A review of ‘Doctor Who: Survival;’ the novelisation by Rona Munro and audio-book read by Lisa Bowerman

Where as I’ve never seen Survival, the audio book made a great holiday listen, and if you are a fan of Doctor Who, especially the Classic series, and thrice especially the Target novelisations, this is something of a poignant treat. Poignant because Survival is both the final serial of the 26th season and also the final story of the entire original 26-year run of the Doctor Who. The story was first broadcast in three parts, weekly, from 22 November to 6 December 1989. The story contained a number of finals, the final regular television appearance of Anthony Ainley as the Master, of Sophie Aldred as Ace and the last regular television appearance of Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.

The audio book is narrated by Lisa Bowerman, who played Karra, a ‘Cheetah-person’ in the tv Survival story, and has also voiced the New Adventures / Big Finish audio drama favourite Bernice Summerfield.

The book’s settings are, variously, Perivale in West London and a dying Alien world. We begin in West London, where the Doctor brings his companion Ace back to her home, Perivale, to catch up with family and friends. Other than Ace being in a real mood about the whole thing, something is very wrong (as it would be). People are disappearing. And a particularly feral black cat watches from teh sidelines, as does the Doctor’s most implacable foe…
It transpire that people are being chased by horse mounted ‘Cheetah-people’ into another dimension, where they run and hide or are killed by for sport by the same cat creatures. Worse, the planet itself is directing everything with a malign force that seeks to compel an accelerated Darwinian struggle and spread it to new worlds. Turns out the Master is stuck on the planet, and needs the Doctor’s help to escape…

The story has a number of characteristics typical of the show of this time. First, it is an original and pacy story. The show had not strayed into interminable story arc territory at this stage. It combines very domestic and familiar settings (London estates, suburbs, youth clubs, and so on) with alien worlds. It is full of the Seventh Doctor’s particular characteristics, the rolling, r’s, a kind but determined and persistent approach, and the familiarity of a trusted Uncle with vert eccentric habits. And the inter-play with Ace, extreme banter and a real bond.
It also has the casual and violent ends of quite a few minor characters (still a trope) that keeps dramatic tension high. You really don’t know who is going to make it (apart from the Doctor and hos companions. Companion death was still relatively rare.

The Master is a strong component in this story. He is thoroughly evil, some of his actions are wholly irredeemable, and yet darkly witty and engaging. We get some intriguing backstory of the Master and the Doctor’s shared story in this novelisation as well
Lisa Bowerman’s narration is really well done. She is clearly enjoying herself, conjuring the 7th Doctor, Ace and others before our eyes, and that is infectious.


A review of Charles Marsh’s “Strange Glory: A life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer”

This book has been a faithful companion for a few years of my life now. I have taken an absurdly long time over it, because of the busyness of life, and knowing that I’d never abandon it unread, that I’d always pick up where I left off.

It is a remarkable biography of the war-time minister and theologian. It is so rich in detail, so evocative of the times and places of it’s subject, I felt I had actually visited the places in the book, and met some of the people concerned. We begin with Dietrich’s childhood in a wealthy and connected family, and there are different flavours of the provincial and urban life of the time, of the holidays in mountain retreats studying nature and poetry, of the holiday games and rituals. Then there’s is the young man Bonhoeffer, studying and traveling, visiting sumptuous locations such as Barcelona, transported by the Cathedrals and Orthodox Christianity he encounters there, the parades, the music, the sung catechisms. We watch him navigate University life, cut his exceptional theological teeth, and then travel further and mature greatly in his views and theology in New York and with Harlem churches, where he makes strong connections with social action, protest, political idealism and Christianity.

Tangentially through all this there is the growing horror and dread of the growth and spread of the Nazi movement, including in the Churches. Bonhoeffer’s attempts to organise a dissident group of preachers is described, as the oppression and Nazi barbarity gains momentum.
Bonhoeffer meets Eberhard Bethge, with whom he develops an enduring and profound romantic friendship that at times borders on a possessive mania (on Bonhoeffer’s part). This is an important theme in Bonhoeffer’s life, revealing inner conflicts both in his self and in his theology.

Bonhoeffer is involved, even if it is peripherally with one of the plots to assassinate Hitler, and this seals his awful doom of execution in a Nazi concentration camp. Here the power of the writing to put one in the very shoes of Bonhoeffer has a terrifying and oppressive affect. Charles Marsh views Bonhoeffer’s fate without blinking, he offers no distancing philosophising or sermonising, only Bonhoeffer’s own words.

In it’s description and analysis of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings and thought, the book presents these ideas in all their freshness and excitement. That is, the excitement of a faith that is there to change the world, to challenge evil and turn established orders on their head; so the last, the brutalised, poor and oppressed come first in a theology of service and sacrifice, and the first, that is the preening leaders and Churchmen so quick to yoke their faith to the Nazi machine, come truly last as the abominations that they are.

A remarkable work, detailing a remarkable life.

Blood, fog, disease and murder; all aboard “The Blood.” A review of E.S.Thomson’s “The Blood.”

This is an atmospheric thriller that is closest to the Victorian melodrama’s of Sarah Walters in setting and themes: disguise, identity, sexuality, murder and the rich backdrop of Victorian London are all commonalities.  But “The Blood” has enough to make it distinctive as opposed to riding Ms Water’s coat-tails.

First the setting is an intriguing and compelling one: a hulking hospital ship that is all creaking timbers, choking smoke and cloying smells, rattling and wet coughs, blood, tar and general gooiness, specimens in jars , snakes and vivisection.

Then there are the heroes, Jem Flockhart, apothecary with a blood-wine facial birthmark, a symbol of the ‘mask’ of her cross dressing as a male to get ahead in a world that forbids women so much, and her companion Will.  And villains who skulk in the shadows until the end (no spoilers here).   The mystery, the disappearance and murder of a fellow apothecary and some prostitutes, gradually deepens and sucks you in like the mud of the Thames.  No spoilers here, but the conclusion is a satisfying one, and rooted in some of the medical pre-occupations and practices of the age.

Atmospheric, pacey and enjoyable, this is a good read for those who like immersive, intelligent thrillers.  There are other Jem Flockhart thrillers, and I am not surprised, Jem and Will surely feel too big for one book.

Pride before the fall: a review of Charles Dickens’ “Dombey and Son,” (audio-book narrated by Owen Teale).

A sweeping, towering epic of a family in the grip of a terrible pride, Dombey and Son does not enjoy the same time in the popular sun as Dicken’s other better-known works. But more people should know it, it is Dicken’s and his richest, most ebullient, funniest, darkest, most dramatic and terrible.
The titular Dombey is the head of a wealthy, celebrated London firm, to do with shipping, I think. The novel opens with tragedy when Mrs Dombey dies during the birth of a much-anticipated son to y much carry on the family name. Dombey has a little daughter, Florence, but Florence suffers from the disadvantage of being a girl, and so is of limited value in passing on the family firm. For Dombey his pride and status is paramount. He is cold and unbending when it comes to pretty much everything else.
Meanwhile, not far away, a Mariner with a shop full of sailing goods such as compasses and telescopes, Sol Gill, and his friend Captain Cuttle, and a young lad called Walter, bond and plot their lives. Sol is trying to get his business ship-shape, Captain Cuttle is trying to stay out of trouble from his tyrannical landlady Mrs McStinger, and Walter has a position in the Dombey firm. But their lives will be borne by the current into the path of that great ship of business of Dombey and son. And so, this story, in these pages, is told.
At times, the book is unbearably oppressive, having at its heart the continuing emotional abuse of the young Florence. Then there is the sickly, ailing young Paul Dombey, a study in pathos. There are tyrannical childminders, educational hot-houses and more. There are the lethal plots of one of Dickens less well known but incredibly effective villains, James Carker, a manager in the Dombey firm, all smiling white teeth, flattery and machinations.
What a relief that this novel also fizzes with Dicken’s rich humour, running through his characters, their mannerisms, and turns of phrase. There is humour in the grimmest of situations, in the back and forth between his protagonists, and in the merciless authorial eye of Dickens himself, skewering the absurdity and self-importance of manoeuvring in ‘society,’ and the attempts at his gentler, more loveable flawed characters to make sense of the world and each other.
The novel has laugh out loud moments, sustained passages of unbearable tension, including the flight by stagecoach of one character and his violent end, moments of searing humanity, tragedy, pathos and redemption. In his enlightening and entertaining introduction to this audio edition, John Mullan tells us that at its first, serialised release grown men were reduced to public tears. This is a powerful work.
Owen Teale’s reading of this audio book is in a league of its own, you can almost imagine himself as Dicken’s himself in one of his public readings. He gets the humour and the drama bang on. Another insight Mullan gives in the introduction is that Dicken’s is really meant to be read aloud, it’s written that way, astonishing for works of such prodigious length.

Spinning the Wheel: A review of Robert Jordan’s “A Crown of Swords; The Wheel of Time Book 7.”

I have such mixed feelings about Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ saga, all present in the book. Starting with the problems.
There is a lot of detail in this series. I mean, micro-detail. The action will stop for a description of a character making tea (it’s a fantasy brew), or of a piece of furniture, or a piece of costume. Does this book need a red pen? A tin of red pain would not suffice to cut extraneous detail. Yes, it can be good for world building, but I am sure, for example, the same descriptions of e.g. military uniform occur more than once.
Then, there are dubious gender politics. I am not a prude, or pollical correctness gone mad incarnate, but in these pages bosoms heave, women are tortured tied down, naked, in spread eagled form. Women fight over the lead character Rand Al Thor and really don’t mind that he has multiple sexual partners. There are a lot of allusions along the lines of “Women eh? Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!” In this book there is a seduction scene that is basically rape, of a man by a woman, told in a bawdy low comedy kind of way.
Then there are plot lines that are left dangling, a lot of them in this book. I have no doubt they will be resolved in future books, but I think in a work this size you need more resolution.
And everything points to a climactic confrontation that isn’t climactic, things being resolved by a shadowy third party.
But you read these works to be fully immersed in the world, and it does work. And there are some effective action set pieces in this book, and some moments of creepy horror, and some frightening villains. Jordan was a soldier in Vietnam, and you get a taste of the reality and rush of battle, at times. The diversity of characters, creatures and nations is mind boggling, a real achievement. And the characters do live in your head. Robert Jordan clearly lived and breathed this world, and so do we. It shouldn’t work. And yet it does. I’ll be there for the next one.
The narrators of the audio book are good, well suited to the work. Michael Kramer seems to read his sections with one eyebrow continually raised, the better to express the bawdy “phwwoooar, eh?” humour and descriptions. His gravelly matter of factness suits the military themes of the novel. Kate Reading is a likeable presence, and gets through her sections with dignity intact.

Of being in two places at once: a review of Stephen King’s “The Outsider.”

Detective Ralph Anderson wants justice, and he wants it bad. Evidence, incontrovertible forensic and witness evidence, pegs Terry Maitland, a baseball coach, for the sadistic sexual murder of a young boy. And ‘Coach T’ coached Anderson’s own son. So, in the first of many gripping passages, Anderson arranges for a public arrest, in the middle of a junior baseball game, of Terry Maitland.
But then Terry exhibits none of the classic traits of a guilty perp. He looks Anderson in the eye, with none of the tics and signs that would give him away. And evidence stacks up that Coach T was indeed elsewhere, at a book signing, very public, on cctv, with friends.
How, then, can someone be in two places at once?
The first quarter is Terry’s struggle for justice, and the violent disintegration of the murdered boy’s family. It culminates in a violent scene at Terry’s arraignment that gives one hell of a rug pull, a real visceral gut punch.
From that point on the story incorporates Holly Gibney, a character from King’s ‘Mr Mercedes’ set, an obsessive-compulsive woman open to the supernatural. And Holly, Ralph, and their friends embark on their quest for the truth, before another violent death of a child, and another case of someone seemingly being in two places at once.
Part crime and mystery thriller, part supernatural horror, this is King giving his fans possibly what he does best, pulp page turners of compulsive readability. I’m not sure if this will rate as one of the author’s classics; the second half is not as tightly wound, claustrophobic or horrifying as the first. There are a lot of scenes of character’s being folksy together that should really have seen the red pen. But this is a great, unpretentious slice of King with some vivid and unforgettable scenes.
The audio book is narrated by Will Patton, who brings accomplished character acting and gravelly, PI tones to the task. His halting, fluttering delivery of Holly’s lines is a joy, conveying the dep concentration this character needs to keep her shit together. He’s one of those narrators that seem to be an all-star cast in one.

Freeing the soul from BUMMER: A review of Jason Larnier’s “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”

Jason Larnier is poacher turned gamekeeper:  a renowned silicon valley scientist who is here blowing the whistle on a very technological hold on reality; the use of algorithms chiefly by social media websites to manipulate you at fundamental level.

He bases his work around the acronym BUMMER: “Behaviour of Users Modified, and Made into Empire for Rent.”  Here the villains are chiefly Facebook and Twitter, and companies associated with Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.  Larnier contends that those who pay money to advertise, whether they be Russian cyber agents or commercial giants, corrupt personal discourse, politics, economics, even metaphysics; questions about what is free-will, choice and how we view reality.  Becoming immersed in such social media makes into vindictive arse-holes, argues Larnier, on many different levels.  We switch from an individual to a pack mentality.  We lose sight of the context of our friends and individuals, and they lose sight of ours.  Hence the ability to truly empathise and perceive what is going on becomes corrupted.

The work builds to a particularly powerful climax that appeals to our sense of wonder in experience and ability to be awed by mystery.  Such spiritual perspectives, Larnier argues, are grotesquely distorted by social media.

So he argues for deletion of accounts simply to give ourselves time to pause and think, and rediscover ourselves and real discourse.

LinkedIn pretty much gets a pass, as we are told, it is motivated by something other than pack vs pack competition, e.g. personal and career development.  I’m not sure.   If ever a platform makes people appear assholes afraid of debate, its this one.

Also, why not just give the platforms a rest instead of deletion?  Test your will-power and assert your individuality that way?  Then delete if that feels necessary?  That’s what I’m doing with Facebook, although I have deleted Twitter, simply because its tendency to go to distilled hate and give a quick way to vent spleen seems to me the most harmful of all.

A goods thoughtful and much needed work, this deserves your attention and very serious consideration.

Just another bug-hunt. A review of the Audible production ‘Sea of Sorrows’

‘Sea of Sorrows’ is the newest canonical Alien drama, a sequel to ‘Out of the Shadows.’  These audio dramas started life as novels by James A Moore and Tim Lebbon respectively.  They gently skirt the issue of Alien 3, with Out of the Shadows occurring after the events of the movie original ‘Alien,’ and ‘Out of the Shadows’ occurring decades after the events of ‘Aliens.’ Bridging the gap, we had ‘River of Pain,’ a novel / audio drama that was a direct prequel leading up the events of ‘Aliens.’

This production is another atmospheric, pacy audio drama that Dirk Maggs is making an name for on Audible, with his X Files and Alien dramas.  Great production values, writing and acting are pulling one win out of the bag after another.

In this tale, Alan Decker, a descendant of one Ellen Ripley, is kidnapped by Stockard Channing’s scenery chewing company hard case Andrea Rollins, and sent to advise a team of Mercenaries on their expedition to planetary mining outpost ‘New Galveston,’ scene of the Alien infestation of ‘Out of the Shadows.’  Decker is an empath, or telepath, it transpires, with an uncomfortable ability to get on the Xenomorph’s wavelength.  But as Ripley’s ancestor, they know who he is, and their cold hatred and desire for revenge awaits…

And here lies the main weakness of this tale.  The Alien’s are meant to emotionless, only fuelled by a desire to kill and survive.  Here they  display a full range of negative emotions, as well as telepathic ability.  It really stretches the Alien lore to breaking point.

The Mercenaries too are indistinguishable from the Marines of other Alien tales, and their personalities feel a bit too off the Marine conveyor belt. That said, there are some memorable characters here, such as ‘Silent Dave’ and a few Brits to add to the diversity.

And the tale ends a little too open for the sequel, and does not close events satisfactorily, for me.

All that said, this is still gripping stuff, that hits enough of the right notes to keep you on board and engrossed.  There are enough Queens, soldier aliens, chest bursters, face huggers, ambushers and fire-fights to keep events barrelling along in a fun way.  And the sound production is right on the money, with the face-huggers smothering its victim sounding uncomfortably close.

And John Chancer’s Alan Decker is a pleasingly complex character and likeable presence.

Not as tense and complete a drama as ‘River of Pain,’ this is nevertheless another recommended listen from the Maggs production stable.

‘The road goes ever on….’ A review of Rob Inglis’s narration of J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”

Rob Inglis is the perfect choice to read these epochal works. He has gravitas and a lightness of tone that matches both the bright radiance and dark terrors of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. He is a great character actor, bringing life to Hobbits, men, elves and monsters. He lends the songs melody and charm, history and tradition. The temp quickens in the more dramatic passages in a way that makes you sit up and listen. Sheer brilliance. His reading of this work has calmed me at night so that I drift into sleep, as well as completely commanded my attention and made me forget everything else on my commute into work.

The tale itself is well familiar to me and many others, but if you are new to this world, welcome and I envy you, to see it all with an explorers eyes for the first time. Frodo Baggins inherits his Uncle Bilbo’s ring when Bilbo leaves the Shire, exhausted after the adventures of ‘The Hobbit’ and by his possession of the ring, which draws from its bearer a heavy cost, as well as magical boons such as an unnaturally long life. This may be granted but it comes with a dep fatigue of ‘being spread too thin.’ It also belongs to the darkest power in the land, Sauron, who now seeks the ring as it is the key to dominance of all life. The wizard Gandalf sets Frodo, his gardener and friends Sam, Merry and Pippin, on a quest to find out what to do with the ring. They meet up with Aragon, ‘a ranger from the North,’ and journey to the Elves of Rivendell to take Council, where the fellowship grows, and they begin their epic quest to destroy the ring….

The Lord of the Rings is the last word in world building, J R R Tolkien having invented whole languages, histories and mythologies for his world through his life, informed by his career as a soldier in World War One and by his academic career as an Oxford Professor.
Just typing this makes me feel ‘not worthy’ and ‘stretched too thin’ to do this work justice. just sink into it, and be renewed.