TBR Thursday 46…

The People’s Choice 5…The Result!

 

An exciting contest this time! On Day 1, it looked like there would be a runaway winner, but gradually two other contenders narrowed the gap, and it looked as though there might be a major upset. But in the end the frontrunner held its lead – this week’s winner is…

the unquiet dead

The Blurb – Despite their many differences, Detective Rachel Getty trusts her boss, Esa Khattak, implicitly. But she’s still uneasy at Khattak’s tight-lipped secrecy when he asks her to look into Christopher Drayton’s death. Drayton’s apparently accidental fall from a cliff doesn’t seem to warrant a police investigation, particularly not from Rachel and Khattak’s team, which handles minority-sensitive cases. But when she learns that Drayton may have been living under an assumed name, Rachel begins to understand why Khattak is tip-toeing around this case. It soon comes to light that Drayton may have been a war criminal with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995.

 *******

Thanks to all who voted, and to Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling for the review that brought this book to my attention.

Now all I have to do is find time to read it…

(Somehow or another, The Murder of the Century snuck on to the TBR as well. Don’t know how that happened…!)

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And here’s a few more that should be rising to the top of the pile soon…

Fiction

 

stay up with meCourtesy of NetGalley, this collection of short stories has been nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize…

The Blurb – The stories in Tom Barbash’s evocative and often darkly funny collection explore the myriad ways we try to connect to one another and to the sometimes cruel world around us. The newly single mother in ‘The Break’ interferes with her son’s love life over his Christmas vacation from college. The anxious young man in ‘Balloon Night’ persists in hosting his and his wife’s annual watch-the-Macy’s-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-floats-be-inflated party, while trying to keep the myth of his marriage equally afloat. The young narrator in ‘The Women’ watches his widowed father become the toast of Manhattan’s midlife dating scene, as he struggles to find his own footing. The characters in Stay Up With Me find new truths when the old ones have given out or shifted course. Barbash laces his narratives with sharp humour, psychological acuity, and pathos, creating deeply resonant and engaging stories that pierce the heart and linger in the imagination.  

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a tale of two citiesIn accordance with my resolutions, some Dickens – I shall be reading my beautiful Nonesuch edition of A Tale of Two Cities, courtesy of Santa Claus (Christmas, 2012, I think!)…

The Blurb – After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

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Crime

 

the ice princessThis one has been on the TBR since I read The Stranger in May 2013! Time I got around to reading it, I think…

The Blurb – In this electrifying tale of suspense from an international crime-writing sensation, a grisly death exposes the dark heart of a Scandinavian seaside village. Erica Falck returns to her tiny, remote hometown of Fjällbacka, Sweden, after her parents’ deaths only to encounter another tragedy: the suicide of her childhood best friend, Alex. It’s Erica herself who finds Alex’s body—suspended in a bathtub of frozen water, her wrists slashed. Erica is bewildered: Why would a beautiful woman who had it all take her own life? Teaming up with police detective Patrik Hedström, Erica begins to uncover shocking events from Alex’s childhood. As one horrifying fact after another comes to light, Erica and Patrik’s curiosity gives way to obsession—and their flirtation grows into uncontrollable attraction. But it’s not long before one thing becomes very clear: a deadly secret is at stake, and there’s someone out there who will do anything—even commit murder—to protect it.

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Sci-fi/Fantasy

the glittering worldCourtesy of NetGalley. Not quite sure if this is sci-fi, fantasy, horror – or all three. But hopefully I’ll know after I read it…

The Blurb – When up-and-coming chef Michael “Blue” Whitley returns with three friends to the remote Canadian community of his birth, it appears to be the perfect getaway from New York. He soon discovers, however, that everything he thought he knew about himself is a carefully orchestrated lie. Though he had no recollection of the event, as a young boy Blue and another child went missing for weeks in the idyllic, mysterious woods of Starling Cove. Soon thereafter, his mother suddenly fled with him to America, their homeland left behind.

But then Blue begins to remember. And once the shocking truth starts bleeding back into his life, his closest friends—Elisa, his former partner in crime; her stalwart husband, Jeremy; and Gabe, Blue’s young and admiring co-worker—must unravel the secrets of Starling Cove and the artists’ colony it once harbored. All four will face their troubled pasts, their most private demons, and a mysterious race of beings that inhabits the land, spoken of by the locals only as the Other Kind…

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or NetGalley.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

(And aren’t all four of these covers gorgeous this week?)

Tuesday Terror! No. 3 Branch Line, The Compensation House by Charles Collins

Sensational…

 

Penny Dreadful 3Since I started this little journey into horror, my recommendations from Amazon have taken a somewhat sinister turn. Last week they drew my attention to a new series of Kindle collections – the Penny Dreadful Multipacks. Each volume contains two or three stories and a little bonus or two. I selected Volume 3, which includes a bonus essay explaining the origins of the Penny Dreadful…

The term Penny Dreadful came to be applied to any sensational literature that came from the cheap Victorian printing presses rather than the more respected publishing houses. Or, indeed, to any kind of lurid matter from the time, including and not limited to… Dracula, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Wagner the Wehr Wolf, Varney the Vampire, The String of Pearls [in which Sweeney Todd made his first appearance]…

So while a lot of the stories were apparently really dreadful, there were some future classics hiding in there too. Volume 3 contains The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Mysteries of Paris Vols. I – III by Eugene Sue (which is about the same length as War and Peace, so may never be read by this reader!), and the story I’ve selected for this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

“Sir, he was Strange by name, and Strange by nature, and Strange to look at into the bargain.”

No. 3 Branch Line, The Compensation House was first published in Charles Dickens’ periodical All the Year Round, which I don’t think would have ever fallen into the Penny Dreadful category, so I guess it counts as one of the bonuses. And I suspect it intrigued the editors for the same reason as it did me – namely, the author Charles Collins was the brother of the infinitely more famous William Wilkie Collins, not to mention husband of Dickens’ daughter Kate.

What a vision of horror that was, in the great dark empty room, in a silence that was something more than negative, that ghastly figure frozen into stone by some unexplained terror! And the silence and the stillness! The very thunder had ceased now. My heart stood still with fear…

Mr Strange is a still a young man but is dying of an incurable lung disease. For years though, he has been tortured by a weird hatred of mirrors and will not allow one in his house. If he catches sight of his face in a mirror, he sometimes goes into a wild rage, destroying the mirror, while at other times he goes into a kind of catatonic trance, standing staring at his own reflection for hours with the utmost sadness and horror. Now that his death is approaching he has decided to tell his doctor and faithful servant what it is he sees when he looks in a mirror…and why…

‘Why, look there!’ he said, in a low, indistinct voice, pointing to his own image in the glass. ‘Whose face do you see there?’

‘Why, yours, of course.’ And then, after a moment, I added, ‘Whose do you see?’

He answered, like one in a trance, ‘His – only his – always his!’ He stood still a moment, and then, with a loud and terrific scream, repeated those words, ‘ALWAYS HIS, ALWAYS HIS,’…

Charles Allston Collins by Millais
Charles Allston Collins
by Millais

This is quite a good little tale, not totally horrifying but certainly a bit chilling. Collins writes very well and builds a nice atmosphere of rather unsettling mystery. For much of the story, we don’t know whether there’s something supernatural going on or whether Mr Strange’s affliction is a product of his own mind. As the story progresses we discover that guilt has a part to play and that the story is one of a search for ultimate forgiveness and redemption. Since this was printed in the Christmas edition of a Dickens’ publication, I’m sure you can guess how that works out!

An enjoyable story – and the Penny Dreadful Multipacks look very interesting for anyone who has a taste for Victorian sensation stories (and a Kindle). The formatting is fine, there is an easy-to-navigate table of contents and there’s a good sprinkling of the original illustrations. I suspect I’ll be downloading a few more of these…

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bah! Humbug! A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens narrated by Tom Baker

Christmas starts here…

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This little pre-Christmas Dickens mini-series started with one version of A Christmas Carol and is now ending with another. (Think yourselves lucky – I could be recommending the Complete Works. 😉 ) If none of the previous choices have tempted you, let me try one last time to persuade you to…

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

51CWXmZKCgL._SL300_Like King Lear, every actor reaches a point in his career where he wants to stamp his mark on this classic, so you have to be really quite special to compete with the crowd. Fortunately, this reading by Tom Baker IS really quite special!

Forget your Peter Capaldis, your Matt Smiths, even your David Tennants – Tom Baker was THE Dr Who and there will never be a better! Who else could carry off a hand knitted stripy scarf and make it a cool fashion trend? But when he wasn’t saving the planet, Baker had time to play many other roles, including a stint at the National Theatre – not to mention being a very fine Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, beloved of Narnia fans everywhere. He is also an accomplished voice-actor both on radio and as narrator of several animated series.

Puddleglum the Marshwiggle
Puddleglum the Marshwiggle

I approached this recording of A Christmas Carol with some trepidation because, much though I like Baker, for me the definitive version is Patrick Stewart’s and I doubted Baker could match him. I was wrong – Baker brings drama, fear, sorrow and ultimately joy to the story just as much as Stewart does. As with all of the best of the Dickens’ narrators/performers, Baker has a huge personality and a powerful voice – necessary to fill the shoes of Dickens’ larger-than-life creations. Although this is a straight reading, Baker uses his fine acting skills to give each character an individual identity. Unlike the Stewart version where we hear only his voice, this one has occasional background music and other sound effects at the more dramatic points, and these work well with Baker’s performance.

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I intended to listen in instalments but by the time the first disc ended, I was so hooked I ended up listening to the whole thing in one session. Not better than Stewart (not possible!) but as good, and of course this is the unabridged version. Three hours of pure listening pleasure – this set has now joined my select collection of Christmas Carols, to be brought out and savoured time and again over many Christmases to come. Just the thing to ensure that you Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

NB This disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link
Currently not available as discs on Amazon UK.

Bah! Humbug! Complete Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens

Christmas Spirits…

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So far in this little mini-series, I’ve tried to tempt you with some great performances of Dickens’ work. But you’re all such organised people that I’m sure by now your Christmas presents will all be bought and wrapped, your cards have been posted, your decorations are up, your food order has been placed, and there’s nothing left to be done but cook the meal…and it’s a little early for that, perhaps! So plenty of time to curl up with a good book and…

 

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

dickens ghost storiesThe Christmas season wouldn’t be complete without a good ghost story or two, and in this collection we get twenty. The centrepiece is, of course, the novella length A Christmas Carol, and we also get what is probably Dickens’ next best-known ghost story, The Signalman, which is perhaps the most chilling tale in the book. The other stories range from several very short ones through to another novella-length one, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.

“When twilight everywhere released the shadows, prisoned up all day, that now closed in and gathered like mustering swarms of ghosts. When they stood lowering, in corners of rooms, and frowned out from behind half-opened doors. When they had full possession of unoccupied apartments. When they danced upon the floors, and walls, and ceilings of inhabited chambers, while the fire was low, and withdrew like ebbing waters when it sprang into a blaze.”

The joy of Dickens’ ghost stories is that they are truly family reading – not one of them would be unsuitable for reading aloud to a mixed age group. Many of them were first published in one of Dickens’ periodicals, All the Year Round or Household Words and were very much intended for the whole family. Others (The Queer Chair, The Goblins who Stole a Sexton, etc.) are taken from the novels, mainly Pickwick Papers, and these are usually more humorous than scary. In fact, humour runs through the majority of the stories, with The Signalman and The Portrait Painter’s Story being the main exceptions.

The Goblin and the Sexton
The Goblins who Stole a Sexton

As with any collection, the quality of the stories varies a bit, but even Dickens’ less good tales stand up well. The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain is, like A Christmas Carol, a morality tale; this time reminding us that sorrow and trouble are part of what makes us human, and with a strong social message about the dangers of allowing the continuance of an underclass excluded from things the rest of us take for granted – a message that relates almost as much to today’s society, sadly. This story also contains who must surely be the most annoying of all Dickens sickly-sweet heroines, Mrs. Swidger, a woman so indefatigably happy she brings out all of my homicidal tendencies (which, I hasten to assure you, I restrict to fictional characters).

“So she rolled out the crust, dropping large tears upon it all the time because he was so cross, and when she had lined the dish with crust and had cut the crust all ready to fit the top, the Captain called out, ‘I see the meat in the glass!’ And the bride looked up at the glass, just in time to see the Captain cutting her head off; and he chopped her in pieces, and peppered her, and salted her, and put her in the pie, and sent it to the baker’s, and ate it all, and picked the bones.”

(NB This is not a recipe for Christmas dinner.)

In the shorter stories, Dickens often takes the opportunity to mock the spiritualism that was becoming so popular in the Victorian era, turning much of his humour on the mediums and table-rappers. There is also a recurring theme which suggests that Dickens believed many apparitions and hauntings owed as much to alcoholic spirits as the other kind. Overall this is a jolly little collection, filled with madness, murder, revenge and other such traditional Christmas fare; and, whether chilling or humorous, all written with Dickens’ masterly story-telling skills. Whether you read one a night throughout the Christmas season, or splurge and read the whole thing over a few evenings, it’s guaranteed to ensure that you Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bah! Humbug! Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow

Dickens the Performer…

I’m cheating today by reissuing one of the first reviews I posted on the blog, secure in the knowledge that almost no-one saw it! I couldn’t let my little Dickens mini-series pass without mentioning Simon Callow’s wonderfully readable biography of The Great Man. If you’re looking for an in-depth, academic tome, this is not it – but if you fancy a human and very affectionate account of Dickens’ life, then look no further; and…

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

Exuberant and boisterous…

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Charles Dickens Theatre CallowCallow has written a superbly readable and affectionate account of the great man’s life, viewing it from the perspective of how Dickens’ love for the world of the theatre influenced his life and work. Interspersed generously with Dickens’ own words, taken from his correspondence with friends, we get a real feel for his massive personality, his sense of fun, his unstoppable energy and, yes, his occasional pomposity too.

Callow doesn’t shirk from telling us about the less flattering aspects of Dickens’ life – his appalling treatment of his wife, for instance, and the occasional bullying of his poor publishers. But he also reminds us of the social campaigning and the generosity to family, friends and colleagues. The account is a linear one, so we find out what Dickens was involved in at the time of writing each of his novels and get a feel for the inspiration for each one.

Callow concentrates in considerable depth on Dickens the showman – the many theatrical performances he wrote for, played in and directed in his early life; and then the tremendous and punishing public readings of his own works which came to dominate so much of his later years. Here was an author who gave generously to his adoring public and who thrived on the adulation he was shown in return.

Charles Dickens' The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain at the Adelphi, in the Illustrated London News, 30 December 1848
Charles Dickens’ The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain at the Adelphi, in the Illustrated London News, 30 December 1848

I’ve been in love with Dickens the writer for most of my life and now having read this fabulous biography I have fallen in love with Dickens the man! If I tell you that I cried when Dickens died (not an altogether unexpected plot development) then it will give you some idea of how much of the humanity of the man Callow has managed to reveal. I have been left wanting to re-read so many of the novels and stories, not to mention the letters – thank goodness for my copy of The Complete Works.

An exuberant and boisterous biography – a fitting tribute to this exuberant and remarkable man. Highly, highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bah! Humbug! Bleak House by Charles Dickens (BBC Drama 2005)

Bleak House is the best novel ever written.

 

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What? You don’t agree? Then let me give you just three reasons to try to convince you…

dickensApart from the usual Dickens’ stuff – the gorgeous language, the lush descriptions, the humour, the unforgettable characters, the social commentary and, of course, the romance – Bleak House could fairly lay claim to being the first modern crime novel, complete with the earliest appearance in an English novel of a police detective, Inspector Bucket. Wilkie Collins often gets the credit for this with his Sergeant Cuff, but I don’t know why, since he didn’t appear till a full fourteen years after Dickens’ creation and was clearly a derivation. Perhaps it’s because there is so much else in Bleak House that it isn’t primarily thought of as a crime novel, but the detection element is crucial, while the murder is central to the book, and is in fact one of the finest and most atmospheric pieces of writing in the English language. And Bucket is one of the most enigmatic detectives.

Through the stir and motion of the commoner streets; through the roar and jar of many vehicles, many feet, many voices; with the blazing shop-lights lighting him on, the west wind blowing him on, and the crowd pressing him on, he is pitilessly urged upon his way, and nothing meets him murmuring, “Don’t go home!” Arrived at last in his dull room to light his candles, and look round and up, and see the Roman pointing from the ceiling, there is no new significance in the Roman’s hand to-night or in the flutter of the attendant groups to give him the late warning, “Don’t come here!”

The novel is best known, however, for Dickens’ brilliant and excoriating depiction of the Courts of Chancery – a place of ruined hopes and ultimate despair, perhaps best summed up by Miss Flite in the naming of her birds, all to be set free on the Day of Judgement. Who but The Great Man could turn such a dry subject as the processing of wills into a sweeping saga of life and death, hopelessness, madness and cruelty? As always with Dickens, even when he’s in full social-rant mode, he shows his contempt through the human lens of the effect on his characters, major and minor.

“Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.”

The brilliance of his writing is shown in the reader’s willing acceptance even of his most extreme flights of fantasy. The spontaneous combustion scene paints a picture of such creeping horror – the stench, the drifting soot, the grease, the discovery – that the central incredibility is easily overlooked. A piece of horror writing that stands with the very best.

A thick yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell. A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.
“What have you been doing here? What have you been pouring out of window?”
“I pouring out of window! Nothing, I swear! Never, since I have been here!” cries the lodger.
And yet look here – and look here! When he brings the candle here, from the corner of the window-sill, it slowly drips and creeps away down the bricks, here lies in a little thick nauseous pool.

(Now that’s how to use the present tense!)

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This is all a lengthy preamble to introduce this week’s recommendation of how to ensure you…

Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

 

bleak houseThe 2005 BBC production of Bleak House is my favourite of all the Dickens TV serials. Adapted by the brilliant Andrew Davies (who was also responsible for the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle P&P) this was originally produced as a series of half-hour episodes that were aired twice-weekly after one of our leading soap operas, in a largely successful attempt to draw in a new audience.

For the same reason, the casting is a mix of costume drama stalwarts, along with a strange mix of people drawn from popular culture who might be expected to bring their own audience. So we have Alistair McGowan, best known over here as an impressionist; Gillian Anderson, with her following from the hugely popular X-Files; and, most strangely, Johnny Vegas, a somewhat off-the-wall comedian. Lump them together with people of the stature of Charles Dance (a superb Mr Tulkinghorn), Alun Armstrong as Inspector Bucket, Denis Lawson as Mr Jarndyce and Pauline Collins as the most vulnerable Miss Flite of all time – and this should have been a complete mess. But somehow the directors (Justin Chadwick and Susannah White) pulled extraordinary performances out of everyone involved, lit the whole thing in contrasts of light and gloom, shot it in HD, and wove through it the beautifully atmospheric music orchestrated by Julian Kershaw; turning the whole thing into a feast for the senses.

The quality of the casting can be seen by looking at the three central young characters, all of whom have gone on to become leading lights in their profession – Anna Maxwell Martin, Timothy West and a very young Carey Mulligan in her first major role.

Go on – you know you want to…and Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bah! Humbug! The Mystery of Charles Dickens performed by Simon Callow

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

A Night-In at the Theatre…

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the mystery of charles dickensIt’s a measure of Dickens’ greatness that so many of our best writers and actors remain fascinated as much by the man as by his writing. The flamboyant showman side of his nature is a gift for dramatic presentations of his life. And Simon Callow’s exuberant and flamboyant style is a perfect match for Dickens’ own.

Written as a vehicle for Callow by Peter Ackroyd, Callow describes this one-man performance as a ‘living biography’. Ackroyd, of course, has written a huge ‘proper’ biography of Dickens. Unfortunately, it is so tedious detailed that I gave up on it when Dickens had only reached about the age of 10 by page 180 or so – and that was the abridged version! However, it does mean he knows his stuff about The Great Man’s life, and having to meet the requirements of a running time of roughly an hour and a half seems to have concentrated his mind wonderfully.

‘Heads, heads – take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. ‘Terrible place – dangerous work – other day – five children – mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches – forgot the arch – crash – knock – children look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in – head of a family off – shocking, shocking!’

For Dickens’ geeks like myself, there are no great revelations in this. It’s a fairly standard run-through of Dickens’ life – the blacking factory, the marriage, the death of the sister-in-law, the writing success, his separation from his wife, Ellen Ternan, his reading tours. If it were only a biography it would be worthwhile and interesting. What brings it to life is Callow’s performance of excerpts from the various books in the first half and, in the second, the flavour he gives of what it might have been like to have attended one of Dickens’ own performances.

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There’s a good mix of comedy and tragedy in the readings – from Mr Jingle of Pickwick Papers and Mr Crummles of Nicholas Nickleby, to poor little Oliver Twist, made marginally less simperingly nauseating than usual by Callow’s performance of him as he leaves the workhouse, and a stunning performance of the Bill Sykes and Nancy murder scene at the end, modelled on Dickens own performance of it. Along the way we pop into Bleak House, get a quick blast of Uriah Heep, a nicely judged physical depiction of Sairey Gamp etc etc.

The housebreaker freed one arm, and grasped his pistol. The certainty of immediate detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury; and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon the upturned face that almost touched his own.

Simon Callow

Filmed in front of a live audience at The Albery Theatre in London in 2002, the DVD itself is pretty basic. There are no subtitles and the only extra is a very brief snippet of Callow talking about the play. But the combination of Callow’s brilliant performance and Dickens’ immortal words makes this a wonderful night-in at the theatre. Remember to order interval drinks before the performance starts, then sit back and… Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

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Bah! Humbug! Dickens’ Women co-written and performed by Miriam Margolyes

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

Love her, love her, love her!

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Dickens womenMiriam Margolyes is one of our best and best-known character actresses. From a variety of roles in Blackadder to Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films, she has shown her talents for comedy time and again. But she’s also a very fine dramatic actress who has had major supporting roles in many films and TV series including, of course, some of the BBC adaptations of Dickens over the years. Some years ago she co-wrote (with Sonia Fraser) a one-woman show where she talks about Dickens’ life and performs some of his characters. This audiobook is a recording of some of that show made in front of a live audience.

‘Mrs. Corney, ma’am,’ said Mr. Bumble, slowly, and marking the time with his teaspoon, ‘I mean to say this, ma’am; that any cat, or kitten, that could live with you, ma’am, and not be fond of its home, must be a ass, ma’am.’
‘Oh, Mr Bumble!’ remonstrated Mrs. Corney.
‘It’s of no use disguising facts, ma’am,’ said Mr. Bumble, slowly flourishing the teaspoon with a kind of amorous dignity which made him doubly impressive; ‘I would drown it myself, with pleasure.’

As Margolyes talks about The Great Man, it’s clear that she’s a huge admirer of his writing, particularly of the way he creates somewhat caricatured but unforgettable characters. She draws parallels between his life and his work, and often tells us about the real person who inspired a particular character. But she does it all with a great sense of fun – mocking both Dickens and herself as we go. Her little section on all Dickens’ nauseatingly sweet seventeen-year-old heroines is hilarious, as we hear her getting more and more fed up with his idealisation of youth, beauty and most of all, petiteness as the perfect woman. And she doesn’t hold back when she tells us about Dickens’ appalling treatment of his wife. She takes us through from his early days in the blacking factory to his death, packing a lot of information in along the way, but all most entertainingly.

sairey gampmiss havishamicruiks001p4

But the real joy of the disc is in the readings – performances, really. From the humour of Sairey Gamp to the sorrow and madness of Miss Flite, she takes us on a trip through some of the best known of Dickens’ women, but also includes some of the characters from his lesser read works. We have Mrs Lirriper’s story of Willing Sophy, the girl with the eternal smudge of blacking on her nose, from Household Words, and the description of the Clemms from The Uncommercial Traveller. Little Nell, Rosa Dartle and Mrs Micawber all put in an appearance. Her performance of Mr Bumble’s courtship of Mrs Corney is superb and had me laughing out loud again and again, while Miss Havisham comes across as truly bitter and twisted, and frightening in her intensity.

“Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces, – and as it gets older and stronger it will tear deeper, – love her, love her, love her!…I’ll tell you what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter – as I did!”

MARGOLYES

All-in-all this is a tour-de-force performance that, with a running time of an hour and a half, will keep you smiling while you make a start on wrapping those pesky presents. Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible US Link

Bah! Humbug! A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens narrated by Patrick Stewart

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…ah, yes, Dickens truly understood the meaning of Christmas! So in the lead up to that wonderful season of conspicuous spending, gross commercialism, gluttony, over-indulgence and family feuds, I say along with The Great Man himself – Bah! Humbug! (I’ve always loved humbugs, don’t you?)

humbugs

Scientific tests (carried out by yours truly) have shown that the only way to survive the approaching Season of Goodwill with anything approaching the requisite amount of jolliness is to cut off all contact with the outside world for a while and curl up with a good Dickens (and a box of chocolates, of course). Then, when Santa suddenly arrives down the chimney, you should be able to offer him a glass of sherry and a mince pie with not just equanimity but actual joie de vivre!

So here goes for the first instalment of…

Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

 

mr fezziwig's ball

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A Christmas Carol narrated by Patrick Stewart

 

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a christmas carol

I had the great privilege some years ago of seeing Patrick Stewart’s one-man show of A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic theatre in London – one of the theatrical highlights of my life. At the time I was aware of him as Jean-Luc Picard of the Star Ship Enterprise and knew that he’d been a ‘proper’ Shakespearian actor before that. But seeing him perform Dickens’ wonderful story live was a revelation. This audio version is based on that performance.

“They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing.”

A Christmas Carol must surely rate as the best ghost story of all time, and be on the shortlist at least for best short story. Dickens’ exuberant and larger-than-life style is perfectly suited to a tale of this nature, and it in turn is perfectly suited to the message of Christmas. We see Scrooge first as a mean and miserly old man, measuring out his clerk’s coal and objecting to losing a day’s work for Christmas. Our introduction to the ghost of Marley is truly scary – the clanking chains, the face on the door-knocker, the chimes of the clock; and who can forget the gaping jaw as Marley removes the kerchief tied around his head? The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come lead us through a turmoil of emotions as we see the lonely little boy, the young man who lost his one love, the gradual sinking into loneliness and miserliness, and the horror of what might be to come. But Dickens does redemption like no-one else, and he leads us away from the despair of Ignorance and Want towards a joyous and uplifting ending, where Scrooge gains his salvation through learning that to give to those less fortunate than himself brings him the pleasure and happiness he had forgotten could exist.

patrick stewart as scrooge

Stewart’s performance is superb. There’s no music, no sound-effects – he performs the whole thing completely with his voice, creating different personas for each character, each fully realised and totally individual. It is his voice that gives us the bells, the chimes of the clock – it’s through his voice that we hear the fear, the horror, the hope and finally the wondrous joy. When Scrooge learns to laugh at the end, I defy anyone not to laugh with him. When he sings a Christmas carol for the first time in years we hear his voice go through the stages from creaky and rusty to a full-scale boisterous bellow. And when he gives us Dickens’ last sugary-sweet line, he makes it so tender that even the cliché becomes truly moving.

This is an abridged version, running at just under two hours, but it’s so skilfully done I’m never really aware of what’s missing. It’s a once a year must-listen for me and I love it just as much each time. A masterly performance of a masterpiece, and guaranteed to boost your festive stock of goodwill to all men. Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

“…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
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Audible US Link

Smith by Leon Garfield

Stand and deliver…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A rat was like a snail beside Smith, and the most his thousand victims ever got of him was the powerful whiff of his passing and a cold draught in their dexterously emptied pockets.

smith 2Smith is a twelve-year old pickpocket surviving by his wits in the London of the 18th century. But one day Smith picks the pocket of an elderly man and as he runs away, he sees the man being attacked and killed. Running for fear that he will be caught and accused of this much worse crime, Smith has to wait to find out what he managed to steal – a document, clearly official, but that’s as much as he can tell since he can’t read. But Smith knows documents are worth money and he’s determined to find out what it says…

This book is always marketed as if for children and it certainly is suitable for any child from about ten or eleven, I’d say. But it is also entirely suitable for adult consumption and very enjoyable. Who wouldn’t enjoy a story about pickpockets, highwaymen, mysterious documents and murder? Like Treasure Island or the Quatermain books, this is complex and well written enough to satisfy even a demanding adult, while having enough excitement and adventure to appeal to a younger audience. And, because of its historical setting, it hasn’t suffered from age.

Garfield’s skill is in creating an entirely believable setting and filling it with interesting characters – sympathetic good guys, villainous bad guys and several that fall somewhere between the two. Smith himself is a mixture of hard-nosed thief who will do anything to survive and soft-hearted child who can’t stop himself from helping Mr Mansfield, a blind gentleman whom he meets by accident while on his quest to learn to read. Mr Mansfield is a man who believes in law and justice but who gradually learns the meaning of trust and pity, while his daughter devotes herself to protecting him from anyone who might wish to take advantage of his blindness or good-nature. Together with Smith’s sisters and Lord Tom, the highwayman, all the characters are slightly caricatured in the way Dickens’ characters are.

Leon Garfield
Leon Garfield

And the Dickens comparison extends to the setting – this London, its streets and jails, its dirt and poverty, and the heaths around it where the highwaymen ruled could have come straight from the pages of the master himself. But, unlike Dickens’ little pickpocket Oliver Twist, Smith is not sickeningly good – he’s more of an Artful Dodger, trained by the circumstances of his life to rely on his own wits to survive. The one concession Garfield makes to a younger readership is to keep the language and sentence structure simpler than Dickens, making this an easier and shorter read, but without ever condescending or patronising the reader. And the simpler language still allows room for some great writing and imagery…

Even great ladies came and went – their huge skirts swinging and pealing down the doleful passages like so many brocaded bells, tolling:

What a pity. What a shame. Dick’s to die on Tuesday week. What a pity. What a shame. Poor Mr Mulrone.

I first read this book many years ago and am often reluctant to re-read a book that I remember with pleasure in case it doesn’t live up to my memories. In this case, I enjoyed it just as much again and look forward to reading more of Garfield’s work. Highly recommended to young and old alike.

This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYR Children’s Collection. Just to mention that this edition has Americanized spelling which, since it’s an American publisher, I’ll forgive. However, I’ve changed the spelling back to British in my quotes – nothing in the world could make me spell ‘draught’ with an ‘f’!

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Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow

Exuberant and boisterous…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Charles Dickens Theatre CallowCallow has written a superbly readable and affectionate account of the great man’s life, viewing it from the perspective of how Dickens’ love for the world of the theatre influenced his life and work. Interspersed generously with Dickens’ own words, taken from his correspondence with friends, we get a real feel for his massive personality, his sense of fun, his unstoppable energy and, yes, his occasional pomposity too.

Callow doesn’t shirk from telling us about the less flattering aspects of Dickens’ life – his appalling treatment of his wife, for instance, and the occasional bullying of his poor publishers. dickensBut he also reminds us of the social campaigning and the generosity to family, friends and colleagues. The account is a linear one, so we find out what Dickens was involved in at the time of writing each of his novels and get a feel for the inspiration for each one.

Callow concentrates in considerable depth on Dickens the showman – the many theatrical performances he wrote for, played in and directed in his early life; and then the tremendous and punishing public readings of his own works which came to dominate so much of his later years. Here was an author who gave generously to his adoring public and who thrived on the adulation he was shown in return.

Callow playing Dickens
Callow playing Dickens
I’ve been in love with Dickens the writer for most of my life and now having read this fabulous biography I have fallen in love with Dickens the man! If I tell you that I cried when Dickens died (not an altogether unexpected plot development) then it will give you some idea of how much of the humanity of the man Callow has managed to reveal. I have been left wanting to re-read so many of the novels and stories, not to mention the letters – thank goodness for my copy of The Complete Works.

An exuberant and boisterous biography – a fitting tribute to this exuberant and remarkable man. Highly, highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
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