A review of the Audible Original audio-drama “The X-Files: Stolen Lives”

“The X-Files: Stolen Lives” is a direct follow up to “The X-Files: Cold Cases” in the “Audible Original” range of audio dramas.If you are new to the X-Files, welcome to a world where shape-shifting aliens bent on colonising the planet, and various monsters and supernatural happenings menace the world. Grist to the mill for our two dogged FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. The show aired for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, spawned two follow up feature films, a recent new series in 2016, and various spin offs, novels and graphic novels.

This drama is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Joe Harris. Series creator Chris Carter provided creative direction, and it was adapted specifically for this audio format by Dirk Maggs, who has been behind the excellent ‘Alien’ audio dramas on Audible.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprise their roles as agents Mulder and Scully, and they are clearly having a blast stepping into these familiar shoes. And their enthusiasm is infectious. Welcome also to the return of the Lone Gunmen, in an amusing but credulity stretching development here holed up in a secret lair under Arlington Cemetery, and grab your favourite pack of smokes (Morleys) it’s the return of Spender, the Cigarettes Smoking Man, here a tortured clone doomed to die violently and repeatedly. He becomes strangely sympathetic.

He’s not the only clone afoot. There’s a sinister army of them, comprising of old faces from the original show, the titular ‘Stolen Lives.’ These are mainly baddies, the dreaded Syndicate for one, the Cabal responsible for orchestrating the original alien invasion conspiracy. They are ruled over by a fearsome new Prime Elder with an agenda of his own. His identity and some of his agenda are revealed in the final story of this collection, ‘Elders,’ and it’s the conclusion of a satisfying arc that began Cold Cases and has run through both releases. There are stand alone stories here as well, as in the last collection, mirroring the format of the original show. And unfortunately as patchy as the original. It begins with a powerful story of possession that I thought was going to be the start of a whole new arc, it felt so epic. But it wasn’t. It’s chilling, violent, and has a number of real gut punching scenes of visceral power. As a heads up there is a scene of a mass shooting that some will feel especially unsettling and upsetting given recent real world events.

After this there follows a tale of a ravenous swarm of flesh eating Scarabs, that’s ok but feels very generic. Then we find out what happened toAgents Dogget and Reece after their disappearance in Cold Cases. Again, it’s ok, but there’s a feeling of it not quite living up to it’s premise. Just a quick tidying up of loose ends.  

Then the weakest of the bunch, an investigation into Government produced psycho-active substances with a much too protracted gag involving Mulder getting stoned. Real life legal highs are much scarier.

And it wraps up with the superior story arc conclusion mentioned above, and a promising set up for the next series.

On the whole a great, patchy listen, faithful to the strengths and the weaknesses of the original, and taking it in some interesting new directions. And there’s one powerful reveal and link to the original that I have not given away here. Enjoy.

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A review of Hajime Isayama’s “Attack on Titan.” Vol 2.

This builds on the Titan mythos, leading it in surprising directions that give plenty of hooks to keep us reading. What exactly is the “Berserker Titan” and why is it attacking other Titans? Is it the key to turning the tide in humanity’s war against the Titans?

Characters develop in satisfying ways; Armin must conquer her self loathing and guilt over the event at the end of Book if she is to survive. Mikasa must harness the anger from traumas past and present to fuel her determination to take the fight to the Titan’s to the next level.

Again there are some fantastic set pieces, full of action and horror (although the art avoids full on gore, a single frame of a soldier frozen in horror about to enter a Titan’s huge maw is enough). The soldier’s weaponry is an especially ingenious addition to this series, the system of gas cylinders, harnesses and blades that turns the fighters into acrobatic, air-borne weapons.

Visceral, kinetic, layered and satisfying storytelling.

A review of the Audible Original audio-drama “The X-Files: Cold Cases.”

“The X-Files:  Cold Cases” is an addition to the “Audible Original” range of audio dramas.
If you are new to the X-Files, welcome to a world where shape-shifting aliens bent on colonising the planet, various monsters and supernatural happenings are grist to the mill for our two dogged FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.  The show aired ran for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, spawned two follow up feature films, a recent new series in 2016, and various spin offs, novels and graphic novels.
This drama is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Joe Harris. Series creator Chris Carter provided creative direction, and it was adapted specifically for this audio format by Dirk Maggs, who has been behind the excellent ‘Alien’ audio dramas on Audible.
And what a fantatsic listen it is.  I loved the show for at least it’s first three seasons, before losing patience with the patchy quality of the stories and the increasingly convoluted story arc, where someone revealing things like, “actually, I’m really your father” became increasingly eye-rollingly familiar and ridiculous.  However, when the show was on form it was really on form, with scary, original monsters (remember Tooms?), an epic feel and knuckle chewing cliff-hangers.
This drama feels like those earlier,  show stopping episodes.  The mystery is back and it’s a successful re-boot, scary, thrilling and fun.  The original cast of Mitch Pileggi, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are back and clearly enjoying what they are doing, which is completely infectious.  Also get ready for the return of William B , Davies, literally resurrected as Spender, or Cigarette Smoking Man.  That familiar voice of quiet, genial menace together with the rustling packet of Morleys will bring a huge grin to any fan.  Get ready also for many familiar names, monster, bad guy and good guy.  I won’t spoil them all here, but warring alien factions, shape-shifters, and a certain black oil feature.  It’s like a roll call of the original shows’ greatest hits, and yet it is testament to the writing and production that this never feels contrived.  When each familiar face took the stage, I felt like cheering.
I loved this, and can’t wait for the follow up due next month.

A review of Hajime Isayama’s “Attack on Titan.” Vol 1.

Attack on Titan is a Manga comic-book series tour-de-force written and drawn by Hajime Isayama.
It’s the first Manga book I’ve read.  You read the reverse you would in a Western publication, starting at the back and going from right to left.  This pretty quickly becomes standard and the novelty does add to the experience.
Something about a physical comic book like this that takes me back to my childhood.  This is why I’ve avoided the Kindle version.
It tells the story of a future post apocalyptic world which has been decimated by flesh eating giants that have over size mouths, have no genitals, and regenerate their head if removed or damaged.  They give off palpable waves of heat.  There’s a “Colossus” that is sans its skin, all muscles exposed, and “Abnormals” that are even freakier than their ‘normal flesh eating giant counterparts.
At the start of the book humanity is living in a walled off city with a wall bigger than the Titans, as they are called. So a state of complacency has developed.  It’s a long time since the Titans have breached.  But the arrival of a Colossus changes everything.
The characters are young, fierce fighters who fight with the aid of an acrobatic harness through which they abseil and glide around, seeking to pierce the Titans weak spot at the back of the neck.
It’s inked in black and white and these clear lines and a sense of perpetual motion keep the action zipping along.  Be prepared for ‘Walking Dead’ style offing of good guts, though.  The gang isn’t all here by close of this first installment, and there are some pretty merciless deaths.
Book 1 has a bonus, an interview with the author, with some preliminary sketches (and a depiction of the author as a Titan!).
So with Book 1 sorted I may make this a weekly treat, it’s a massive series.
Huge fun.

A review of C.S.Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew”

This is the prequel to “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” but was written after that book, first published in 1955.  Nothing unusual in this, we do it today with successful franchises, going back to before the beginning for new adventures and fresh insights into the world of the tales.  George R.R. Martin has just written a prequel to his staggeringly popular ‘Game of Thrones’  series, for example.  Then there’s the Star Wars prequels.  So you can see from these examples that sometimes this is successful, sometimes not.  Questions to consider; does it link in coherently with the world building of the series as a whole?  Does it bring fresh excitements and understandings?  Does it work as a stand-alone tale?  For George Lucas, arguably, there were real problems with these things.  Here, it most definitely does.
This is a cracking story that you could come to with no other introduction to the works of Professor Lewis.  It tells, as many of our richest children’s stories do, of a new friendship in the long Summer holiday, of exploring long secret passageways and secret rooms, of sinister relatives, and a heartbreaking reality of  dying mother.  Then, an exploration into a wider fantasy world, with a wicked Queen, a certain magical and heroic lion, and the birth of a new world.  Welcome to Narnia.
There are wonderful scenes that live on in the imagination, including the ‘multi-verse’ anticipating glade of pools that provide routes into different worlds and a haunting vision of evil in the dying world of Charn, with its progressively evil rulers represented in statue form, so the increasing moral despair and degradation in their faces is preserved and plain to see.  Then the evil breaks into this world, and there’s a semi-comic and chaotic chase involving the evil Queen, a hi-jacked Hansom cab, the Police, and various others.  The creation of Narnia is a hauntingly beautiful beautiful scene, life birthed by song.  And we see the origin of Narnia’s eco-system of intelligent, talking animals, and the framework is set for the future novels with a human King and Queen and the introduction of evil magic to this new world.
It’s a cracking story well told.  Seasoned readers of Lewis will enjoy spotting Lewis’s signature themes explored in his more grown up novels and writings such as the power of myth, the estrangement of evil, and more.  It’s a joy, and I recommend it.

A review of Daniel Keyes “Flowers for Algernon.”

This is the genre source novel for a lot of recent SF on science and human intelligence, for example the novel, book and spin off tv series ‘Limitless;’ the drama of someone failing suddenly boosted to genius status, the excitement of that journey, but also a commentary on what it does to their soul, and the recognition that humanity is profoundly more than it’s shared IQ. But I don’t think this tale has ever been told with the tragic weight and pathos with which it is told here.

‘Flowers for Algernon’ is a Nebula Award wining novel from 1968. And as such it has that period feel of determined smoking by men in suits and in white coats, a drama back-lit by hard, white clinical lighting. And yet the story is heartbreakingly human.
Charlie Gordon is, in the language of the day, retarded, but with a determination to learn and improve himself that brings him to the attention of Messers Strauss and Nemur, scientists ready to try their new treatment of enzymes and brain surgery that, following succesful experiments on the titular mouse Algernon, they believe will make a breakthrough in treating human mental retardation.
Slowly Charlie’s progress reports move from the barely literate, priamry school spelling journal entries to more intelligent, insightful and sophisticated prose, as Charlie’s intelligence grows, all the while gainong momentum. Along the way he starts to remember the abuse suffered at the hands of his mother. The scientists have added therapy to Charlie’s treatment as they foresaw that a boost in IQ would cause emotional issues in their patient. Meanwhile Charlie’s co-workers at the bakery where he works in a janitorial role view him with increasing bewilderment and fear, as he moves from warm and likable idiot to a much colder, frighteningly intelligent and emotionally aloof persona. Charlie finds himself coming to terms with sexual attraction and love, and soon he comes to resent the scientists who seem to refuse to believe he was a genuine person before the operation. Particularly as that genuine person, the frightened retarded child, still peeps fearfully out from the new Charlie’s gaze, making his presence felt at unexpected times. Most notable of these are when he attempts to make love to Alice, a woman who taught him in a ‘special school’ in his past life and who recommended him to the University hospital for their new research, because of his passion to learn. The ‘old’ Charlie had his early sexual urgings met with physical and emotional abuse as a boy, and that boy surfaces when new Charlie tries to move beyond it.

And so the drama plays out at all these different levels. There’s the excitement of the growing intelligence, the thrill of learning, the astonishment and fear of old friends and colleagues, the hostility, the mysteries of Charlie’s boyhood and the family trauma to unravel, and Charlie’s struggle to move into adult sexuality. Then the next phase, the outstripping his mentors as he become a genius, his intelligence reaching up to the Heavens…and then you get the fall of Icarus. Algernon the mouse grows sick, frenziedly throwing himself against the walls of his cage and diminishing in intelligence. Charlie has to face up to the fact that the science may have overreached itself, and that his house is built on treacherous sand. The story can and does go in only one direction, it’s no spoiler to say, as it’s telegraphed clearly though-out the novel (and on the back blurb). And it is a heartbreaking journey, very bleak, but with the hopeful recognition that the human condition is richer than IQ alone, and that the journey, for Charlie and for humanity, is still a noble one.

This is an excellent novel, true landmark SF. As stated it has a steely, clinical prose, but this does not undermine the very human drama. The litereary trick of the incremental development of Charlie’s prose in his journal entries to signify his growing intelligence is masterfully done.
So if you are looking for an antidote for the sprawling, multi-verse spanning ‘hard SF’ that’s in favour today, or just want to read a SF classic, pick this up.

A review of the Audible Original drama “River of Pain.”

“River of Pain is the second Audible Original Original adaptation of a novel expanding the Alien franchise.  The first, “Out of the Shadows,” was gripping enough and an effective drama.  This, skipping the second in the novel trilogy, “Sea of Sorrows,” is better, boosted by closer and better continuity to the movie it’s most closely linked to, ‘Aliens.’  This film was James Cameron’s big screen stand off between Ellen Ripley and a band of colonial marines, and an army of Xenomorphs and their Queen.  This is a direct prologue to that film, and skillfully weaves in key early scenes from the movie, as well as sometimes expending them a little (watch out for how they riff off “There goes our salvage guys”).  This is fascinating and very well done.  Kudos to the cast who brilliantly step into the skin of the originals, especially Laurel Lefkow as Ripley.  You get some of the ‘Aliens’ original cast returning as well, including Mac MacDonal as unfortunate Colony administrator Al Simpson, and William Hope as Lt. Gorman (“you always were an asshole, Gorman”).
The action, flashing between early scenes from the film and parallel events on the terra-forming colony Hadley’s Hope on the planet Archeron (the mythical original of the titular “River of Pain”), leads to events starting with Ripley’s rescue by the salvage team, the arrival on Archeron on a new troop of marines led by the tough but principled Captain Damian Bracket (superbly portrayed by Colin Salmon) and up to no good Weyland Yutani scientists.  The population of Hadley’s Hope are worn down and beleaguered by the grind of colony life, and are fighting amongst themselves.  Newt’s mom and Dad are fighting (Anne Jordan is sympathetically played by Anna Friel), and when news come of a big mysterious site to explore that could prove lucrative, the Jordan’s seize on it as their possible salvation.  Unfortunately the fate of the colony is rapidly being sealed.  The first 2 hours effectively build up the tension and atmosphere of the world of Aliens.  Fans will be delighted by familiar sounds, the distinctive whirring of the colony doors, the bleeping of trackers, and so on.  Scientists, military, administrators all clash, and Ripley slowly works through the chain of events that slowly lead her to Archeron.  It isn’t long before face-huggers, chest-bursters and warrior adults all do their violent thing and start munching through the colonists, or worse.  It’s good drama when you know the colony’s fate and the fate of key characters, dread getting to that point but are behind them and rooting for them nevertheless   I was expecting a very down-beat finale, and yes the horror of dreaded events is there, but there’s also an unexpected shot of hope and redemption at the end that will make you cheer.  In fact there’s two, when we get to a first meeting between certain characters that the drama has been building up to.
Brilliant and recommended.
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