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The Lost Continent
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Bill Bryson makes the best of his disappointment with the land of his birth as he revisits locations of nostalgia and crosses the continent. And Kerry Shale does a fine job of reading, complete with the changing accents from state to state - and some almost incomprehensible accents of the deep south reproduced with amazing accuracy and stinging humour. The book has been ruthlessly abridged for the BBC Radio Collection, to just 2 hours and 20 minutes on 2 CDs. Other Bill Bryson audiobooks I've listened to have been abridged to about 6 hours from slightly shorter books, so there is undoubtedly quite a lot of the original Lost Continent missing from this reading. However, the other audiobooks were read more slowly by Bill himself. Kerry reads at an incredible rate, so that I expect the actual material might be enough to fill 3 or 4 discs if read at Bill's more normal speed. I enjoyed listening to it very much. It was only delivered a couple of weeks ago and, just having listened to it for a second time, I'm rudely reminded of something quite inexplicable. Bill says he can't understand what Spaniards see in flamenco music. He doesn't like flamenco music! I can only conclude that he can never have listened to it properly - and certainly never heard Paco Peña playing. In any case, apart from that strange foible, Bill's audiobooks are first class entertainment and this one is no exception. I recommend it.
Blithe Spirit (Classic Collection)
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Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) is writing about the underhand jiggery-pokery perpetrated by those who claim to be in touch with spirits. He invites the eccentric old medium, Madam Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) to hold a séance in his house, in order to study her methods. However, he's in for a nasty shock. She's the genuine article and she manages to call up the ghost of his first wife - a very mischievous spirit who teases and torments Charles and the second Mrs Condomine. Madam Arcati tries out various dotty techniques for sending the disruptive former-wife back to the here-after, but really, she just doesn't know how to do it. It's all very vexing for Charles. He wouldn't mind at all if the two wives could only get on nicely together, but Elvira (the ghost) is such an irrepressible rascal and Ruth (the current wife) fails to see the funny side of it. And to Madam Arcati, it's all just endlessly fascinating.
The film has been a favourite of mine for years (decades). I bought the DVD as soon as it was available (about 4 years ago) and have watched it several times since then. It's in surprisingly good condition for its age. The picture and sound quality are just fine. And the dialogue seems just as clever and funny as it ever did. Excellent film. Highly recommended!
The Nightmare Man
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Some sort of monster or maniac is stalking a remote Scottish island, tearing its victims limb from limb. A heavy fog has rolled in and the weather forecast says it's likely to last about 3 days. The doctor can hardly believe the results of his tests on the mutilated bodies. The dentist speculates about sea monsters and space alien invasions. The police and coastguards are puzzled by traces of radiation wherever the killer goes. It's headed for the village. Everyone who owns a gun (legal or not) is recruited to patrol the streets. A mysterious army chap, claiming to be spending a few days leave between postings, is behaving very suspiciously. Meanwhile a strange craft is discovered on the beach, the fog persists, all communications with the mainland are lost and the body-count continues to rise.
This was broadcast only once by the BBC, serialised over 4 weeks in 1981. I found it absolutely gripping. Over 25 years later it may seem a bit dated. The special effects are not all that special - but the atmosphere is still tense and nerve-racking. It will still appeal to those people who can enjoy the more old-fashioned sci-fi horrors, like the serialised version of 'The Day of the Triffids' and the old Quatermass films. It may not satisfy the younger audience who require amazing CGI and other modern, high budget special effects. I recommend this DVD to those (probably older) people who don't need to be shown everything in fine and convincing detail because they are accustomed to using their imagination. That's what you really need in order to be able to enjoy this sort of drama: plenty of imagination. Give your imagination free rein and it'll chill you to the bone.
Right Ho, Jeeves
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Bertie's a bit pipped with Jeeves. They have a difference of opinion over a very unsuitable jacket to which Bertie is passionately attached. So Bertie is trying to solve problems all by himself - cutting Jeeves out of the loop and intimating to all the needy clients (ie Bertie's friends and relatives) that Jeeves has lost his touch. As we might anticipate, Bertie's problem-solving and match-making schemes can only end in disaster without Jeeves' hand on the tiller. His hair-brained plan for reuniting the estranged Tuppy Glossop and cousin Angela, bring together the frightful pill, Madeline Bassett and the poop, Gussie Fink-Nottle and to get uncle Tom to cough up a few hundred quid to save aunt Dahlia's magazine, very nearly causes a tragedy that could destroy uncle Tom's digestive system. Once Bertie starts the process, the calamities just keep on coming. Only one man can save the day. It's just a matter of time before Bertie's forced to acknowledge that Jeeves hasn't lost his touch. He has to learn the hard way, but the important thing is that he does learn - and all his long-suffering friends and family can heave a sigh of relief as 'normality' is restored.
Excellent, funny, entertaining book: just the usual Wodehouse sort of gem.
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Notes from a Small Island
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After hearing short snatches of Bill Bryson's books, read by the author himself or by Kerry Shale, on BBC Radios 4 and 7 over the years, I decided a few months ago that I would try to get hold of an audiobook. I found several and chose "Neither Here Nor There". It relaxed and entertained me for hours - so much more satisfying than coming in half way through a reading on the radio, that finishes just as the tension is beginning to drain out of you and the furrows smooth from your brow. That was about his travels through Europe. It was such a good experience (Bill has a very agreeable voice and reading style too) that I bought this audiobook next. "Notes from a Small Island" is about his travels through Britain. He's very fond of us and our country apparently, though you sometimes wouldn't guess it from some of the tart observations he makes about us. You could hardly argue with him though. We are a bit odd and it takes someone like Bill, standing back and scrutinising our behaviour dispassionately (a bit like an indulgent cousin or family friend) to point out our little foibles and poke gentle fun at them. It's not just the Mickey taking that I enjoyed though. He describes beautiful areas beautifully, provides pointers to interesting places to visit and even gives us some of our more obscure history that wouldn't come up in a school history lesson.
There are 5 CDs in the box and the running time is about 6 hours. That's about 3 evenings-worth of high quality relaxation therapy with added chuckles.
Kingdom Hospital (Stephen King) - 13 Episode Mini Series
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Kingdom Hospital is not only built on the site of two earlier doomed buildings, but it seems to have been built on the epicentre of some geological quake zone. Only it turns out that it's not the geology of the area causing the hospital to shake, but a build-up of restless spirits. The spirit of a young girl wanders the hospital, periodically ringing her bell - a portent of death, audible to only a few. Her constant companion is a huge anteater that is really something far more sinister - and godly. These two are engaged in a mortal struggle with an evil doctor and his assistant from the time of the first disaster on the site, just after the civil war. Meanwhile, the living staff and patients in the hospital lead a surreal existence that, to them, seems almost normal. The characters are interesting and complex - not wholly good or bad, many shades of grey.
I've read some scathing reviews elsewhere, about this series and was not tempted to buy it until I caught a few episodes on the telly recently. It's hard to explain what it is about the programmes that so enthralled me, but I just relaxed into it from the moment the opening music and titles started. Bearing in mind that some people loath this series whereas I love it, I can only cautiously recommend it. In any case, for me, it's worth the full 5 stars.
House M.D.: Season 1 (6 Discs)
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Hugh Laurie plays the horrible but wonderful Gregory House in this superior medical drama series. He's a sort of Sherlock Holmes of rare and terrible diseases, an apparent misanthrope with a heart of fools' gold. He and his team get all the most interesting and mysterious cases to work on. Each case starts with frowning and puzzling, educated guesses are scrawled on a whiteboard, then medicines and procedures are administered that almost kill the patient, then further head-scratching and brow-furrowing, more near-lethal treatments and then, finally, eureka: the true cause of the illness is discovered and (usually) the timely cure administered. And House limps off glowing with satisfaction and throwing a handful of Vicodin (a pain-killer to which he's addicted) down this throat.
I bought this series only because Hugh Laurie is in it and I've never seen him yet in anything I didn't thoroughly enjoy. As expected, I enjoyed this too. The stories are good and the acting is good. I have only one criticism and it's not of the show itself. These DVDs are crying out for subtitles. My sense of hearing is not excellent, the dialogue is full of medical terminology, the accents involve a certain amount of slurring of speech. I was constantly rewinding, attempting to lip-read and often just having to give up and hope it would become clear as the story unfolded. The series deserves 5 stars but I give the DVDs only 4, because they are incomplete without the subtitles.
The Caesars (2 Discs)
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This excellent drama covers more or less the same period of Rome's history that we saw in "I, Claudius" - from the reign of Augustus to the reign of Claudius. It's older, much shorter, less scandalous, black and white and the picture and sound quality are not too good. But the drama itself is quite gripping. After my initial disappointment at the crackle and hiss of the sound and the graininess of the picture, the story grabbed me and I forgot all about the picture and sound quality. The scripts and acting are very good. As you would expect for a series made in the 1960s, the sets are studio-bound.
If you've watched "I, Claudius" you would hardly recognise the characters of Augustus and Tiberius in particular, as being the same people in the two different series. It just goes to show how much guess-work and artistic licence goes into these stories from ancient history. The broader story and its warning from history remains: shelter under the safety of a dictatorship at your peril because however seemingly benign the current dictator might be, you have no way of knowing what lunatics and psychopaths might inherit the power in future generations.
A very good series. If you can overlook the problems with sound and picture quality, I recommend it to you.
The Crystal World
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Time leaks are causing very peculiar things to happen in a number of locations around the world. Doctor Sanders has left his leper colony to travel up river in search of his ex-lover. He arrives at a patch of jungle In Cameroon to find the place strangely dark in the full blaze of the sun and the authorities moving in mysterious ways to achieve he cannot guess what. His efforts to continue his journey are at first thwarted as the military attempt to keep people out of the area of his destination. When he does finally break through, he finds a remarkable phenomenon: a growing patch of 'disease' is blighting the jungle, similar in some ways, he feels, to leprosy. The flora and fauna of the forest is crystallising. The effect is beautiful: sparkling with light and colour during the day and emitting light and colour at night. But it's also death to anything living in the jungle. Some flee but Sanders and a few others feel strangely drawn to the deadly beauty of it all.
It's difficult to hold much of the story in mind but the images of the crystallised, rainbow foliage, birds and beasts will stay in my mind a long time. It reminded me of the after effects of an ice storm, but with psychedelic instead of clear ice. In Ballard's worlds, the characters seem to relax comfortably into what seem nightmarish scenarios. So you can imagine this sort of 'trip' (usually drug induced in the real world) that can easily change from fantasy to nightmare. The characters are the same sort of alienated, disconnected souls that populate Ballard's 'The Drowned World' and 'The Drought' (the main protagonist, could be the same man in each book in fact). It might appear to be science fiction, with its time leaks being influenced by distant galaxies, but to me it seemed closer to fantasy. I still can't grasp what this 'saturation' of time could be or how it could crystallise patches of jungle. But I still enjoyed the book very much. It's dream enhancing.