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).

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.