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Monday, 30 August 2010

Gareth Bundy And The Magical Book Series

When I was a kid my favourite author was - as I'm sure yours was too, most of you - Roald Dahl. I remember my Mother reading me all his books, a chapter at a time (two if I nagged enough), each night before I went to sleep.

When I was old enough to read them myself I wished that my Mother had never read them to me before. The magic was watered down a little when you knew what was coming...

So it's lucky, then, that I was probably far too old to read the Harry Potter books (let alone have them read to me by a parent) when I came upon The Philosopher's Stone (or Sorcerer's Stone, in the States - presumably publishers think Americans less intelligent or less literate?) which was released in 1997. Indeed, I didn't read the book on its immediate release. No. I would wait until the fourth book in the series was released before I became a fan... shockingly. My Mother, predictably, thought that the book would be "my cup of tea", being as it is the sort of "Children's Fantasy" that I love so much - my favourite book(s) ever written are the Alice books by Lewis Carroll.

For those not familiar with the books - WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN??? - here's an introduction: Harry Potter is an ordinary 11 year old boy who discovers one day that he's actually a wizard and has been given a place in the school of magic Hogwarts. Not only that, but he is also a celebrity in the magical world for being the only person to survive an attack by the villainous Lord Voldermort; a terrible dark wizard who lost his powers  the night he tried to kill Potter. The books chart his school years; which aren't as straight forward as one might think. My Mother thought I'd love them!

And I did! I loved it. The Goblet Of Fire is still one of my favourite books, although on a first reading (being the first Potter book I had read) I was left a little confused as to the background details of much of the storyline. So, I went back and devoured the first three books in the series - The Philosopher's Stone, The Chamber Of Secrets and The Prisoner Of Azkaban - within a couple of days. I remember being pleased with myself for finishing The Chamber Of Secrets in one sitting - or lying - whilst bathing one night (I was probably eating something at the same time, such is usual for me).

I think what makes the Harry Potter books so effective and so widely read is that they are written for a personal audience, not a general one. Let me explain: If I had read the Harry Potter books on their release then I would have been eleven years old when  The Philosopher's Stone came out - the same age as Harry...

And as Harry grew through the books so I would have. Also, the writing style evolves, or ages, with the reader. Give an eleven year old one of the later (and hugely thicker) books and no doubt they would give up before the end. But when The Order Of The Phoenix was released in 2003, the children who had read about Harry's first year at Hogwarts in 1997 were older, more mature, yet still in love with the story. It's a clever way of doing things... It's almost a trick, to make sure people read all the books in order. I've just started my own 11 year old nephew on The Philosopher's Stone.

Now, they're not the best-written books ever. I'd go as far as to say there was a lot lacking in actual quality of style. But the World Joanne Rowling has created is immensely detailed and colourful and surprisingly believable (once you get over the habit she has of giving characters names that are illustrative of their character or occupation - it can get somewhat annoying. But you have to overlook it. Basically, they are magic. If you haven't read this series of books then I suggest you give it a go, from the start. If you're one of these people who think 'Children's Book' means 'book to be read by children only' then the whole series is available in pretentious "Adult Covers" to save you face on the bus to work.

I write a lot of children's fiction. It's what I'm best at. I have over 40 stories locked away on my hard drive waiting for an illustrator and a publisher (I'm not holding my breath though). And I like to think that the Potter books has inspired me to stray away from the usual children's "nonsense" tales and into a more daring, grown-up and pessimistic/realistic vein. I owe them much thanks. I'm currently listening to the stories on audio book, read by 'should-be-put-on-banknotes' national treasure Stephen Fry. I recommend this way of enjoying them greatly to anyone who just isn't alert enough to READ anything at 8am, on the way to work (also, pretentious people, you don't have to flash that "kid's cover" to the leggy blonde from accounts, either).

As for the movies, forget that they're based on the novels and they're great. Otherwise they're the equivalent of watching characters you have grown up with - grown to love - being gang-raped by a huge corporation. Go for the books over them every time!

Have you read them? let me know what you thought... Comment on Twitter, link in the sidebar.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

More Music, I'm Afraid

As everyone with ears and a heart knows, music makes all the nastiness go away. Whatever happens there is always a song out there that speaks to just you and makes things just a bit better. I've been song-mining for something special this weekend and have come up with two gems that I would like to talk about. 

The first is a lovely little band called She & Him - born of the unlikely pairing of Folk star M.Ward and actress Zooey Deschanel. An amalgamation of gentle covers and beautiful guitar-y, piano-y dribbles of love and beauty whisked together to make the most listen-to-able songs I've had the pleasure to allow into my dreams this year makes up their two albumic offerings; Volume One and Volume Two (both available on Spotify). They manage to take a 60's sound and make it the most recent discovery in music. You'll be nodding along as though we were all back there. Deschanel's voice makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

There is little to dislike about them, in my opinion. They purrr their lyrics (and others') with an ease that you wouldn't expect from either member. Deschanel's voice is part Norah Jones, part Dusty Springfield and lots wonderful. I would recommend both albums to anyone. 

The second offering I have for you is a band I briefly mentioned in my last "music is good innit" type post - Au Revoir Simone; Electronic Dream Pop of the highest calibre. Songs like Sad Song and Night Majestic blend up-tempo synth-pop with watercoloured vocals and gigantic heart. There's a cutesy element to the vocals, too, which makes them sound... sort of... innocent. 

Rarely do I opt for this sound, preferring a more gutsy sound like Florence or Marina or Gaga. But this just seems, I don't know, Nice.  

Their system of releasing their albums - original, remix, original, remix - means that even the older songs that you've listened to over and over (and you will) can be heard new and shooshed up. Whether driving, cooking, bathing, dancing, drinking or simply being Au Revoir Simone have a song to tap into your day and make it brighter. I can't tell you how pleased I am that I found them... 

Both have official websites with tracks for download etc. She & Him here and Au Revoir Simone here. I urge you to check them out and also look on Spotify, or whatever you may use to listen to music online. You won't regret it, if you have a heart.

FURTHER LISTENING: See also; The Decemberists, Rilo Kiley, Tegan And Sarah, Azure Ray & Tilly And The Wall. All lovely.

My Song Of The Moment #01


That Was The Week That Was

Once in a while, everything in a person's life - good and bad, big and small - come crashing in at once. Nothing is ever simple, nothing is ever handleable, nothing can be put on a list and dealt with in time. Sometimes things just swamp you and you have to sink or swim.

I've gone through a lot in the last two weeks. I've lost the love of my life, argued with a good friend over a misunderstanding, lost money, found money, lost it again, gained a new job and found irreplaceable support in the most unlikely places. Life, it seems, is something that you learn to get on top of. 

And I think I have. Without wanting to jinx anything I seem to be handling all of the good and bad with admirable organisation and composure. There's an element of the bitter-sweet sprinkled throughout my life right now, but I feed my pet Creativity on that. I've written more (shit) in the last two weeks than I had done in the previous two months. Nothing special, but it's the literary equivalent of going to the gym - just keeping my "writing muscles" moving. I want to say - publicly - that if I've been a bit distant, or a bit short-tempered lately (for "lately" read "in the last 6 months") then I sincerely apologise. I don't want to cause upset, harm, hurt or offence to anyone. You know me and my mouth. 

So what I think this garbled, nonsensical post it all about is this - Despite all the upset, cross words and differences, I want to say a massive thank you to all those who have been patient, nice and available enough to offer me a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold or an opinion to disagree with. You all know who you are. You are the ones who I like, admire and, in most cases, love. It's been tough getting "back on my feet" but with the help of many I think I'm almost there. 

A pre-emptive apology now to those same people who will undoubtedly be there the next time something gets on top of me. And a pre-emptive thanks for them being just that. There. Always. Thank you all. And you know what? Thanks to those who haven't directly helped me, but have listened to me bleat on and on on here, Twitter and everywhere else. You are all stars and I value and love you all.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Red Dwarf Just Never Gets Old

When I was a kid, I used to think I was so cool because I could call people Smeg Head - what I believed to be swearing - without adults telling me off for using bad language. Red Dwarf - the BBC space comedy - coined this phrase and offered it to me on a plate. I vividly remember watching Timeslides (1989); the episode when the 'Dwarfers' obtain the ability to travel into photographs as easy as stepping into the next room.

This must have been one of my earliest memories, since when this aired I would only have been about three years old. But remember it, I do. I didn't get some of the jokes; ones about sleeping with girls, drinking beer and eating curry (so MOST of the jokes, then) for years - I was far too young! I remember catching the odd episode now and again over the next few years, but my next vivid memory of the show would be Quarantine. More specifically, Arnold Rimmer's terrifying (at that age) "infection" and, more specifically still, MR FLIBBLE. That Penguin-Hand-Puppet scared the shit out of me. 

And when the BBC aired "Red Dwarf Night" on Valentine's Night 1998, memories of my childhood came flooding back once more... It's odd to think I watched more Red Dwarf on original broadcast when I was too young to appreciate it than I did when I was older (series 8 being a particularly sore point to me at the time - it seemed awful - now though, it's just as enjoyable as the older series). When I had a bit of spare cash some time ago I bought the "Just The Shows" DVD collection. Every episode ever made (at the time) in two box sets. I've been re-watching them all recently, in bed, which is what has prompted me to talk a little about them here.

For those who don't know the show - if you're even still reading after all that nostalgia - it's very easily explained. Set in the near(ish) future on the Jupiter Mining Ship "Red Dwarf", Dave Lister, a humble every-man technician - is sealed in a stasis prison for breaching ship policy on keeping animals on board when he is found to have been keeping a pet cat. 

Three million years later he is awoken by the ships senile computer, Holly, who explains that there was a radiation leak soon after Lister's incarceration which killed the entire crew in an instant. It had taken three million years for the environmental radiation to settle to a bearable level. Accompanied only by a hologram of his annoying bunkmate, Arnold Rimmer,  the most obnoxious, arrogant and useless man on the ship, and a humanoid life form evolved from his pet cat, Lister's hilarious, cringe-worthy and often exciting adventures make up the show. Later in the show's run other main characters emerge in the form of, firstly, Kryten - a rescued sanitation droid with dreams of breaking his programming and living a human life - and later, Kochanski - the navigation officer on Red Dwarf, stranded in this dimension from an alternate one; she is also the show-long object of Lister's desire.

The series has built up its own mythology - not quite on a par with that of Doctor Who or Star Trek in terms of scale or longevity, but cherished just as much by life-long fans. The word 'Smeg' has stopped being a white goods manufacturer or penile secretion for many and is now solely a soft-and-acceptable alternative to the fuck-word. I used to manage a local band called 'Skutter' - named for the three-fingered ship maintenance robots in the show. Some of the more unlikely, yet most effective alien races come from Red Dwarf. The GELF, Rogue Simulants, the Curried Man, Psirens... all worthy, more or less, of a space in our geek-minds along side Borg, Cybermen and Klingons (in my opinion, of course). 

The last series of the show, as I mentions above, was not quite as good as the previous seven (a case of not enough material, really). 

It saw the crew finding Red Dwarf - which they had lost (or had stolen, by persons unknown) at the end of series five - reconstructed by nano-bots, along with it's original crew (including the much missed, and now completely  alive Arnold Rimmer, who had left the previous series to fulfil his destiny as space-adventurer Ace Rimmer - but that story deserves a blog post of its own! Maybe I'll write it one day soon). It ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, that suggests a "back to the origins" future for the crew... But the wait for answers - although a long time in arriving - was worth it. The Dwarfers returned last Easter in 'Red Dwarf: Back To Earth' - a meta-comedy which sees the crew on Earth - on Coronation Street (where the actor who played Lister, Craig Charles, now played Lloyd the Taxi-Bloke) - trying to track down their creators (Grant & Naylor) who, they think, are the only ones who can tell them "how the story ends". 

Again, with hope, the mini-series (which aired on Freeview channel Dave - which a minor character jokingly tells Lister "is named after you") ends with something of a cliffhanger. Watch it and see for yourselves! So what, then, of the future? Well, co-creator Doug Naylor said in interviews - even before Back To Earth aired - that he would like to make more episodes. Indeed, Craig Charles confirmed (whether he was allowed to or not) on BBC Radio 2 some months ago that there will indeed be another two series, brand new, with the original cast and to be filmed from January 2011 onwards. The show will be broadcast on Dave. Presumably, just as it did when Back To Earth was shown, the new series will break all viewing figure records for the channel. 

Whatever happens, we get more... which means my collection is incomplete. When I get paid I will buy Back To Earth... and I will sit here, with my beer and my curry, scratching my custard-stained, tee-shirted chest and twiddling my Earth Thumbs until the new series brings Dave Lister, Arnold Rimmer, Cat, Holly, Kryten and Kochanski zipping back into my life. Thanks for the memories, to everyone involved! Now, "I can't sit around here all day. I have to get the Smeg-hammer out and loosen Mr Lister's underwear!"

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Music For Now

I've always been a music fan, but in that respect I've always been late to the party too... Remember the Kings Of Leon? I'm just getting into them. And Crowded House? Yeah, I'm appreciating them now more that I did when I was 11. 

But this week I've used Spotify to broaden my musical horizons a little more and get up to date on the bands that "the kids" are all talking about lately. Firstly, the incredible Marina And The Diamonds (pictured). Wonderful, whimsy, aggressive pop love from the Welsh/Greek babe which plays like Kate Bush on ecstasy. Or like Nena, before she went all odd. If you haven't already, have a listen to her asap. 

Then there's Mumford & Sons (pictured below) who have helped me get over some pretty rough times lately with their blend of London Folk and tale-telling lyrical magic. Brave, live-style vocal harmony and faster-than-they-should-be up-tempo ballads make this little gem a stayer in my record collection. Winter Winds, in particular, makes me wish it was new year's eve and I had a bottle of whisky and small gathering of best friends to share it with. Lush. I'm listening again right now.

And then I found something very special... The Where The Wild Things Are soundtrack by Karen O And The Kids spews youngling mischief and that "time for bed, more play tomorrow" feeling with such power that I cannot listen to the whole thing through without crying my eyes out. Sailing Home is without doubt the most effective track ever for "taking you back to the thoughtless wonder of childhood" despite not doing much at all... Absolutely beautiful. And short. The entire album reaches into my chest, pulls out my blackened heart and paints it rainbow colours... with finger-paints. Near the sandpit. 

And if you use Spotify's much-overlooked "Related Artists" function you might just stumble upon Amish-looking, Casio-possessed Brooklyn Indy-pop outfit Au Revoir Simone. They make the sort of music you can come home from work to. Light, frothy, uplifting, wordy-pop the likes of which I haven't really come across before. 

They seem to conjure up an image of flashing lights around a small stall in the corner of a Tesco car park. They remind me that music doesn't have to be in your face to knock you down. If you're cooking a meal one night put them on and jig about; I guarantee your food will taste approximately 77% more fun and almost 10% more American. In order to love them though, you'll need to get past the "Dawson's Creek" lyrical guff on some of their tracks... it's not that bad once you get to know it.

BUT! The one thing that has grabbed me by the bollocks and forced me to listen lately is Mark Ronson's new  offering "Bang Bang Bang". For the video alone this one gets prize place in my browser this weekend. Check it out here and see what you think! I'd love to know what you've been listening to. Teach me about what music is to you via my Twitter page.


State Of Play (BBC)

Recently, due to a terrifyingly sudden change of circumstance, I've had very busy days and incredibly lonely evenings. So I decided to dust off my old second-hand State Of Play DVD and treat myself to a "Watch With Mother" screening (that's when I pick something I think my Mother would like and make her watch it, obviously). 

It was the fifth viewing for me, but the first for her. And I have to say, we both thoroughly enjoyed it - me, just as much as I did when I watched it the very first time. Maybe even more than I did the first time. 

If you haven't seen it then, in a nutshell, here's what it's all about: "Stephen Collins is an ambitious politician. Cal McAffrey is a well-respected investigative journalist and Stephen's ex-campaign manager. En rout to work one morning, Stephen's research assistant mysteriously falls to hear death on the London Underground. It's not long before revelations of their affair hit the headlines."

Meanwhile, a suspected teenage drug dealer is found shot dead. These (apparently unconnected) events expose a dangerous habit within modern government of dancing too closely with the corporate devil. Friendships are tested and lives are put on the line as an intricate web of lies unfolds... leading to a blisteringly good conclusion. I urge you to buy it NOW! 

You can get it really cheap on, it's well worth the cash. And if you're breathing normally when the final blow lands (about 10 minutes from the end of episode six) then I'm afraid we can no longer be friends.

Another New Beginning

Welcome to my radically scaled down, cut back, rounded off, de-cluttered new blog. I'm tired of having a blog entirely dedicated to one subject (with posts about other things thrown in now and again) so I've decided to grow up a bit and have ONE blog for everything. 

This is where you'll still be able to read about Doctor Who and Sherlock and other stuff like that, but I'll also be adding more autobiographical posts - stuff about things I'm thinking or things that have happened to me. Don't worry, they'll all be separated into categories - PERSONAL and REVIEWS - so you'll be able to navigate easily enough between the two.

So! Let's get started...