A review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (audio-book version read by Rob Inglis).

The story of Bilbo Baggins, his unexpected party, then journey, with Gandalf the wizard and thirteen dwarves, to slay a dragon and seize it’s plunder, can give us new gifts whenever we come back to it.

If you’ve only ever seen the movies (that despite some voices are not all bad) you owe it to yourselves in this magical, compact piece of story telling enchantment.

It is a fantasy quest where not one word, not one action, is superfluous or wasted (this is why many took so vehemently against the films and their stretching the tale to three epic movies).

It’s funny, charming, thrilling and profound.   There are worlds of enchantment, and always we sense behind events the massive, coherent universe, with it’s own myths, languages and histories, that Tolkien built, exploring further in his Legendarium (including the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings).

It’s not as whimsical as you may suspect or remember.  There is real tragedy here, real horror and character development and complexities (as in Thorin’ journey and his corruption by dragon gold) and the final siege speaks to us of how our own affairs between nations can become so intangibly fixated on our own interests, sometimes noble and right (Bard) and sometimes corrupted by greed and paranoias about entitlement and ancient grudges (elves and dwarves).

For these reasons and more it is the archetypal book written for children and beloved by adults.

The audio-book version read by Rob Inglis is perfect.  He breathes his love for the tale (I suspect) into his reading.  He has rich style that balances gravitas with a lightness of touch that keeps us listening keenly. His renderings of the different characters is superb, communicating perfectly the home-bird reticence of Bilbo and his growing courage, Gandalf’s wisdom and authority, the dwarves distinct characteristics including blustering pomposity as well as courage and quick temper, and the ultimate menace of Smaug.  The songs are wonderfully performed, and I could quite happily listen to them all repeatedly.  There’s also a main instrumental theme that is entirely appropriate, that opens and closes the tale.  Other than that, any effect other than the narrator’s voice does not intrude.

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A review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s (edited by Christopher Tolkien) ‘Beren and Luthien’

Christopher Tolkien has watched over his father’s work, elucidating it, making sense of his father’s scrawled notes and battered note-books and translating them into works like his ‘History of Middle Earth’ which has long been a bulwark against misrepresentation of his father’s work.
Here he takes one of the foundational stories of ‘the Silmarillion,’ another being the recently published ‘Children of Hurin,’ and shows, through his craft as an editor, how the story has evolved.

Beren and Luthien is an important story in the Legendarium, as it has at its heart the union of man and Elf (Eldar), the bringing together of mortal and immortal, part of the grand design of the God of Middle Earth. It has many fantasy staples; an impossible quest, mythic objects (the Silmaril, jewels of celestial power), a dark lord (Morgoth), spells, monsters and heroic beasts. It has moments of cinematic grandeur; Beren leaping at horse-bound baddies, the dark lord toppling from his throne under a spell and the crown rolling across the floor, the unbearable tension of Beren’s knife blade breaking taking a jewel from said crown and the shards grazing Morgoth’s face, and then all the monster’s blinking slowly open, a rescue by Eagle, and more…

The tale has had a fascinating evolution. An early form has Sauron, Morgoth’s lieutenant, replaced by Tevildo, a monstrous cat reigning over other bewitched cats in a cat-palace that puts captives to work in the kitchens and catching mice. Some mock this, but it has a narrative power of its own. Then Tevildo becomes a sorcerer called Thu, basically Sauron in all but name, and then Sauron himself.

The principal versions are ‘the Lay,’ an epic poem, and prose versions that condense the narrative as in the one eventually appearing in ‘The Silmarillion.’ Christopher Tolkien jumps from one to the other, better to illustrate how the story has evolved, and the versions influenced each other, as well as the impact of events in J.R.R. Tolkien’s life such as return from war, the success of ‘the Hobbit’ and writing ‘The Lord of the Rings.’

There are also some wonderful illustrations by Alan Lee, colour plates and line drawings of images and scenes from the narrative.

It is an awesome, enchanting read that immerses you in the magic of Tolkien’s world, and also illuminates the writing process and the larger narratives that surround the tale. My feeling is that it is not the best jumping on point for those new to Tolkien, because, for example, of the discussions on the interactions between the different narratives that may be a bit much for newer readers. It would help if you have read some of the popular works and even better the Silmarillion, but is not essential, as this is a tale that has power to stand on its own.

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 Stephen Baxter’s “The Massacre of Mankind: Authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds.”

This begins promisingly, with a fascinating exercise in counter-factual history. This defines the first quarter of the book, and it threads through the rest of the work. So, the book asks, how might history have turned out in the aftermath of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds? The answer is, a harder, cynical world in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century. The values that defined us then have been replaced by an anxious militarism that always has an eye to the Martians returning. And Britain is isolationist, so does not intervene with Germany’s Imperialist ambitions. Suffragettes are terrorists. Technology has benefited from Martian technology. The Titanic did not sink as its hull was plated with Martian steel. And so on.

Walter Jenkins (the narrator of the War of the Worlds) reaches out to his ex-sister in law Julie Elphinstone. She is young, progressive, and our narrator for this new work. Walter warns Julie that he fears the Martians are coming back. And slowly, and surely, they certainly do draw their plans against us. Again.
Only this time they have studied the last war and have some new tricks up their sleeve. A terrifying wave of missiles bombard landing sites to eviscerate the military. And when the Martians land, their mobilisation is much, much faster. No slow unscrewing of the cylinder here.
And so, landmarks are obliterated, people are rounded up as cattle and drained of their blood, and Julie, Walter, and the UK military must find a way to put the Martians once again back in their box.
The trouble is, fascinating ‘What-If’ history aside, and the odd impressive set piece, for example massive city like trench works surrounding a Martian landing site, huge giant tank like ‘Land-ships’ doing battle with the Martians, and a really grotesque scene inside Martian feeding and human vivisection pits, it is surprisingly, given the subject matter as described, thuddingly dull.
Part of the reason is the weird detachment of writer and narrator. Stephen Baxter writes science fiction with a capital S. He is very serious about the science. Fair play. But it makes for a tedious narration when we keep having exposition on the science behind this, and that. He also forgets to write human souls. One character is applauded for his ‘clear thinking’ in working for the Martians and leading them to human survivors to be drained of their blood. Because that is a clear thinking, scientific approach to symbiosis, you see. I just wanted to shoot the bastard.
Nothing seems to have any real urgency. And the story keeps stopping and starting again. And the last act is tragic. Not tragic as in catharsis and drama. But tragic as in weak. In War of the Worlds the Martians stop because they catch a cold. That is an epic confrontation next to what happens here. No spoilers, but it hinges on landscaping.
The audio-book is voiced by Nathalie Buscombe, who sounds as bored as I felt, like she is describing minor irritations at a day in the office rather than inter-planetary war-fare.
It is dull, cynical, cold. A bore of the worlds. Hated it.

The Devil’s Bargain: A review of the book and audiobook of Luke Harding’s ‘Collusion’

Luke Harding’s journalism has given us a depressing but gripping take on one of the most blatant, brazen and frightening political twists of modern times: that Russia, based on it’s existing cod war, KGB and espionage infrastructure has launched cyber war on the West, and, Manchurian Candidate style, installed its own puppet in the Whitehouse. One that fit a template they had for such a candidate: vain, paranoid, ultra-wealthy, and with powerful connections, and the media presence and warped charisma to gull a large percentage of the American presence.
The book alternates between recent events of Trump’s candidacy and presidency, and the larger backstory of Russian politics and espionage. The characters range from the naïve and utterly stupid to the ruthless Machiavel. Guess which one is which. It’s not Trump with his hand rammed up the puppet’s hole and squeezing.
For the audiobook the Russian story can be at times confusing, those long Russian names crossing and criss-crossing can tax the short-term memory. But it is very much worth the effort.
Luke Harding writes with a ruthless objectivity, but he cannot hide his dismay and contempt for Trump his Presidency, those who have profited and helped bring it about, and the amoral ruthlessness of Putin. The narrator, Jonathan Amis, does a good job of switching between a clear, dry delivery and absolute incredulous disgust. The switch from one to the other is sometimes almost comical.
It’s the more intellectual sibling of Fire and Fury.
Read, and pray for the light to dawn.

The nightmare is real: A review of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury

So you want measured scholarly analysis of the Trump Presidency? You want a sober, analytical dissection of this political phenomenon? Look elsewhere.
Because this is high octane “wait ’til you hear this” gossip, delivered by someone who corners you at the bar with a manic gleam in their eye, flushed with excitement. You try to catch someone else’s eye, to make your excuses and leave, but before you know it, you’re hooked.
This is larger than life (or in a sane world a would be) American grotesque. Like some kind of film where maniacs seize the White House, and you scoff at the implausibility, but snuggle down to a guilty pleasure, because the writer knows what he’s doing.
And I do think that at its core is truth. The direction of travel it tells is attested whenever we read a Trump tweet, or see him on the news. I’d love to dismiss the contents of this book as lurid tittle tattle. But that it is not wise. For the barbarians have breached the gates, and have their torches poised to burn down the city.
Michael Wolff tells a story that is a demonic retelling of the American dream. Donald Trump, surrounded by a crowd of sycophants, power brokers, machiavels and political mercenaries makes a bid for the Presidency. The book reveals that he would like to have lost, as does his wife, the beleaguered Melania. Most of the rest share the conviction that this candidacy is a doomed bid, but one that will bring victory in defeat: an enhanced brand of the wronged ‘man of the common people’ contender brought down by Crooked Hillary. Stocks will soar. Portfolios will go stellar. This sounds plausible. Just as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove looked horrified to have helped win Brexit, so the Trump team looked visibly stunned and aghast at their victory. Especially Melania. But once victorious, Trump convinces himself that maybe he is the best President ever, and his team resolve to salvage what they can, make the best of it, and rescue Trump from himself, variously.
So you’ll be familiar with a lot of this book’s revelations, which have been well reported. The diet cokes, cheeseburgers, two tv screens in the bedroom, manic rages, air of contempt in the staff, bloody infighting, treason, and more, is all there, told in dry and sardonic tones that occasionally break into open disgust.
There are insights in addition, less well reported, as to why, for example, Paul Ryan is so supine, and of some of the pressures, internal and external, that lead to Trump saying such breathtakingly stupid and beyond offensive things, the “good on both sides” when talking about death dealing fascists for example, and more, too much more.
Wolff also conveys the culpability of large sections of the media, that can’t break out of the hyper-speed news cycle, can’t dwell on anything long enough to let it breathe and cause the damage and concern it should do, before falling into Trump’s trap and speeding onto the next beyond belief stupidity.
Steve Bannon plays a big part in proceedings. Obviously Wolff’s principal source, the book paints a very vivid picture of him, and I think it does give him too much attention. The portrayal steers over too much into anti-hero or likeable rogue. No, he’s a grotesque, eviscerated by even Trump, not worthy of so much attention. He literally has the last word in the book, and shouldn’t.
That said, this is un-missable. Historians are going to have so much fun separating fact from fiction. Grab a copy, because events are moving fast.

A review of the audio-book “Ghostly Tales: An Audible Christmas Gift.”

Here are four classic ghost stories, narrated by Simon Callow.
Cast also includes Sally Phillips, John Banks and Dan Starkey.
The stories are ‘Between the Lights’ by E.F. Benson, ‘A Strange Christmas Game’ by J.H. Riddell, ‘Was It an Illusion’ by Emelia B. Edwards and ‘The Signalman’ by Charles Dickens.

The whole is framed by a linking story of Simon Callow, playing himself, coming to ‘Audible Towers’ one Christmas to narrate the stories for the audio book you are listening to (meta or what?). Sally Phillips plays the producer Josie. There’s a rapport between the pair, and he settles in the recording booth whilst an increasingly unsettled Sally Phillips works on the production. It’s reminiscent of 70’s horror film anthologies, where you got short tales framed by a linking narration with a sting in the tale. And the ‘sting’ here is nicely in keeping with the unsettling mood of the whole. That said, the linking narrative here can be jarring, and have a distancing effect. This is because it serves as an advertorial, with Simon and Josie/Sally eulogising the power of audio books. The whole thing become a bit too cute for its own good, and I wished they had let the stories completely speak for themselves.

Because the stories are humdingers; real atmospheric Victorian ghost stories: the kind where you can smell an English Winter countryside, hear the ticking of a clock and the clatter of horse drawn cabs.
E.F. Benson’s between the lights is a story of psychological dread, as our hero has an apparent waking dream that brings on a mood of depressive terror. The dream is of a prehensile cave and creatures. And recovering on a walk in Scotland, the terrified protagonist finds that the dream has its roots in reality..

In ‘A Strange Christmas Game’ the mysterious disappearance of a wealthy landowner is solved by a ghostly window into the past, whilst ‘Was it an Illusion’ sees a visiting Parson unwittingly uncovering the murder of a child, again through ghostly apparitions.

And Charles Dickens’s classic short ‘The Signalman’ reminds us why Dickens was a master of his craft: a railway signalman is terrified by a recurring ghostly visitor whose visits always immediately precede a disaster. And when the ghost appears again, he must solve the ghastly conundrum of what the next disaster is before it happens. What that is will leave you aghast and turning over the resolution again and again in your minds, studying it appalled from fresh angles.

Given the overall quality, you can’t begrudge Audible their sneaky advertorial and sometimes irritating linking narrative. Overall this is worthy free gift, and shows what a strong series the ‘Audible Original’ range is becoming.