Tag Archives: Reviews

Worst Witch review

13 Jan

19 years ago, ITV produced a series based on the Worst Witch books by Jill Murphy (providing the now-famous Felicity Jones with one of her first acting roles). Now, the BBC is making its own series based upon the misadventures of Mildred Hubble (first chronicled in print way back in 1974). A tough act to follow!

The 53-minute opening episode of the series (officially episodes one and two, rolled into one) is currently available to view on BBC iPlayer. As a fan of the Worst Witch in all its formats, I was interested to see how this adaptation fared.

The opening seems to be aping Harry Potter, to the extent that Maud (who seems far more clumsy than Mildred in this version) broke her glasses and had them magically mended. However, Mildred’s briefly-shown towerblock home-life doesn’t exactly  compare to Harry’s awful childhood and the introduction of a masquerade (never explicitly stated in earlier versions) didn’t really add anything to the story.

Mildred and Maud were passable – I did think Mildred looked more like Tracy Beaker than Mildred Hubble, although she grew on me towards the end – but Ethel was spot on. Hardbroom and Cackle were both good, although they didn’t manage to eclipse the portrayals of the characters in the ITV series. Overall, the acting was somewhat variable, although stronger towards the finale, and, while the visual presentation was good, the episode itself was somewhat uneven in tone, especially as it seemed to be trying to present the setting more seriously, yet veered sharply into humour at times. However, it is likely that the players will settle into their roles and the tone of the series stabilise as time goes on, so hopefully these are temporary niggles – and, not too serious ones, at that, if I’m honest.

Given that the plot of the first book was used as the plot of the Worst Witch movie, in addition to the opening episodes of the ITV series, the BBC bravely chose not to rehash it for a third time. Instead, they distinguished their version by crafting (pun intended) an original opening that loosely drew upon Agatha Cackle’s plot (in the book) to take over Cackle’s Academy from her sister. It’s possible purists might not be happy about it, but it works well enough and offers something new to those of us who’ve seen previous versions on the screen, without diverging too far from the source material.

Overall, it does a passable job of relaunching the Worst Witch for a new generation and I’m certainly going to watch future episodes to see how it develops, although I doubt it will displace the ITV series from my affections. Of course, while it will inevitably be compared to the versions that came before, it really isn’t for an adult to judge it. The real test is whether kids, who are probably unaware of the ITV and film adaptations, respond to it. I suspect it will win fans. For parents who might be wondering whether they should encourage their children to watch it, I can say that this first instalment presents no reason not to and is likely to entertain them. Definitely recommended!

Reviving Classic Sitcoms

30 Aug

The BBC has decided to celebrate the days when it produced high-quality comedy but reviving some of its classic sitcoms in a series of one-offs. The first two to be aired were revivals of Are You Being Served? and Porridge, and they ably demonstrated how to achieve success with a revival – and how not to.

The episode of Are You Being Served? was set in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, that was the first flaw, as it was assumed that nobody remembered the later series of the original series, let alone the sequel Grace and Favour (aka Are You Being Served? Again!). So, we had Mr Grainger back from retirement, despite Mr Humphries having become head of men’s wear (although Mr Peacock received that title, at one point, rather than being referred to as floorwalker – perhaps they had a further restructuring?) and the new recruit was told of Mr Lucas’s attempts to seduce Miss Brahms, ignoring the equally-futile attempts of his successor, Mr Spooner, while a previously-unhinted-at grandson of Young Mr Grace was introduced, despite his seemingly-childless death being the catalyst for the sequel series.

Given that the original cast were all dead, all the original characters had been recast. Mr Grainger was the only one who was near-perfect. Mrs Slocomb and Captain Peacock were bearable, while Niky Wardley was far from perfect as Miss Brahms (although with plenty of potential as a character in her own right) and Mr Humphries was pretty awful. Mr Rumbold looked nothing like the original and seldom sounded like him, while Mr Harman was nothing like the original in any way and an insult (why not just introduce a new character?). It was the new characters that had the greatest potential.

But, it may not have been entirely the fault of the actors or the person who cast them, as the biggest problem was the script which veered between being a third-rate pastiche and nothing at all like the original, giving them very little to work on. There were maybe four good lines in the show. Too often, it seemed they were told to say or do something solely because it was in the original, but without the flair. Which wasn’t a great surprise, given that the original writers are long dead, too.

Porridge on the other hand was written by the original writer and opted to be a sequel rather than a rehash, and, thus, was a far superior product. Instead of Norman Stanley Fletcher, we met his grandson, who was doing time for computer crimes. It captured the feel of the original, while also showing how prisons had changed since then, while managing to be its own product. Although not the greatest of comedies, it was funny throughout with a great deal of potential for more, and I would happily watch a series of it – and, I would expect a series to be even better, as it would doubtless move further out from the shadow of its original and find its feet. This is how you do a revival.

Captured by Poetry

26 Nov

By Julie Vanner
ISBN 9781500233815
Available to order from Amazon

Essex poet Julie Vanner has not only overcome adversity to produce a poetry collection that has garnered plentiful praise, but has also disproven the assumption that a self-published book must be of inferior quality by producing one that is excellent both of content and of form (the latter being helped by the presence of the lovely illustrations by Renee Murray).

The collection opens with the titular Captured, about a pirate, which flows evocatively (“The sails of a ship billow softly, / to the mariners’ song on the wave; / by a westerly cove, near a lost treasure trove, / on a ship only sailed by the brave”) before moving on to touch on all sorts of topics. Amongst those she writes about are the horsemeat scandal (Mane Course in which she wonders “what’s next for casserole? / Sausages made not of swine, / But battered star-nosed mole?”), technology (The Machines Are Rising in which “All my machines have gone bizarre, / My PC’s pouring smoke; / I can’t drive for my brake failed car / and my dishwasher just broke.”), Facebook (in the aptly-named Facebook describing how “This Facebook lark’s addictive – I’m finding it quite fun, / My life is now restrictive and the housework’s not been done”) and nature (in poems such as Dragonfly in which we see “A summer pond stained soft rose-gold”).

I especially liked Dragonflies and Lullabies in which she asks “Do dreams drift like dragonflies, / as newborn lids close tight, / nestling down with lullabies / as you bid day goodnight?”, painting a wonderful image of a parent watching their sleeping child.

Julie Vanner writes wonderful rhyming poetry which manages to make their structure appear effortless. Captured ranks as one of the most enjoyable poetry collections I’ve read this year. Highly recommended.

Short and shocking…

1 Aug

Battery Pack is a micro-anthology from Neon magazine which is available to subscribers of the magazine and free to download from their site (the first in an intended series). It’s impossible to review in any details as the stories are all less than 500 words in length, but for such a short read, it’s exceptionally potent stuff! About all I can is that this isn’t a collection of sweet and innocent tales, but if you like your stories dark and with a nasty sting in the tale, you’re bound to love this little anthology – and, you can read it for free, so you don’t lose, even if it’s not for you. Highly recommended.

Poetry Reviews – A Knock On The Door and An Only Girl

31 Jul

A Knock On The Door

By Christos Kallis

Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd, 2014, 37pp


Available in paperback and on the Kindle from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

The debut poetry collection from Christos Kallis is a collection of twelve pieces infused with irony and a sense of the absurd. It opens with Columbus voyaging through a poem in search of some sort of meaning, or at least its ending in the seemingly silly yet inspired A Lonely Dot In A Sestina. The collection abounds with stunning imagery such as “A wall that you built so majestically high to prohibit angels ‘intruding’” in An Apple (a deceptively bland title for an evocative poem), “Inside a stage of desolation” in A Letter to Aeschylus, and “The light of the half-sliced moon fell upon us” in A Double Jesus On The Rocks. Even the one-line His Wolf Whistle has a surprisingly power.

For a debut collection, it is exceptionally good and well worth reading. Recommended.


An Only Girl

By Melissa Usher

Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd, 2014, 30pp


Available in paperback and on the Kindle from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com


The first poem in this collection by Melissa Usher, Me and Inspiration, utilises a simple but effective rhyme structure (“You may not believe it / But it is honest and true / That I get all my inspiration / Through things that I do”) and many of the others likewise use simple rhymes to good effect, producing enjoyable poems. In Holiday, ” A week away for a holiday starts with a flight / A first holiday abroad can give a child a fright / To pick a destination with the hottest sun / To spend the day on the beach and have the greatest of fun”, whilst in Complicated Sleeping, we are told “In the early hours of the day / The sun shines through the window pane / It shines in your eyes and wakes you / It’s enough to drive you insane” and in the title poem, An Only Girl, Melissa tells us “I am an only girl sat alone / I am searching for my house, my home / I have looked high and low for that tiny glow / To let me know what I call my home”.

An Only Girl is a fun and entertaining poetry collection. Recommended

Merry-Go-Round review

31 Jul

Merry-Go-Round and Other Words

By Bryn Fortey

The Alchemy Press, 2014, 352pp

Available in paperback and on the Kindle from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com


This is a collection of poetry and fiction from one of my favourite small press writers, a mixture of darkness and light. Bryn Fortey had horror stories published in the old Fontana anthologies and has had numerous poems and short stories published by Atlantean Publishing and other small presses, as well as making appearances in some of the fine anthologies published by The Alchemy Press. Merry-Go-Round opens with a lengthy and absorbing introduction by editor Johnny Mains, which is both the perfect introduction to anyone unfamiliar with the man and his work, as well as still being of interest to those readers who are familiar.

Bryn Fortey is a writer who knows how to write to perfect effect. The opening story of the collection, Shrewhampton North-East, for example, has perfect pace, whilst making use of repetition to simultaneously replicate the boredom of a stifling train journey and build a subtle air of menace in a wonderfully offbeat story.

Perhaps my favourite story in the collection is the wonderful Ithica or Bust retells The Odyssey in space (I especially like the passing reference to a Cassandra-box!). with Odysseus attempting to his home planet of Ithica.

Amongst the poems, Boy In A Box is one of the best, articulating poignant loss at the death of his son (“I know you can’t hear / I know it’s not the you I knew / I know you are dead”). Marching Into Glory puts into words the beauty and sadness of New Orleans funeral jazz.

A lighter example of Bryn’s poetry, as well as the 2009 first place winner of the Data Dump Award, is the fun A Taxi Driver On Mars (“Not much call for taxis on Mars / But there has to be a couple / Ever on standby / Ready for the occasionally needed journey”). This and the 2011 joint-second Data Dump Award winning poem Safari, about the titular reservation world, were first published in Atlantean magazines.

The poem A Solitary Dream has marvelous imagery (“Some dreams draw mansions in the sun / And rivers on the moon / Short dreams have only just begun / And others end too soon”).

Having opened the volume, a continuation of Shrewhampton North-East brings it to an end, followed by an Afterword in which Bryn outlines much of the inspiration for his writing, another fascinating piece.

Although I have touched upon just two of the stories and a handful of the poems, there are many more, covering q variety of styles and topics. If you have encountered some of Bryn Fortey’s writing before, I am sure you will be as keen as I was to read this collection, and if you are new to his work, then there’s no better place to start. Even if not all the content is to your taste, there is so much and such variety that you will find plenty to entertain you. The closest I can get to a criticism is that a few poems would have been better if given their own page, rather than split across pages – and, then, only because they’re so good! This is an excellent collection that shouldn’t be missed if you enjoy fiction or poetry. Highly recommended.


Review of a Reader

3 Mar

The Reader of Acheron

By Walter Rhein

Paperback:  £12.21/$16.46                                    Kindle: £3.76/$6.25

Trade paperback: ISBN-13: 978-0-9910573-4-4; ISBN-10: 0991057341

Kindle ebook: ISBN-13: 978-0-9910573-5-1; ISBN-10: 099105735X

ePub ebook: ISBN-13: 978-0-9910573-6-8; ISBN-10: 0991057368

The Reader of Acheron is the first volume of a new series, The Slaves of Erafor. Starting a speculative fiction novel with a child learning to read is a bold move – although learning to read is something that will be familiar, at least dimly, to any reader, it hardly stands as particularly high upon the list of exciting activities, yet we quickly learn that reading is an illegal and immoral act in the post-apocalyptic world that Rhein has crafted.

The province of Acheron is the unwitting eye of the storm as a literate outlaw (the eponymous Reader) who is teaching others to read takes up residence in its forests, soldiers are deserting, the one slave who isn’t drugged out of his mind is growing mutinous, a library is discovered and a Seneschal arrives in pursuit of the outlaw. Ultimately, we are presented with two parallel storylines as we follow the adventures of hunter and hunted, until at last they collide in an explosive finale.

Rhein applies a witty, intellectual twist to what is, in essence, a novel in the swords-and-sorcery vein (even if there is only the odd hint of sorcery and precious little in the way of swords!), an approach reminiscent of Vance’s Dying Earth. Although the story does have moments of action in which swords are drawn and blood is spilt, it is not really a book for those who just want repetitive thrills and genre conventions, rather it is a book for those who like mystery, plotting and thoughtful characters.

The revelations that come about the nature of the world are not unpredictable, but Rhein avoids falling into the trap of spending too long hinting at what most readers will guess early on, confirming suspicions near the beginning, even if the details are largely left unexplained by the end of the novel, leaving plenty for subsequent instalments to cover. Indeed, he does a good job of tying up the various storylines whilst leaving a clear hook for the next volume, and presents a story that you will want to continue with. Recommended.