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Talk to the Tail – Tom Cox: A Review

January 12, 2014

Talk to the Tail Tom Cox

Those of you who read this will know that I really enjoy Tom Cox’s writing and sense of humour. Whether it’s his blog, Under The Paw, his Twitter accounts for The Bear and for Ralph, or one of his books, like Talk to the Tail, this man and his feline escapades never cease to entertain me.

Talk to the Tail, however, really does go beyond “adventures in cat ownership”. As well as questions around The Bear’s wanderlust and Janet’s inexplicable fondness for hunting ancient food wrappers, contained within the pages of Talk to the Tail we have (in no particular order), horse riding, countryside walks, an alter-doggo, taxidermy, divorce (which made me very sad, I have to say), a trip to Africa, and a hand in a tiger’s mouth. Some reviews I’ve browsed have been critical of the variety of topics Cox covers that mean there’s less of The Bear and co in Talk to the Tail, but I don’t think the variety is detrimental; in fact, it shows that Cox has all that much more in his life to draw from in his writing, and more than that, to draw humour from.

I sometimes wish I could see the world through Tom Cox’s eyes. The way he’s able to look not only on his cats but pretty much on his whole life, find unique characters, and tell their stories in a way that is not just engaging but actually laugh out loud funny is a rare talent, and not one I’m sure can be taught. I’m so glad I have The Good, The Bad and the Furry lined up on my shelf. Here’s to hoping that the picture of that hunk The Bear dominating the cover is a sign that there are plenty of feline escapades inside.

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The Prisoner of Heaven – Carlos Ruiz Zafon: A Review

November 9, 2013

The-Prisoner-of-Heaven_225

 

After I’d bought, read and enjoyed The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s 2005 bestseller and the first installment of the “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books” series, I immediately went out and bought the book that had originally drawn me to Zafon’s writing – The Prisoner of Heaven.

Despite being the third installment in the series, the story opens almost where The Shadow of the Wind leaves off, in the Sempere & Sons bookshop in Barcelona. Daniel and Bea are married, and have a young son together, and Fermin Romero de Torres is preparing for his own wedding to Bernada. However, their happiness is soon disrupted. One day, a stranger visits the bookshop and buys a very expensive edition of The Count of Monte Cristo. However, instead of taking it away, he inscribes it to, and leaves it for, Fermin. What follows leads to the unravelling of Fermin’s mysterious past, how he came to be imprisoned in the notorious Montjuic prison, and how his fellow inmate, David Martin, lead him to the Sempere family, and to Daniel. The Prisoner of Heaven is ostensibly Fermin’s book, his story, much more than it is about Daniel Sempere.

Although I enjoyed The Prisoner of Heaven, I’d be lying if I said that Fermin’s character wasn’t grating on me. Even though the story of his imprisonment is heart-wrenching and his treatment beyond human comprehension, I just could not set aside an image in my head that I have of him as a greasy, slimy, rat-like man who at the end of the day, for all his actions show how trustworthy he is, you’re still expecting to stab those who have generously bestowed that trust in the back. I don’t like him.

The plot is generally sound. The degree of mystery and different leads for the reader to figure out and solve wasn’t the same as in The Shadow of the Wind, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – after all, how would anyone cope with a life that threw all-consuming mystery after all-consuming mystery at them? The only real weakness for me was the link that led Fermin to the Semperes – a promise to a virtual stranger that he met in prison. A tenuous link and an obvious device joining the first three installments together, but I’ll let it go.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s writing is, again, impeccable. He paces the story fantastically well in a way that I am coming to expect from him, and the way he weaves his books together to form a single enriched narrative, apart from the tenuous link already mentioned, is really quite spectacular.

I should also make clear that I’m reading the “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books” series out of order and the second installment, The Angel’s Game, a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind that I understand tells the story of David Martin, is still on my ‘to-read’ list. Although Zafon says in his introduction to The Prisoner of Heaven that each of his books is meant to stand alone, and there is no need to read them in the order they were written, that I have read the first and third installments before the second is bound to make the way I view the story so far different to if I had read each installment in order.

I enjoyed The Prisoner of Heaven immensely and read it very quickly by my standards (3 days). I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has read any of Zafon’s other writing and enjoyed it. A good read.

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon: A Review

October 13, 2013

The reason I read The Shadow of the Wind is a weird one. Quite a while ago, I saw The Prisoner of Heaven in Waterstones, read the blurb and thought it seemed like an intriguing story, but didn’t buy it. For a long time I continued to hang my nose over it, choosing to ignore that it obviously had a prequel, and it was only when a colleague, knowing that reading is a keen interest of mine, asked me if I’d read The Shadow of the Wind and learning that I hadn’t, proceeded to sing its praises, that I went out and bought it.

The-Shadow-Of-The-Wind

The Shadow of the Wind tells the story of Daniel Sempere, who was taken by his father, as a 10 year old in post-war Barcelona, to a place called “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books” and given the chance to choose a book from there to keep. Little does he know that there is much more to the book that he chooses, one by a man called Julian Carax, than he realises. As he grows up, he discovers that a number of people have a larger than normal interest in the book, including a man who reminds him of, and goes by the name of one of his characters, Lain Coubert, who is burning all the copies of books by Julian he can lay his hands on. For Daniel, what begins as a case of curiosity turns into a race to find out all he can about the life, and death, of Julian Carax, and uncover the truth.

The Shadow of the Wind is quite a slow burn and took me a while to get into. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s writing is quite dense, with chapters of varying length that make it tricky to dip in and out of. However, once it starts to pick up pace, it becomes an unstoppable race to the finish. There are so many threads to the narrative, so many layers, incorporating the past and the present, that make the mystery of what happened to Julian and why Lain Coubert wants to burn all his books, all the deeper. The more Daniel digs into Julian’s history, the more complicated the mystery becomes, and even as Daniel starts to unravel the yarns and the story begins to fall into place, the true identity of Lain Coubert is still a mystery – even almost at the end it could be any one of a number of figures from Julian’s history. It could be so many people there’s almost no point guessing; you could decide it was one person, but a few chapters later you’d be doubting yourself, and a few chapters after that you’d be convinced it was someone else entirely. However, guess I did, and even though I doubted myself, I kept coming back to the same theory, and turned out to be right. But that’s not to say that The Shadow of the Wind is predictable, for even though I was right about the identity of Lain Coubert, there are other aspects of Julian’s mysterious life that I would never have seen coming, even though now I look back the hints were there all along.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Shadow of the Wind. It’s not a light read, and takes some real concentration to understand what’s going on, but the story is immensely enjoyable and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone.

Rise Against – Long Forgotten Songs: Review

September 7, 2013

I’m absolutely sure that there is nothing Rise Against can do in life or in music that will upset me. I adore them, simply adore them. When they announced Long Forgotten Songs: B Sides and Covers 2000 – 2013, I was a little disappointed that they weren’t releasing something brand new, but then I remembered “hey, this is Rise Against. Even if it’s not brand new, it’ll still be all kinds of awesome.”

 

So when RockSound said they were streaming the full album of Long Forgotten Songs on their website a week before its official release next week, well I jumped right on that. Who am I to turn down the chance to listen to an album by one of my favourite bands a week before its release date? Nobody at all.

Long Forgotten Songs

Kicking off with “Historia Calamitatum”, which if memory serves me correctly is from Appeal to Reason (2008), and is actually one of my favourite tracks from that album, it’s hard not to remember straight away why Rise Against are such an awesome band, and you instantly stop caring that this isn’t brand new material.

Next up is “Death Blossoms”, which according to Wikipedia, Rise Against released for Guitar Hero in 2009, but doesn’t seem to have been aired since. It’s a great track, with a lot of shoutiness from Tim McIlrath that hasn’t been seen in their more recent albums. “Elective Amnesia” is another cracking track, which I’m sure I’ve heard before but can’t quite put my finger on (ed. it turns out it was an iTunes exclusive bonus track for Appeal to Reason, but I bought the hard disc, so…). It matters not. It’s awesome.

“Grammatizator” is another wonderfully shouty track that reminds me of Rise Against of old. In fact, it was released as a single back in 2009 along with a live recording of “Hero of War”, so in a way it is Rise Against of old.

“Blind” and “Everchanging” are both lovely acoustic tracks, in particular “Everchanging”, which appeared first on the European release of This is Noise in 2008. These songs remind me a lot of “Swing Life Away” and I absolutely adore Tim McIlrath’s voice when it’s exposed over acoustic guitar. I often think that if I won the lottery, I’d pay to have him come and sing “Swing Life Away” to me over and over while I feed him delicious vegetarian creations.

Acoustic interlude over, “Generation Lost” is so fast-paced that I don’t know how to even hear all the words, let alone repeat them. This track really is Rise Against of old, having first appeared on Fat Music Vol.6 – Uncontrollable Flatulence waaaaay back in 2002. It also shares a name with a DVD documentary that Rise Against made and released in 2010. Little fangirl fact there, for you!

“Dirt and Roses” is one of my favourite tracks on Long Forgotten Sons. It’s everything I love about Rise Against; McIlrath’s voice, a catchy melody, political lyrics – what’s not to love? Apparently it also featured in the soundtrack of 2012’s Marvel: Avengers Assemble, which was a pretty awesome film, so we’re onto a definite winner here.

Covering Bob Dylan is a pretty bold move. Why do I say that? Because that’s who Rise Against are covering in “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”. Singing the blues isn’t something you’d necessarily associate with punksters like Rise Against, but they manage to pull it off. At risk of sounding like a worn-out X Factor judge, they really make the song their own.

“Sight Unseen” is yet another really good track. It was originally from a split album between Rise Against and Anti-Flag (which I don’t own, but my reliable source Wikipedia tells me so) and has also featured on some video game or other that boys like this year. We’re only just about halfway through (this is a long album) and I haven’t come across anything I haven’t liked yet. Why would I? I love Rise Against.

“Lanterns” is another of my favourite tracks from Long Forgotten Songs. A bit like “Dirt and Roses”, it’s everything I love about Rise Against and is just so… ‘them’. An absolutely impeccable song.

It’s hard not to recognise “Making Christmas”. You’d be hard pushed to find anyone of my generation who hasn’t seen The Nightmare Before Christmas. Rise Against’s cover is far from new, but it’s still very cool, and one of the most unusual band covers I’ve ever come across, if you exclude some of the very strange things Me First and the Gimme Gimme’s have done.

After this come four shorter tracks – all under 2 minutes – “Join the Ranks”, “Built to Last”, “Voice of Dissent” and “Little Boxes”.  They’re all incredibly fast paced and energetic, even “Little Boxes”, which is a cover of Pete Seeger’s 1963 hit. Maybe that’s why they’re so short; it’d be exhausting if they were any longer. “Built to Last” is a particular favourite from these four. Even though I like McIlrath’s voice better when he sings proper melodies, I am a bit partial to shoutier Rise Against. I also find “Little Boxes” a very apt choice of cover, with its politically satirical lyrics. No doubt exactly why Rise Against chose it.

“Give it All”, if memory serves me correctly, first featured on Siren Song of the Counter Culture back in 2004 and again, was one of my favourite tracks on that album. I presume that the recording for Long Forgotten Songs is not the original, but it could be. In all the time since it was first written, it hasn’t lost a thing.

“Minor Threat” is another shortie, a cover by 80s punk band Minor Threat, who apparently named songs after themselves. It’s super energetic, but of all the amazing songs on this album, it’s the one I like the least. I can’t pin on why, it just doesn’t seem quite as “on brand” as the other tracks, which are so distinctively Rise Against.

“Obstructed View” takes us, thankfully then, back to a Rise Against original, which first saw the light of day on the special edition of Siren Song of the Counter Culture. It’s another oldie but a goodie, and is very distinctively Rise Against, thank God.

“But Tonight We Dance” is from the LP edition of The Sufferer and the Witness and is another of my favourite tracks on Long Forgotten Songs. It has some amazing harmonies in it, and I could listen to it on repeat quite happily.

“Nervous Breakdown” is Black Flag cover and another one that of all the great stuff on this album, I’m not all that enamoured with. I don’t know what it is, I’m just not feeling it. Thankfully, next up is an old familiar, “Gethsemane”, which was a bonus track on The Unravelling and a song I’m rather fond of.

“Boy’s No Good”, originally by Lifeline, is a better cover. The verses feel very ‘Rise Against’, although I’m still not really feeling the chorus. I think it must be something about the era all these cover songs come from – it’s the same thing that rubs me up the wrong way even though I still can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it is.

“Anyway You Want It” is another track that it’s hard not to know. Originally by iconic rock band Journey, Rise Against’s cover got its first airing as a bonus track on Revolutions Per Minute, and it’s great to see it get another airing. Such a good cover, and definitely the best on Long Forgotten Sons. By a long shot.

“Sliver”, I find it really hard to say anything against because the original is by Nirvana and I love the original. However, Rise Against’s cover just isn’t very ‘them’ – Nirvana are great, but Rise Against sounding like Nirvana… not so much.

To finish the album, Rise Against go out with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad”, and a live version, too, with special guest Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame. Now I hear it again, I’m pretty sure I heard Morello and McIlrath duet on an acoustic version of this when I last saw Rise Against live in, I think, February 2011 and Tom Morello was supporting. I loved it then, and this version is loads better; a great track to end a corker of an album on.

If you couldn’t tell already, I think this album is completely awesome. I’m not in the habit of giving ratings but if I were to rate this, it’d be off the chart. I’ve been a Rise Against fan for a very long time now, and I just never tire of them. Their so-called “B-sides” are just as amazing as the singles they’ve released and although their covers are a little bit hit and miss for my own personal preferences, they certainly make wise choices on them musically and never depart from their own musical ethos in them. Roll on general release so I can pick up a copy of this absolute diamond of an album.

An Artsy Sunday Afternoon

September 2, 2013

I’ve never reviewed a product before, but as creating sock creatures definitely falls under the bracket of “Artsy”, I figured it fit in quite nicely here.

On Saturday, I bought this from the ZSL London Zoo gift shop:

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In case you’re wondering, that’s a Sock Creatures Sock Elephant kit. In a nutshell, I found it an absolute delight. I put my elephant together over the course of a Sunday afternoon and evening, although had I not stopped to go and drink Pimms with friends for a few hours, I probably could have finished my elephant in an hour or two.

The kit is perfect; you have absolutely everything you need to make a beautiful elephant and still have some bits left over to make more. The pattern and instructions are completely self-explanatory – easy to follow and really easy to work with. The sweets and “heart charm” are a lovely touch. I have to say I haven’t filled in the birth certificate though – I’m a bit too much of a grown up for that.

On an “easiness” scale of 1-10 where 1 is really easy and 10 is impossibly hard, I’d put the elephant at about a 6. There are bits that are fiddly, like stuffing the elephant through quite a small hole or turning the tail, which wasn’t even as wide as my finger, right side out. It was a challenge, for sure, but it wasn’t like knitting (where I do a couple of rows, then drop a stitch and throw the whole thing at the wall). The guidance that under 12s will probably need some help is spot on.

One thing that I wish had been included in the kit, or at least recommended that you use, is pins, though. Trying to hold the pattern still on the sock while sewing a running stitch around the edge is remarkably tricky. My elephant ended up with a slightly unorthodox shaped head as a result of my inability to hold the pattern still. If I’d thought to use pins to hold it still, or had been given some in the kit, then his head would have been perfect. Also, it’d be helpful if they advised you to use quite tight stitching. I had to go over mine a couple of times to fill in gaps where once stuffed, holes in the seams showed through. I suppose that’s my own lazy sewing though.

Overall, though, my elephant was a joy to put together. I’m already planning to go out and buy more socks, stuffing and felt so that I can make sock elephants for everyone I know. Here’s the finished product, just so you can all see that I didn’t make a complete hash of it:

sock elephant

Sock creatures can be bought all over the place. A lot of shops stock some of the range (John Lewis, various craft shops, etc.) but if you want to pick from the full selection, you’re best going direct to sock-creatures.co.uk. Next on my list is definitely the socktopus.

Happy Artsying!

Love Lust Faith + Dreams – 30 Seconds to Mars

July 6, 2013

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After This Is War, I won’t lie, I thought I was done with 30 Seconds To Mars. This Is War was an appalling album. There was one track that was alright, but I got bored of it pretty quickly and haven’t listened to it since. But then, a couple of weeks ago, I heard “Up In The Air” playing in HMV, and it sounded much more like the 30 Seconds To Mars that I loved, the one that produced songs like “From Yesterday” and “The Kill”.

So “Up In The Air” is an obvious highlight of Love Lust Faith + Dreams for me. Jared Leto’s voice has a lovely gritty quality in places and the lyrics aren’t as bizarre as some other tracks on the album. Plus, it really caught my attention on first listen and that doesn’t happen very often. I also really like “End Of All Days” – it’s a much softer track instrumentally, which leaves Leto’s voice nice and raw over the top. It doesn’t ramp up quite how you expect, which is disappointing, but overall it’s a decent track.

In terms of weak tracks, “City of Angels” is up there. Following on from “Up In The Air”, it’s particularly bad by comparison. The lyrics are a disjointed list of descriptions of various scenes and images, and it just switched me off. The quirkily named “Pyres of Varanasi” is a very strange, very bad song, too. It sounds like a movie sound track for an action film set in the Middle East. Very, very odd.

That leaves quite a lot in between the listenably good and the downright bad that you could argue is “average”; listenable but not brilliant. Which as it happens isn’t a bad way to sum up the album as a whole – listenable, but not by any stretch brilliant. It is for nostalgia’s sake that I gave 30STM and Love Lust Faith + Dreams another chance, and I don’t regret it, but 30STM are not the same band as the one that produced songs I still love despite their age, and I’ll be more cautious before offering them a chance again. The way they’ve developed as a band and the way my tastes have evolved just don’t match up. I guess sometimes, you just grow apart…

Everything’s Beautiful – A speedy review of Beautiful Darkness, Chaos and Redemption in one

June 30, 2013

You might wonder why I’m reviewing three out of four parts of the Caster Chronicles series in one go, when I went to the effort to separate out Beautiful Creatures when I read that a month or so ago. Well, I’ve read the concluding three parts, Beautiful Darkness, Beautiful Chaos and Beautiful Redemption in quite quick succession, and also, it just makes sense to talk about them all together. So, starting at the almost beginning:

beautiful darkness cover

As an installment in a series, Beautiful Darkness isn’t the weakest I’ve ever read (but nor is it the strongest). New characters are introduced, but only a few and they’re perfectly palatable, if not a little on the side of cliche. The plot, being centred around a journey, moves at a relatively good pace, and has enough going on to keep you reading without feeling like it’s turning into a chore. And you still can’t really tell that the book was written by two people as the narrative voice is completely joined up. A quick summary, but all that needs to be said. Onto the next:

beautiful chaos cover

Beautiful Chaos is my favourite of the Caster Chronicles, I think. Lena has split her Seventeenth Moon, rendering herself both Light and Dark (because all power is born from darkness, and so there’s some Dark and Light in each of us, of course), Macon is back, and you’d think everything was all fine and dandy and other things that people from the Southern US say. But of course, it’s not. Splitting the Seventeenth Moon and declaring herself both Light and Dark has upset “The Order Of Things”, and now “The One Who Is Two” has to sacrifice themself to set it right. Now, this “The One Who Is Two” could be anyone – it could be Lena, who’s both Light and Dark. It could be John, who’s both Incubus and Caster. It could be Macon, for the same reasons. It could be Liv, the Keeper in Training who’s not really a Keeper in Training any more, or it could be Link, who, for reasons I won’t give away (spoilers!) is both Incubus and Mortal. It could even be Ethan, for more reasons I won’t give away. There’s virtually nobody from the main character pot it definitely couldn’t be. Finally, something for the reader to figure out – a puzzle they can work on at the same time as the characters in the story. And on top of that, there’s even more going on in that at the end of Darkness, the thing that Liv does that means she’s not really a Keeper in Training any more means that in Chaos, Marian, the fully-fledged Keeper, is in a whole lot of trouble with the Far Keep, who guard the Caster Chronicles and record Caster history. There’s tons going on, and it’s all handled really well. Plus, the ending is mind-blowing. Almost a shame about what happens next.

Beautiful redemption cover

Beautiful Redemption is the weakest conclusion to a series of books I’ve come across in a while. First, they pick the LAST ONE OF THE SERIES to change the structure, and split the narration between Ethan and Lena. I completely get why, it just seems like a weird thing to decide to do this late in the game. They also break from the tradition of dating the chapters to show how time is passing. Again, I get why, especially for Ethan’s narrative sections, but it could have been an interesting touch in Lena’s section. The ending is ultimately predictable, even though it involves a character who I’d forgotten had died, and once I realised I knew what was going to happen, it was really difficult to push through and make sure I was right (I was). Of course it’s a “Happily Ever After”, or about 75% of one, at least.

If you like this sort of thing, The Caster Chronicles are probably right up your street. There are some interesting quirks to them, like the male narrator, which is unusual for this type of book given the audience (but also refreshing) and the dual authorship really isn’t a problem as you might expect, but in other places they’re painfully cliched and predictable. Overall, they’re a fun read, not too taxing, and a relatively compelling story. Recommended.

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