A review of Iain Maitland’s “Dear Michael, Love Dad.”

This is a series of letters Iain Maitland wrote to his son Michael, over the period 2007-2013.  It covers a series of family adventures and misadventures Iain relates to his son, and running through them is a growing awareness that Michael is desperately ill, with Anorexia and depression.  Until the moment when Michael hits bottom and has to be hospitalised, in the last section of the book, Iain and his family’s stock reaction is one of angry denial that Michael needs to do no more than pull his socks up, and not be so dependent on his girlfriend Niamh, who increasingly speaks for Michael and cares for him.
Through Iain’s letters we get to know the family well; Iain the hard pressed, long suffering writer, fighting a losing battle against the internet (he wrties information bulletins amongst other things), ‘your dear Mother’ Tracy, a classroom assistant who is clearly the emotional heart of the family, and Michael’s volatile sister Sophie, ambitious, intelligent, and with a tendency to go ‘nuclear’ if angered or disappointed.  There is also a string of Sophie’s boyfriends, each with their own foibles, but all ‘good sorts’ who do not survive as Mr Right, but become part of the family nevertheless   And Michael, at University, with Niamh, studying an art degree and increasingly frightened and unwell.
Iain’s letters are interspersed by a commentary which outlines key events, why the family reacted the way it did , their growing understanding (which comes late) of mental health issues, and through it all a raw, unflinching honesty.
The book is also very funny, Iain knows how to be laugh out loud amusing in his writing.  We come to know and love this family.  They are clearly warm, loving, accepting, generous and hospitable, with an open door policy to their family and family friends.  Iain is frustrated and angered by his son and honest about what he did not know and what he chose to ignore.  He relates his own childhood  which was shockingly painful, not by way of excuse, but important context.
It’s a book whose main truth is that their no such thing as a perfect parent, that there is no manual of perfect parenting.  We are complex, our children are complex, we live in a complex of world.  We have our bedrock of values and moral code, and that has to inform an infinite variety of relational combinations of issues and possibilities.  But love here shines through it all, as it must for all of us if we are to stay afloat, and keep our loved ones afloat, through all life’s storms.
The book serves to inform on the important issues of mental health and young people, and is an important corrective to the common misconception that anorexics are all fashion mag obsessed teenage girls.  The mental health of young men is often overlooked, although there has been a lot of corrective awareness raising recently, and it’s good to have this book as part of that.  The book is also full of important social history of our recent past, in our rapidly changing world.
But best of all, it’s honest, funny and loving.  I feel richer for having read it.

A review of Robert Harris’s “Conclave.”

Cardinal Lomelli, Dean of the Vatican, is summoned one night with dread news; the Pope is dead.  And as Dean he must mange and officiate over the process of electing a new Pope, a Conclave, a meeting of and vote between all the Cardinals to choose one of their number to hold this most Holy of offices.
A handful of ambitious men, representing the various traditions of the Church, Liberal and Catholic, start their manoeuvring and machinations immediately.  And Cardinal Lomelli must ensure due process is observed, and resolve terrible dilemmas and crisis that will come to the fore.  And to complicate matters further, an enigmatic new Cardinal appears at the Vatican, one sworn into office In Pectore (in secret) by the late Pope.  And the world, and its darkest and most violent forces, begin to press against the walls of the Vatican.
This is an utterly compelling page turner, with vivid characters, tight plotting and epic themes of ambition, corporate and personal responsibility, faith and the world, set in that most troubled but fascinating of institutions, the Roman Catholic Church.  Harris writes fascinating detail on the layout and organisation of the Vatican, its traditions and history, without it slowing down what is in essence a political thriller.   The writer also avoids any trite judgements or observations on the individuals or the institution he portrays.  He describes it with real human sympathy, but not with any kind of bias or idealisation.
 I read this in a few days on holiday, and its an ideal choice as a holiday read.  A thoroughly entertaining and gripping novel, its a cliche to say that the pages flew by, but with this, they did.

A review of Darren Shan’s “Zom-B: Goddess.”

The final instalment of Shan’s compulsive 12 book ‘Zom-B’ serial is a heady brew.
It piles betrayal on betrayal until the undead, feisty teenage protagonist is driven to take the mother of all drastic steps.  What follows is a game-changing development that you will not have seen coming.  It’s not a ‘twist’, per-se, more of a huge step in an unexpected direction, that nevertheless has imaginative and narrative integrity with what has gone before.
The gory set pieces and sudden and brutal offing of familiar characters, hallmarks of the series, continues to the end.  And as usual Shan’s monster’s gallery of mutants is deliriously entertaining, from the flying, piranha tooted ‘babies’ to the horror clown of Mr Dowling.  Not to mention the clawed, long toothed brain munching zombies themselves.
The writer also develops political themes on apathy and activism he began to explore in the first book with B and her racist father and her initial reluctance to challenge him, and where that leads.  Here this is applied to the apathy and indifference to society as a whole to the injustices and evils in its midst, and where that leads.
Warren Pleece’s narrations have also been a welcome addition in the series.  They remind me of the black ink illustrations to the original Doctor Who ‘Target’ novelisations.  Simple yet effective snapshots of the action to compare with your own imaginings.
The whole series is great for young adults and older adults alike, and it’s great to see it brought to such a non cop-out conclusion.

A review of Darren Shan’s “Zom-B Fugitive.”

Teenager Becky Smith, an undead activist fighting for the overthrow of the undead army that infected her and took over the planet, is back.  This time she’s horribly alone, on the run from friend and foe alike.  Have to be extremely careful of spoilers, as we are now in the end-game of this 12 book serial, in the penultimate episode.  B is horribly mutilated, even for an active zombie.  Tortured and twice badly disfigured, she must run from her ex-‘husband,’ the crazed clown Mr Dowling, keeping in existence (staying alive doesn’t seem appropriate) whilst uncovering the vast conspiracy that has wiped out most of the human race.  For someone now used to shocking betrayals, there are even worse on the way.
The writing is brisk and the action fast paced.  Teenagers will warm to B’s struggle with identity, whilst taking reassurance that appearance and body image are inferior to character, and what’s in the heart.  In our media’s ever worsening obsession with imposed desirable body images and ‘norms’ of physicality, Shan’s stories can act as a welcome antidote.  As such they join a rich horror tradition where the monsters are smarter and more noble than their human counterparts.  A cracking story in its own right, a brutal shock and cliff-hanger set the scene nicely for the final episode.
Search my blog for ‘Darren Shan’ to read reviews of the rest of the series.

 

A review of Chuck Palahinuk and Cameron Stewart’s graphic novel: ‘Fight Club 2.’

I have always been a fan of Palahinuk’s original ‘Fight Club,’ and Fincher’s brilliant adaptation, a film I have watched repeatedly.  It’s a fantastic concept, the manic alter ego capable of doing all the stuff you wish you had the balls to do, and the savage satire of consumerism (“the things you own end up owning you”) resonates ever more strongly as our embrace with shiny gadgets and latest must-haves gets ever tighter.  The stories also have a lot to say about the crisis of modern masculinity and the difficulty of carving a meaningful male identity in a world of soggy and treacherous material values.
I picked up this with high hopes, and the blurb led me to expect truly great things.  It involves Palahinuk himself as writer after all, as well as some brilliant talents in the comic industry today.  How disappointing then to finish feel frustrated, empty and disappointed.
First, the pluses.  Cameron Stewart’s art is mesmerising, and captures well some of the signature visual elements of Fight Club.  His characters visually reinterpret Sebastian, Marla and Tyler but carry forward all the elements we love.  Sebastian’s perpetual bowed head of subjection, Marla’s a tightly coiled, highly sexual spring, Tyler is a lean, muscular panther of a man, bold and kinetic.  And yet they are not just copies of Edward Norton, Helen Bonham Carter and Brad Pitt, and that is good.
It’s fun to see Brian Paulson, the House on Paper Street and the support groups, the Space Monkeys and more also return and given fresh spins and perspectives.  It’s also a neat concept to have Sebastian having kept Durden at bay (he thinks) through medication.  Sebastian and Marla’s son ups the ante and gives a fresh dimension and urgency to things.
What frustrates is that the narrative falls flat.  It’s way too ambitious, too knowing, constantly turning to wink at you  instead of keeping its eyes on the narrative road.  This is especially true in the last quarter of the book, where Chuck Palahinuk and his team of writers take center stage as characters, dealing with reader dissatisfaction of the story’s ending.  It’s fourth wall busting that does not work.  And it breaks a narrative that is already strained from over-ambition.  It posits that Tyler has now developed a global military mercenary force, has a castle in Europe and is able to bring about a nuclear holocaust.  The other central conceit is that Marla enlists the help of a support group of sufferers from Progeria (aging disease), children that look like small elderly people.  They become a parachuting crack military force.  It’s too absurd, it doesn’t work.
Where this is flabby and over-extended, the first ‘Fight Club’ was stripped back and mean, it had ambitious scope and pushed imaginative limits.  This feels like a film sequel where the production team feel that a mega-budget and massive scale will solve everything.

Don’t deny the Power…catching up with a lost Who treasure

‘Power of the Daleks’ a Doctor Who story by David Whittaker, first broadcast in 1966 was a landmark show in the series history; it was the first ‘regeneration story.’  William Hartnell, exhausted from his first struggle with the Cybermen in “The Tenth Planet,” had collapsed at the end of the previous series and the audience had gasped as his face changed before their eyes.  This story begins with that moment, and William Hartnell becomes Patrick Troughton.  Imagine the strangeness of that.  Doctor Who fans are used to this now, and new incarnations of the Doctor are always preceded at least a year in advance by an immense media buzz and speculation, as we are seeing now in the “best woman to play to Doctor” discussion.   But then this concept was as alien as the Doctor himself.  The cast, crew, writers and production team must have been holding their breath.  Would this work, or was this the show going off a cliff?
Sadly this entire show has been lost from the BBC archives, so we’ll never see this moment as the audience first saw it.  But the audio survived, and from this we have two recent constructions, a narrated audio drama using the original soundtrack, and an animation.   This gives us very good representations of this first regeneration scene, and as far as I’m concened, it does work spectacularly well.  The Doctor’s disorietntation and the baffled and frightened reactions of his companions Ben and Polly, and some hostility (from Ben), are all understandable and dramatically satisfying reactions.
And that’s not all that works well.  This is tense, satisfying and scary story that continues many of the hallmarks and repeating motifs of a great Doctor Who adventure.  Stumbling and dazed from the abrupt transformation of the Doctor, the Doctor, Ben and Polly arrive on fog shrouded, swamp infested world and are hailed by an Earth official who is promptly shot.  The Doctor is then knocked unconscious, and a button pressed into his hand, to the purpose of framing someone else for the murder.  Our heroes are then taken to a human settlement on this alien world of Vulcan.  This is a colony under tremendous internal pressure from politicking and factionalism.  There is a rebellion against the Colony’s Governor that is on the verge of turning violent.  In the meantime, scientists have discovered an alien ship crashed on the planet and have taken it into the colony (never a good move!), and the chief Scientist, Lesterson (Robert James)), has discovered in the ship deactivated Daleks and is attempting revive one, ignorant of course as to the nature of this creature.  Posing as an Earth Examiner (the identity of the murdered man), the Doctor is horrified to learn of Lesterson’s experiments and even more horrified when a Dalek activates, screeching out in an iconic moment, “We…are…your..servants!”  Lesterson and others  become convinced they can get the Daleks to serve them.  (Literally) disarmed, the Daleks play along with this.  Dalek weapons are also discovered, and the scheming Bragen (Bernard Archard), conspiring with the rebels to seize power, decides to try and use the Daleks to seize power.  Meanwhile, the Daleks pursue their own agenda of extermination and conquest.  It’s all going to end in tears.
This story and prodcution has many of the hallmarks of a great Doctor Who story.  Let’s look at these:
1) Doctor and companions on top form: the chemistry and intreaction between them is a joy, given the trauma of the regeneration.  Troughton quickly brings into play the Second Doctor’s playfulness, mischief, and ‘clownish,’ antics whilst retaining the gravitas and seriousness of the first.  Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) are companion gold, stumbling into traps, voicing confuison, being kidnapped.  Listen to one show with them and you feel they have been around forever.
2) The Daleks: deadly as ever, their menace is given  a new edge by the way they ‘play’ the humans in this story, scheming and fooling them into helping them create an army! It’s such a transparently diabolical plan, and yet we accept it. We get to see, clawed, slithering Dalek mutants too, and there’s  memorable scene where we see a Dalek production line, with a mutant being placed into the case of it’s new machine.
3) The cliffhangers: they are great, from the first story’s mutant scuttling for freedom, to the “we are your servants” cry of an activated Dalek, to the monstrous production line, to the twitiching eyestalk of the final moment.
4) A human colony under pressure:  here in all its dysfunctional glory,  with it’s stratas of ruling governors, scientists, guards and citizens.  The human and Dalek schemeing coming together makes for an interesting dramatic tension.
5) Action packed, uncompromising pay off: Play with Daleks, you’re going to get exterminated.
A stand out performance must go to Robert James as Lesterson the Chief Scientist. In many ways a stereotype, he’s a compelling character in how he develops,  through his organal scientific hubris, to his dawning horror at what he’s done, to going slightly mad.
What, then, do the audio and animation bring to the story, and how well do they tell it?
 power audio
1) The audio
Released by the BBC as part of its BBC Radio Collection series in 2005, this has the original audio of the series with linking narration by the actress who played Polly, Anneke Wills.  She does a fantastic job, and the story flows with perfect clarity.  It’s immersive, tense, compelling listening.  It’s great to listen to this first before the animation, as you can then compare how you imagined the scenes with what is represented there. The audio can be found on Audible.
power dvd
2) The animation
Released by BBC DVD in 2016 this links the audio drama with a crisp black and white animation, retro and basic in style but appropriate given the similarly basic (as by today’s standards) original visuals.  It’s the closest you’ll get to seeing the original.  It’s got an impressive range of extras, with interviews from some of the original cast and production team, original stills, and the entire audio drama with the linking narration provided by the audio release above.
This is manna for Who fans everywhere, but if you are new to classic Who, do check this out, it’s a great, tense sci-fi drama in it’s own right.

A review of the Audible Original audio-drama ‘Out of the Shadows.’

This is a fast paced, massively entertaining treat for ‘Alien’ fans, part of the ‘Audible Original’ range.   It’s an audio drama production as opposed to an audio book (so different cast parts, music, sound effects) based on the novel of the same name by Tim Lebbon.  You can read my review of the novel here.  The Audible Original sequel ‘River of Pain’  is due soon (26/04/2017).
In terms of the story, it’s based on-board the mining ship Marion, which in the opening chapters is devastated by a collision with a shuttle.  Chris Hooper, engineer, and his horrified colleagues watch on the shuttles security cameras as the surviving crew is decimated by a handful of Xenomorphs.  As they watch, the pilot’s chest explodes as she births an Alien infant.  The shuttle has been on planet LV178 where they have been mining Trimonite, a rare mineral harder than diamonds.  There they have made the discovery which causes their deaths.  The shuttle ‘Samson’ docks and it’s only a matter of time before the station itself is infested. Meanwhile, another ship hoves into view.  It’s the Narcissus, and on board is one Ellen Ripley and her pet cat Jones, in hyper-sleep decades after the destruction of the Nostromo and it’s one terrifying Alien.  In terms of continuity this is between the first and second films.  If you are wondering how Ripley never mentions this phase of her adventure, I won’t spoil the reason, but it works better here than it did in the novel (where I think the convenience of this particular contrivance felt rather forced) because you are carried along by the faster pace and you don’t dwell on the contrivance as you may if reading.   If you are asking how the Narcissus found the space station, then it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that one homicidal android from Alien chapter one has downloaded his programme /consciousness onto the Narcissus, and that consciousness has steered the Narcissus to the Marion’s distress call, which contained details of the Aliens.  You see, Ash is still intent on fulfilling his ‘special order’ to bring an Alien back to Earth and the ruthless company, Weyland Yutani.
Ripley is revived and is understandably none too pleased that her nightmare on the Nostromo is not over.  The stage is set for a battle between human crew, Aliens, and Ash…
The production works very well and is full of sound effects recalling the world of ‘Alien.’  The hum and beep of the computer on the Narcissus and it’s clicking of its retro keyboard, the, clanking and rumbling of industrial vessels, the hissing and chilling Alien cries.  And Laurel Lefkow’s reading of Ripley made me wonder if they had Sigourney Weaver on board as I first started to listen, so accurate is she to the weary, bitter heroism of that character.  The other standout is Rutger Hauer.  He’s superb as Ash, distinctive from Ian Holm but still capturing the cold, ruthless analytical character of Ash, inhumanly human.  And the rest of the ensemble cast complement each other well, keeping things moving at a cracking pace under the able direction of Dirk Maggs.
At 4 hours 31 minutes it compresses and follows the contours of Tim Lebbon’s novel closely.  It’s a recommended listen for those who can’t wait for Alien: Covenant (or the Neil Blokaamp re-boot).