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).

A review of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2017, “Dethroning Mammon”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2017, “Dethroning Mammon,” is a rich (no pun intended) and thought provoking read on spiritually opposed value bases on wealth.  On the one hand we have Mammon, “the love of money” which the Bible tells us is at the root of evil (not just “money” as some suppose).  That is when, in our hearts, we believe that everything is a resource for our own enrichment (we may build in an ethical get out clause on “trickle down” economics), then we will see, value, and interpret everything in that light.  Christ will be a threat, as he was in his day, to those holding that value.  Chapter 1 of the Archbishop’s book explores this, with reference to Matthew 13 (the Pearl of Great Price) and John 11 (the death of Lazarus), on the different ways we can value what we see.
Moving on from this, there’s a danger that we will see everything as a finite resource to be assessed and measured accordingly, driven by ethics of scarcity, i.e. we have to acquire and pile up wealth as otherwise someone else will.  And we will aggressively defend and acquire accordingly.  We are put into an adversarial position with the rest of creation.  The opposite to this are the economics of Grace.  We have a generous God who gives abundantly and outrageously.  No one deserves or earns Grace.  With Grace at the centre  the Archbishop begins to draw out how else we might understand wealth, in the light of having no fear, and faith in an infinitely abundant and generous God.  It posits a very different approach to the world around us, and how we find and use our resources.  The key texts here is John 12, with Mary anointing Jesus with very expensive perfume, apparently wasteful but in fact an act of Grace and love that is not motivated by the scarcity of the resource or the need to frantically hold onto it.
Chapter 4 expands on this, looking at the relationship between money and power, and how Jesus’s servant-leadership subverts this, especially in the key act of the washing of the disciples feet (John 13).
Chapter 5 further looks at how apparent motiveless and wasteful generosity can in fact be Grace in action.  Something as apparently of no benefit to people or the world as acquiring and anointing for burial the body of Jesus (John 19), are in fact Kingdom actions, actions that show that real wealth as decisions to give money and time based on no hope of reward, but as service to God, actions that can ultimately transform the world, as they move away from fear, to faith, to generous and transformative action.
Chapter 6 moves to Revelations, the end of all things, with the ultimate dethroning of Mammon (Babylon) by the eternal and redeemed creation of the City of God.  This moves into an action plan as to how we can start to live this message now, through listening, repentance and action.This book is intelligent, wise, and written with a clear integrity.  There are points of reflection throughout the book, questions to help individuals and groups preparing for Lent share and understand the material.
Much recommended then as a Lent book, or to be read at any time.  You’ll find it’s messages live on in your mind and heart after reading.

A review of the Big Finish audio drama ‘Doctor Who: The Lost Stories; The Fourth Doctor Box set

This box set consists of 2 adventures, ‘The Foe from the Future,’ and ‘The Valley of Death.’  Both follow the format of the show as it was in this Baker era, usually 4 or 6 episodes of 25 minutes each, complete with cliffhangers and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s theme music.  For more on Big Finish, see here.

‘The Foe from the Future was originally intended as the conclusion to Season 14 of the classic show, with Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor and Louise Jameson’s feisty alien savage.  However, the writer, Robert Banks, was reassigned to work on a troubled soap for Thames television.   And the story was not able to survive without him, so Robert Holmes gave us the fan favourite “Talons of Weng-Chiang” instead.
The element in ‘Foe’ that echos in its replacement concerns its chief villain.  ‘Talons’ Magnus Kreel is a genocidal disfigured maniac from the future, also a brilliant scientist.  As is ‘Foe’s’ Jainik.  Thereafter though, we have two very different stories.
Ghosts are haunting a peaceful Devon village, and a mysterious new owner of the local Mansion is not blending in.  His name is Jainik, a spurned and disfigured lover, a brilliant scientist warped by his disfigurement and his terrible plan to evacuate a doomed future into the present.  Aliens called Plantaphagens, huge insectile monsters, have invaded the future and there is only so long humanity can keep them at bay.  They are creatures who live in the time vortex and they may have just have been unleashed on the future earth by Jainik and his colleagues ill advised time travel experiments.
Jainik’s mutation (he fused his DNA with a Plantaphagen in the time vortex) has also left him with a hunger for raw meat.  So that’s a few minor characters done for then.  It’s up to the Doctor and Leela, played by the wonderful Tom Baker and Louise Jameson reprising their original roles, to save humanity by battling these foes in the present and future, helped by Louise Brealey’s Charlotte, a villager who is swept up in the adventure.
When the story leaps from 70’s Britain to the year 4000, however, the story moves from mist shrouded, country lane gothic horror to sub-Douglas Adams 80’s era Who wackiness, as we see a future with mock ups of British life from the 70’s, rehearsal areas for an invasion from the future.  There is a very ill advised scene of rescue from an alien infested desert by Ford Contina, that may work in ‘Hitchhikers Guide,’ but it just creates a massive jarring change of tone here.  Leela also lasso’s a flying alien with the Doctor’s scarf and then pilots it armed with a laser pistol.  It’s just daft, and doesn’t hold up.  It’s a huge shame, as there is some good stuff:  the cast are great, Paul Freeman as Jainik chews the scenery, portraying evil glee, paranoid rage, thwarted genius and pathos.   Tom Baker is as fantastic as ever, with disarming humour and wit.  Close your eyes and you can see him in his teatime tv glory.  Leela nails what made her companion work so well; holding back her homicidal aggression as “The Doctor tells me that in ths time it would not be considered polite.”  The cast clearly have a great time, and that is contagious, it is great fun.  The story re-cycles earlier and later concepts from Who and sci-fi;  (Time traveling parasites in the Vortex, witness “The Time Monster” in Pertwee Who,  the Jainik mutation joins a line of disfigured maniacs in Who, but also references “The Fly” in the fusion of man and insect.  The Plantaphagen’s are also distinctly “Wirrin” like.  But they are used in this story with an entertaining verve
As a coherent piece of storytelling though, it doesn’t hold up, let down by an uneven tone and scenes that are just too wacky and nonsensical for any medium.  It feels more like a Comic Relief tribute than a substantial adventure.
‘The Valley of Death’ is based on a story idea by Phillip Hinchcliffe, producer from my favourite era of Baker’s Doctor, and one of my favourite eras from the show as a whole.   His stories were rich in concepts and ideas and had a thrilling vein of gothic horror, with very physical body horror transformation scenes.
This story is less about the horror and more about the high concepts and ideas.  Here an investigation by a Grandson of a missing explorer attracts the attention of Unit and by default, the Doctor and Leela.  Soon they have crash-landed in the Amazon Jungle, apparent victim of a second Bermuda Triangle as they appear to be in a middle of a plane’s graveyard, with planes from differnt decades of modern history.  The missing explorer was looking for a lost city of gold, and it turns out that this city exists, but it’s a construction made by giant circuitry and ruled over by a Wizard of Oz like projection of a ship-wrecked Alien, Emissary Godrin.  Godrin has surrounded the city by a time bubble that interferes with navigation systems (unintentionally) causing planes to crash.  The time bubble puts him  in a small sphere of influence where time moves slower than the outside world.  This is because he wants time for a sufficiently advanced being to find him and help him fly his ship.  He’s also created giant frogs and spiders to terrify the natives and also scare away unwanted attention.  His race are called the Lurons, and they are yellow skinned, have glowing eyes, pointed ears and Piranha teeth.
You can see how many ideas are fizzing around already, and the story has hardly got going.  Godrin captures the Doctor and his party, (the grandson Edward Perkins, a mannered, polite and very decent Englishman, and Valerie Perkins, a brash US reporter who has a knack for moving at the wrong time and activating traps) and they journey to 70’s London, where Godrin hijacks the BBC transmitters to call a Luron Mothership to Earth.  Professing peace, they want to colonise the arid places of the Earth as their planet is dying.  But can they be trusted?  What do you think?
Later they create doubles of military and political figures, the Doctor and Leela, to trick Earth Authorities into giving the Lurons an easy ride.  Meanwhile their ship turns out to be powered by their captive sun, held in a force-field, which has also eroded and sapped their sanity.
So you can see, high concept piles on high concept, ideas trip over each other, and somehow it works, rattling along to deliver a fun 4 part adventure that feels like Saturday teatime adventure with a throwback to flash Gordon/Dick Barton adventure serials in its innocence and unabashed love of storytelling.  Many concepts will be familiar to Who fans; giant creatures, megalomaniac aliens, body doubles, which helps this feel part of the Whoniverse.  It’s less baggy than ‘Foe’s’ 6 parter and more consistent in tone (it’s consistently zany).   Tom Baker is on top form, sarcastically taunting villains, displaying inventive wit and anger when he has to, in well judged combination.  Nigel Carrington cackles with manic glee in his portrayal of the viciously ruthless Godrin, a classic alien Who baddie, I could picture him clearly on my childhood’s tv screen from the 70’s.  Louise Jamison is wonderful with Leela, showing the character with its winning combination of toughness and naivety, and giving her loads to do.  Anthony Howell’s Edward Perkins is a decent, bumbling Englishman much in the Harry Sullivan mode.  Jane Slavin’s brash but accident prone Valerie Carlton is a good foil to him.  They make good temporary companions.
Sound production is excellent, recreating the sound and feel of this show from the 1970’s.
This is a pricey box set and I would say that it’s not the best jumping on point for Big Finish (unless you are a pretty established classic Who fan already) but on the whole it’s a fun listen, and a fascinating attempt to bring these lost stories to life.  And how wonderful to hear Tom Baker and Louise Jameson in action again.

A review of Brian Lumley’s “The Burrowers Beneath”

A continuation of the H P Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu” cycle of the stories set in 1990’s Britain, the eponymous Occult scientist Titus Crowe and his Watsonian sidekick Henri Laurent de Marigny face off against eldritch horrors burrowing beneath the Earth.
It has the tone of Victorian gothic melodrama, being told in an epistalatory  fashion, with heroes who have a curiously old fashioned vibe of daring do about them.  And although its set in the 90’s, there are very little by way of cultural signifiers that would place the story there, apart from the odd mention of oil rigs, phones and cars.  Taken together with the above mentioned style, for the first quarter of the narrative I genuinely thought I was in pre-war Britain.
And for the most part it works, adding to the feeling of fog shrouded streets and tentatcled, timeless horrors in the shadows.  It gets off to a good start, with a series of letters about the discovery of mysterious spheres in inexplicably carved tunnels underground.  We soon learn of other underground scientific expeditions that have ended in horror, madness and disaster, and of a race of terrifying burrowing tentacled monsters and their place in a pantheon of alien horrors that have existed before our world began.  They are not interested in a planet share…
There are some great set pieces; the destruction of an oil rig; battles between telepathic fighters, explosive harpoons and giant creatures; a renevant creature with a body of slime holding a human brain, and more.
The narrative as a whole, though, is a little too reliant on massive info dumps and chunks of exposition, as our heroes consult and reference various occult sources to explain the nature and history of this threat.  There are also a lot of passages that are there purely to set up future stories in the Titus Crowe series.  And it has a very open, cliff hanger of a conclusion.  As a result this reads more of an account of a skirmish in a bigger war, rather than a stand alone story.
That said it does not require any previous reading or knowledge of Lovecraft’s works, and could be a good jumping on point for a very rich tradition in horror fiction.  I listened to the audio book of this novel, and it’s read by Simon Vance, whose cool, civilised tones suit the tale perfectly.  And kudos to him for his seemingly effortless pronunciation of the tongue twisting, syllable crashing Cthulian chants and alien names.

A review of Stephen Donaldson’s The Augur’s Gambit

This is a companion novella to Stephen Donaldson’s “The King’s Justice” reviewed on this blog here.
It’s a very different beast to that book.  Whereas that book had the pace and tone of a horror thriller, this has a more deliberate pace and is a tale of courtly intrigue in a fantasy realm, with the chief supernatural element being the predominance of alchemy and augury (the practice of ‘scrying’ through examining the entrails of freshly killed animals) in the land.
In an fortress island, Indemnie,  comprised of ruling Baronies and ruled over by a Monarchy (currently Queen Inimical Phlegathon deVry IV), her Chief Hieronymer (practitioner of Augury),Mayhew Gordian, is at his wit’s end.   A trusted confidant and often summoned to secretly observe his Queen’s audiences with her Barons, he is observing an apparently destructive and catastrophic course of action by his Queen.  As she promises to wed each Baron in turn, turning them against each other and against her, surely the only outcome can be war?  And Mayhew’s scrying has revealed a series of dooms for Indemnie with no scenarios of hope.  His Queen says he must look deeper, and this means sacrificing a child, something Mayhew refuses to do, risking his Monarch’s wrath.  In the meantime his deepening regard for Princess Excrucia, his confidant and friend, makes him more than ever determined that the key to his Monarch’s behaviour, and possible salvations for Indemnie, must be found.
This is a book that demands a bit of patience, even with its short length.  It’s a compact piece of world building, and for the most part this is what the narrative focuses on, that and the intrigue between barons and barons and Monarch.  However it builds in it’s last act to a gripping and dramatic siege by cannon armed pirate vessel.  Mayhew acts as Parley for each but he has a last desperate gamble to play, one that involves the hazard of all, and the deepest secrets of augury and alchemy.  This novella amply rewards your patience.
The characters are skilfully drawn, their dielemmas believable and compelling.  Those who knows Dnonaldson’s writing will be aware of his wordsmith talents, his Scrabble defeating vocabulary that sings from the page.

A review of Michael J Sullivan’s “Theft of Swords.”

Theft of Swords is a compilation volume of Michael J Sullivan’s first two novels in the “Ryria” series, ‘The Crown Tower,’ and ‘Avempartha.’
Our heroes belong to the “Rogue” class in the fantasy kingdom;’ they are Hadrian and Royce, two thieves for hire, mercenaries who use skills of stealth and combat to earn a buck and make their way in the world.  At the start of Book 1 that is life for them, they are on no heroic quest, they bear no allegiance, and whilst there is an underlining honour among thieves morality, they aren’t particularly interested in writing wrongs.  Book 1 sees them tricked into being the patsies in a Royal assassination   They unfold a huge conspiracy, involving the Church, and those pushing for a Republican Empire.  Along the way they will rescue a Wizard of dubious allegiance, who may yet hold the key to the whole adventure.  And they just might find that the need to do the right thing is not as disposable as they thought.
Book 2 begins an adventure of a different tone, but still continuing the tightly knit story arc.  The conspiracy continues, this time involving a mystical beast laying siege to a farming community.  Only a rare relic imprisoned in an Elvish tower can stop it, and our thieves are the men for the job.
What stands out in these books for me is the character development.  Hadrian and Royce are compelling characters you will grow to love.  Royce is the hooded, laconic stranger, a master of stealth who in a previous life was a top assasin.  Royce is a warrior, double sworded, tough as Hell and an excellent fighter.  He is talkative, affable, and quicker to take up a chivalrous quest, to recognise moral duty than his partner.   As they go through their adventure they witness and are part of horrors, they rescue the weak and vulnerable and find themselves unwitting champions of justice.  Sullivan’s skill is in writing these character arcs believably and subtly.  As with these other characters, the King, developing from a precocious young Prince to a care worn statesman is another journey that is satisfying and has integrity.  Minor characters, such as a grieving father / farmer in the second book also journey from bitterness to self realisation and hope in a nuanced and shaded way that is far from contrived.
Then there is the skill of the world building.  Whilst the narrative delivers well paced, action packed questing and adventuring, behind this is a believable, epic world, created with familiar archetypes,  but in a way that balances real-world politicking  with elves, wizards and monsters, but avoids the oppressive cynicism of Game of Thrones.  There’s an underlying humour, lightness of touch and cracking dialogue.  But it does not slip into by now overly familiar fantasy satire.  These are stories of real heft and dramatic consequence.
I listened to the audio-book version of this, read by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  He is well suited to these tales, and moves through an impressive dramatic range of voices, from Hadrian’s cheerful banter, Royce’s laconic and abrupt manner, and an array of hissing villains, elder wizards, feisty Princesses and more.

A review of Bruno Vincent’s “Five Go On a Strategy Away Day

I thought I would flag this because here is a rare thing:  a book that will be found on the crowded table at your local bookseller reserved for humorous stocking fillers that is actually very funny.

It follows the “Ladybird Book of…” series that revisits childhood favourites in a format similar to the original publishing templates, including fonts and images taken from the originals.

Here The Famous Five get a makeover, given contemporary first world problems and put in a lot of situations of current relevance, such as Brexit, modern parenting dilemmas, and here a work strategy away day.

The humour is well observed and works perfectly.  Anyone who has been on such an away day will cringe with recognition.  It undercuts all the pretension perfectly, as it does the stereotypes of the original, e.g the bossy leader of the gang, the Tomboy, and so on.  There’s a rivalry with Secret Seven going on which I presume runs through the other books.  The use of line drawings from the originals but relabelled with a line from the new story is also very funny.

Recommended.