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.

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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.

A review of the Audible Original audio-drama “The X-Files: Stolen Lives”

“The X-Files: Stolen Lives” is a direct follow up to “The X-Files: Cold Cases” in the “Audible Original” range of audio dramas.If you are new to the X-Files, welcome to a world where shape-shifting aliens bent on colonising the planet, and various monsters and supernatural happenings menace the world. Grist to the mill for our two dogged FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. The show aired for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, spawned two follow up feature films, a recent new series in 2016, and various spin offs, novels and graphic novels.

This drama is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Joe Harris. Series creator Chris Carter provided creative direction, and it was adapted specifically for this audio format by Dirk Maggs, who has been behind the excellent ‘Alien’ audio dramas on Audible.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprise their roles as agents Mulder and Scully, and they are clearly having a blast stepping into these familiar shoes. And their enthusiasm is infectious. Welcome also to the return of the Lone Gunmen, in an amusing but credulity stretching development here holed up in a secret lair under Arlington Cemetery, and grab your favourite pack of smokes (Morleys) it’s the return of Spender, the Cigarettes Smoking Man, here a tortured clone doomed to die violently and repeatedly. He becomes strangely sympathetic.

He’s not the only clone afoot. There’s a sinister army of them, comprising of old faces from the original show, the titular ‘Stolen Lives.’ These are mainly baddies, the dreaded Syndicate for one, the Cabal responsible for orchestrating the original alien invasion conspiracy. They are ruled over by a fearsome new Prime Elder with an agenda of his own. His identity and some of his agenda are revealed in the final story of this collection, ‘Elders,’ and it’s the conclusion of a satisfying arc that began Cold Cases and has run through both releases. There are stand alone stories here as well, as in the last collection, mirroring the format of the original show. And unfortunately as patchy as the original. It begins with a powerful story of possession that I thought was going to be the start of a whole new arc, it felt so epic. But it wasn’t. It’s chilling, violent, and has a number of real gut punching scenes of visceral power. As a heads up there is a scene of a mass shooting that some will feel especially unsettling and upsetting given recent real world events.

After this there follows a tale of a ravenous swarm of flesh eating Scarabs, that’s ok but feels very generic. Then we find out what happened toAgents Dogget and Reece after their disappearance in Cold Cases. Again, it’s ok, but there’s a feeling of it not quite living up to it’s premise. Just a quick tidying up of loose ends.  

Then the weakest of the bunch, an investigation into Government produced psycho-active substances with a much too protracted gag involving Mulder getting stoned. Real life legal highs are much scarier.

And it wraps up with the superior story arc conclusion mentioned above, and a promising set up for the next series.

On the whole a great, patchy listen, faithful to the strengths and the weaknesses of the original, and taking it in some interesting new directions. And there’s one powerful reveal and link to the original that I have not given away here. Enjoy.

A review of the Audible Original audio-drama “The X-Files: Cold Cases.”

“The X-Files:  Cold Cases” is an addition to the “Audible Original” range of audio dramas.
If you are new to the X-Files, welcome to a world where shape-shifting aliens bent on colonising the planet, various monsters and supernatural happenings are grist to the mill for our two dogged FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.  The show aired ran for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, spawned two follow up feature films, a recent new series in 2016, and various spin offs, novels and graphic novels.
This drama is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Joe Harris. Series creator Chris Carter provided creative direction, and it was adapted specifically for this audio format by Dirk Maggs, who has been behind the excellent ‘Alien’ audio dramas on Audible.
And what a fantatsic listen it is.  I loved the show for at least it’s first three seasons, before losing patience with the patchy quality of the stories and the increasingly convoluted story arc, where someone revealing things like, “actually, I’m really your father” became increasingly eye-rollingly familiar and ridiculous.  However, when the show was on form it was really on form, with scary, original monsters (remember Tooms?), an epic feel and knuckle chewing cliff-hangers.
This drama feels like those earlier,  show stopping episodes.  The mystery is back and it’s a successful re-boot, scary, thrilling and fun.  The original cast of Mitch Pileggi, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are back and clearly enjoying what they are doing, which is completely infectious.  Also get ready for the return of William B , Davies, literally resurrected as Spender, or Cigarette Smoking Man.  That familiar voice of quiet, genial menace together with the rustling packet of Morleys will bring a huge grin to any fan.  Get ready also for many familiar names, monster, bad guy and good guy.  I won’t spoil them all here, but warring alien factions, shape-shifters, and a certain black oil feature.  It’s like a roll call of the original shows’ greatest hits, and yet it is testament to the writing and production that this never feels contrived.  When each familiar face took the stage, I felt like cheering.
I loved this, and can’t wait for the follow up due next month.

A review of the Audible Original drama “River of Pain.”

“River of Pain is the second Audible Original Original adaptation of a novel expanding the Alien franchise.  The first, “Out of the Shadows,” was gripping enough and an effective drama.  This, skipping the second in the novel trilogy, “Sea of Sorrows,” is better, boosted by closer and better continuity to the movie it’s most closely linked to, ‘Aliens.’  This film was James Cameron’s big screen stand off between Ellen Ripley and a band of colonial marines, and an army of Xenomorphs and their Queen.  This is a direct prologue to that film, and skillfully weaves in key early scenes from the movie, as well as sometimes expending them a little (watch out for how they riff off “There goes our salvage guys”).  This is fascinating and very well done.  Kudos to the cast who brilliantly step into the skin of the originals, especially Laurel Lefkow as Ripley.  You get some of the ‘Aliens’ original cast returning as well, including Mac MacDonal as unfortunate Colony administrator Al Simpson, and William Hope as Lt. Gorman (“you always were an asshole, Gorman”).
The action, flashing between early scenes from the film and parallel events on the terra-forming colony Hadley’s Hope on the planet Archeron (the mythical original of the titular “River of Pain”), leads to events starting with Ripley’s rescue by the salvage team, the arrival on Archeron on a new troop of marines led by the tough but principled Captain Damian Bracket (superbly portrayed by Colin Salmon) and up to no good Weyland Yutani scientists.  The population of Hadley’s Hope are worn down and beleaguered by the grind of colony life, and are fighting amongst themselves.  Newt’s mom and Dad are fighting (Anne Jordan is sympathetically played by Anna Friel), and when news come of a big mysterious site to explore that could prove lucrative, the Jordan’s seize on it as their possible salvation.  Unfortunately the fate of the colony is rapidly being sealed.  The first 2 hours effectively build up the tension and atmosphere of the world of Aliens.  Fans will be delighted by familiar sounds, the distinctive whirring of the colony doors, the bleeping of trackers, and so on.  Scientists, military, administrators all clash, and Ripley slowly works through the chain of events that slowly lead her to Archeron.  It isn’t long before face-huggers, chest-bursters and warrior adults all do their violent thing and start munching through the colonists, or worse.  It’s good drama when you know the colony’s fate and the fate of key characters, dread getting to that point but are behind them and rooting for them nevertheless   I was expecting a very down-beat finale, and yes the horror of dreaded events is there, but there’s also an unexpected shot of hope and redemption at the end that will make you cheer.  In fact there’s two, when we get to a first meeting between certain characters that the drama has been building up to.
Brilliant and recommended.
sigourney-weaver-as-ripley-in-james-camerons-aliens

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.