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.

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A review of Daniel Keyes “Flowers for Algernon.”

This is the genre source novel for a lot of recent SF on science and human intelligence, for example the novel, book and spin off tv series ‘Limitless;’ the drama of someone failing suddenly boosted to genius status, the excitement of that journey, but also a commentary on what it does to their soul, and the recognition that humanity is profoundly more than it’s shared IQ. But I don’t think this tale has ever been told with the tragic weight and pathos with which it is told here.

‘Flowers for Algernon’ is a Nebula Award wining novel from 1968. And as such it has that period feel of determined smoking by men in suits and in white coats, a drama back-lit by hard, white clinical lighting. And yet the story is heartbreakingly human.
Charlie Gordon is, in the language of the day, retarded, but with a determination to learn and improve himself that brings him to the attention of Messers Strauss and Nemur, scientists ready to try their new treatment of enzymes and brain surgery that, following succesful experiments on the titular mouse Algernon, they believe will make a breakthrough in treating human mental retardation.
Slowly Charlie’s progress reports move from the barely literate, priamry school spelling journal entries to more intelligent, insightful and sophisticated prose, as Charlie’s intelligence grows, all the while gainong momentum. Along the way he starts to remember the abuse suffered at the hands of his mother. The scientists have added therapy to Charlie’s treatment as they foresaw that a boost in IQ would cause emotional issues in their patient. Meanwhile Charlie’s co-workers at the bakery where he works in a janitorial role view him with increasing bewilderment and fear, as he moves from warm and likable idiot to a much colder, frighteningly intelligent and emotionally aloof persona. Charlie finds himself coming to terms with sexual attraction and love, and soon he comes to resent the scientists who seem to refuse to believe he was a genuine person before the operation. Particularly as that genuine person, the frightened retarded child, still peeps fearfully out from the new Charlie’s gaze, making his presence felt at unexpected times. Most notable of these are when he attempts to make love to Alice, a woman who taught him in a ‘special school’ in his past life and who recommended him to the University hospital for their new research, because of his passion to learn. The ‘old’ Charlie had his early sexual urgings met with physical and emotional abuse as a boy, and that boy surfaces when new Charlie tries to move beyond it.

And so the drama plays out at all these different levels. There’s the excitement of the growing intelligence, the thrill of learning, the astonishment and fear of old friends and colleagues, the hostility, the mysteries of Charlie’s boyhood and the family trauma to unravel, and Charlie’s struggle to move into adult sexuality. Then the next phase, the outstripping his mentors as he become a genius, his intelligence reaching up to the Heavens…and then you get the fall of Icarus. Algernon the mouse grows sick, frenziedly throwing himself against the walls of his cage and diminishing in intelligence. Charlie has to face up to the fact that the science may have overreached itself, and that his house is built on treacherous sand. The story can and does go in only one direction, it’s no spoiler to say, as it’s telegraphed clearly though-out the novel (and on the back blurb). And it is a heartbreaking journey, very bleak, but with the hopeful recognition that the human condition is richer than IQ alone, and that the journey, for Charlie and for humanity, is still a noble one.

This is an excellent novel, true landmark SF. As stated it has a steely, clinical prose, but this does not undermine the very human drama. The litereary trick of the incremental development of Charlie’s prose in his journal entries to signify his growing intelligence is masterfully done.
So if you are looking for an antidote for the sprawling, multi-verse spanning ‘hard SF’ that’s in favour today, or just want to read a SF classic, pick this up.

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 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.

A review of Riyria Chronicles Tales “The Jester” and “Professional Integrity.”

Both of these short stories, set in Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy series “The Riyria Chronicles,” are available separately and are currently free on Audible UK.

They are both gems, and they compelled me after listening to buy the first volume of the Riyria Chronicles.

‘The Thief’ is a fantasy archetype used in fantasy literature and gaming.  Their skill-set usually includes stealth and lock-picking, usually framed in a rouge’s exterior but (sometimes) grounded nevertheless with a moral sense.

Here all of the above would be true, but from these two short stories I felt I got to know the characters very well, as they are so well drawn.  It helps that there is a lot of humour, fresh, funny, character driven and enriching to the story, but not the familiar satire you would expect from Terry Pratchett (God rest his soul) and his imitators.

The protagonists are Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, a team of two thieves for hire in a world of traps, dungeons, treachery, and feuding lords and kingdoms.  In “The Jester” we are introduced to our heroes and other protagonists in mid plummet as they find themselves on the wrong end of a trap.  It’s a wonderful opening.  With a cowardly pig farmer and the determined candle maker who hired them, they must solve the mystery of missing map pieces that may or may not lead to treasure, the quest having been set by the titular Jester. They find themselves in a sealed flooded room, with an angry monster on the other side of one door, and possible traps leading from a lever, another door, and a treasure chest.  They must activate or go through one of these to get out of the chamber.  Only one will lead to freedom (a previous wrong choice led them to the opening plummet) but which?

The story is told rapidly in flashback, or rather the key bits of it we need to know.  It’s a good way of quickly filling in the backdrop for this short story.  The humour is in the bickering and interplay between these very different characters.

A 40  minute listen that got me hooked to the characters, their world and the narrative style, this is testament to the writers skill.

I followed this up with “Professional Integrity.”  This is an ingenious mystery of the “locked box in a room” variety.  Hired by a naive young woman to arrange her own kidnapping to attract the attentions of a suitor who she presumes will come to the rescue, Royce and Hadrian are intrigued, especially when the girl explains that she is locked in a box by a father when this beau comes to visit.  Things soon, of course, escalate and unravel in highly entertaining and unexpected directions.

Lovely stuff, and looking forward to exploring this world more.

Good, clear, characterful narration from Tim Gerard Reynolds.