Tag Archives: Reviews

The Best Witch?

20 Apr

We’ve had two series of The Worst Witch from the BBC. When the first episode aired, I wasn’t entirely satisfied but hopeful, and opined it was its target audience whose satisfaction mattered most. Well, they clearly were satisfied, as it returned for a second series and I must admit that it has really grown on me with subsequent episodes, with Mildred transforming into a perfect rendition of the character.

It hasn’t displaced the ITV series in my affections, but as a fan of that series, I find it different but equally good and it was sufficiently distinct that I didn’t spend all my time comparing the two, but became immersed in the unfolding story. Although the main characters from the books and the key elements of the series – Agatha Cackle’s plotting to seize the academy, Rowan-Webb, the arrival of Enid Nightshade, the rivalry between Ethel and Mildred – are all there, the series managed to avoid rehashing the events of the older series, forging its own path (such as with Esme Hallow’s story arc and the events surrounding the Foundation Stone) and avoiding direct comparisons between the two. (Perhaps that was why Miss Hardbroom’s first name changed from Constance to Hecate?)

Once I became used to Bella Ramsay as Mildred Hubble, recognisably-Mildred yet distinct from the portrayal of Georgina Sherrington, there really was nothing about the series to irk me and much (such as the consistently-excellent Ethel Hallow and her sister Esmeralda, and the wonderful Enid*) that impressed me.

(*It’s interesting that Enid, as portrayed in both the ITV and BBC series, is nothing like her appearance in the books by Jill Murphy, yet manages to perfectly catch her character, leading to a stand-out portrayal both times.)

I’m currently working my way through the ITV series, and its Weirdsister and New Worst Witch sequels, but I will be buying the BBC series on DVD to watch again from beginning to end once series two is released. (See here and here for the series on Amazon.co.uk.) The two will sit happily side-by-side on their shelf.

This series will please everyone with an interest in The Worst Witch in any of its previous incarnations and the magical school genre generally, and is a perfect series for children, being good escapist fun for fantasy fans of all ages.

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Lunaris Review Reviewed

7 Nov

Lunaris Review issue 9 is available to free read online or to download in pdf format.

I must open with a caveat – I have a poem in this issue, although I hope that might be seen as an additional enticement to take a look at this issue! Also, I won’t be going into much detail with this review, as you should just click over and take a look.

Lunaris Review is a great ezine filled with artwork, poetry and fiction. I really enjoyed the poetry, my favourite pieces being Musings by Fatima Shahzad and the brilliant A Cycle of Futility by Uduak Uwah. None of the fiction quite hit the high notes of the poetry, there are some interesting pieces in here. But, it is the artwork by Omoniyi Gabriel Gilbert that blows everything else away. These are truly excellent pieces of art – especially Arewa and The Glorious Child – and worth taking at the issue for alone.

I really cannot encourage you enough to take a look at this issue. Highly recommended.

Equal Opportunity Madness is here!

28 Aug

A panel discussion at Balticon 49 in 2015 about ‘problematic things’ in fiction led to this collection, EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness – A Mythos Anthology. As the editors note, and I’ve discussed before, the relationship between authors and their work can be an awkward one for readers and defies pat responses in either extreme. Instead of rejecting Lovecraft’s creations out of hand, a joking suggestion about creating an anthology of stories that would make the ‘old gent’ spin in his grave was taken up and made reality.EOM colour

Now, I must declare an interest in EOM as I contributed the story The Horror of the Atoll, which heads into Cthulhu’s stomping ground of Polynesia and features native Polynesian characters as protagonists.

Other stories go further in offering characters quite unlike those found in Lovecraft’s fiction. The opening story introduces us to an “old, crippled servant and the even older mute priestess” of Bast, for instance, while the penultimate story features a lesbian Rabbi taking on the evil out of Innsmouth with a golem!

I must say that the final, not exactly serious, story, in which Cthulhu awakens on the first day of Chanukah, bored and grumpy, was my favourite. Luckily, he is entertained then bored back to sleep with a dreidel and humanity is saved!

It’s not uncommon to find Cthulhu Mythos tales that feature protagonists unlike those used by Lovecraft (I’ve written a few myself), but this collection strives to provide a real variety.

So, rather than worrying about the old gent’s views on race, you should read this collection and see just how far his collection can be stretched.

Are we reading the same thing?

12 Jul

About a year ago, I saw a lot of references to John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run, all extolling just how brilliant it was. Intrigued, I decided to pick up a copy and read it. Boy, was I disappointed.

As I ask above, I had to wonder if we were reading the same thing. The book did open with promise. The description of Rabbit insinuating himself into a children’s game of basketball was a perfect meditation on loss and the disappointment of adulthood for childhood achievers. Had it been a short story, I would have definitely recommended it. (Updike was a short story writer prior to writing the novel.) But, other than two or three brief flashes of something interesting, the rest of the book failed to live up to that promise.

Perhaps the worst thing about it was that the writing was passable. There are novels that are as badly written as they are plotted that are easy to throw aside and there are novels that are badly written, but which contain good ideas – these are the real disappointments as, often, you can’t finish them, but you really wish they’d live up to their potential. Then, there are novels like this where the writing itself is okay, but the story is dire. encouraging you to keep on reading in the hope it will pick up, only it never does.

Updike possessed the technical skills to write a good novel, but this wasn’t it. I really can’t see what other people love about it. I’m not saying they’re wrong – taste is subjective – but whatever it is escapes me. It may be that his other novels would be a better fit for me, but I won’t be trying them – I’ve got far too many books to read as it is, without adding more on a vain off-chance! I certainly wouldn’t recommend it, but there’s always a chance it will be to your taste.

Review of Chasing Cloud

28 Apr

Chasing Cloud is a novel by David M. Smith available in paperback and on Kindle from Amazon. Subtitled ‘A Tarxian Novel’, you may imagine it is a fantasy novel, but, while it may well appeal to fans of fictional worlds, it’s actually set in ancient Malta during the Copper Age (although Smith, naturally, has had to be inventive with the minimal evidence available).

Chasing Cloud

The priest Lamaxe finds his life disrupted by the disappearance of his childhood friend, his burgeoning relation ship with a sculptress working on the temple, and a mission to bring back an idol of their goddess to enhance the temple’s standing, requiring him to leave the island. The search for the missing girl, the titular Cloud, and the journey to Sicily to explore a different culture, drawing upon what little is known through archaeology and extrapolating convincingly.

The mystery of Cloud’s disappearance is an effective plot that both provides the skeleton upon which to hang other adventures, such as encounters with pirates, and leads to a showdown of its own, one that will change Lamaxe’s life forever.

Smith has produced a fine novel that will appeal to fans of historical fiction, mysteries and, quite probably, fantasy fans in search of something a bit different, although it is relentlessly mundane in nature. It has an accessible ‘young adult’ feel to it, without compromising on the setting. About the only potential flaws are that it was a little slow to get going, which may put off those readers who have to be constantly stimulated with action, and there is a little sex (neither graphic nor out of place) that prudish readers may be uncomfortable with, as well as references to animal sacrifice that, while not particularly gory, may be off-putting to those who find the thought of any harm coming to animals unpalatable.

Those minor caveats aside, Chasing Cloud is an enjoyable read, unusual and intriguing, that I’d definitely recommend.

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.