Monday, August 30, 2010

I still remember my first exposure (if you will) to Russell Brand. I was vacationing in London and leafing through the complimentary copy of The Guardian newspaper while eating breakfast. Most of the articles had small journalist photos next to them. Sort of like this guy's (just for illustrative purposes). So anyway, I'm half asleep, buttering my toast and leafing through the newspaper when I turn the page, and the journalist's photo next to a column appears to be that of a pirate. As all of the other journalist photos were, well, somewhat bland, suddenly seeing a pirate fixing you with his steely glare was somewhat alarming. Of course, I had to read the accompanying column. I don't remember what it was about at all, but I do remember that it was hilarious. I knew I had to do some further research on this Russell Brand bloke when I got back to the US.

At this point, he was still doing a radio show, so I listened to some of the programs and found them to be quite funny -- once I got over the somewhat jarring (on first listen) Essex accent! Of course, I knew that he'd had quite the history with drug and sex addiction, so I was interested to read his account of his early years in My Booky Wook.

Let's just say that Russell likes to share. A bit too much. I would think that when writing our memoirs, most of us would want to paint ourselves in the most positive light, or leave out anything too embarrassing. Using that as a guideline, I'd hate to find out what was deemed "too outrageous" for this book!

Brand was born in the Essex town of Grays in 1975. His parents split up almost immediately, so he came from the requisite "dysfunctional family situation." His father was never in the picture much, and his mother had frequent bouts of cancer which required young Russell to be packed off to relatives. Eventually, his mother remarried, and, unsurprisingly, the step-father isn't too keen on Russell. There are boarding schools, borderline sexual abuse (not by the step-father), and random acts of cruelty from adults (this was by the step-father, among others). All of this added up to a young man who was cripplingly insecure (believe it or not) and generally unhappy. Luckily, in secondary school he participated in a play where he discovered his love of performing.

Between that first stage experience and his more recent success, however, there were many bumps along the road: multiple arrests (shoplifting and drugs), semi-homelessness, addiction, bouts self-harming, expulsions from stage schools, etc. All of these events are related in a way that seems to show that Brand has distanced himself from destructive behavior like that, while at the same time seeming to indicate that this behavior was perfectly normal and natural at the time. He does come across as extremely non-judgemental, to the point of continually being astounded that others take offense at his sometimes outrageous behavior.

He also relates his experiences with drugs, particularly heroin, as well as his downward spirals which led to separate stays in rehab facilities for drugs and sex-addiction. He had already achieved some success on television and as a stand-up performer before an agent forced him into rehab. It was interesting to me that it seemed as if everything "took" on the first try. For someone who had lived most of his life to that point as an addict, it seems amazing that Brand was able to beat his addictions fairly quickly. It seems as if his determination to succeed in his career was enough of a motivating factor for him to resist relapse.

The book is very funny in some parts and is clearly written in Brand's style. It is an enjoyable, if somewhat eye-opening, read!
Final Verdict for My Booky Wook: Three Gherkins, for being an engaging look at a unique performer

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The 4 part drama Love on a Branch Line is obviously supposed to be a hilarious look at the uptight white collar worker Jasper Pye as he encounters the wacky inhabitants of Arcady Hall. Instead, it turns out to be a somewhat slow moving story with beautiful scenery. While not much happens, at least the background is very pretty!

In early 1950s England civil servant Jasper has reached a crossroads. He overhears a girlfriend calling him dull, and he decides to tell his mother (with whom he lives) that he's going to quit his job and move to France to become a painter. Before he's able to take this rash step, however, his boss sends him on a mission to close an obscure government department. During the war, the Department of Output Statistics was established to monitor foreign publications and gather information from them. In the intervening years, the 3 person office located in the stately Arcady Hall has been allowed to muddle on without much oversight or direction. The government has decided that the work of the Output Statistics office is done, but they want to send out an officer to confirm it.

Jasper, somewhat of a wishy-washy (as well as dull) character, is bullied into taking the assignment. Once he arrives in town, he quickly becomes acquainted with the odd characters who live and work in Arcady Hall. This consists mostly of the eccentric Lord and Lady Flamborough and their 3 sex-crazed daughters. Lord Flamborough is obsessed with trains, to the point of buying a train, moving in, and having his daughter Chloe drive him back and forth along a disused rail line. His wife is obsessed with gardening, to the point of not caring that her daughters are all to some degree cavorting with any male that comes into their line of sight.

The daughters are all unpleasant. Chloe, the eldest, is married to the perpetually drunken Lionel. She is hardworking, uncomplaining and not inclined to do anything about her unhappy marriage. She is also open to any sort of comforting that passing strangers might offer, as Jasper is pleased to note. The middle daughter, Belinda, is the most outrageous. She is flirtatious to the point of stripping off at the drop of a hat in front of male visitors and running about the grounds of the stately home naked. The youngest daughter, Matilda, is also apparently sex-crazed, although in her case it is explained by her obsession with reading lurid bodice-rippers. Of course, none of these women can keep their hands off the bemused Jasper.

The three person Output Statistics department also proves to be somewhat single-minded. "The Professor" is in charge of the department, but he seems to spend most of his time gardening. Quirk, the "statistician," is only concerned with the local cricket grounds and arranging matches. Miss Mounsey, the secretary, appears to be working, but she is quick to try to distract Jasper whenever he asks to see files or samples of her work.

Once the cast of characters has been introduced, we get 4 episodes of the same thing over and over: the daughters chasing Jasper (from the moment he arrives), the mother gardening, the father on the train, Lionel drinking, etc. The pace of each episode is glacially slow, even though the events were only supposed to occur over 3 or 4 days. While the 3 department employees attempt to distract Jasper from his inspection of their duties, he does rather abruptly come to a decision about their futures at the end of the final episode.

While there is a resolution that was supposed to be satisfactory for everyone, it did leave a lot of questions unanswered. With 4 episodes they could have spent more time explaining some of the loose threads, and less time with the daughters climbing all over Jasper (we got it the first 395 times!). The beautiful "Arcady Hall" and the well-kept grounds were lovely to look at as not much happened, though . . .
Final Verdict for Love on a Branch Line: Two Gherkins, for a not very exciting story told with an amazing backdrop

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

While browsing at a bookstore in London last year, I became interested in a small volume titled I Never Knew That About London. Because I already had a teetering pile of books that I was planning to buy, I simply wrote down the ISBN, confident that I could purchase it when I got back home. Much to my dismay, I found that it was only available as an e-book, or as an import. I was planning to go ahead and buy it, or perhaps put it on my shopping list for my next trip. I was recently browsing the Travel section of my beloved McKay's Used Bookstore when what did my disbelieving eyes spy, but a copy of the much sought-after book. And in pristine condition! And a bargain at only $10! It really was my lucky day!

I've been reading this little gem for the past few days, and it's just as wonderful as I thought it would be. The author has a real love and admiration for the city, and it shines through in his descriptions of places that can be seen today, as well as those that are no longer around.

The book is divided into sections: City of London, City of Westminster, East, West and South. There is also a gazetteer at the back of the book detailing places mentioned in the text, their associated websites, nearest tubes, opening hours and so on. I know I've made a list of places I'd never heard of before that I plan to visit on my next trip!

There is also an interesting "I Never Knew That About . . ." section at the end of each chapter, which frequently highlights famous people who lived in the area. The book is packed with interesting facts, such as the one about how most countries outside of the British isles drive on the right because Napoleon was left-handed. I also had no idea that No. 10 Downing Street has over 160 rooms. It looks just like a regular house on TV! The book also explains the origins of many of well-known phrases such as "to spend a penny" and where the measurement for "one foot" came from. Fascinating!

If there is any quibble with the book, it is that the illustrations (drawn by the author's wife Mai Osawa) are not all identified, and so sometimes it can be difficult to figure out which building that is being discussed is shown. That's just a minor quibble, however, in an otherwise outstanding and fact-filled book.

Final verdict for I Never Knew That About London: Five Gherkins, for being a beautiful and loving portrait of a vibrant city

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I decided to give Mo Hayder another chance, after being less than thrilled with her novel The Birdman. Her next novel in the series, The Treatment, again features the tortured main character of DI Jack Caffery, and the events take place shortly after the conclusion of the last book. Unfortunately, I didn't find the characters any more endearing in this outing.

This book is hard to like given the main topic of the book (pedophilia) and with each character being more unlikeable that the last. In this story, entire families are held hostage by an insane villain. It's up to Caffery to figure out who the bad guy is, as well as attempt to find out who the next target family is. Caffery is also (as always) still wrestling with the disappearance of his older brother over 25 years ago. Naturally, he thinks one of the members of the child pornography ring has information about his missing brother.

Once again, we are asked to overlook some extreme and bizarrely illogical events in the story. There are some gripping events, but for the most part the situations and characters are just too unrealistic to make for a good mystery. I've read that the later Caffery books deal with "African black magic," so at least I'll have absolutely no desire to read those. I think Ms. Hayder and I can come to a parting of the ways right now.

Final verdict for The Treatment: Two Gherkins, for some suspenseful moments, but an overall frustrating story

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Given my love of all things British, here I was thinking that the film Bright Star about the star crossed romance between the poet John Keats and his unfortunately-named lady love, Fanny Brawne, would be right up my alley. And it might have been, too, except for the fact that the film is so dreadfully, unrelentingly, excruciatingly SLOOOOWWWW. It takes and absolute age for every scene to play out, and the characters are forever pausing to recite examples of Keats' poems -- long, drawn-out, unabridged versions of his poems.

The story concerns the meeting and short courtship of the two lovers. Fanny's mother rented half a house that was also being occupied by Keats and his friend and fellow poet, Mr. Brown. The two poets seem to spend most of their time shut up in the library, waiting for inspiration to strike. Fanny, on the other hand, is given to outrageous fashions that she creates herself for her frequent visits to dances. How the two of them fell in love is still something of a mystery. At any rate, before long they are casting simpering glances at each other, much to the disgust of Mr. Brown.

We are told frequently how Keats has no money, and his published collections of poems are tepidly received by the critical and reading public. There is one slight mention of his ability to slave away at medicine if he chooses, but apparently he'd rather sit around and wait to be inspired. Due to his lack of funds, he's constantly at the mercy of admiring friends, who arrange stays for him at various locations. These separations, generally not long lasting, always throw Fanny into fits of hysteria and tears, although she's apparently contented enough to exchange letters with Keats during his absences.

Keats loses a brother to consumption, but he doesn't himself appear to be ill until he rides back to Hampstead from London on the outside of a coach during a rainstorm in the middle of winter. He was nothing if not practical, that Keats fellow! After that, he begins coughing blood, and, well, it's pretty much downhill from there. His friends convince him to accept a trip to Rome to avoid a damp English winter which would surely finish him off. Fanny, as usual, has hysterics, but Keats somewhat pacifies her with an apparent engagement.

Off he goes, and there are a few letters, but they eventually get word that Keats has died. Fanny once again has a breakdown (with good reason, this time) and starts wearing black. When the film ends, we're informed that she spent a lot of time wandering through Hampstead Heath for the rest of her life. Not a word was mentioned about her subsequent marriage and the birth of her three children. Guess it would have ruined the whole "pining away for love" aspect of the story.

The biggest mystery of all is what attracted these two to each other. Keats came off as impractical, wishy-washy and generally helpless. Fanny loved dancing and parties, so why she wanted to hang around with that sour-sack is a mystery. If Keats had lived, I doubt their union would have been happy, although they did appear quite devoted at the time.

Still, since their story was somewhat abbreviated, I guess the filmmakers had to drag it out as long as possible. In that, they succeeded handsomely.

Final Verdict for Bright Star: Two Gherkins, for some lovely scenery, but not much of a story

Monday, August 2, 2010

I've long been an admirer of the Peter Robinson Inspector Banks series. The stories take place in Yorkshire and concern the music-loving police inspector and his many cases. I was thrilled to receive an advanced copy of the latest book in the series, Bad Boy, which will be released in the US on August 24.

As the book opens, Inspector Alan Banks is taking a holiday from his duties at the Eastvale police station. This is a great pity, because a woman arrives asking specifically to speak to Banks. Juliet Doyle is a former neighbor of Banks', and she had a rather delicate matter to discuss with him. Since he's gone, she is persuaded to speak instead with Annie Cabbot, who is a colleague and former lover of Banks. Juliet says that she's found a gun in her daughter's room, and she needs to know what to do about it. This is where it becomes interesting for an American reader to notice the differences between gun laws in the US and the UK. Apparently, just possessing a firearm in the UK means an automatic 5 year prison term. No doubt Juliet was hoping her friend Banks could advise her on how to turn the gun in without getting her daughter into trouble. Annie, however, feels compelled to report the situation to her supervisor. From then on, things go terribly wrong.

Juliet's husband and their daughter Erin are at home, waiting for Juliet and Banks to arrive and deal with the gun situation. Instead, almost an entire police squad descends on the house to confiscate the dangerous weapon. In the course of the confusion, Juliet's husband Patrick is shocked by the police with a taser and subsequently dies in the hospital.

It soon emerges that Erin, the girl with the gun, is sharing a house with two other girls. One girl, Rose, has only just moved in, but the other girl "Francesca" has been Erin's friend since childhood. Francesca turns out to be Banks' daughter, Tracy. Once Tracy hears about the problems at Erin's parents' house, she immediately rushes to tell Erin's boyfriend, Jaff. Jaff is the "bad boy" in the title of the book.

Jaff is the one Erin took the gun from, after a heated argument. After Tracy informs him of the current situation, Jaff tells her they must find a place to lie low until they can leave the country. At first, Tracy thinks this is a marvelously fun idea. She's resentful of her absentee father, and feels like her job working in a bookstore is a disappointment to her parents. She knows her father is out of the country on vacation, so she immediately suggests that they hide out in his isolated country house for a few days. Jaff, extremely paranoid, takes her mobile phone from her "so they can't be traced." She still thinks she's on an adventure until a few days later when she opens Jaff's bag in an attempt to retrieve her phone. She discovers a huge amount of cash, another gun, and what appears to be massive amounts of drugs. At approximately the same time, Jaff, looking through papers in the house, discovers that Tracy is a policeman's daughter. If she wasn't before, Tracy is now officially Jaff's hostage and bargaining chip. As they are getting ready to flee the house to go to London, Annie Cabbot shows up to water the plants.

Banks arrives back in England only to be met with the news of everything that has been happening. He must attempt to track down Jaff before he decides to get rid of Tracy permanently. There is also a major crime boss that Banks suspects of being the source of the guns, but he is unable to prove anything.

I must admit that I haven't read the books in order, or probably even all of the books in the series, so there were things that were mentioned from time to time that were unfamiliar to me. This book also has the recurrent theme of all of the characters (especially Banks) needing to inform the reader what music they are listening to at all times. It's rather funny to be enlightened as to the soundtrack of a hostage situation/car chase.

Final Verdict for Bad Boy: Three Gherkins, for being a page-turning and action-filled episode in the Inspector Banks saga

About Me

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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The Gherkin Scale

5gherkinsb Brilliant!

4gherkinsb Good, innit?

3gherkinsb Fair to middlin'

2gherkinsb Has some good points

1gherkin Oi! Wot you playin' at?

0gherkins3Don't be givin' me evils!

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