVD AND BONUS FEATURES
THEATRICAL TRAILER-sensationalist trailer from the time of the film release lingering somewhat longer than needed on the Zulu dance performed by 200 semi-clad Zulu virgins!
COMMENTARY with film historian Sheldon Hall and second unit director Robert Porter- Interesting insights from both commentators.
THE MAKING OF ZULU: ROLL OF HONOUR
This is the first of two short features telling the story of how the movie was made. It includes interview and anecdotes from Robert Porter the second unit director, Lady Ellen Baker widow of Stanley Baker, James Booth, Jan Prebble widow of John Prebble the original writer, Glynn Edwards one of the actors (later of Minder fame) and others. These and others explain how the script came to be written and how finance was raised and how they managed to keep within the restrictive £2 million pounds budget. The film also faced problems of shooting in natal province in apartheid South Africa the actors tell of the presence of secret police on set and how baker managed to get around the race laws not allowing Zulu actors from getting equity rates for their work Baker decided to give them the cattle seen in the film and the building made for the sets, which then became schools and hospitals for the Zulus.
THE MAKING OF ZULU : ' AND SNAPPETH THE SPEAR IN SUNDER'
This documentary featuring many of the same people has more anecdotes and background stories on the filming and on the cast and crew's interaction with the Zulu. I especially enjoyed hearing how the Zulu extras had to be introduced to the concept of cinema by being shown some old silent films and then how they quickly took to moviemaking with great enthusiasm leading to some great overacting still visible in parts of the battle scenes. A part of the feature is also devoted to the composer John Barry and how the Zulu's traditional music influenced in his writing of the film score. Finally we get a little about the film's star Baker and his premature death from lung cancer aged only 48. and the lasting legacy of the film he starred in and produced.
Both mini documentaries are worth watching after seeing the film to add a little background to the story and the people involved.
'Zulu' is a thoroughly enjoyable action movie well acted by all the cast and notable for kick starting the career on of Britain's best known and best loved actor Michael Caine. Its portrayal of the battle is sympathetic to both sides and the dramatic licence taken with the story doesn't detract from the astonishing events of that day. In reality the conduct of both the Zulu and the British was not as honourable as the film would like us to believe and atrocities occurred in the aftermath of the battle and subsequently during the longer conflict by both Zulu and British forces. Such details are not in the remit of this film and as a piece of drama based on historical fact it works far better than most. The film was a huge box office success and owning this copy on DVD is well worth the money.
'Zulu' on DVD can be bought from Amazon uk for £3.72 and delivered free.
© Mauri 2012
H P Lovercraft is one of those authors that many people have heard of, even more are familiar with the film adaptations (mostly very lose adaptations) of his work but that surprisingly few have actually read any of his books. Lovecraft's work can be described as horror but more often than not it also included elements of fantasy and science fiction which led to his works being considered as a new sub genre of horror know as 'cosmic horror' or alternatively 'weird fiction'. He was fascinated by the idea that the universe is made up of many aspect that are fundamentally incomprehensible to the human mind and that are often intrinsically malign. Although not hugely successful in his lifetime since his death in 1937 his works have gained in importance and following so that now is he considered as Edgar Allen Poe was in the 19th century as one of the greatest influences on the Horror genre. His fans include Stephen King.
'The Shunned House' was supposed to be Lovercraft's first published work but although it was printed in 1928 it was never bound and so only appeared in book form until 1961. At only 48 pages it is a novella but due to its mood and style it serves as a good precursor to many of Lovecraft's later more substantive works and as such is a good starting point for any new readers of his books.
The book is set in the small community of Providence, Rhode Island the place where Lovecraft was born and where he settled near the end of his life. The story centres on the strange history of an old house built in the earliest days of settlement in Providence in the sixteen hundreds. The house now stands empty after many years. Throughout its history many of its unfortunate occupants suffered unexplained ill health, bouts of insanity and early deaths. The building reeks of decay and the whole site seems to have an air of ill health about it. Our narrator a young man with an interest in science and the mysteries of the universe is told about the house by his ageing uncle a local retired physician Dr Whipple who over the years has made it his business to try and trace the history of the strange occurrences and come to some conclusion as to the causes of the perplexing events. The young man soon does some research of his own and uncovers old rumours of vampiric spirits, ancient burial grounds and demonic worship all associated with the house through the ages. On visiting the house he realises that the sense of unease and overpowering foreboding that exist in the building seems to be strongest in the damp mould-riddled cellar and that is where along with his uncle he decides to finally uncover the house's long held secret by staging an all night vigil.
"SCIENTIFIC STUDY AND REFLECTION HAD TAUGHT US THAT THE KNOWN UNIVERSE OF THREE DIMENSIONS EMBRACES THE MEREST FRACTION OF THE WHOLE COSMOS OF SUBSTANCE AND ENERGY."
Lovecraft writes in a very precise detailed style, he explains minute details of the plot and often includes such precise descriptions of locations that lend convincing realism to his tales. In this story has the narrator uncovers more and more of the troubled history of the house and becomes acquainted with the whispered rumours and beliefs that people over the years have used to explain the mysterious deaths you feel as if you are reading a work on non-fiction. Could the events related be true? Has Lovecraft used actual historical events and legend to base his story upon? You could compare his style to an early literary precursor of the techniques that the 'Blair Witch Project' makers used so effectively.
"THERE ARE HORRORS BEYOND HORRORS, AND THIS WAS ONE OF THOSE NUCLEI OF ALL DREAMABLE HIDEOUSNESS WHICH THE COSMOS SAVES TO BLAST AN ACCURSED AND UNHAPPY FEW."
What Lovecraft does best is instil as sense of foreboding and impending doom to the story. There is a creepiness about his writing style, a cynicism and bleakness that subconsciously affects the reader. This style is so distinctive that the description of a book or film as Lovecraftian is now in common use. If you read it alone by the fire on a dark winter's night you might find yourself wondering if that intermittent banging coming from upstairs is just the wind blowing through a drafty window or something much more sinister. The sense of unease that the story permeates does not rely on blood and gore or cheap literary trick such as faces as the windows or disembodied voices, it uses a device far more powerful the readers own primeval fears and vivid imagination. Just as our hero's calm logical approach to solving the mystery of the house is slowly but surely threatened by a deeper less conscious fear of the unexplainable so the reader goes through similar emotions.
The narrative although simple does throw up many thoughts and ideas including particle physics and relativity which were very current at the time it was written. The format of the story reminds of other haunted house horror stories that have been influenced by the Lovecraft style and that followed in more recent years. While reading 'The Shunned House' I was reminded partly by the plot but more so by the atmosphere it induces of the excellent 1970's TV play 'The Stone Tapes' written by Nigel Kneale. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that Kneale was also a fan.
"SOMETHING LIKE FEAR CHILLED ME AS I SAT THERE IN THE SMALL HOURS ALONE"
Overall 'The Shunned House' is an easy read and can easily be finished in one sitting, the documentary type style at the beginning which can be a little slow for some but gives way to a much more tense and extraordinary conclusion and I must admit I was gripped from beginning to end.
'The Shunned House' by H P Lovecraft is available as a free Kindle download at the time of writing this review or as a 48 page paperback priced at £5.25 with free delivery from Amazon.co.uk.
© Mauri 2012
Scandinavian thrillers are all the rage at the moment, from Henning Mankell's Wallander and Stieg Larsen's Dragon Tattoo trilogy to the wonderful 'The Killing' and 'The Bridge' on TV, 'Scandinavian Noire' seems to have caught the imagination of crime fiction fans throughout the world. Having read and watched what Sweden and Denmark had to offer it was now time to give Norway a go and with this in mind I picked up 'The Snowman' by Jo Nesbo.
Somewhat jaded and damaged veteran detective Harry Hole of the Oslo police specialises in serial killers but as people keep telling him there aren't any serial killers in Norway. Harry made his reputation hunting down a serial killer in Australia many years previously and because of this achieved a great deal of unwanted notoriety and celebrity. Unfortunately personal problems including an excessive drinking habit served to hamper his career and his credibility amongst his peers so when a number of baffling murders occur in the Oslo area nobody believes Harry when he suspects a particularly nasty and incredibly clever serial killer is at large. Assisted only by a young rookie murder detective the beautiful but enigmatic Katrine Bratt, Harry begins to investigate the murders and tries to convince his bosses a serial killer is indeed responsible and that if nothing is done even more people will die. To complicate matters Harry's personal life is chaotic as usual with the arrival on the scenes of his former girlfriend Rakel providing more problems for our hard pressed detective to solve.
As with all Scandinavian thrillers one of the main components of the story is the bleak landscape and weather. I suppose the wind, the cold, the rain and the snow play such an important part of Nordic life that all the authors from this part of the world have an aptitude for describing and including these aspects in the story. In this book even more so since the murders are intimately linked to the winter snow and the making of a series of grisly snowmen near the scene of each crime. The story seems to be played out in dimly lit interiors and cold, bleak exteriors often seeming to parallel the emotional state of the characters, many more often than not haunted by their own personal demons. In common with the other crime fiction I've read in this genre the killings are truly gruesome involving strangulation, amputation, dismemberments and torture described in graphic enough detail by Nesbo.
This is not the first of Nesbo's books featuring Oslo police detective Harry Hole it is in fact the seventh in the series, the first 'The Bat' dealing with the case in Australia that makes Hole famous. Through the series Nesbo has developed Hole's character and has played with different facets of his psychological make-up. Perhaps bordering on a cliché Hole is the classic hard-boiled cynical but not unethical cop of many detective noir novels and films that we all know too well. His hard drinking over the years got the better of him and his work doesn't allow his personal life to achieve any stability or permanence in his relationships. Fans of Ian Rankin might see shades of Rebus in this character. Like Rankin Nesbo manages to create a deeply flawed yet likeable hero. What makes Nesbo's novel so good is not simply the inclusion of Harry Hole but all the array of peripheral characters that are also well rounded and believable. Once again although not all that original the central partnership of the cynical and world weary Hole with the enthusiastic and ambitious younger detective in the form of Katrine Blatt works well within the dynamics of the story. The shambling dishevelled Hole being balanced by his beautiful younger sharply dressed sidekick Katrine but we soon discover that Harry is not the only one with a darker side to his character.
In essence 'The Snowman' is a superior police procedural with a very dark edge and plenty of unexpected twists, maybe a few too many. It is an extremely enjoyable read and even at 576 pages it is an effortless read. The plot can be a little complicated to follow switching as it does to different time periods as we gradually discover more about the killer and his motivations. Despite its complexity it never becomes unwieldy and I found it to be a real page turner. Apart from the main serial killer story Nesbo also explores other themes, relationships between fathers and their children and the unfairness of nature and genetic predetermination. The central character Harry Hole is a fascinating creation and I look forward to going back and reading some more from the series. The book seems to perfectly span the gap between intellectual literary fiction and the pulp crime fiction to produce a blend that will please both fans in both camps.
As I don't speak Norwegian so I can't say much about the original writing style but I'm guessing that the version I've read by Don Bartlett is a very good translation since the story seems to flow and read so naturally without any hint that English was not the original language.
All in all 'The Snowman' is a great crime thriller and Jo Nesbo deserves his place as one of the leading exponents of the Scandinavian crime thriller genre.
'The Snowman' by Jo Nesbo can be bought in paperback from Amazon uk for £5.19 (free delivery) or as a kindle edition £3.59 at the time of writing this review.
This was my first visit to Dubai and I was lucky enough to stay at the Al Qsar hotel at the famous Madinat Jumeirah 5 star resort overlooking the wonderful sandy beaches of the Persian gulf just a short distance from the Burj al-Arab.
I wasn't sure what to expect from Dubai, the recent development of the quiet fishing village into one the premier holiday destinations for the rich and famous made me wonder if it was going to be a triumph of ostentatious gaudiness over class and style. However I was pleasantly surprised.
The Al Qsar which translated means The Palace is simply that a palace. It comprises 292 rooms and suites and was designed to reflect a sheikh's summer residence. The hotel only completed in 2006 was designed to recreate the style and opulence of the traditional Arabian palace and it has succeeded in every sense. The building itself is mesmeric mixture of traditional wind towers piercing the perpetually deep blue skies of the Persian gulf, with 21st century luxury but always in a considerate and authentic Arabian style. From the moment you approach the entrance along the winding drive and are met by the huge golden statues of wild horse frolicking on the lawns you know you are going to be in for an unforgettable experience.
The entrance and lobby is even more impressive. Marble floors inset with colourful mosaics, marble pillars lining the huge lobby dominated by three enormous Arabian crystal chandeliers leaves you awestruck the instant you walk in. The hotel fans out right and left on either side of the central lobby on multiple floors each tastefully decorated in traditional style. Earthy colours on the walls, hanging lanterns and impressive light stands are everywhere to be seen. The hotel space includes many secluded atriums with fountains and pools that give the whole building as sense of mystery has you learn your way round.
The facilities are of the highest order. In the hotel itself let alone the resorts there are a numbers of restaurants, shops, salons, spa, gyms and general relaxation areas to cater to your every need.
We stayed in the Ocean Deluxe room, a mid priced room with balcony overlooking the resort canal and with views across to the down town Dubai skylines was spotlessly clean, extremely comfortable and included all the niceties that you would expect from and 5 star establishment and of course full air conditioning as was throughout the hotel. The on suite facilities where wonderful including a luxurious bath, a spacious shower and twin basins all traditionally decorated in Arabian design; marble floors Persian rugs and cast metal lantern. Guests are provided with bath robes and silky slippers and an endless supply of towels. The bed was enormous and probably the most comfortable bed I've ever had in any hotel. It was covered with a fabric canapé and was made from a dark rich hardwood that matched the terracotta paints the golden and red fabrics and the hardwood carved furniture. The room included a comfortable sofa and armchair as well as a desk and coffee table. The wardrobe was spacious with an automatic light that came on when you opened it (a nice touch). All the other extras you'd expect were included; large flat screen TV with satellite channels, well stocked mini bar, tea and coffee making facilities (restocked every day), hairdryer, ironing board, room service, laundry service, free Wi-fi, alarm service etc. A daily supply of bottled water was also provided each time the room was serviced (usually twice a day). The room also led on to a private balcony with spectacular view across the resort over the tops of the palm trees that lined the avenues and waterways. The balcony had a small table and chairs so that you could enjoy the sunrise or sunset over the shores of the Persian Gulf.
Included in the price of the room was breakfast in one of two luxurious dining rooms. We opted for the first floor dining room that had a huge indoor seating area as well as a large outdoor shaded terrace area. The breakfast was buffet style with a huge selection of anything you could wish for. Cooked meats, cereals, sweet and savoury breads, eggs done whoever way you wanted, fruit and fruit juices, selections of teas and coffees. On entry to the breakfast room you were greeted by polite staff asked where you wanted to sit and shown to your table where you could order drinks and then shown to the buffet which of course you could revisit as many times as you liked.
For us the generous breakfast meant that we usually only needed a very light lunch to see us through to the evening meal. The best thing about the breakfast was sitting outside on the terrace. The whole area was lined with palms which provided a lovely cool shade. From the terrace you could look out over the resort and the beaches and out to sea taking in the impressive Burj al-Arab hotel in the near distance with its distinctive sail shape. It was the most relaxing way to start the day. Don't be surprised if your breakfast is accompanied by the calling of parrots or the tweeting of sparrows hiding in the palms and trees.
As a guest at the Al Qsar you have the run of the whole Madinat Jumeirah resort. The resort is made up of two luxury 5 star hotel at either end the Al Qsar and the Mina A'Salam and a courtyard of summer houses called Dar Al Masyaf. The area in-between the hotel is connected by palm lined waterways and includes 40 world class restaurants, a covered traditional Arabic market or Souk, a theatre and a number of high class bars and nightclubs. The resort also boasts huge pool areas and a private beach front adjacent to Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Burj Al Arab, and Wild Wadi Water Park.
The different areas of the resort can be access on foot, by golf cart taxis or by water taxis navigating the canal system these are free for the use of guests. Many of the restaurants and bars lie along the canal system giving them waterside views and seating. The Souk is a wonderful collection of small stall selling traditional Arabian fabrics, lanterns, earthenware as well as more western style products.
We ate at a couple of restaurants while we were there an Italian and a Thai and they were both excellent quality and reasonable value considering this. Although situated in a Muslim emirate the resorts bars and restaurant are all licensed to sell alcohol. There was also no dress code for women as there tend to be in Muslim countries and female guests could happily wear short, skirts of sleeveless tops, we found this was true of most of Dubai in general.
The beach area was also impressive, a spacious stretch of almost white sand gently sloped towards the sea's edge and beyond making it very safe for children, in any case the beach is permanently manned by lifeguards during daylight hours. The 1km stretch of beach is private solely for the use of hotel guests and on arriving you are greeted by friendly attendants that will provide you with beach towel and cushion that they will take for you and arrange on the sun-beds that you choose. The sun-beds are positions at reasonable distances apart so that you never get the feeling the beach is too crowded and each one comes with a large parasol to provide shade if desired. All this is included in your hotel price. If you wish a little extra you can hire out an Arabian beach tent with recliners and cushions for that little bit of extra luxury on the beach. The attendants are also there to provide you with drinks, snacks or food from the hotel menu if you wish. The water was lovely and warm and looked extremely clean as did the sandy beach to match the whole of resort in general.
I couldn't fault the service and customer care of the staff in the hotel or anywhere in the resort. Every member of staff from the hotel managers the receptionist, beach attendants, waiters and cleaners where extremely polite and extremely keen to provide a great service. The majority were from the Indian subcontinent, Thailand or the Philippines. They wore very stylish traditional uniforms and made you feel welcome whenever they spoke to you. Even walking through the resort you would get greeted by passing staff, gardeners, cleaners etc. What's more the friendliness seemed genuine. They certainly did their job well, our stay was without hitch, the room was spotless as was the whole resort; even the canals didn't have any debris in them it seems that any falling palm leaf was instantly removed. Through the crystal clear water you could see fabulously coloured carp happily swimming around testifying to the cleanliness of the water. Right from our arrival when our bags were taken to our room as we checked in to our leaving when our bags were again collects and placed in our taxi by the bell boy our every need was taken care of.
The Madinat Jemeirah resort lies on the coast to the east of central Dubai. It is within a half hour drive of Dubai international airport and ten minutes by taxi from central Dubai. While we were there we also ventured on a desert safari and were picked up at the hotel taking about 40 minutes drive to reach the desert. Not sure how practical it would be to walk to the city but the taxis that would be called for you to the hotel lobby were reasonably priced. While you stay make sure you visit the huge shopping malls near the Burj Khalifa the tallest building in the world, take a trip down the Dubai 'creek' and have lunch on one of the traditional dhow restaurants that travel the waters and go for a desert safari with Bedouin night-time feast under the extraordinary desert night sky.
The Madinat Jumeirah was a dream place to stay. It provided the sort of luxury and levels of service that we are sadly pressed to find these days in Europe. The styling of the buildings the quality of the food and the accommodation was superb and I would re visit without hesitation. Price wise it is not chap but there are plenty of offers out there depending on the time of year you go. I expect you could get a week's stay for two including economy class flight for not much more than £3500 at this time of year. The weather is not a problem in terms of rain, although be warned that in the summer May to October the temperatures go up to 50C. When we were there in April it was touching 38C.
© Mauri 2012
Rome 80 BC. An elderly Roman nobleman is brutally murdered on the streets on his way to a secret meeting at the brothel known as the House of Swans. Violent attacks on the dark streets at night are not uncommon in Rome but this murder is different since the accused perpetrator is the nobleman's son. The crime is that of parricide (the killing of a father by his son) held to be one of the most contemptible crimes in Roman society and one which carries the most horrific of punishments. The accused son Sextus Roscius is well off farmer from the nearby town of Ameria, the well known advocate Hortensius is at first hired to take on the defence but quickly and inexplicably drops the case passing it on to a young and inexperienced advocate named Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero quickly realises that this case is far more complex than it seems at first and that in order to successfully defend his client he will have to get discover the true identity of the murder. With this in mind he calls upon the services of Gordianus the 'Finder' a man living on the very edge of reputable Roman society with a skill for seeking out the truth and solving crimes, what we would now call in modern parlance a private detective! Gordianus soon realises that this latest case will not only test his deductive skills to the limit but will also put his own life in danger as he uncovers an intricate web of lies, deceit and political corruption.
'Roman Blood' is the first of a set of mystery novels by Steven Saylor collectively known as the Roma Sub Rosa series. The novels are noted for their historical accuracy and for the inclusion of many real life characters from ancient Rome. Steven Saylor has vividly created a realistic picture of the ancient city in the last days of the Republic. This is the Rome ruled by Lucius Cornelius Sulla once a great general and now taking on the title of 'dictator' a role approved by the Senate in times of crisis. Rome is a violent city with a strict hierarchy from the powerless and abused slaves at the bottom of the pile we gradually rise to prized gladiators, the free citizens, the nobility and all the way up to the upper echelons of power of the consuls, senators and governors. But Saylor doesn't simply give us the Rome of the history books with its grand buildings, its temples and the famous Forum, his vision of Rome includes the seedier side. The back street taverns and brothels, the packed tenements where the poorer citizens of the great Republic are forced to live, the filthy streets, the beggar and the street criminals, the gangs of thugs hired by rich men to settle disputes are all included in his wonderful historical vision. Described in great detail the ancient city comes to life as we are easily drawn into the story and the fate of the characters. Although I'm not enough of an expert to say first hand that all the details are accurate they certainly ring true and if so must have taken a huge amount of research to write.
Despite the many pleasures to be had from Saylor's detailed view of ancient Rome the main focus of the book is the attempt by our hero Gordianus to solve the murder central to the story. In a splendid homage to the greatest of all fictional detectives Sherlock Holmes, Saylor describes how Gordianus on first meeting Cicero's slave and messenger Tiro manages to deduce all the details of the proposed case simply by observation and deduction, a trademark trick of Holmes in many of his adventures. The story is told through Gordianus in the first person, in this way we get a particular view of roman society seen from the perspective of one who is not amongst the most respected or richest of Rome' citizens but who nevertheless as a citizen enjoys many of the rights and privileges that the republic has to offer. In Gordianus Saylor has created a compelling hero. Gordianus is a true Roman and such knows his place in the hierarchy at the same time he has taken his beautiful Alexandrian female slave Bethesda as his lover and confidant. He could set her free and marry her but his cultural more and tradition does not permit him. He sees the corruption and violence around him but accepts it and is resigned that this is how the Republic operates and will continue to be beyond the span of his lifetime of course with our historical hind sight we know that he is wrong.
As a fan of historical fiction, especially those set in ancient of medieval times I delighted in the attention to detail and the realistic setting. Saylor manages to bring together historical drama featuring some of the best known real life historical characters from ancient Rome such as Cicero, Sulla, Crassus and Julius Caesar and combine them with a good old fashioned murder mystery. Another interesting aspect of this book was the examination by Saylor of the intricacies of Roman society. He examines the complicated role of slaves in this society and their importance to keeping the Republic alive. However this is done from the perspective of a Roman citizen who although sympathetic towards the plight of some slaves doesn't share the modern sensibilities that we would expect. Saylor also delves into the treacherous politics of ancient Rome where the noble families held sway and were constantly vying for the select positions of power. This is also world filled with superstition where the people believed their fortunes rested in the lap of the many gods they worshipped.
Of course this blend of historical fiction with mystery story is no new even when this novel was first published in 1991, the most famous examples would be the medieval mysteries such as 'The Name of The Rose' by Umberto Eco and the 'Cadfael' mysteries by Ellis Peters and just like these the Steven Saylor books involving Gordianus the Finder show a talent for writing a good mystery embedded in history through meticulous research in the subject matter. The care taken in the details is what marks these books above other poorer examples.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed 'Roman Blood' the first in this series, I found the story engrossing and the central mystery is well plotted and skilfully written. The book works as an intriguing mystery and as a realistic historical glimpse in to the lives of the citizens of the ancient Republic of Rome.
'Roman Blood' by Steven Saylor is available in paperback (384 pages) for £6.29 delivered free in the UK or for just £ 0.85 as a kindle edition at the time of writing this review.
'The Dark Design' first published in 1977 is the third instalment of the Riverworld series, the first two books being 'To Your Scattered Bodies Go' (1971), 'The Fabulous Riverboat' (1971). The idea of the 'Riverworld' stories is a rather unusual and imaginative one and worthy of winning the prestigious Science fiction Hugo Award for the author Philip Jose Farmer in 1971.
The story is set on a strange alien world which consists of a huge river valley snaking its way north to south across the circumference of the globe bordered on either side by impassable mountain ranges. The planet is populated by the whole deceased human and pre-human population of the earth all of them 'reborn' in the river valley at the physical age of 25, with all the memories of their previous lives intact.
This book takes up the story where the second left off but separates the narrative into three strands. One strand features new characters, author Jack London and the early western movie star Tom Mix as well as Science fiction author Peter Frigate who set out in a boat to follow the steps of a group of ancient Egyptians led by the Pharaoh Imhotep to the fabled source of the great river. A second strand features old favourites like the great explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Burton, the Neanderthal Kaz and Alice Liddell (of Alice in wonderland) all reunited and once again travelling by boat up river trying to evade the clutches of the mysterious 'Ethicals' and their human agents. The third and most elaborate strand concentrates on the attempts by the humorist and writer turned riverboat captain Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain, swordsman and poet Cyrano de Bergerac and engineer Milton Firebrass who we previously met in 'The Fabulous Riverboat' and some interesting newcomers including Jill Gulbirra, an Australian dirigible pilot and strident feminist and Piscador an enigmatic Japanese fisherman as they attempt travelling by airship to discover the secrets that lie behind the impenetrable mountain ranges.
The first two books in the series were enjoyable at different levels, on the one hand the idea of having great characters from history mixing and competing for dominance on the alien Riverworld made for a great science fiction adventure. Secondly the central premise of eternal youth and reincarnation coupled with the culture clashes and moral paradoxes that this new world inevitably throws up allowed for some serious debate about the nature of life and death, the role of religion and an examination of the role of society in shaping our moral values. The story was told at a fast pace and the philosophical themes were never elaborated on to the detriment of the narrative. Unfortunately in this third novel the balance between storyline and philosophising doesn't work so well.
The central mystery to the story; who or what is controlling the fate of the billions of re-born humans on the planet and what is their purpose? is yet to be solved although more and more clues as to the nature of the mysterious beings known as the Ethicals are uncovered. The technological advances made by the people of Riverworld are now such that they can hope to reach the North Pole or the planet an area, which it is rumoured, holds the key to uncovering the secrets of the strange world. By building electric paddle boats and even hydrogen filled air ships many intrepid adventurer seek to travel to the source of the river and clear the mountain to discover what lies beyond. The problem is that they take such a long time doing so and nothing much happens in the mean time. Increasingly the main characters get bogged down in tedious debates about religion and the nature of this new afterlife they have been gifted by the unknown beings the breakneck pace of the first two books drops to a slow crawl and I must admit that at times I was struggling to finish this. Admittedly things do pick up towards the end but it certainly wasn't as satisfying or intriguing a read as the other instalments.
Once again the author seems preoccupied with bringing themes in the book that were important and current at the time when the books were written but which seem rather dated to a modern reader. The introduction of the feminist character Jill Gulbirra allows the story to explore the attitudes of the Riverworld societies towards the role of women. This is an interesting idea since on this world the traditional role of childbearing is not present since all inhabitants of the Riverworld are sterile. You would think that this would mean greater equality in the roles of men and women especially in the relatively primitive society that people find themselves in, women being ever freer to take on equal roles with men. However Farmer seems to conclude that this would not happen and that women on Riverworld would still be seen and tend to be subservient to the men. This might be explained by the ingrained prejudice of the inhabitants of Riverworld who in their previous lives would have held very traditional views on women roles in society. The character of Gulbirra is different she does not accept the subservient role and strives to be the equal or better than any man she meets. During the course of the book she enters into many argument and debates with some of the less enlightened males she meets expounding a familiar feminist manifesto of the late 70's but these to our modern sensibilities these arguments have to a large extent been fought and won in the years since the books were written and so this part of the story lacks the relevance and insight that they might once have had.
'The Dark Design' is still an intelligent mixture of fantasy adventure tinged with philosophical, moral and ethical debate but the debate in this instance has hampered the progress of the story. Farmer spends too much time in examining the perennial problem of the human condition as emphasised by the strange and brutal environment that the 'resurrectionists' find themselves in. Many of the ideas that he plays with have already been covered in the earlier books and what was needed in this instalment was to push the story forwards and start giving people some answers to the mysteries of Riverworld.
Once again a word of warning, although the Riverworld saga has been filmed twice in 2003 as a TV pilot for a unrealised series and later 2010 as TV movie these bear little or no resemblance to the books and they should be avoided since they are terrible! Even with this third less satisfying book the Riverworld saga is worth reading over watching these films.
'The Dark Design (Riverworld Saga)' in Paperback (461 pages) is available from Amazon UK for £16.19 with free delivery at the time this review was written.
© Mauri 2012
(FILM ONLY REVIEW)
First 'Things' first...pardon the pun.
The story that this latest film adaptation is based on has been around a long time. The original novella written by John W. Campbell, Jr and titled 'Who Goes There?' was published in 1938, then came the first film adaptation known as 'The Thing from Another World' released in 1951. In 1982 horror 'supremo' John Carpenter made a remake simply known as 'The Thing' and most recently this version was made which is a prequel or prelude to the Carpenter film. Out of all the adaptations this latest is most faithful to the original story but is it also the best?
Paleontologist Kate Lloyd Joins a Norwegian scientific team in a desolate scientific outpost in Antarctica to study an alien ship discovered buried deep in the ice. Close to the site she finds an alien organism that died in the crash millions of years ago. Bringing the frozen creature back to the base they unwittingly release a deadly force that could if it escaped the isolated location lead to an alien colonisation of the planet. The biggest problem the scientists face is that the alien is a shape-shifter able to mimic in appearance and thought any creature that it consumes. Soon the party begin to doubt each other, paranoia and fear takes over. Can anyone stop the 'Thing' before it is too late?
This latest film created by 'Dawn of the Dead' 2004 remake producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman started life when they trawled through the Universal Studios library looking for a suitable project to work on. When they found Carpenter's 1982 offering of this classic story they convinced the studio that rather than making a simple remake that they could do something a little more interesting and create a prequel to that film. Those of you who have seen the 80's film will know that at the start of the film a back-story is already hinted at and the prequel was in many ways waiting to be made. Setting the story before the Carpenter film also allowed them to incorporate into the story some of the original elements from the novella; the discovery of the ship and the alien buried in the ice that the Carpenter film missed out but that were included in the 1951 adaptation. In some ways this film is a hybrid of both previous films and as such is probably the most faithful version of the adapted novella made so far.
The clever aspect of the plot although not original is the idea of the unknown enemy within group, if you substitute the shape-shifting alien for an unknown murderer and the isolated Antarctic research base for a desolate country house you would have the makings of a classic Agatha Christie whodunit, the difference is that the metamorphic ability of the creature means that the identity of the 'murderer' keeps changing. Of course the nature of this film and the involvement of Marc Abraham and Eric Newman means this story is not going to be as subtle as all that, in fact after the initial tense start promising an intelligent science fiction thriller the film descends in to pure CGI special effects heavy horror. Rather than concentrating on the psychological horror and paranoia that such a location and shape shifting adversary would cause to the marooned scientists the films decides to focus on the more physical and visceral potential of the story. As soon as the alien creature is let loose the gore fest begins with little rest bite until the end of the movie.
Unfortunately the makers of this film including the first time director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. missed an opportunity to bring the real story to the screen. After a promising start the movie transforms in to the usual monster chase gore fest that horror films today are all too reliant on. Actually although this is supposed to be a prequel and the makers stated they didn't simply want to do a remake, this version pans out very similarly to the better 1981 version.
Apart from it many failings; predictable plot overuse of CGI and unimaginative script the biggest failing of this film is the lack of a charismatic lead. What made Carpenter's version good was the casting of Kurt Russell as the all action hero. Although Russell is not the greatest actor to grace the silver screen, he does have screen presence and charisma. It is to the credit of the makers of this later film that they decided to avoid the stereotypical all American hero in the lead and go for a 'Alien' type Ripley character to carry the movie unfortunately Mary Elizabeth Winstead (best known for her role in 'Death Proof' coincidentally with Kurt Russell and 'Final Destination 3') while pleasant enough is no Sigourney Weaver and she is not helped by some anonymous supporting acting by the rest of the cast. Only Joel Edgerton as the American helicopter pilot and Ulrich Thomsen as the chief Norwegian scientist are long enough on screen to have any impact, to describe their characters are cardboard cut outs would be a great understatement. We simply don't get involved enough or empathise enough with the characters to care about their fate.
The other thing that needs to be mentioned is the CGI and special effects. The original 1950's version had to change the nature of the Alien from a shape-shifting creature to a vegetable based human like monster, mainly due to the lack of budget and technological capability to bring a shape shifter to the screen. Carpenter's version, while not being able to draw upon the advances in CGI, did do a superb job with fantastic, make up and animatronics to include the shape shifting element in the story, in fact the 80's film is notable for being the last major Sci-fi film to use the older techniques as opposed to CGI. You would expect that the newest version with the advantages of state of the art CGI would be the best in representing the monster as it appeared in the original novella and yet the CGI was disappointing. We did get the metamorphosis from human to grotesque alien, the human like bodies splitting open to reveal masses of tentacles and gut wrenching innards. We also get fused bodies as two humans are devoured, assimilated and then form a hybrid construct of multiple humans and alien but after you've seen this happen once it lacked the same impact the next time and also the effect didn't look that realistic, at least no more so then the more basic effects of the Carpenter film.
Despite all it problems this film does manage to keep you mindlessly entertained for the majority of its length. The action takes up a frenetic pace after the initial twenty minutes and what it lacks in credible plot or character development it makes up for in cheap thrills and gore it that's your thing. The pity is that yet again a film version of very good science fiction story has failed to bring out the deeper nuances of the plot or to develop the interesting underlying themes within and really do justice to it. This is simply 'popcorn' entertainment for those with a strong stomach where it could have been so much more. A missed opportunity all round.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead ...Kate Lloyd
Joel Edgerton ...Sam Carter
Ulrich Thomsen...Dr. Sander Halvorson
Eric Christian Olsen ...Adam Finch
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje ...Jameson
Trond Espen Seim...Edvard Wolner
Kim Bubbs ...Juliette
'The Thing' is available on Blu-ray + Digital Copy from Amazon UK for £14.99 including shipping at the time this review was written. The run time is 103mins and it carries a UK classification of 15 for for the violence and gore.
I suppose I'd grudgingly recommend it but the other two earlier adaptations are more interesting.
© Mauri 2012
Sherlock Holmes is probably the best known fictional character in literature. His appeal seems to transcend the generations with the latest incarnations appearing in Anthony Horowitz new novel 'The House of Silk' in 'Sherlock' on TV and in the new Guy Ritchie films. The bulk of the original Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were collections of short stories mostly published individually in the Strand magazine however four novels were written and 'The Valley of Fear' is the last of these published in instalment between September 1914 and May 1915.
Of the four novels written this is probably the least well known and remains the one that has not been adapted that often for TV or Film. This is probably more to do with the narrative structure since the story itself compares very favourably with the better known 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', 'The Sign of Four' and the very first novel 'A Study in Scarlet'.
'The Valley of Fear' is really made up of two parts; the first part taking place in rural Sussex is a classic Holmes mystery. On receiving a secret message from one of his spies within Moriaty's secret criminal society Holmes discovers that the murder of John Douglas is about to occur at the secluded Birlstone House. Holmes and Watson try to prevent this but they are too late as the body of Douglas shot in the face at close range is found during the night. The circumstances surrounding the murder are not clear-cut however and there are questions as to how the murder could have got into the house and then escaped without being caught. Soon suspicion also fall on Douglas's young wife Ivy and Douglas's friend Cecil baker who was also at the house that night. Holmes is at his at the top of his game as he forensically examines all the evidence and then comes to some startling conclusions.
But this is only half the story. As the circumstances of the murdered become clearer the narrative takes us back almost twenty years earlier in the United States to the coal and iron-ore mining region of Vermissa Valley. Here we learn the story of John McMurdo a small time criminal who in flight from the law in Chicago escapes to the valley and soon becomes involved with and quickly rises through the ranks of the Ancient Order of Freemen. The 'Freemen' are an organisation that by fear and violence is responsible for a widespread protection racket targeting all the local businesses and mining companies. The law is powerless to act and the widespread violence as led to the Vermissa Valley become known as the 'Valley of Fear'. How are the two stories linked? What is Moriaty involvement? These are some of the questions that Holmes and Watson have to answer.
The basis of the story are the true life exploits of the Molly Maguires, a secret Irish-American organization that consisted mainly of coal miners and who was accused and whose members were convicted of being involved in kidnapping and organised crime. Conan Doyle also introduces to the story the men of the famous Pinkerton national detective agency who at the time were famous for crime fighting exploits and were involved in the case of the Molly Maguires. To contemporary readers these elements of the story will have been fascinating and made the novel even more intriguing.
Many elements of the story are similar to another of the novels 'A Study in Scarlet' both including long flashbacks to America and stories of betrayal and revenge. Conan Doyle like many other writers was fascinated by the tales from America then still a country in the throws of creation, where the pioneering spirit was still prevalent and society was still adjusting to the great changes that the civil war had brought. Even at this time when Britain was the centre of the greatest economic and military empire of modern times there were hints that the future lay in the west and that the empire's dominance might be numbered.
In terms of a Sherlock Holmes story some might find it frustrating that the great detective is only actually directly involved in about half the book however the part of the story set in America is a great yarn and involves a cunningly devised central mystery that will keep readers enthralled. The part involving Holmes solving the murder is as always perfectly plotted and realised. Conan Doyle has a habit of including a few hapless policemen in his stories for Holmes to confound and amazed with his unfailing logical deductions usually overturning all their previous theories, in this case Inspector Lestrade gives way to Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard and the local policeman Inspector White Mason. Neither is a fool but neither can match Holmes when it comes to solving an impenetrable problem.
The story is a delight for Holmes fans, it includes exotic locations in America and the main stay of any self respecting traditional murder mystery the isolated manor house. In this case we have one that in rural Sussex that is surrounded by a moat, the only access allowed via a drawbridge. We also have an array of suitable suspects, the victim's wife, his long-time friend, his long-serving butler Ames and a host of other shady characters. We get a multitude of clues to chew over; bloody footprints, disappearing bicycles, impenetrable ciphers and quite a few red herrings so we too as readers can pit our wits against the great detective. Watson as ever is there to express the everyman view of events usually the readers view as well and to be gently lambasted by Holmes when his theories end up being very wide of the mark. As always the involvement of Holmes' archenemy Professor Moriaty serves to elevate proceeding to even greater heights has Holmes realised he is up against this most formidable opponent. In fact Moriaty's involvement does pose a problem for Holmes purists. The story is obviously set before the events that take place in 'The Final Problem' where Holmes and Moriaty have a final showdown at the Reichenbach Falls. However that story is the one that Moriaty is first introduced to the reader and to Watson who has never previously heard of him and yet logically he should have remembered him from the events in this story 'The Valley of Fear'. Oh well I think we can allow Doyle this slight chronological slip up.
Overall this is a wonderful story and is essential reading to any new Sherlock Holmes fans that may not have got beyond reading the better known earlier three novels. The episodic nature of the story a result of its original publication in instalments in the Strand magazine means that the pacing is excellent the end of each chapter leaving you wanting to read more. Holmes is as always the star of the show but other well drawn and interesting characters are also included especially in the second half set in America. Sherlock Holmes fans will not be disappointed.
'The Valley of Fear' by Arthur Conan Doyle is available in paperback (224 pages) from Amazon UK for £4.85 with free delivery or for £6.49 as a kindle edition at the time of writing this review.
Premier Inn is a chain of budget hotels best known recently for the Lenny Henry TV ads. When we were looking for a cheap overnight stay in the London area with good access to the centre of town I decided to look at the prices of various budget hotel chains and found Premier Inn to be the cheapest option.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The hotel was located in Greenwich to the south of Greenwich High road but within 5 minutes stroll of Greenwich mainline station. The price for our double room was £69, this will vary depending on the day of the week and the time of year and booking more than 3 weeks ahead will also reduce the price. Since the idea was to use the room as a stopover after having spent the day and evening visiting some sight and having dinner with friends in town I could have chosen a hotel closer to the centre of London, but staying closer to central London invariably increased the price of the room by about £20-£30 per night and I was looking for a cheap stay. Having said this Greenwich is perfectly placed for a London excursion. Greenwich station is part of the Dockland Light Railway line which connects to the London underground but quicker still you can take the frequent overland mainline service to London Bridge which only take 8 minutes and from there you can get on the Underground with only short journeys to the central London underground stations.
In the end we managed to get from the Hotel to Tate Britain (door to door) in a lot less than an hour which wasn't bad. The Hotel is also very conveniently located to sample some for the sights of Greenwich being only a short walk away from the Royal observatory, Greenwich Park, Greenwich village (with its popular Sunday market), the Maritime museum and the Cutty Sark.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS, CHECK IN AND PARKING
The Hotel we stayed in Greenwich was only opened last year and so was of modern design and fittings. As you'd expect from a new purpose built Hotel it had a very modern look, was very clean and shiny both inside and out and had been designed with the efficiency and value for money quality in mind.
If you have booked beforehand and have your booking reference number you can use the self checking system but when we arrived we were greeted by the friendly check in staff and let them go through the process. You do have the options of paying online when you book your room or you can wait to pay on arrival. Depending on what kind of booking you make you also have the option of cancelling you booking at no cost up to midday on the day of your booking.
After we had paid we were allocated our room given a swipe card key and were offered to book breakfast an extra at £7.99 per person or dinner from an a la carter menu, which was not inclusive of the room price. We had already booked breakfast online but declined dinner. The hotel was equipped with a dining area doubling up as a breakfast area and also have a Costa cafe sections with Wi-Fi available (again an extra charge was made after more than half hour use). Although we didn't go for the dinner judging from the menu they were offering reasonable standard pub grub from a reasonably wide ranging menu including starters, steaks, pastas, salads, fish and chips and kid's meals.
The parking which was very secure in the basement car park of the hotel with direct access from the hotel lift was also extra and had to be booked beforehand since spaces were limited. This came to £6 for a 24h period. We arrived at 2pm, which is the earliest checking in time and we were allowed to keep the car there for the full 24 hour period we had paid for despite having checked out earlier than this. So in total our Friday overnight stay in a double room for 2 adults cost us just short of £92.
The room we booked was a standard double with en suite facilities, which is one of two options the other being a family room with a double bed and a pull out sofa bed ideal for families with younger children. The room we had was very nice. It was a good size with a king size double bed and a very clean newly appointed bathroom en suite. The fixtures and fittings were of good quality and the shower which was part of the bath with a shower curtain was excellent. The water was consistently hot and the shower jet was reasonably powerful. The hotel to keep down the cost of the rooms only supplies basic toiletries in on wall dispensers for hand washing and for the shower. Both these were branded Imperial Leather and were reasonable enough although you might want to take your own shampoo and soap. You are provided with a set of bath towel and hand towel for each person and the room also has coffee making facilities with complementary sachets of instant coffee, tea, sugar and milk. The storage space in the room was adequate for our short stay and would be fine for longer stays as well. The room also had a hair dryer and a medium size colour flat screen TV/remote control with free access to a selection of Freeview channels. A telephone is provided to contact reception and to make external calls but these will be added to the bill.
The bed was very comfortable if a little on the firm side, which I do prefer. It was made up with a double duvet cover and two pillows per person, more pillows were available in the wardrobe. Despite being just off Greenwich high road the sound proofing in the room was very good and even on a Saturday night we had a very good undisturbed night's sleep. When we arrived the room felt warm, certainly warmer than I would normally like but the air conditioning system was very easy to use and the temperature control was very efficient at changing the room temperature either up or down. The windows could not be opened but I think Premier inn do say on their website that if you ask them before hand this might be possible to arrange. After a night out in town we got back to the hotel well after midnight. The swipe key allows you entry to the hotel but there was a receptionist on duty in any case.
BREAKFAST AND CHECKING OUT
After an excellent night's sleep we came down for breakfast at around 9.30 am (I think breakfast was served 8- 10.30). We had opted for the £7.99 breakfast which actually cost us £6.99 since we booked it beforehand online. This option gave us a choice of either continental (variety of cereals, toast, muffins, yogurts, croissant, jams, marmalade, marmite) or full English with standard sausages, bacon, eggs (scrambled, poached, fried), mushrooms, tomatoes or a mixture of both. The price was for an 'eat as much as you like' deal, which meant this was prefect if you were setting off for a day's sight-seeing in town and didn't want to spend much on lunch having filled up a breakfast. The food was good and I tried both cooked and continental. A selection of juices; orange, cranberry, apple and pomegranate was also available as well as a selection of teas and coffee's. Once again this was drink as much as you like. For the price this was a very good deal! Children under 16 eat for free. There is not waiter service and the food is supplied in a buffet which is regularly topped up. There is staff around if any problems arise or special requests need to be made.
Room check out time was noon but we wanted to go into Greenwich for a stroll around the Sunday market before we left without having the hassle to find parking so we asked if we could keep the car in the car park and this was not a problem. We had the parking space until 2pm in any case but the hotel was happy for us to keep our swipe keys on us until we left even if this was after checkout time.
GENERAL STANDARD OF SERVICE AND OVERALL VALUE
Overall our experience of Premier Inn was excellent. The staff was all very friendly and helpful. When we did struggle to work the coffee machine in the morning a friendly member of staff was at hand to help out with the minimum of fuss. We didn't have any other problems of note and the check in and checkout process was efficient. The standard of the room was excellent for the price. All areas of the hotel were clean and well maintained the hotel at night was very quiet despite being close to a main road and the parking facilities although limited were very secure. All in all this was an ideal place to stop over when visiting London and the Greenwich area itself is also worth a look.
For the price and considering the location this was excellent value and I certainly stay there again.
For more info check out http://www.premierinn.com
Ever since he first appeared in 'A Study in Scarlet' in 1887 the 'consulting' detective Sherlock Homes has captivated readers around the world and is now one of the best known fictional creations in literature. The stories have been adapted for the screen and the stage. His influence on crime fiction and on fiction in general is difficult to quantify, would there be a Poirot, Morse and Lewis or even a Rebus without a Sherlock Holmes before them?
Even when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle grew weary of his creation and decided to kill him off Holmes had become so popular that Doyle was forced to bring him back for more adventures. Of course while Doyle was a prolific writer, for the committed fan the four novels and five short story collections were never enough, we all wish that more had been written. Since the publication of the last collection in 1927 and after Doyle's death in 1930 other writers have attempted with varying degrees of success to resurrect the great detective in new novels and original films adaptations. However not until 2011 did Conan Doyle's estate commission a new authorised Holmes story when they asked Anthony Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider novels, and TV period detective series 'Foyle's War' to take on this onerous task. Horowitz responded by writing 'The House of Silk' but did he rise to this most difficult of challenges?
"COME, WATSON, COME! THE GAME IS AFOOT"
In the early nineteen hundreds Dr. John Watson after two marriages, three children, seven grandchildren and a successful career in medicine is seeing out his days in a comfortable resting home. There he reminisces about his great friend Sherlock Holmes who has recently passed away. Watson now reaching the end of his life has finally decided to reveal the details of a previous adventure that in his own words was "too shocking to reveal until now". The events of this case take us back to 1890 when Holmes and Watson were approached by Wimbledon based art dealer Edmund Carstairs who tells them that he and his wife are being stalked by mysterious man most noticeable by the strange flat cap he wears. Carstairs worried for his own safety and that of his young wife Catherine hires Holmes to find out who this man is and what it is he wants from them. Holmes quickly realises that the case is more complex than it at first appears and after enlisting the help of the "unofficial force" a gang of street urchins known as the Baker Street 'irregulars' events take a sinister turn. Holmes and Watson soon get embroiled with Irish American gangsters, secret criminal organisations, corrupt official and scandals at the highest level of Victorian society. They venture into the seediest parts of London in pursuit of their deadly foes and the whereabouts or nature of the mysterious 'House of Silk'. An intricate web of deceit, blackmail, kidnapping and murder slowly unfolds and Holmes' deductive powers are tested to the full.
In writing 'The House of Silk' Horowitz has almost done the impossible, he has produced a Sherlock Holmes novel that will sit comfortably among the great originals written by Doyle. The author has not radically changes Holmes and Watson from the original stories. Holmes is still the same analytical genius who likes to show off his powers at Watson's expense and yet rather struggles with social niceties and the complexities of human relationships. Watson is still the stalwart loyal friend with a more sensitive view on life. He is an everyman figure that we as readers can warm to and a perfect counterbalance to Holmes' eccentric genius. It would not surprise me if Horowitz had watched and admired the Granada TV serialisation of the Sherlock Holmes stories starring Jeremy Brett since this is the adaptation that most came to mind when I read this book.
"LONDON, THAT GREAT CESSPOOL INTO WHICH ALL THE LOUNGERS AND IDLERS OF THE EMPIRE ARE IRRESISTIBLY DRAINED"
All the classic trademarks of fictional Victorian London we love most from the original stories are still there and Horowitz has gone to great length to recreate an authentic Victorian setting for his Sherlock Holmes adventure. In preparation for writing this story he consulted with many historians and Victorian experts and also drew upon his knowledge of such contemporary Victorian authors as Dickens and Trollope to get an accurate feel for what the period was like both culturally and practically. The research has paid off handsomely. I found the setting for the story extremely believable and it struck the same tone as the original Holmes stories I have read. Victorian London was a complex mixture of grand opulence and desperate poverty. At the height of the industrial revolution which helped top make Britain one of the greatest powers and one of the wealthiest countries in the world there existed such abject poverty that saw homeless orphaned children roaming the street often taking to begging or crime to stay alive. Fashionable districts where the rich showed off their wealth in grand buildings were mirrored by areas full of derelict unsanitary houses home to the unfortunate victims of the unfettered capitalism of the age. Horowitz's Holmes and Watson are not unaware of this and parts of the story they comment on these social inequalities in a way that the original characters might not have done.
Among cobbled street filled with the sound of hooves and Hansom cabs, the lights of the gas fuelled street lamps struggling to penetrate the dense London fog, Holmes and Watson can still be found hunting out dastardly criminals in the disreputable public houses and opium dens of the dangerous east end. Inspector Lestrade of the Yard is also present as always to be flummoxed by Holmes's deductive reasoning, even Holmes' greatest adversary Professor Moriaty makes an appearance...or does he?
ELEMENTARY? I THINK NOT!
It is obvious from Horowitz's previous works that he can plot a good story but I think the chance to work with literature greatest detective has enabled him to reach new heights. 'The House of Silk' is an engrossing mystery that slowly unravels itself with ever increasing complexity. The story twists and turns this way and that so as to keep the reader engaged, entertained and confused in equal measure. Like Watson we are lead through a myriad of clues and red herrings and like Watson we are continually confounded by what is happening. Holmes of course is not although even he is tested to the limit and admits to making grave errors in his investigation. What Horowitz brings to the story is a certain amount of introspection by Watson and (through Watsons words) Holmes that was somewhat missing from the originals. The characters are given more psychological depth and the relationship between the two is subtly but touchingly examined. Even the enigmatic Holmes is brought to life emotionally as a person rather than simply being a forensic machine.
In short Horowitz has fully succeeded in creating a new Sherlock Holmes adventure that fans old and new can be proud of. Whether this is the first Sherlock Holmes story you read or simply the latest it will be either a great introduction or a welcomed addition to the Holmes canon. The question is can Horowitz be persuaded to write more? Yes please!
'The House of Silk' the new Sherlock Holmes novel by Anthony Horowitz in hardcover (304 pages) can be bought from Amazon UK for £9.49 with free delivery.
© Mauri 2012
The music industry is obsessed with labels. Each band has to fit into a neat category, it's easier to sell the music that way and yet sometimes bands come to light that don't fit into a category so then a new category has to be created. In the last few years there has been a folk revival, acts like Mumford and Sons, Sufjan Stevens, Kings of Convenience, Lisa Hannigan, Johnny Flynn and Fleet Foxes have all achieved critical and chart success and have attracted a wider mainstream audience. Yet the term folk doesn't quite cover it, their music is certainly made up of traditional folk or folk rock elements but the nature of the songs and the attitude of the bands has more of a indie rock legacy so, you've guessed it indie folk was born. A new addition to this musical movement is 'First Aid Kit' who could probably start their own subgenre as a 'Swedish' Indie folk group. The band is made up of sisters Johanna (b. 1990) and Klara (b. 1993) Söderberg whose sound is closer to the country influenced music beardy men hillbilly 'mountain' rock of the likes of Fleet Foxes than any of their European counterparts. Their distinctive close harmonies and traditional folk influenced songs belie their Scandinavian roots.
After their critically acclaimed 2010 debut album 'The Big Black & the Blue' the sisters from Stockholm have just released their second album 'The Lion's Roar' in 2012.
The Lion's Roar
In the Hearts of Men
This Old Routine
To a Poet
I Found a Way
Dance to Another Tune
New Year's Eve
King of the World
On first hearing the similarities with Fleet Foxes are obvious. From the first song the title track 'The Lions Roar the simple acoustic guitar and drums backing, the crystal clear harmonised vocals and the song structure all remind you of the best of the Fleet Foxes from eponymous 2006 album. What the sisters do well is creating catchy riff and lyrics that perfectly complement their distinctive vocal tones like songbirds on a clear spring morning in the woods. Like me you'll be humming along after just one listen. This second album has seen the band progress musical from their debut. The first album was a paired back simple affair, the songs taking centre stage without musical clutter but with the help producer Mike Mogis they have found more confidence top expand their simple style. As we can see from the second song of their album 'Emmylou' the sisters are not afraid to acknowledge their country influences and the track with its jaunty country rhythm and vocals is certainly a fine tribute to what is best about the genre, this is fast becoming my favourite song on the album and I normally (apart from Johnny Cash) hate anything too 'country'! Mike Mogis's influence is found throughout the recording. Mogis who is best known for his work with Conor Orbest and Bright Eyes infuses the music with a more mature, more complex and slightly darker sensibility. In the best tradition of folk and country music the songs are a perfect mix of sadness and joy as the sisters sing about love lost, falling in love and human condition in general. Recorded in Nebraska the album features an array of backing musicians including The Felice Brothers and Conor Oberst.
Gone are the days when the girls were happy to cover Fleet Foxes songs and tentatively tried to imitate the sound of their favourite artist. They have now come of age with this album and have a confidence that means when they sing intelligent lyrics in a very natural sounding southern twang it's not imitation but the birth of their own distinctive style. After the homely exuberance of 'Emmylou' we get the beautiful soulful 'In the Hearts of Men', which with its complex melodic structure slightly reminded me of Paul Simon in his Simon and Garfunkel days.
"In the hearts of men
In the arms of mothers
In the parts we play to convince others"
Blue is probably their most ambitious song most thematically and musically but they carry it off with assured skill. This song is about the loss of a lover and how death has affected the person making them afraid to risk their emotions on anyone else, a rather sombre subject but yet the melody is a pleasant lilting and the vocals bright and upbeat making this one of the most interesting songs on the album. The Söderberg sisters continue to surprise and delight through the album; never can you quite pin down what will come next as song after song takes a slightly different slant of their version of country indie folk.
Their new bolder sound even stretches to the wonderful exuberant Mexicana, mariachi horns and Latin guitars included of the last song of the album 'King of the World'. Some of the songs on this album express such maturity of composition and themes that it seems surprising that someone so young could have written them. A good example of this is the thoughtful 'This Old Routine' where they sing about the feeling of loss when looking back at one's life and feeling that something is missing, that desire and dreams have not been fulfilled, it's about middle age really but they pull off with style.
"And it gets late and you turned off the lights.
Her body's so close to you in the night.
But you dare not touch her and you don't wanna fight, so you just say,
Many of the songs benefit from occasional sweeping orchestration adding depth and complexity to the compositions. But despite this bolder bigger sound the heart of their music is still their beautiful voices and the thoughtful lyrics.
'New Year's Eve' is the simplest song with just an acoustic guitar strumming away as backing for some wonderful vocals primarily by Johanna. The singing style in this song reminded me of the vocal acrobatics that a young Joni Mitchell used to do, crisp clear high notes juxtaposed by sudden deeper tones.
The saddest of the songs is 'Dance to Another Tune', it's a much slower number with a wonderful lush orchestration backing the mournful haunting vocals and yet there is still an exuberance that comes through with a clever melodic counterpoint at the end. This is all very clever stuff not easy to do and this album could become a bit of a classic.
Their influences are not always what you'd expect, yes they admit a love of Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell but also they appreciate the darker sounds of punk veteran Patti Smith. Certainly some of their lyrics are thoughtful and dark enough to compare with some of Smith's work. It is no surprise that they decided to cover one of Smith's best known songs Dancing Barefoot at the 2011 Polar awards. Their unusual and passionate version of this song even brings a tear to the eye of Patti Smith who was in the audience.
Overall the album is a delight not a bad song on it. It never bores you and the music never ventures into the clichéd sweetness of folk or the over sentimental indulgence of country. Many of the songs are dealing with dark themes, some are exuberant and joyful all are performed with great skill. I can see a very bright future for this band and I hope they don't lose their passion and inventiveness in their song writing.
'The Lion's Roar' by First Aid Kit can be bought from Amazon UK for £7.99 delivered free at the time of writing this review.
© Mauri 2012