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Archive for December, 2016

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Just a short review for my final book of this year…it’s a look back at the crazy events of 2016, focussing a lot on two huge shock decisions – the Brexit Vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the USA.

Read it and weep…and laugh! It’s very funny and very scathing – but it does take a chapter to remind us that there have been far worse years in the past, and some good things around the world did take place this year.

One word of warning – if you don’t like bad language, this is a book to avoid. It is peppered with swearing and lot of very inventive insults!

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As it is the season to be jolly (fa-la-la-la-laaaaa-la-la-la-la) I thought I would give this festive comedy a watch. It stars Matthew Broderick as Dr Steve Finch, an uptight but well-meaning family man, who organises Christmas like a military operation in his determination to make sure his children enjoy it. His more laid-back wife Kelly (Kristin Davis) bemusedly but loyally supports his efforts to manufacture new Christmas traditions and his need to control everything.

Trouble starts when new neighbours Buddy and Tia Hall (Danny DeVito and Kristin Chenoweth) and their twin teenage daughters Ashley and Emily (Kelly and Sabrina Aldridge) move into the house across the road. Buddy – in a somewhat ridiculous plot leap – decides to decorate his house with so many Christmas lights that it will be visible from space (literally not metaphorically!)

Naturally the repressed Dr Finch is not overkeen on this idea, nor on the idea of having the loudmouthed and uncouth Buddy as a neighbour, and his attempts to curb Buddy’s project cause a feud of epic proportions. Meanwhile their wives become great friends and are both exasperated at the childish behaviour of their respective husbands.

As I always do when I finish a film (or book or television show) I went to look at what other people thought of it and WOW! – the reviews for this film are pretty brutal! Suffice to say it probably won’t become a Christmas classic…and while it was a bit daft and not as heavy on the laughs as you might hope, it’s not that bad. I actually thought it was a passable way to spend an afternoon, although if you scratch below the surface of the plot it all falls apart pretty quickly. But there were a few moments that made me giggle, and even though I normally dislike seeing houses that are lit like…erm…a Christmas tree, I had to admit that Buddy’s display was nothing if not impressive.

I will say that I thought Matthew Broderick was perhaps miscast. Admittedly he was supposed to be the straight man to DeVito’s comedic character, but I think Broderick might have toppled over into dull, although I love Kristin Davis and Kristin Chenoweth, and of course Danny DeVito is always good for a few laughs. If you don’t mind a bit of daftness, give it a go – you never know, you might enjoy it!

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Year of release: 2006

Director: John Whitesell

Writers: Matt Corman, Chris Ord, Don Rhymer

Main cast: Matthew Broderick, Danny DeVito, Kristin Davis, Kristin Chenoweth, Alia Shawcat, Dylan Blue, Kelly Aldridge, Sabrina Aldridge

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I like to try and read a Christmas themed book during the Christmas season, and this collection of classic mysteries by various authors – some well-know, some less so – fitted the bill perfectly for this year.

Like all short story collections, and especially those with various authors, it’s slightly uneven and some stories resonated more with me than others but overall the standard was very high, and I don’t think there were any stories that I really disliked.

The collection contains (my personal favourites are in bold)

The Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle (a Sherlock Holmes story)

Parlour Tricks by Ralph Plummer

The Happy Solution by Raymund Allen

The Flying Stars by G K Chesterton (a Father Brown story)

Stuffing by Edgar Wallace

The Unknown Murderer by H C Bailey 

The Absconding Treasurer by J Jefferson Farjeon

The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy L Sayers (a Lord Peter Wimsey story)

The Case is Altered by Margery Allingham

Waxworks by Ethel Lina White (this was my favourite and I could totally see it being adapted into a television film or mini-series)

Cambric Tea by Marjorie Bowen

The Chinese Apple by Joseph Shearing

A Problem in White by Nicholas Blake

Beef for Christmas by Leo Bruce

 

If you like short stories or like me, you like to read Yuletide themed stories at Christmas (and often being a busy time of year I find that short stories are the perfect type of reading for the Christmas season) I would recommend this book. In fact, if you are a fan of mysteries in general, you can’t go far wrong with this collection.

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I watched Noel at Christmas time (Christmas Eve in fact) because it is indeed a Christmas film, and honestly it was just what I wanted to see.

With an impressive cast, including Susan Sarandon, Paul Walker, Penelope Cruz, Alan Arkin and an uncredited Robin Williams, this film tells the story of a number of strangers who are all affected by events that happen over the Christmas season. Sarandon is Rose, a divorced single woman, who divides her life between work and visiting her Alzheimers afflicted mother in hospital. She is lonely and frustrated with her life but help appears where she least expects it.

Walker plays Mike, a New York cop who is madly in love with his fiancee Nina (Cruz) – but his love borders on possessiveness, and his jealousy threatens to ruin their relationship. His life is further complicated by the appearance in it of Artie (Arkin), a cafe owner who seems to know a lot about Mike and becomes fixated on him – but his reasons will not be what you think (I promise!)

Robin Williams plays one of his more tempered and poignant roles as a man who Rose meets while visiting her mother in hospital. A former priest who has lost his faith both in God and in life, he and Rose provide support for each other.

And then there’s Jules (Marcus Thomas) a young man who is haunted by an unhappy childhood and goes to desperate lengths to recreate the one perfect Christmas that he had.

Into the lives of all these people comes a little beauty and a little Christmas magic. I don’t want to post any spoilers in this review, so I won’t say more than that, but I will  say that while this film is undeniably smaltzy in places and you will definitely need to suspend your disbelief in parts, it was also lovely viewing for the Christmas season and definitely left me with a warm fuzzy feeling inside. I will be adding it to my regular Christmas viewing.

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Year of release: 2004

Director: Chazz Palminteri

Writer: David Hubbard

Main cast: Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz, Robin Williams, Alan Arkin, Paul Walker, Marcus Thomas

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Hendrik Groen (the author’s true identity has been kept a closely guarded secret) is, as the title suggests, an 83 year old man who decides to keep a diary of his life in an Amsterdam Nursing Home for a  year. The title seems like an obvious take on The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 1/4, and it’s true that this book feels like a cross sometimes between Adrian Mole and Victor Meldrew of One Foot In The Grave.

Hendrik describes the mundanity of his life, but manages to make it anything but mundane for the reader. He writes about the red tape and bureaucracy which the management have to deal with, and which has effects for the residents (or inmates as he refers to them) of the home, as well as the world of politics, and while he is referring specifically to Dutch politics, much of what he says can be related to other countries as well. Incidentally, if you are not a fan of politics, don’t be put off by the thought of reading about it – Hendrik talks about it in the way that most of us pass comment on the subject with people we know – it’s not vastly in-depth and his sardonic and cynical eye makes it worth reading.

As well as a regular and healthy dollop of humour – there’s something to make you smile or giggle on almost every page – there’s also a great deal of poignancy and sadness as he sees various members of his close circle of friends struck down by ailments such as stroke and diabetes. While he himself enjoys fairly decent health, euthanasia and assisted suicide often crop up in his thoughts, but this does not mean that the book is depressing, just that it provides a bit of insight into what some people might feel. Hendrik never dwells too long on the sadness, and always provides an amusing grumble about one or other of the other residents to make you laugh again.

Overall this is an easy and quick read – undemanding for sure, but one that may well stay with you for some time after you have read it. Highly recommended.

 

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In this enchanting true story, Tom Michell relates how in the 1970s, when he was in his early 20s and teaching in an Agentinian boys boarding school, he encountered a penguin who became his best friend. He saw the penguin on a beach covered in oil and near death as the result of a recent oil slick and on an impulse decided to rescue him and clean him up, with the intention of then releasing him back into the wild. However, the penguin refused to leave his side, and so after naming him Juan Salvador, Michell became the proud adopter (or adoptee?) of his new feathered friend.

Juan Salvador soon becomes a favourite among staff and students alike at the boarding school and brings a little magic into all of their lives. Through his and Tom Michell’s story, the reader also learns a little about the Argentinian political situation at the time, and how badly inflation was affecting the poorest in the country, and there is also some insight into life in the boarding school.

Mostly though, this is Juan Salvador’s story; it is he who is the true focus of the book, and what a delight he is. Michell describes the penguin’s own little personality and quirks and really brings him to life on the page.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book – it’s a quick read, both because it is only just over 200 pages, and also because I didn’t want to put it down. Highly recommended.

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s debut novel and as such the first one to feature her famous and hugely popular detective Hercule Poirot. Narrated by his friend Captain Hastings, the scene is set before Poirot appears in the story. Hastings is invited by his old friend John Cavendish to stay with his family and is most surprised to find the matriarch – John’s widowed step-mother Emily – has remarried to a man some 20 years younger than herself. It is safe to say that her new husband Alfred has not exactly endeared himself to the other members of the household.

When Emily is murdered by poisoning a couple of days later, Poirot is called in to investigate and through Hastings’ eyes, we see his methods as the famous Belgian detective pieces together seemingly unconnected clues and sifts through various red herrings to finally reveal the murderer.

I really enjoyed this book, and loved that it kept me guessing right up until the moment that the killer was revealed at the end. Although I could never dream of putting together such a complex story (and let’s not forget that Agatha Christie wrote a huge amount of mystery stories), I do think there were clues that this was an early novel, but if this is Christie at her most raw, then I can hardly wait to read her other books!

Poirot himself is an infuriatingly pompous and self-satisfied character who despite this is impossible not to like. The plot itself, with all of its twists and turns was still easy to follow and led to a satisfying and surprising conclusion.

Highly recommended to fans of the mystery genre. I have more Poirot stories on my to-be-read mountain and am looking forward to reading them.

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