Monday, 2 December 2019

#NewMusicMonday: Mackenzie Shivers Brings Christmas Peace and Pensiveness with 'Midwinter' ★★★★★

Midwinter - Mackenzie Shivers | New Music Monday | Album Review

Christmas can be such a difficult time. With all of the bright lights and festive spirits, there is often an undertone of sadness as we reflect on those who are no longer here. For me, I think back to my childhood years when my family was still intact and my grandmother was vibrant and alive. It's been a long journey but in recent years I've managed to reclaim Christmas, to make it a time of family, joy, celebration and gratitude again.

Mackenzie Shivers understands this and is releasing a Christmas album to capture this pensive mood. Firstly, Mackenzie is not a monster! Although Midwinter has been ready to meet the world for some time now, Mackenzie has thoughtfully waited until after Thanksgiving to release it. And now that it's December, I'm allowed by the laws of the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland to share it with you too.


Midwinter is a delightful collection of eight Christmassy tracks, embracing a feeling of peace and warmth. As Mackenzie says, "we wanted to keep the recordings and performances raw and intimate, as if I were sitting down and playing in your living room. Or, perhaps, a cozy Irish pub at the end of the evening". For me, it's all about tea and socks, cosy blankets and a purring cat.

Midwinter was recorded in a single day with co-producer Kevin Salem. Most of the tracks are Mackenzie's own arrangements of Christmas songs that you'll know and love including "'Tis the Season", "Auld Lang Syne" and "I Heard the Bells". I loved the unique arrangements, at times slowing down songs that are usually belted out and at others, jazzing them up. There are several piano instrumentals on the album, the most notable of which is the title track "Midwinter" which Mackenzie wrote for this album. If you're a fan of The Piano soundtrack then, like me, you'll love this track.


Recommended if you like: Christmas!



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Image credit © Liz Maney | Album art by Britannie Bond Photography


Saturday, 30 November 2019

Monstrous Fun: Victoria Schwab's This Savage Song on Audiobook ★★★★★

This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab | Superior Young Adult Fiction | Audiobook Review

It all started off with Sarah Rees Brennan's Seasons of the Witch. One minute I'd gone lukewarm on YA paranormal fiction and the next I couldn't get enough of it. I discovered Victoria Schwab next and tore through the Cassidy Blake novels, City of Ghosts and Tunnel of Bones. I wanted more. I decided on Schwab's Monsters of Verity series next, fully expecting to be slightly disappointed with it when compared to the aforementioned books.

I love it when I'm wrong.

I loved This Savage Song in the obsessive fan-girl-kind of way that had me impatiently searching for news of a rumoured film option and nervously considering when was too soon to pick up the sequel. Sarah Rees Brennan's second Chilling Adventures of Sabrina book is out in December, as is the long-awaited sequel to Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone. There are so many good books to read and only one overworked me.

This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab | Superior Young Adult Fiction | Audiobook ReviewThis Savage Song is set in a world of monsters; grotesque, larger-than-life, walking nightmares roam the streets and the citizens of Verity swear fealty to one of two warring factions in a vain attempt at self-preservation. Kate Harker is the daughter of Callum Harker, a ruthless warlord who has somehow managed to bend monsters to his will. She wants nothing more than to be like him.

August Flynn is a monster by name, loyal to Harker's enemy Henry Flynn and on a mission to get close to Kate Harker. It doesn't take Kate long to discover August's secret but she soon learns that there are two kinds of monsters in this world.

This Savage Song is a lot of fun, set in a fascinating future world and featuring one hell of a flight for survival. The future is bleak and it's all down to human nature. The best part of the novel is undoubtedly the chemistry between Kate and August, their curiosity, friendship and trust. Kate is tough, kickass and often violent and is perfectly balanced by careful and conflicted August. I can't wait to pick up Our Dark Duet and I'm as delighted as I am devastated that the series is a duology. I definitely want more of Kate and August but I'm a big fan of series finishing before my interest runs out.

I listened to This Savage Song on Audible, narrated by Thérése Plummer. Thérése is such a fantastic narrator, perfectly capturing Kate and August's voices as well as the numerous monsters and other characters in the book. I see that she narrated Amanda Hocking's Trylle trilogy. I might just revisit that in the new year!

I give This Savage Song a superb five out of five stars. Despite my overflowing bedside table pile, I suspect it won't be long before I start listening to Our Dark Duet after all.



Sunday, 24 November 2019

Banco de Gaia in Concert: Sebright Arms, 23 November 2019

Banco de Gaia in Concert | Sebright Arms | 23 November 2019

I discovered Banco de Gaia in January 1996. This is significant for two reasons; first, I was not aware of Banco de Gaia when I went to Glastonbury in 1995 and so I missed their set, and secondly, I took Last Train to Lhasa back to South Africa when I returned in February 1996 and I introduced them to everyone I knew. It was the start of an enduring love affair and throughout the years I've collected every single Banco de Gaia album and followed them with a fervour shamelessly bordering on obsession.

Last night I finally got to see Banco de Gaia at the Sebright Arms in east London and it was worth the wait.

Dr Trippy

Dr Trippy | Sebright Arms | 23 November 2019

Supporting Banco de Gaia was dr trippy aka Martin Corbett with a delightfully psychedelic set complete with really surreal visuals. I caught Betty Boop and some dancing skeletons and immediately went home and added his album Bhang! to my Spotify playlist. Martin also gets the Save of the Year award after catching his mixing deck when it went flying off the podium. Well caught.

Banco de Gaia

Banco de Gaia in Concert | Sebright Arms | 23 November 2019

Bang on time, Toby Marks was on stage and the Banco de Gaia set began. There were some sound issues to begin with - I was having premonitions of permanently losing my hearing - but they were soon sorted out. We were in the basement room at Sebright Arms, a tiny room with 150 capacity but I secured a slightly elevated spot by the wall and danced like it was 1999. It was brilliant. I couldn't tell who was having more fun, Toby with his non-stop smile or his absolutely adoring crowd, but the atmosphere was electric.

My highlights were "Last Train to Lhasa" (obviously) and "Zeus No Like Techno", possibly my most played dance track of all time and an absolute privilege to hear mixed live.

All too soon, it was over, a short but exhilarating 90 minute set. After this experience and the Leftfield DJ set in February, I'm realising that I really want to go to an all-nighter again and dance like there's no tomorrow.


Saturday, 23 November 2019

Le Mans '66: Basildon Cineworld ScreenX Review ★★★★★

Le Mans '66 | Ford v Ferrari | Matt Damon and Christian Bale

I've loved Christian Bale since the minute my 14-year-old self first encountered him in Empire of the Sun; of course I was going to drag my Ferrari-mad partner off to see Bale in Le Mans '66 under the guise that this was somehow about him. I had a vague notion that Le Mans '66 would be decent with two Academy Award-winning actors at the helm but I didn't expect to absolutely love it.

Based on the true story of Le Mans-winning driver and car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and his friend Ken Miles (Christian Bale), Le Mans '66 (known as Ford v. Ferrari in the States) is the story of two men who fought the corporate juggernaut at Ford Motor Company to develop a car that could compete against Ferrari at Le Mans and other endurance races.

If you know the story, you'll already know about the Ford GT40 and the legendary outcome of the 1966 Le Mans race but I won't spoil it for you if not. In fact, it is best to go into this film knowing nothing at all because this is a heartwarming and devastating film about friendship, endurance and overcoming adversity in the face of duplicity and betrayal.

Christian Bale is superb as Ken Miles, the Birmingham-born engineer and racing driver who was notorious for being a troublemaker. The film depicts Miles as something of a car-whisperer, a savant genius who could diagnose complex issues on a car just by listening to the engine but an honourable and quiet war hero behind the scenes.

Christian Bale and Matt Damon have extraordinary onscreen chemistry and Damon's depiction of the lengths Carroll Shelby went to in order to protect and support Ken Miles was extremely moving.

Ultimately, Le Mans '66 left me with all the feelings but the less I say about that the better (see previous determination to avoid disclosing spoilers).


I've wanted to try out Cineworld's ScreenX for a long time and it is, in a word, incredible. This CTC 'Technology of the Year' award-winning 270° viewing experience expands the film up the left and right walls of the theatre and into your peripheral vision. I expected an immersive experience but I was completely unprepared for the often weightless, surreal experience that ScreenX can deliver. During the ScreenX advert before the film, I had the sensation of floating off my seat and for a split second, didn't know which way was up. I am very excited to see what ScreenX delivers in the future, especially as filmmakers begin to film scenes especially geared towards the technology.

ScreenX | Cineworld

Le Mans '66 on ScreenX

ScreenX is a hell of a ride and an assault on several of your senses. I think for this reason only selected scenes are shown in 270° projection, rather than the entire film. In Le Mans '66, it is naturally the racing scenes that receive the ScreenX treatment and the effect is astounding. If you can't travel along desert roads in a Ford GT40 at 220mph, then ScreenX is a reasonably good substitute for the price of a cinema ticket.

Not all of the scenes are perfect - there was one grossly enlarged sports car in my right peripheral vision at one point and a camera on the left that appeared to slip away before the end of the scene, but ScreenX definitely enhanced the viewing experience and made me want to see more in this format.

I give Le Mans '66 a superb five out of five stars and recommend it to everyone, petrol-head or not, but especially to Christian Bale fans.



Friday, 8 November 2019

New Music Friday: Sarah Elizabeth Haines - Pretending to Sleep

Pretending to Sleep - Sarah Elizabeth Haines | New Music Friday

Sarah Elizabeth Haines's Facebook bio says she's still trying to figure things out, with strings, which is kind of funny because she's pretty accomplished already, having trained as a violinist and violist and touring the States with Hamilton. She's also part of Bellehouse who released their debut album Capsized in 2017.

I was naturally quite delighted when Sarah contacted me about her solo album Pretending to Sleep, which is being released to the world today.

Pretending to Sleep

Pretending to Sleep is one of those albums that defies definition. There are strings and Sarah's voice and an unmistakable sense of calm and peace running through the album, or maybe I'm just ready to curl up for the winter and lose myself in her music.

The album begins with the daunting anticipation of "Losing Game", the third single released from the album. I was sold within the few first seconds of those strings, which reminded me of Fionn Regan's 100 Acres of Sycamoreand I was a fan by the time Sarah's vocals and harmonising began.

Sarah sings about loss and the breakdown of relationships and she's at her best when she's defiant. "Let Me Down" should be a mantra for every fierce woman determined to walk away from a broken heart.

I don't wanna break your heart but you broke mine first so I guess we'll call it even

"Petrified" and "Let's Try That Again" are my favourite tracks on the album, although I don't like to pick favourites because all the tracks on this album should be loved equally. Most of the tracks on Pretending to Sleep are searching and melodic, but these tracks are more theatrical and dramatic, picking up the pace somewhat and providing a brief interlude of mischief and defiance.

Pretending to Sleep is relatively short at 35 minutes but it's a rare album these days in that it's clearly designed to be listened to as a whole. And so I will, over and over again as it becomes my soundtrack for autumn 2019.


Recommended if you like: Mackenzie Shivers, Aimee Mann, Laura Marling, Madeline Peyroux.





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Image Credits © Britannie Bond Photography | Elizabeth Maney


Sunday, 20 October 2019

Thoughts on Margaret Atwood's The Testaments - an Audiobook Review

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood | Audiobook Review

It seems a peculiar folly to try to review Margaret Atwood's The Testaments this late in the day. Between me listening to the audiobook and now, the book has been named joint winner of the Booker Prize with Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other. What could I possibly add to the conversation?

On Margaret Atwood

I discovered Margaret Atwood in my first year of university in 1991. I still have my very worn copy of The Handmaid's Tale featuring Natasha Richardson on the cover, a tie-in with the 1990 film. It was to become one of my most loved books of all time, but my two favourite Atwood books were Surfacing and Cat's Eye. Before I finally bought my own copy, I used to repeatedly borrow Cat's Eye from the library, return it and put my name on the waiting list to borrow it again. I suspect many of us were doing the same thing.

I read everything Margaret Atwood wrote until, horror of horrors, I encountered The Blind Assassin. I still haven't managed to finish it after nineteen years and because of the crazy, impossible way my head works, I couldn't read Oryx and Crake or anything else Atwood wrote until I did.

Another strange brain glitch is that I've not been able to watch The Handmaid's Tale TV series yet partially due to the Blind Assassin blockage and partially out of fealty to the original film version.

On Margaret Atwood live at the National Theatre, London

On the day that The Testaments was released, I watched a screening of Margaret Atwood live from the National Theatre in London. She discussed the book, the world of Gilead and our broken world and there were readings from the book. I very much enjoyed the event and realised that I urgently needed to get over my Margaret Atwood blockage and the best way was to listen to The Testaments on audiobook.

On The Testaments

I adored the writing in the The Testaments. As you can imagine, after nineteen years without Atwood in my life, coupled with a prolonged fascination with (often very poorly written) YA, I had simply forgotten how beautiful Atwood's prose is. I held on to every word and revelled in the sentences, ideas and world view that made me fall in love with Atwood three decades ago. I realised how much I had missed her writing and that this was in part responsible for my current quest to discover superior young adult literary fiction.

I listened to The Testaments on audiobook and the three main narrators were superb. Ann Dowd read Aunt Lydia, Bryce Dallas Howard read Agnes, a woman who had grown up in Gilead and Mae Whitman read Daisy, a teen growing up in Canada. I think the book might have been difficult to follow at times with three points of view but the audiobook made this a lot easier with the three different voices.

There was one terrifying moment in The Testaments when I feared that the book was succumbing to the tired old YA trope of a quest and subsequent endurance training for said quest. Thankfully this lasted for just one chapter.

For the rest of the book, I was fascinated by a story that took us from the very beginning of Gilead, to the removal of rights and freedom, through to life and politics in homes and schools of Gilead, to life outside of the country, as viewed by its neighbours.

Throughout the novel, I challenged myself to consider it through the lens of a young adult or new adult book. As a lover of YA, it ticked many boxes for me with the younger points of view but there is a scene of graphic sexual assault that makes it unsuitable for younger readers. Ultimately, as awful as that scene was, it was integral to the story and to decisions made and events that occurred later on in the novel.

On Creating Nothing New

During the live National Theatre event, Atwood mentioned that she had not created anything new in The Testaments, that all of the events described had occurred at some point during human history. As a student of the Tutsi and Srebrenica genocides, I could see the chilling parallels between those events and in events in the book, especially the stadium scenes. I thought that those scenes were particularly well-written and adapted to the novel.

On The New World Order

From a western point of view, Gilead is extreme. It is hard to imagine an America where girls are forbidden from reading, where holy texts are adapted to fit political views and where freedom is utterly restricted but it takes just a tiny geographical twist of the map to realise that this a reality for millions of women across the globe.

It's not just other countries, either. Freedom is being restricted while corporations are simultaneously given unfettered access to information about citizens as governments move towards empowering the rich at the expense of the poor. I think the horror of books like The Testaments is that it makes us realise that we're fighting the wrong fights at the moment and that we have to see what is really happening. In the UK as in the USA, the poor and vulnerable continue to bear the weight of recession and austerity while the rich just get filthy.

On the Booker Prize

I thoroughly enjoyed The Testaments and it stayed in my mind for many days afterwards. In fact, as I write this, I've not been able to start another audiobook and was only able to start reading Akwaeke Emezi's Pet because it is so damn brilliant. I definitely think that The Testaments deserved accolades, perhaps even a place on the Booker shortlist, but I do think they should have just awarded the prize to Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other. They acknowledged that it was the better book but by splitting it between the two authors, they've all but admitted that they couldn't let a black woman win. It's a travesty and detracts from Evaristo's great achievement.

I loved The Testaments and give it a superb five out of five stars. I'm more determined than ever now to read Oryx and Crake and to watch The Handmaid's Tale TV series.



Sunday, 13 October 2019

Horror Film Review: The Village in the Woods (2019) ★★★★☆

The Village in the Woods (2018) | Horror Film Review

Nicky and Jason think they have the perfect con. They arrive at the tiny isolated village of Coopers Cross, posing as the now-grown-up local Rebecca and her partner. The idea is to turn around the local dilapidated pub and land themselves a significant pot of money. Little do they know it is they who are marks and they have most certainly been lured into a trap.

Who is the scary old man squatting upstairs in the pub? What happened to his daughter? And why are the locals so awfully overfamiliar? Every village has a dark secret and Jason and Nicky have just stumbled on one they can’t handle.

Directed by Raine McCormack in his feature film debut and co-written by John Hoernschemeyer, The Village in the Woods, is an independent British folk-horror film set in a very sinister little village. In the words of McCormack, The Village in the Woods "is my dark, love letter to 70’s cinema and I’m really excited to finally share this unique, atmospheric folk-horror".

The Village in the Woods (2018) | Robert Vernon is Jason | Horror Film Review

The film was indeed beautifully atmospheric. From foggy roads and eerily woody surroundings to terrifying flashbacks and a derelict pub that has seen better centuries, The Village in the Woods is a tense 82 minutes of unease and slow-burning horror.

The Village in the Woods is buoyed by excellent performances by the cast. Richard Hope (Poldark) and Therese Bradley shine as villagers Charles and Maddy. Welcoming to the extreme, they get far too close to Nicky and Jason for comfort and give maddening and delightful performances. Robert Vernon expertly portrays the single-minded and utterly selfish Jason while Beth Park is captivating as the anxious and increasingly disturbed Nicky.

The Village in the Woods (2018) | Richard Hope is Charles | Horror Film Review

Americans might excel at Gothic horror but The Village in the Woods is quintessentially British. There is nothing quite so British as chipping away at the thin veneer of the wealthy classes to glimpse at the ugly, parasitic tendencies that lie beneath the surface. What hope do a pair of ordinary, penniless people have in the face of ancient power and wealth?

Atmospheric, with great performances and a nasty plot, I give The Village in the Woods an excellent four out of five stars and recommend to fans of slow-burning British horror.


The Village In The Woods will be available on Digital Download from 14th October across iTunes, Sky Store, Amazon and Google Play.

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