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.

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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.

A review of Darren Shan’s “Zom-B: Goddess.”

The final instalment of Shan’s compulsive 12 book ‘Zom-B’ serial is a heady brew.
It piles betrayal on betrayal until the undead, feisty teenage protagonist is driven to take the mother of all drastic steps.  What follows is a game-changing development that you will not have seen coming.  It’s not a ‘twist’, per-se, more of a huge step in an unexpected direction, that nevertheless has imaginative and narrative integrity with what has gone before.
The gory set pieces and sudden and brutal offing of familiar characters, hallmarks of the series, continues to the end.  And as usual Shan’s monster’s gallery of mutants is deliriously entertaining, from the flying, piranha tooted ‘babies’ to the horror clown of Mr Dowling.  Not to mention the clawed, long toothed brain munching zombies themselves.
The writer also develops political themes on apathy and activism he began to explore in the first book with B and her racist father and her initial reluctance to challenge him, and where that leads.  Here this is applied to the apathy and indifference to society as a whole to the injustices and evils in its midst, and where that leads.
Warren Pleece’s narrations have also been a welcome addition in the series.  They remind me of the black ink illustrations to the original Doctor Who ‘Target’ novelisations.  Simple yet effective snapshots of the action to compare with your own imaginings.
The whole series is great for young adults and older adults alike, and it’s great to see it brought to such a non cop-out conclusion.

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 the graphic novel “Arkham Asylum: Living Hell”

This is one glorious fever dream of a graphic novel from DC, one of their hits from 2003.

It tells the story of Warren White, a super- rich fraudster and embezzler who makes the mistake of pleading insanity in Gotham at his trial in the hope of a cushy sentence.   It doesn’t, it gets him committed to Arkham.   Here he finds himself in an infernal carnival of the criminally insane. Nothing is what it seems.  And Hell itself will shortly come calling…

Writer Dan Slott gives us a multi layered narrative who different threads interweave in a truly narrative fashion.  It has moments of genuine, creep you out horror, pathos, and very dark humour.  It’s an example of how the DC Universe can be more fantastical and lurid than its Marvel counterpart.  DC really pushed the limits of the comic book frame in what we can imaginatively accept without the whole thing becoming too absurd for even the most ardent comic fan.  It’s one reason why DC struggles more to make their stuff work on the big screen.

It’s great to see old favourites here, the Joker, Riddler, Poison Ivy, and more, as well as the beginnings of a new creature, “The Shark,” and those we know less about e.g. Humpty, Jane Doe.

Batman and Batgirl are on the margins here, with most of the heroics being dished out by weary Prison Guard Mr Cash.  He’s an intriguing character; cynical, maimed and almost defeated, it’s when things are at their most dangerous and bleakest that he truly finds his strength.  And this is a blueprint for the heroics in all of us.

Ryan Sook and Lee Loughbridge are penciller and colourist respectively, with the inkers being Wade Von Grawbadger and Jim Royal. Together they create a dark and murky world of dark tones and lurid hues where black, green and of course red predominate.  Frames tell the story at a rapid rate and you are left feeling that there is always a horror you have missed, something nasty glimpsed by the corner of your eye.

Mike Heisler’s lettering has some interesting variations including gothic script for he more infernal creations, and a storybook type for Humpty’s tale.

If you like DC tales that focus on the Super Villains, then you’ll love this.

 

A review of Adam Bakers’ “Killchain.”

Horror writer David Moody runs “Infected Books,” a publishing company devoted to horror fiction.  Infected Books are roughly half way through a year long monthly series of novellas of zombie fiction by different horror writers.  “Killchain” is Adam Baker’s contribution.

Adam Baker has written a four book series of novels that tell the story of an infection that literally falls in to Earth from the stars, and spawns a change in people transmitted through scratch or bite.  They become a host to a  mutagen that shoots tendrils, spikes and tumorous growths, all metallic in nature and appearance, through the human body, whilst the personality is destroyed and the creature becomes part of a hive mind and a ravaging, snarling inhuman killer.  Book one, “Outpost,” is set on an oil rig in the Arctic as the infection hits civilisation, it is followed by “Juggernaut,” a prequel of sorts set in Iraq as a group of CIA hired mercenaries are tasked unwittingly to investigate one of the ground zero’s of the infection, Book three, “Terminus,” is set in an irradiated New York as a military hired rescue team go deep into the subway system to find  a Doctor who just mind have found a cure to the infection, and “Impact” sees the crew of a  downed military flight try to survive both the desert and the infected. For more on the books see the author’s website “Dark Outpost.”

There is little sign of hope that humanity will beat the infection in Baker’s stories.  They are incredibly bleak in tone, in that you feel it is a given that the cockroaches are humanity’s successor.  His lead character’s are usually female and they offer a tough goodness that offers some redemption as a testament to humanity, but it is a testament that is doomed not to be heard or remembered.

His prose style follows James Ellroy’s clipped staccato style.  The invention, gore and nature of the monsters are all a cut above and reference the Thing, the ‘fast’ undead of World War Z/ 28 Days Later, and David Cronenberg style body horror.

In his contribution to “Year of the Zombie,” Adam Baker sets his story in another of his infection’s Ground Zeros, where the infection has fallen to earth from downed satellites and space stations, this time in Mogadishu.  We begin in the home of a local resident, Daniel,   who learns that quarantined infected has broken out of a stadium where they were being held, and the city is close being overrun.  But before he can flee he is faced with the sudden intrusion of the CIA into his home in the form of agent Eliza, part of a kill-team tasked with eliminating a Russian Official, and  her “Mechanic,” a mercenary named Ben.  They are later joined by Sanjeev, an “asset” brainwashed into martyrdom through carrying out a human bomb mission against said Russian official.

The story of the infection in the city is the background to the story of Sanjeev’s mission, told in a tense POV from his hidden earpiece camera, watched carefully and guided by radio by Eliza.  Then there are the bluffs and betrayals the trio in the room play on each other.  As the situation in the city deteriorates, so does the situation between them in the room.

It’s a strong, black espresso of a horror story, gripping and bleak.  A recommended read, but I would say for genre fans only.

 

 

A review of Adrian Barnes’ “Nod”

‘Nod’ is one of those rare books that, on closing, you think, and may even say “Wow.” You may even feel a little tearful and moved, and want to immediately spread the word about what the novel has made you feel, or what you’ve learnt.  This is what this novel did for me.

Nod is an apocalyptic thriller featuring a disease that ravages the human mind and turns the sufferer into a zombified maniac.  At this point you would be right in pointing to a book mountain of similar works.  But what sets Nod apart is what makes it so brilliant.

First, it’s the originality of the premise.  It’s lack of sleep, and a consequent slow disintegration of the mind, that’s the plague in question here.  Set in Vancouver, it’s protagonist, a writer named Paul, is working on his latest treatise on the vagaries of words and the history of words that is also named ‘Nod.’  He’s living with his partner, Tanya, the breadwinner in the householder, and enjoying a comfortable existence, when he has a dream of a golden light.  It’s a dream he shares with everyone else.  At least those who slept.  And most people, it would seem, didn’t sleep, in a new plague of insomnia that is not slow to change the world into a crazed reflection of its former state, the benchmarks being, 6 days of mental and physical deterioration leading to psychosis, and 4 weeks, death.  All of this shot through with mother-lodes of rage and panic.

In this strange new world, those who can sleep, of which Paul is one, are termed “Sleepers,” those who can’t, the “Awakened.”  And those who society formerly pushed to its margins, the homeless wanderers, the already mentally ill, the dispossessed, now rise to an awful ascendancy.  Typical of this class is Charles, a “quick he’s coming, don’t catch his eye” type who would, if he cornered you, bury you in an avalanche of conspiracy theories.  The new world of ‘Nod’ allows him to rise in leadership status.  You see, Charles has found a draft manuscript of Paul’s ‘Nod’ and he is using this, Scripture style, to form a new Church of the Awakened where words take on savage new meanings, freighted with unholy power.  And he’s chosen Paul to be his first Prophet.

Paul meanwhile must watch the world and Tanya disintegrate before his eyes.  Ever had no sleep or very little, and felt your mood take on a heightened new pitch of depression, anger and anxiety?  Or a weird euphoria?  Well this is what happens to most of the world’s population now, with exponential acceleration, as they act increasingly like the rage filled undead your more typical zombie fare.  Strangely the Sleepers are disproportionately represented by children, who become silent and watchful and band together in new communities in urban parks.  They become demonised and hunted by the Awakened, or subjects of lab-rat experiments in an equally chilling group called ‘Cat-sleepers,’ those who pretend to sleep (through make up to cover dark circles, and a pretence of normality) to trap unwary sleepers to try and medically dissect from them what makes them sleep.

Throw into the mix a rogue nuclear warship piloted by a horrifically burnt morphine addicted Captain, and Hell has indeed come to town.

Paul is a compelling narrator of events, and his love of words and appreciation of their power to shape meaning and worlds, and their most eccentric forms, historical and present, is the prism through which he views events.  His book within he book ‘Nod’ is not dissimilar to “Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” and each chapter begins with something like an entry from that work.

It’s this strange marriage of the cruciverbalist (lover of crosswords) and the apocalypse survivor that makes this such a smart and original read.  I’m a fan of cryptic crosswords and other word games myself, and often reading Nod I was reminded of the hours I’ve spent in this world.

The book finishes with an essay by the writer on his brain tumour, of which he was diagnosed slowly after sending Nod out for publication.  It’s a powerful essay on the ending of worlds and the attendant re-calibration of values and meaning.  It is powerful and I urge you to look it up here, and read ‘Nod.’  Don’t worry if you are not a genre fan of apocalyptic thriller, this novel truly transcends genre.