Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Everything Picture - Round Up #4: Picture Book

And finally the graphic novel bits and pieces.

Vampire State is the final chapter of Paul Cornell's fine run on Captain Britain and MI13. It opens rather wonderfully with two of the finest and most melodramatic villains of the past century meeting on the moon to agree a non-aggression pact and proceeds to chronicle Dracula's attempted invasion of the UK. As you'd expect from Cornell it's a wonderfully twisting plot with several sleights of hand, but with the story having lasting emotional consequences for those who survive. It's immeasurably enhanced by clever kinetic artwork cour testy of Leonard Kirk and Michael Collins, bringing a neglected icon (well, neglected for those of us who hanker for the work the two Alans, Moore and Davis, did with the character).

Another writer I know via Doctor Who fandom is Javier Grillo-Marxauch, responsible for some fine early episodes of Lost, some Charmed episodes which I've never seen and above all, the magnificent but shortlived The Middleman TV series. A mutual friend, the rather wonderful Tara O'Shea pimped us some DVDs of the show whilst on a trip to the UK and dammit, hooked me and my wife immediately. It's a clever conceit, placing Steed and Mrs Peel into a landscape derived from the Silver Age of comics and lacing that with healthy pop culture references and a sly wit. The TV show was cut off after half a season, never having a chance to make it overseas, but the comic managed to tell a full story in three volumes. It opens up in the same way as the TV show, immediately juxtaposing the mad and the mundane, before settling for simply jetting off for wondrous realms of insanity. Postmodernism's a tapped out concept but it works here as the square jawed old fashoined heroism of the Middleman is offst by Wendy's modern wisecracks. It's quite a feat to have the jokes flow naturally in the conversation, and it contrasts nicely with some knowing narration. The clean line, cartoonish artwork from Les McClaine enhances the story, fitting the larger than life nature of the story well.

Brian Talbot's The Tale of One Bad Rat' is a different case altogehter. It's one of those moments where comics step away from the superhero genre with which they're become inextricably associated, and tell a very human story instead. The central character is Helen, who starts the story as a Beatrix Potter loving homeless vagrant with a pet rat on the London underground. The story gradually unfolds to tell us exactly why and how she ran away from home and, eventually how she comes to terms with it. Tabot deals skilfully with the central issue of child abuse, importantly never cheapening or sensationalising it whilst using it to tell a heartbreaking and eventually uplifting story. It's also about how we often use fiction as a refuge from the the horrors of reality, and using Potter's works as a metaphor for innocence is startlingly effective. It's one of those rare moments where comics achieve a real beauty and depth.

Everything Picture #3 - Round Up

And as for everything non-Doctor Who...

First up, an exceptionally cheap acquisition, Phoenix's massively abridged 60 page extract from Jostein Gardner's Sophie's World, The Greek Philosophers. I could see how Gardner's book was a massive success from this, it's a concise and engaging run through an important section of Greek Philosophy and includes the Sophists, Socrates and Plato. It manages the difficult feat of informing and educating at the same time, the writing teaching without ever condescending. It's made me hanker for the unabridged version, which I'd guess is the point. And no I don't feel guilty about buying such a short book, on the same trip to Hay I picked up Proust's A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. Yep, I admit it, I'm a literary ponce - what the hell, I never know when I might have a year or two spare!

Which makes for a contrived but neat segue on to Alain De Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life. I hadn't read any of de Botton's output before, but followed him on Twitter. Like all thinkers he can be profound, but occasionally banal when striving for depth, but hey, that's what you get for trying for wisdom in 140 characters. He's much better at book length, where his ideas have room to breathe and roam unconfined. It's essentially a series of essays based around concepts from Proust's epic, demonstrating how each aspect shown can be used to improve your life. And while it's doing that it explains the point of what Proust was trying to achieve - no mean feat when he's doing it in over a thousand less pages of larger print. It's not as pretentious as I've made it sound there, rather it's a thought provoking read that threw my brain some interesting tangents. Again, it's something that's fascinating enough to make me want to read more by the author and Proust.

Giles Smith's Lost In Music is an object lesson that pop music is rarely as life changing as we'd like it. It intersperses Smith's youthful attempts to make it big musically with a series of reminiscences sparked by certain artists and/or records. As such it hits upon the point of music in exactly the way Nick Hornby's abysmal 31 Songs doesn't. Music tends to mark time and places for us (in much the same way Proust used sensory experiences such as the taste of a madelaine cake) - cultural markers of sound replacing tastes and sights in evoking memories. Hornby initially tried to separate music from experience but, as the essays in his book demonstrate, that rarely works. Smith's book is livelier, funnier and more enjoyable than that and is better on the essence of why we end up loving music, why we remember the good and bad times with a soundtrack. I find Smith smug in his normal newspaper columns but here he makes for an engaging narrator, hindsight grating him the wisdom to laugh at his daft mistakes and faults.

The Infernal Desire Machines of DOctor Hoffman is a thin looking book, but that's a massive deception. As I expected from Angela Carter, it's a wild and strange book, full of seensuous prose and concepts beyond the ken of almost every other writer. The first chapter is a mere 24 pages, but it packs more into those than other peic fantasies pack into ten volumes - it's the tale of an assault on the city, but it's equally an assault on the reader's imagination, asking them to engage with mad, wild and almost random ideas and happenings. It's unsurprisingly full of Carter's usual preoccupation with carnal desire and its consequences, broaching some areas still largely taboo. At times it's like running through mid-Wales - gruelling, but you'll be marvelling at the beauty around you.

Timeleon Vieta Come Home is Dan Rhodes' first novel, but sensibly as an experienced short story writer he ensures it comprises a patchwork of stories, the first a novella length story of a dog and his master and what happens when their life is disurbed by the arrival of 'the Bosnian'. The second half is a procession of short stories of the people Timeleon Vieta meets on his way home. It's touching and funny, and while 'the Bosnian' is an irredemable villain (particularly given the ending) the rest of the characters are vivid and engaging. Even Cockroft, who could've been deeply unlikeable in lesser hands is sympathetic and engaging. It's a beautiful, light read that brings rural Italy vividly to life. Oh, and I defy any dog owners not to shed a tear at the ending.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Everything Picture - Round Up #2 (Time Lord Remix)

And things just got a lot busier round here, but more of that at some point in the future. In the meantime, clearing a little headspace...

First up are the three new Doctor Who novels from BBC Books. You might've guessed from previous entries that I'm an absolute junkie for Doctor Who novels. Can't help myself, I've been collecting the damn things for over thirty years now and I just can't kick the habit - suppose it's more stimulating and cheaper than a drug habit. The latest batch are Matt Smith's print debut, Apollo 23 from Justin Richards, Night of the Humans by David Llewellyn and Brian Minchin's The Forgotten Army. Of the three my favourite was easily Minchin's book, primarily as it takes an absolutely ridiculous looking premise and has an absolute blast with it - it involves a New York, woolly mammoth and an invading army straight from one of Douglas Adams' throwaway Hitchhiker gags. It's also got that very Doctor Who thing of knowing how ridiculous the premise is but keeping a straight face long enough to get away with it, letting the humour arise naturally from absurdity. He's also got a very good handle on the Doctor and particularly Amy, who's the de facto lead in this one. Sarky, fiery, slightly insane yet kindhearted it's the perfect print Amy.

Apollo 23 is fairly standard fare from Justin Richards - it takes an intriguing image as a starting point (an astronaut materialising in a shopping centre) and unravels a well-plotted adventure out of it. There's nothing wrong with the book particularly, all the right elements of a good Doctor Who book are in place, but it just seems to lack a certain spark - Richards is exceptional on plot, but none of his characters linger in the memory long enough to survive the turning of the final page. It somehow sums up the current Doctor Who novels - there's no real room for surprises, and they're simply merchandise to be flogged on the back of the TV show. Whilst the TV show should be the focal point for Doctor Who, it feels somehow cheapening to have the novels so lacking in adventure, flair and surprises. They've not been so unambitious since the early 80s and the infamous days of Uncle Tewwy churning out a book a month.

I rather enjoyed David Llewellyn's mainstream debut Eleven, a blacker than George W Bush's heart character study comedy, and his Torchwood work's shown flair and humour. His The Taking of Chelsea 426 wasn't particularly distinguished, having plenty of good moments but never quite coming together into a satisfying whole. Night of the Humans is very much in the latter camp. It's got plenty of clever moments - the way the 'Humans' are named, and their whole society, the Nanobomb device and the nature of the planet for three - but I've come to the conclusion I'm not overly keen on the way Llewellyn sees Doctor Who. From his two stories so far Llewellyn seems to view Doctor Who as a British Star Trek - campy, old fashioned SF with cultural nods and winks dropped in. I'm not quite sure I'd agree with that, it can tell those stories but it can be so much more than that. I might be being unfair, Llewellyn might simply have been stuck with the offworld SF book of the three, but if there is a next time I'd love to see him stretch himself with an Earthbound or oddball story. The old cultural references mean it feels like an RTD era story rather than a Moffat era one too, which jars a little. Again, it's far from bad, but it lacks the spark and sheer exuberance that makes The Forgotten Army the standout of this bunch.

On the non-fiction side I've also been reading Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?'s collection of fanzine writings, the unsnappily titles Time Unincorporated 2: Writings on the Classic Series. As a disclaimer I know both Robert and Graeme, and can thoroughly recommend them as charming company for an evening. TU2, as I shall space savingly refer to it from here on, is a spiritual sequel to Paul Cornell's Licence Denied (also the inspiration behind Shooty Dog Thing). Both are well qualified to edit such a volume - Graeme spent more than ten years editing the Doctor Who Information Network's highly professional magazine Enlightenment, and Robert runs the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, the largest collection of Doctor Who reviews online (certainly since Outpost Gallifrey went offline). It's a huge collection of musings on the Doctor Who produced between 1963 and 2004, and does draw extensively on both Graeme's magazine and Robert's website. There's nothing wrong with that when the material from both tends to be of such a high quality, not when such a breadth of other fanzines are represented. It might lack the scabrous edge of Licence Denied, but it's generally smarter. I'm possibly a touch disappointed that Tat Wood's The Frame essay on the scientifically worked through consequences of Axonite on the frog from The Claws of Axos isn't present (hey, it's funnier than it sounds), but it's a minor quibble, if you've read enough fanzines you're going to be disappointed by one or two of your favourite articles being omitted.


For me the highlights tended to be Graeme's own articles (if it wasn't such a worn down and useless descriptive cliche I'd use the word 'seminal' for his The Talons of Stereotyping) but I'd be remiss to not mention Paul Magrs lovely grab bag that leads off, Scott Clarke's 'Keys to A Time Lord' or Ben Hakala's 'The Re-Awakening of Mediocre Who', which implores us to treasure even the unmemorable stories. OR there's Dave Owen's 'Johnny Come Home', Deborah Standish's 'Classing Shipping' or the entire 'The Ones Who Made us' section... Even if an essay doesn't engage you, there'll be another smart, funny one along in a minute. A bit like Doctor Who itself really.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Shooty Blog Thing 2: This Time It's Personal

I'm shamelessly stealing an idea from Graeme Burk's excellent and insightful gem, geek or rare bug blog regarding his new book Time Unincorporated 2, and doing a kind of Making Of... with regards to my articles for the first Shooty book. Because a) it's a very nice idea, b) it's here to remind me c) it's the only way to talk about my articles and d) to get me thinking about my own writing.

Before I start, I'd push any readers of this blog toward Graeme's book. He's been responsible for ten very fine years of DWIN's own fanzine Enlightenment, and I know from experience and reading said zine that he's an exceptionally high quality editor. Buy it. Now.

Right... one by one, the blogging equivalent of a DVD commentary.


"Bernice Summerfield: The Inside Story" (2009) was the first of three pieces commissioned for the book. One thing Paul's always been very keen on is that Shooty covers all forms of Doctor Who; novels, novelisations, comics, cigarette cards and so forth. Part of that was that he wanted a small piece on Benny to accompany two other articles he'd already selected to go in the book. We'd already talked about this, but Paul's original plan of a year's break in between issues of his fanzine put paid to that. In preparing for it I read DWM's review, which is a good, straightforward overview of the contents - I'd expect no less from Matt Michael. But it didn't necessarily sell me on it. And then I sat there looking at a blank Word document for ages, to find the right angle. One of the things I love about fanzines is that they can go where official magazines fear to tread, so I wanted to convey exactly why I adored both the character of Benny and the book - I might not have the chance again! If you like, I wanted it to balance head and heart in a way that I didn't think the DWM review quite did, balancing fannish love with some analysis. Simon Guerrier and Lisa Bowerman both adored it, which was a rather lovely ego boost.

"Craggles Rocked!"(2007) I'll get to the story of how Paul and I met in a moment or two, but the origins of this lie in a splendid afternoon spent in a bar in Swansea. The December 2007 issue of Shooty was due to come out around a year after Craig Hinton's death and Paul wanted a tribute to him for that issue. Since we'd both know Craig a little and first known each other from the infamous Jade Pagoda mailing list I was his natural choice to write this one. It was originally going to be around a thousand words shorter but it sprawled a bit and, as is ever the way with fanzines, there was enough space to turn it into the issue's centrepiece. Paul's little epilogue to the piece is probably my favourite piece of his, a lovely personal counterpoint to the review of Craig's professional work.

Licence Denied (2007) Paul and I were acquaintances rather than friends prior to a Sunday afternoon bonding session at Regenerations over a few Guinnesses - we'd been on mailing lists and met briefly at Battlefield in Coventry in 2002. But I asked a mutual acquaintance to reintroduce us that afternoon, and we spent the entire afternoon in the bar whilst friends came and went around us simply talking about what we loved about Doctor Who. We grew up adoring the Target novels, encountered the New Adventures at precisely the right time and didn't care about which stories counted and which didn't, we just loved a good story. And one of the things we bonded over was Paul Cornell's Licence Denied, a fanzine collection from 1997 - it was the inspiration for Shooty. Paul was initially reluctant as Shooty already had a significant review section, but I persuaded him in that it wouldn't quite be a review but more of a ten years on tribute. I smile when I reread the last line about a second volume being the only thing that's lacking now - there's two volumes of fanzine writings published since with three more that I know of on the way.

'And Cut It... Now!' (2008)Prompted by what I'd heard about new series fans not being particularly interested in the old series. One of Paul's ideas with Shooty was to introduce new series fans to the wider Doctor Who universe, so that got me musing on how we might be able to get new fans to watch the old episodes. For me it falls victim to my usual thing of not giving myself room to explore the topic fully and I think it could do with a rewrite or two, but I stand by the sentiment.

Teach Yourself Ballroom Dancing (2009) The second of three original commissions. This was commissioned as part of a review section to tie in with Hirst Books' other title being launched around the same time as Shooty, Colin Baker's 'Look Who's Talking'. I'd written an eulogy for the end of the Short Trips range a few months earlier, so Paul asked me to pick my favourite Sixth Doctor story from the range and talk about it for about 1,500 words. This is one of my favourite Doctor Who short stories, the Doctor touching the life of an ordinary person and how he doesn't quite understand human emotions and domesticity so it was a fairly simple choice.

It's All About Unfinished Business (2009) The final one of my new pieces for the book. I originally pitched it to Paul as a companion piece to the review section, dealing exclusively on the rehabilitation of the Sixth Doctor in novels, short stories and audios, but when I'd barely got to dealing with The Twin Dilemma 2,000 words in it was clear it was going to be broader than that. To set the context it needed to detail exactly why the character needed rehabilitating. Writing this also helped me crystallise a few ideas about Colin's era in my own head. Probably my favourite piece.

'Alien Bodies: The End Was Nigh' (2008) If you're at all familiar with the Eighth DOctor Adventures you'll know of the reverence Alien Bodies is held in. This is my shot at slaughtering a sacred cow, almost playing devil's advocate.

'Tennant's Hamlet' (2008) What it says on the tin - a review of the production of Hamlet David Tennant did between the end of Season Four and the Specials. I thought it might be too New Series foor Paul to include given Tennant's involvement, but as he rightly pointed out, 400 year old material falls within Shooty's remit of widening cultural boundaries.

'Iris? Iris? Who The Heck Is Iris?'(2009) One of the rare occasions Paul commissioned me to write a specific piece for the fanzine itself, intended as a lead for the large section he was devoting to Iris and Obverse Books launching their range of books based around the exploits of the character. Always fun to try to introduce and sell your passions.

'Missing Pieces' (2009) I've always been fascinated by the way Doctor Who fans in particular fill in gaps - if there's no new Who on the telly, we (collectively) write our own. I like to think having to reconstruct the missing stories in our own head is one of the reasons for the creative fecundity of Who fans, part of the inspiration for this was to explore that. It's also my tribute to the Target range that I devoured so avidly when young.

'Short Trips: The End of the Road?' (2009) There's nothing so tragic in art as audience indifference. The Short Trips range had always seemed a distant third to the novels and audios but ended up the last original fiction range still standing, and the last that had (at times) an open submission policy. It seemed the end of an era to my mind, and it's an attempt to make people care.

'Iris Wildthyme and the Celestial Omnibus' (2009) Review of Obverse Books' launch title. Deliberately avoided mentioning every story since I think that's almost trying to curry favour with all the authors and (to use a technical term) a bit wanky.

Stay Tuned...

Monday, 26 April 2010

That Clinking Clanking Sound - Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis

I'm a leftie. A European leftie, which in US terms probably translates as 'commie scum'. On the polotical compass site I come out left and south of Gandhi, comrade. So I'm pretty much implacably opposed to the philosophy that's ruled economic policy in the US and the UK since 1979. Free market philosophy? Utter bollocks, that's like leaving a garden and hoping the lawn will mow itself, and the flowers will self-trim nicely. It doesn't happen, the strongest and most cunning plants (yeah, there's triffids in this analogy...) will overwhelm the lesser ones, sucking all the goodness from the soil and leaving you with an ugly, tangled mess that might take years to sort. Me personally, I blame the philosophy and those who implemented it, you can feel free to blame who you want, but it did crash rather spectacularly in 2008. And if you want an insight into the culture which birthed the ugliest of economic messes, you can simply go back to this 21 year old book. It's frightening that a book detailing the failings of Wall Street, detailing the background to the last great economic crash, demonstrates how little really changed in nearly 20 years. And it does it in a simple way that most books about economics seem incapable of, either by inclination or inability to see outside a limited worldview.

Of course, that may just be the autobiographical nature of the book, but then it's a rarity in that it's an autobiography tinged with self-awareness and humility. Autobiography requires something of an ego, but I'd imagine those qualities are fairly unique when it comes to books about Wall Street. Lewis demonstrates how easy it is to get sucked into the Wall Street mentality when young, and how hard it is to get out of it. It's not so much swimming with sharks as trying not to get eaten in a sea full of them.

Liar's Poker shares Moneyball's great strength, being able to convey what may be complex subjects to relative laymen in clear terms without ever talking down to the reader. More than that, he brings what could be dry, dull subjects to life and renders them fascinating.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man - And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer


If there's one book that falls into the cliche of life changing for me, it's The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. I'm fairly sure I picked it up after seeing a repeat of the TV series in the early 80s, although given the judiciously employed swearing and sex and drinking references I'm not sure my parents quite realised what they were letting an eight year old loose on. You can learn plenty from Douglas Adams about the precise use of swearing for maximum impact, actually you can learn a lot about rhythm and use of language. But it wasn't just the language that I found educational, rather it was the worldview. Not the determinedly scientific rationalist viewpoint (there's a lovely description somewhere which paraphrases as 'Nietzche with jokes') but rather the absurdism, that everything looks utterly ridiculous with time and the right viewpoint, and that in reality no-one really knows what they're doing. It's a blessing and a curse that I can't take too much seriously after being Adamsed.

Nothing dates so fast as the future though, and Hitchhikers is no exception. It was originally written at the end of the 70s, where technology was still racing and no-one was quite sure how fast it could develop. The eponymous conceit looked centuries off when it was written, now iPhones, Blackberries and other assorted mobiles have the internet in your pocket, giving a resource as wide ranging and reliable as the Guide. I've actually got the Don't Panic logo from the TV series as my phone wallpaper in tribute. And all those digital watch jokes look positively prehistoric. It's also very wordy for such a short book, the style dating in the way of Wodehouse - still elegant, still funny but oh so redolent of the time it was written. And there's the case of diminishing returns, with Adams becoming seemingly less interested in jokes as he grew older - Mostly Harmless and even So Long, and Thanks for All The Fish being only faintly ridiculous as opposed to outright genius. But there was always the style, the wonderful, exasperated way with words to carry you through. Which is why I was wary of anyone attempting to follow in Adams' keystrokes. To follow Adams you'd need to not only follow that unique way with words, but also his mindset and sense of humour. That's a job for which the phrase 'tough gig' was invented.

I admit to a liking for Eoin Colfer. Although he's only written children's books to this point, his work that I've read shows a reasonably similar sense of humour, even if it's been applied mainly to fantasy. And the talk I saw him give at the Hay Festival a couple of years back confirmed he's both funny and razor sharp. If I had a choice it would probably have been 'leave the whole H2G2 universe alone', but if Adams' estate had to succumb to the sequelmania running riot in pop culture (yep, Clint Mansell and co were right, pop is eating itself), then Colfer wasn't a dispiriting choice. Unusual perhaps, but that's often a better choice than obvious.

To his credit Colfer doesn't try to be Douglas Adams. Instead, what we get is the literary equivalent of a good cover version - a different spin on familiar themes. Arthur is recognisably Arthur, Ford doesn't get much to do but is very Ford and Zaphod only has half the heads he usually has but is otherwise as hoopy a frood as ever. I wasn't quite sure about Trillian though, who seemed to lack a little spark, nor about lifting Wowbagger, a beautifully conceived one joke character, to one of the leads. Might as well have lifted my favourite H2G2 character Agrajag to top billing. They're fabulous one joke characters, but the focus of the story incinerates what made the character so great in the first place. That said, when Colfer restricts the references to the point where they simply flavour the story they work well (the aforementioned Agrajag being a case in point). One criticism on that score though, I'm not sure of his linguistic use of frood, I'd always thought it was a noun, but then being picky about the grammar of made up words is a touch picky. But this is always the familiar universe, full of bureaucracy, incompetence and accidental brilliance.

Colfer does stay in his comfort zone in that fantasy elements are far more prominent than they ever were in Adams' Hitchhiker books. The use of the Norse Gods is far more in keeping with the Dirk Gently novels - I was half expecting him to pop up in a cameo role. Despite being closer to fantasy than any of the previous entries in the series, the approach he takes to religion is well in keeping with the absurdist approach of the rest of the series, with gods whoring themselves out for worshippers. And Colfer happily lets his Irish roots show with the last surviving outpost of humanity essentially being an Irish outpost.

The nature of the book's summed up by the nature of the conflict on the colony, Nano. Even though the colony's pure Colfer, the nature of the conflict we see there's perfect Adams, the rebels seemingly descendants of the Golgafrinchan B Ark. It's Adams as lensed through Colfer, tribute without becoming pastiche. As such, it never feels quite right compared to the previous books in the series, but it's far from the travesty it could have been - it certainly wouldn't be a candidate for lists such as those in Pulp's Bad Cover Version. But is does leave the lingering question - are these sequels necessary, or just pandering to the nostalgia to those of us of a certain age?

Saturday, 27 March 2010

And So The End Is Near... - The Writers Tale: The Final Chapter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

Yeah, I've noticed a theme with the stuff I've been reviewing lately too. I have been reading other stuff, honest guv.

The original Writer's Tale rendered whole forest's worth of books redundant - there was now no need for any biography of Russell T Davies, because it gave you more of an insight into the man and his methods of work than any simple recounting of facts could. No need for any 'making of' Doctor Who books, it was everything you needed to know about how an episode journeyed from the inside of Russell T's head to several million TV screens (unless you want the dull technical ins and outs rather than the really interesting stuff). And it pretty much renders most books about scriptwriting redundant at a stroke, being a practical guide in producing quality television scripts under extreme pressure of time and budget. It wasn't 'this is how to write', it was 'this is how I write, learn what you may'. And it was utterly compelling, despite it being over 500 large format pages I finished it in around a day and a half. Food and sleep? There's another thing you could learn from the book, they aren't particularly important. Although coffee is.

Normally I wouldn't have countenanced buying the paperback edition, but as with most of the product relating to Doctor Who in the last five years there's an emphasis on making it essential. Sure, you might lose the script pages from the material in the original Writer's Tale, but it's a small sacrifice to pay (plus they're on the Writer's Tale website anyway). What you get in return is around three hundred extra pages about the making of the Last Days of Tennant, watching how the specials came together. It largely lacks the frantic charge of the first half, primarily because there's far less Doctor Who to produce (and yet Davies still misses a Kylie concert in Paris!), but Cook and Davies' conversation is still never less than fascinating. The highlight is probably Davies reminiscing about his parents and childhood in Swansea, and how they inspired a Booker Prize winning novel. It's sentimental, wistful and touching without being sepia tinted and, as ever with Davies' writing, there's beautiful and unexpected observations. And for those more obsessed with Doctor Who content there's Cook persuading Davies to go back to watch Rose after production's wrapped on The End of Time. Davies' views on his own work are often cutting but always positive.

As it is, this stands as a perfect epitaph to the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who - a testament to the hard work he and the production team put in. It's almost a shame that there'll be no more Rusell T Davies Who, if only because it's we won't get another of these books to lay out the writing process on a modern TV show in intimate detail. The book finishes with the correspondents now separated by the width of an ocean and a continent, and an unknown (or at least undetailed) future for the writer. It's a reminder that while certain tales finish, real life doesn't stop and there's more of this particular tale to be written. Unfortunately it's not likely to be documented, which is a shame as the tale's got a lot more mileage in it yet. Or maybe Davies is wise enough to take advantage of the old showbiz adage to leave them wanting more.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

It's The Terror Of Knowing What This World's All About - The Diary of a Doctor Who Addict by Paul Magrs



I wish this book had been around when I was 13.

This isn't a book about growing up in the nostalgia show approved 80s, where everyone had at some point a Chopper, listened to the New Romantics and ate Spangles. This is the absolute opposite of that, exposing it as a communal illusion of grown-ups trying to refit their adolescence as cool. This is growing up as experienced by the kids who didn't quite fit in, who didn't grow up quite as quickly as everyone else (in every way), who didn't really want to put aside childish things. It understands how growing up can be the most difficult thing in the world, especially if you don't conform to society's conventions. And it adds verisimilitude by understanding how sometimes trivial things that don't matter can be the most important thing in the world at that age - liking the wrong, uncool songs and squirming discomfort with the randomly cruel actions of the friends you've grown up with, friends who're changing into someone you don't quite know or recognise.

Instead of relying on cheap nostalgia for the period feel, Magrs captures the era with the flavour of experiences - the frustration of being stuck on your own in a small town in the middle of nowhere, one the internet generation will never quite understand. There's the wonder of the first VCR, being able to watch your favourite programmes again and again, the wide-eyed wonders of the Doctor Who Exhibition, the huntsman's thrill of finding a Target novelisations you never had... it struck so many chords it wasn't just playing my tune, it was playing my symphony.

If I'd had this book at the equivalent age (that'd have been around 1987 for me) it'd have been an absolute godsend. It would've taught me, turning into a typically self-obsessed teenager, that there was someone else who'd gone through what I was going through. But it would've told me that in a wise, understanding and non-judgemental manner, the only sort of voice I'd have listened to, let alone understood at that age. You need to know you're not alone, but the hardest thing is understanding that.

Magrs flirts with breaking the narrator's heart for much of the novel before finding... not a happy ending but the right ending. The character Davey needs to reassure him you can survive adolescence with your love for Doctor Who intact may appear almost out of nowhere, but in the social hierarchy of teenagers it rings perfectly true. It's as wise and true as I've come to expect from Magrs' work.
The annus mirablis of books for and about Doctor Who fans continues.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Digging Your Scene - Chicks Dig Time Lords ed Lynne M Thomas and Tara O'Shea



Frankly Doctor Who publishing's been dominated by the fanboys for far too long. And I say that as one who's (admittedly only of late) been part of that. We grew up with it, stole it back and made our own stories up when the BBC stopped making it, researched it to within a millimetre of its existence (I wouldn't be surprised to find a fanboy had designed a time machine simply to be in on those early meetings), snarked, analysed, debated and, in the end, played a major part in the revival. One of us even got to live the dream and be the Doctor. We've said a hell of a lot down the years. And given the old show had - still has - an overwhelmingly male fandom (in the UK at least) we've said plenty.

And then, to paraphrase a related show, everything changed. Eccleston and Piper played out the first Doctor-companion relationship with an openly emotional charge (there are moments in the old series, most obviously The Green Death Episode 6, but they never get in the way of Exciting Adventures). And then we got the first overtly Sexy Doctor in David Tennant. All of a sudden there were a hell of a lot more women around, particularly at cons and online. It might be a temporary shift, but fandom changed. And naturally some of the old guard weren't happy, abhorring the cosplaying, slashing and squeeing and generally being like Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen (which they could probably quote verbatim) about it all. They wanted fandom on their terms, the new breed of fans barely even recognised that those terms existed. Me? I love it, new blood and new, different ways of being a fan are essential if your fandom's going to survive. Vive la difference, baby. There is no right way to be a fan, you can love and celebrate the show however you want (well, within legal boundaries...). Chicks Dig Time Lords is a celebration of all that.

There's so much adorable about the book that it's difficult to know where to start. The broadness of subject matter and approach is breathtaking. You've got academic approaches jostling with reminiscences, interviews and even an original comic strip from the creators of Torchwood Babies (the penultimate panel on page 89 has the most sublime Rob Shearman gag). Contributors aren't always singing from the same hymn sheet (the best example being the two essays which largely deal with Martha), so unlike s lot of the Doctor Who literature of the 80s and 90s there's never a sense that these are rigidly proscribed views. And while there might be passionate disagreements, which there will be when you have intelligent people with emotional investiture in topics, you get the impression that these are people you could arrive at a consensus with. It's certainly not the usual entrenched close minded rock-throwing that passes for internet debate. And like Shooty Dog Thing it's broad minded about what constitutes Doctor Who. Quite wonderfully, there's no consideration of the ever anal (and mainly male driven) canon debate and space is devoted to books, audios and spin-offs. You may not be a fan in the way these women (and one man) are, but read with an open mind and you'll understand the way they enjoy the show (and fandom) better, whether it be cosplaying, socialising, slashing, making fan films, fanzine writing, fan fic-ing, squeeing, affectionately mocking or coming up with a genius comic strip that the production crew of the show love. Or any combination of the above.

This is a series of snapshots from the smarter, creative end of Doctor Who fandom. You might not love all of it, given the breadth of subject matter, it's unlikely. But, equally, it hugely unlikely that you won't find a lot here to interest you, and maybe even broaden your mind. Chicks is exuberant, refreshing, stimulating and never dull. There's a good reason for it being so popular at Gallifrey One that the entire stock Mad Norwegian brought sold out quickly. It celebrates all the things I love about fans and being a fan. And yeah, I'll cop to having at least socialised with a fair few of the contributors here (hell, I'm namechecked once), but that's mostly down to their sharing a similar mindset. These chicks are the sort of people who make it great to be a fan. And this book will let you in on the reasons why, which is why it should be on every Who fan's required reading list. Or preferably beamed directly into their brains, thereby bringing miraculous world peace to fandom.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Do You Suffer From Long Term Memory Loss? I Can't Remember - Doctor Who: The Forgotten by Tony Lee, Pia Guerra and others



I've really no bloody idea how to review graphic novels - trying to disentangle who's responsible for what is largely nightmarish. You can probably say the writer's responsible for the speech and words and probably the story, but how much of the artwork's success lies in the script, and how much in the artist's interpretation? How much is in the inking and the colouring? If you know the author personally, or read chunkloads of their work you might have an idea, but it's tough. Which is primarily why I've been reading a load of them but not reviewing them, because I'm unsure of attribution and always end up giving up halfway through. Mind you, how do you know if an editor, writer, or even a mate of the writer suggested that moment you *really* like in a story (as demonstrated fairly often in the Ben Cook/Russell T Davies The Writer's Tale opus). Anyway, enough about that, plunge taking time...

I hadn't actually read any of IDW's Doctor Who comic up til last month. In the crowded world of Doctor Who publishing something had to go by the wayside, and the comic strips were the path of least resistance. Time constraints mean I'd even got way behind on the DWM strip, and that's an automatic monthly purchase (has been since 1983 with the exception of nine or ten months around 1987-88). But then at the recent Gallifrey One convention I wandered over to their table. I'd have bought their Iron Legion recolouring on the spot (it's stunning, the new colouring work's so beautiful, detailed and sympathetic to the original artwork I was a whisker away from purchasing it) but for owning it four times over already. As officer and gentlemanly type Tony Lee was a guest, and had been convivial company in the bar I went for his sort of ten Doctor epic instead. Obviously vindication that being pleasant company wins sales.

If it didn't sell this short I'd call this a fanwank dream. Over the series it has a mini-story for each of the nine previous Doctors, as well as a satisfying main story for the Tenth Doctor, no mean feat to squeeze into six issues worth of story. It looks intended as a crash course in Who history for newbie fans who might only have started following the series (and hence the comic) during the Russell T Davies era, maybe even those who only know the Tennant incarnation. It's a daunting challenge, but that Lee (and Guerra) succeed in wrangling a coherent tale out of it is a herculean storytelling feat in itself - even the most experienced Who writer of all, Terrance Dicks, had blown it with a mere eight. Where Lee follows Dicks is in largely confining the Doctors to their own tales, eminently sensible as ten main characters would be a headache in any story. The medium he's telling the story one in requires a degree of visual storytelling however, so at some point the reader of the comic's going to demand a panel with all ten Doctors in at some point. And it happens, and in an impressively uncontrived manner too. This does lead to the intra-Doctor banter you'd want, which does occasionally strain the limits of storytelling credibility, but the dialogue's witty enough for Lee to get away with it and walk off, if he chooses, grinning massively. It helps that he's got a good ear for the way the characters actually talk

I can't quite make my mind up about Pia Guera's artwork, without going for likenesses she manages to make the characters recognisable as who they're supposed to be (not always a given in the history of comic book Who!) but it's simply that her style doesn't appeal to me particularly - that's entirely a personal thing, and as I've never particularly analysed why certain artists are more pleasing to my eye than others I can't particularly tell you why. I did, however, adore Ben Templesmith's cover for the trade paperback, deceptively simple and stylish.

I should, before I forget, mention that I adored the central concept of the Doctor waking up in a museum dedicated to him, even if it's not quite what it seems. Actually I can forgive the mind parasite thing for the witty and self aware cliffhanger resolution at the beginning of what was issue six, which stretches the joke it's playing to the limit before tapdancing off laughing.

I rather suspect I'd have thoroughly enjoyed this as a Who newbie, but I've been hardcore for over thirty years now, so there was an element of 'seen this sort of thing before'. Even for a grizzled vet of the 'JNT MUST DIE!' years, it still had enough fun, wit and ideas to make it a fun ride. Not essential, but a fabulous place to start for anyone looking for a fast, fun crash course in Who history .

Saturday, 13 March 2010

I Had This Perfect Dream - Barca: A People's Passion by Jimmy Burns


I've been a Liverpool fan all my life; my mum's fault entirely. My father's side of the family are Villa fans, by rights I should probably have been one. But no, she chose a team and indoctrinated me. And I've been with them through thick and thin ever since. It's mostly been thick, certainly by most club's standards, and rarely been dull (well, maybe on the pitch at times...). I can't ever see anything sporting surpassing the love of Liverpool, something the media storm that's seemingly erupted after every Liverpool game this season's only confirmed. Still, there are clubs that hold a small place in my heart, family connections to Villa and Ipswich, local non-league heroes Newport County and, like so many round the world, Barcelona.

It's strange - I don't have a concrete or unique story as to why. They're one of the world's hugest clubs after all, a magnificent symbol of a proud region that's always set itself apart from the rest of Spain, particularly under the Franco regime. And although they're a massively rich club, they're not truffle-huntingly disgusting in their pursuit of money - it's drawn mainly from their members and until last season never had a sponsor's name sullying their shirt. And even when they took a name on their shirts it was the charity UNICEF. And they paid to have that name on there. Money lets you afford such gestures, but that's still pure class. They do things their own way, generally more attractively than their traditional desperately big spending rivals in all white. I even made a pilgrimage to the Camp Nou when I was on holiday in Calella in 1997, a suitably awe-inspiring experience to sit in an empty stadium and contemplate it, then take a trip round the club museum. Unfortunately Barca weren't at home whilst I was there, so I couldn't take in a game.

A People's Passion delays before recounting the history of the club, for the important reason of placing it in the context of what it means to the fans, the city and the Catalan region as a whole. This gives the book a flavour that simple dry history couldn't, and draws you into understanding the club and what makes it and those who follow it tick. It's engaging and arresting, and a cut above your usual club biography. That's not to say that the history itself is dull - far from it, it's a history of politics and passion, civil wars and coups, vaulting ambition and above all, a tradition of expressive, flowing football. It's particularly strong on Barca's modern era, ushered in by Johann Cruyff's playing spell and the infamous presidency of Josep Luis Nunez. Burns isn't afraid to cast a critical eye over any of those involved in the club, letting their actions speak for themselves whilst contrasting said actions with words. And those actions and words are exhaustively contextualised, to let the reader make up their minds. A story which involves the assassination of club presidents, suppression of supporters, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Maradona, Helenio Herrera, Cesar Menotti, Juan Antonio Samaranch and Terry Venables would take some cocking up, but enhanced as it is by the telling,

The danger about analysing a passion is that by exploring it thoroughly and understanding it you might kill it. That's not the case here, if anything Burns made my admiration of the club grow even more. It's just a shame that in eleven years this hasn't been updated at all, in many ways those years have been some of the most fascinating in a wonderful history. But then, given that flamboyant history you'd almost be wanting to update it every year.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Suckers In The Nighttime - Dracula by Bram Stoker



Dracula's been bastardised, parodied, pastiched, adapted, used, abused and stretched into so many fictional shapes that it's easy to think you know everything about him. For all that I've been exposed to Dracula via Hammer, Hollywood, the BBC, Kim Newman and innumerable other authors I'd never actually read the source material that inspired it all. A sale in the Local Capitalist Branch of Walmart's World Takeover (aka the local Asda supermarket)changed all that. A meaty classic I'd never read for a quid? Irresistible.

I'd expected the inevitable pacing issues that 113 years since publication might bring; I was right but they weren't anything like I'd expected. Part of Stoker's genius with the novel is telling it in short, epistolary bursts. Not only does this give the novel an immediacy an omniscient narrator lacks, it makes the novel feel pacy, even when there's little actually going on. Stoker's very good at finding individual voices for his characters too, having read no other Stoker I'm convinced the author's hidden himself very well - the downside there is he occasionally resorts to dialect, and it's usually as annoying as when Dickens resorts to Chas n Dave Cockernee. The other element that keeps the novel fascinating is Stoker's flair for the lurid, the feeling maintained throughout the novel that something shocking and dramatic could happen at any moment. Stoker also uses the length of the book expertly, using it to emphasise Dracula's cunning and capabilities, and build him into a terrible, formidable opponent for the book's heroes.

Actually that's not strictly true - the turning point comes around the three quarter mark when the heroes begin to fight back. It's an expertly executed strategy from Stoker - the more we learn about the Count, the less fearsome he becomes. As in the myths that have accreted about them, vampires crumble in sunlight, literally and metaphorically.

The trouble with Stoker having created such an alluring title character though is that of the heroes only Van Helsing is anywhere near as memorable, more energetic and vital than any of his male compadres, Harker, Seward, or Morris, despite being far older than any of them. Similarly, Mina seems to have more fibre than any of those others, being unafraid to face death if the late chase across Europe fails and frankly less wet than her husband, whatever Stoker has others say about his strength.

The ending's not particularly satisfying, but then if Dracula is to be vanquished it can't be - he's near invincible if he gets back to his lair or can change form, and therefore has to be taken at his weakest. Stoker attempts to introduce some jeopardy with a gypsy guard for the sleeping vampire, but it's still something of a fizzling out rather than a grand finale. It's still an enjoyable, powerful novel though, one that could almost pass for one of the holiday read blockbuster novels of today. Sadly for his chances with that market, Stoker made the mistake of having some depth and actual writing skill.

What Do You Want For Tea? I Want Crisps - Code of the Krillitanes by Justin Richards


It's strange that something as... fleeting as the annual Quick Reads book is the end of the Tenth Doctor's fictional reign.* You can almost get through it in less time than it takes the Doctor to say his interminable goodbyes in The End of Time Part 2. Really, there's not that much to say about these Quick Reads as they're reduced to a relatively basic prose style and have to get through a story quickly. It might sound insulting to Justin Richards to say that I think he's well suited to this sort of thing but it's not - getting an adventure like this over so quickly and in as simple language as possible is a tough skill, and Richards' experience writing for children clearly helps him here. He's also very good at telling stories simply, and while I've thought his work for the Ninth and Tenth Doctor ranges could've done with losing some padding, or telling part of the story more quickly, this format allows no room for any indulgence. As such, it's got the pace and fire of one of the television episodes, something the standard length of the novels means they often lack.

The plot itself is a touch derivative, drawing heavily on the Krillitane plan from School Reunion and crossbreeding with a Pertwee era style attempt to invade via a major industry (such as either original series Auton tale or even, if you prefer, the author's own Fourth Doctor Missing Adventure System Shock). The Waters of Mars proved that you can still do interesting things with classic Doctor Who story templates and, while Code isn't in that class, it does manage a nice plot surprise around halfway through and - mark of good Doctor Who - has the villains defeated by ingenuity and with the help of a human rather than relying on a technobabble solution.

It might be no more than the literary equivalent of a bag of crisps, but like a good bag of crisps, it's a tasty and satisfying snack.

* Yeah, I know DWM's strip The Crimson Hand has one more instalment left, but it's been underway for three months already so this is the last complete story to show up. And you can shut up about Doctor Who Adventures already...

Monday, 8 March 2010

I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday: The Book On The Edge of Forever by Christopher Priest


I'd been waiting to get hold of this one for years. I've had it on my Amazon Wishlist since I set it up way back in the mists of time. Might even be three years ago, which I believe counts as 'forever and a week or two' in internet time. Trouble is every copy of this was priced around £50. I'm not one who begrudges the slightness of a book when weighing up buying it, length is by no means a measure of quality (often quite the inverse). And then, out of nowhere, a copy came up for 45p plus p&p. Mispriced? Quick sale? Didn't care, thank you greatbuybooks_us and goodnight, done deal.

As the cover tells you, it's a book concerning Harlan Ellison so it can't fail to be fascinating. It's all about the proposed third and final voume in Ellison's Dangerous Visons series, a series that nobly aimed to anthologise the best SF writers tackling edgier subjects. The first two volumes were liberally festooned with awards from the SF community, and their line-ups still look impressive to anyone with a passing familiarity with the literary SF field - aside from Ellison himself there's Philip Jose Farmer, Robert Bloch, Brian Aldiss, Philip K Dick, Larry NIven, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, J G Ballard, Roger Zelazny and Samuel R Delany. And that's only in the first book. Start lisitng for Again, Dangerous Visions (or even the volume Priest's dealing with here) and I'll be here all day. You get the idea, it caught the SF zeitgeist and combined shock with substance. Which is very Harlan.

The first volume came out in 1967, the second in 1972. And The Last Dangerous Visions was announced for publication in 1973...

...we're still waiting a mere 37 years later.

I've no insight into the matter beyond this and the odd article I've seen elsewhere in the fan press. Priest's essay here actually originated in a fanzine, and became published in a professional medium due to one of Ellison's numerous ongoing spats with fans (this one with Fantagraphics' Gary Grohl). According to the famously reliable Wikipedia, the author's requested that the essay be withdrawn fomr the internet - I'm therefore not sure how much of the opinion within he stands by, if any. What this does - brilliantly and as forensically as possible - is trace the history of the delays in the book, how it's sprawled massively over the decades, at last count encompassing at least three volumes before Ellison's introductions were written, how Ellison was soliciting stories at least until the early 80s, and the promises he made to included authors. Promises, of course, as yet unfulfilled.

While the book has some malicious intent behind it (not necessarily on Priest's part, certainly on Grohl's) it's reasonably fair and the text itself largely sticks to chronicling and letting any damning words come from Ellison's own mouth (although there's a back cover quote which could easily be nastily out of context). And it reaches a very interesting conclusion, that the book is now more or less unpublishable for all sorts of reasons, even with length not really being a consideration in an age of ebooks. How dangerous are visions from 1973 and earlier really going to be 37 years on? Reality and time can defang even the most controversial material. Priest thinks only Ellison's pride means he can't admit we'll never see the book. And Ellison rarely backs down, so that admission may never be forthcoming.

You never know though, in fifty years time it might be The Last Dangerous Visions someone like me's got on whatever the futuristic equivalent of an Amazon wishlist is and sees going cheap. Nice thought, but from the looks of this, it's a reality beyone even the imagination of one of the world's greatest writers of the fantastic.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Cz- Cz- Cz- Cz- Cz- Cz- Czech It Out - Short Trips: Destination Prague edited by Steven Savile


There was a small tragedy in Doctor Who fandom towards the end of last year. Big Finish lost its licence for Doctor Who short story collections early in the year, meaning there was no longer any printed Who fiction based on the old series in regular production. And at the end of December they sold off all remaning stock, meaning there was officially no 'old series' Doctor Who fiction in print. It was a low key fizzling out to nineteen years of existence in the written word that, for a while, was the only thing that kept Doctor Who going; an official ongoing narrative that seemed impossibly exciting to those of us who'd grown up on the Target books.

It hadn't been that for a long time of course, firstly the BBC took the licence back from Virgin without entirely seeming to understand what had made the books so exciting (and understaffing the range massively), then Big Finish happened along to steal some thunder and cause fandom to schism over why their respective media were better. Then the BBC Books range quietly ended in the wake of the success of the Russell T Davies driven revival; Telos lost their novella licence and suddenly the Short Trips range, almost unnoticed, became the last classic series books. By their nature they were never the ongoing narrative that the New Adventures and Eighth Doctor Adventures had been, they were in essence the eventual triumph of the Missing Adventures. They started off with stories familiar to fans, but as they went on began to introduce other voices into the mix, ones new to Doctor Who. That culminated in the likes of the How The Doctor Changed My Life collection, consisting entirely of first time authors.

Destination Prague falls squarely into the camp of introducing new and different voices. Of the authors here I only recognised three from their previous Doctor Who work, one from a then twelve year old short story, one from a short story in the same range two books prior to this and one from a new series novel that came out after this was published. So those voices certainly weren't tapped out, and the rest may have fresh things to say. Call me insane, but I quite like the thrill of reading new writers and seeing what they can come up with; that applies to both Doctor Who and my wider reading. And if I see a familiar name having a go at Doctor Who for the first time, it's an extra thrill - I heartily approved of seeing Mike W Barr's name given his involvement in one of my favourite graphic novels of the mid 80s, Camelot 3000.

I'm still not certain that the overarching theme was a good idea. Prague's a beautiful city, albeit ones I've got bad memories of as I was miserably ill during my one trip there. Being confined to a hotel room with only the Simpsons in Czech to alleviate the misery isn't my idea of fun, particularly when I wasn't in a fit state to concentrate on my book. Plus it's diffcult to understand why we've never seen the Doctor reminisce about Prague before when it's apparently been such a big part of his lives. As a theme though, setting the stories in and around a foreign city is a sound idea, particularly when it comes with a rich history such as Prague's. The trouble there though is that you've a bunch of British, American and Australian authors who often seem to be relying on research rather than experience, not really capturing the essence of the city but playing around with the things that made the city famous instead. Familiar places and names recur - the likes of Rabbi Loew, Tyco Brache and Kafka, and the Astronomical Clock seems to get visited by every Doctor a couple of times over. And the second part of the theme, Prague's future, is difficult to extrapolate without knowing the city intimately. The stories sometimes become slightly SF generic, there's often nothing to stop this being almost any city in the world. And this being about Prague's future is slightly limiting on authors; it cleaves rigidly to the perception of Doctor Who as an SF show when really it can be much, much broader than that. That might be a difference in how the show's perceived by UK fans and how the rest of the world (including the broader UK population)sees the show though.

My favourite stories here do manage to avoid teling straight SF stories though. Steve Lockley and Paul Lewis succesfully use their story, War in a Time of Peace, to obliquely look at today. Stephen Dedman's Nanomorphosis ponders Kafka's literary concepts becoming reality and Todd McCaffrey's The Dragons of Prague is splendidly absurd, though the demouement is a little sudden and the prose itself is a little crude in places. Both manage a fine job of capturing Tom Baker's Doctor though, something that's eluded a hell of a lot of other Who writers. Actually, I found the second half of the collection very strong, the last seven stories all successful in telling different types of story - James Swallow's tale has a lovely elegaic atmosphere, Kevin Killiany's Men of the Earth has cockroaches and zombies - double points there! - and Fable Fusion uses what I assume is genuine Czech folklore as a starting point. I'm not entirely sure I'd have chosen opener Midnight at the Cafe of the Black Madonna as the representation for the Best of Short Trips collection, it seemes solid rather than inspired.

Strangely though, when I came to look back at the stories to write the review I found myself thinking more fondly of the first half of the book, even if the stories hadn't stood out to me at the time. The credits at the back of the book indicate the autors have extensive professional experience elsewhere, and it shows in the quality of the stories. There's nothing poor here, only the odd moment where the dialogue seems a little odd for certain Doctors, and the lack of Doctor Who experience doesn't show in retreading ideas but rather in minor details jarring with previously told tales. Not that such things bother me overly, I'm of the Robert Holmes school that thinks a good story takes priority over continuity details. If I'm going to level a charge, I'd say that I was never quite sure if there was a consistent timeline worked out for Prague's future - it may be a consequence of having the tales range over a vast timescale from 2012 to 848,988 though. And there weren't really any little details carried over from story to story that gave the collection a cohesive feel, the odd reference to other exploits in the collection slipped in might have made all the difference. And while it's obviously a choice on the part of editor Steven Savile, I wouldn't have minded a story or two set firmly in Prague's history, something to give readers a taste of the city's history and fully exploit the setting, rather than a second hand flavour. I suppose it stops writiers lazily homing in on obvious targets though, so I'm all for that. The book often feels like Savile's pushed his writers rather than settling for 'this'll do' at any point.

This ended up feeling like one of the stronger collections then, expereinced short story writers not falling prey to a trap Big Finish collections seem prone to, but understanding that a good short story isn't simply a cut down adventure (it can be, but that's rare). Well worth tracking down via the likes of Amazon Marketplace or eBay.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Hanging On To My Ego - Shooty Dog Thing by Paul Castle and friends


First a declaration of egotism and self-interest - I've written a fairly significant chunk of this book. So the review which follows is going to try to avoid judging all of my bits. Because I don't need to tell you how great they are, obviously...

I've been writing for fanzines for years - first off the stuff no-one gets to see (and I don't have copies of any more!) for a local Cult TV group, then a couple of reviews for Stone Circle and Strange Skins and, more recently, excellent Canadian 'zines Whotopia and Enlightenment. Most of which involved burbling on about Doctor Who one way or the other. But my main work's been done for the inestimable Paul 'Brax' Castle on - you guessed it - Shooty Dog Thing. Brax started the zine up in the wake of the Regenerations 2006 con, partly due to there being a lack of fanzine activity, and partly as a way to get to meet people. It must've worked wonders, certainly I made it a priority to reacquaint myself with him at the same event a year later (we'd had an all too brief meeting in 2002 and hung around the same mailing lists). And we spent a pleasant afternoon bonding over a shared love of Licence Denied, talking about the zine and kicking ideas around, ending with both of us going away buzzing and me promising him a couple of ideas. And I've been writing for him ever since, and he's become one of the best mates anyone could wish for.

Shooty's a modern zine, in outlook and production. It tends to concentrate on the old series, but with a modern outlook. Without wanting to sound too tediously hippyish, it wants to show what's great about Doctor Who, regardless of when it was produced or what form it came in. The real stroke of genius thugh was to become the first non-print Doctor Who 'zine, instead it was published as a quarterly PDF formatted for reading or for printing.

So we were socialising down in London in November when Tim Hirst, eminence gris of Hirst Books, collared Brax and asked him if he was interested in putting together a Best of Shooty Dog Thing for professional publication. ISBN, Amazon listing and everything. You might think Brax snapped his hand off on the spot but nope, after some deliberation and a revisit to make sure he had enough for a book that he'd be proud to put out he agreed. And frankly worked his arse off to pull everything together before Christmas. For my part, I was one of those he asked for extra material, initially for the tie in review section with Hirst Books other planned Christmas release, Colin Baker's Look Who's Talking, and a Bernice Summerfield Inside Story review to complement an already published article. And, madly, I managed to pitch him a piece about how the Sixth Doctor had been successfully evolved since his time on screen ended. At least that's how I pitched it, but it ended up being a massive overview of the evolution of the Sixth Doctor's character right from the start. I think that it ended up being a long article was that I was conscious of it being for publication in a book rather than a fanzine, and therefore having more space to flesh out the ideas in. I'm always trying to keep actual fanzine articles relatively short, as a) the longer ones fill up a hell of a lot of page count and I don't want to bore readers and b) with a lot of the zines I write for being prepared mainly for online consumption now, several thousand words can mean one hell of a lot of concentration and eyestrain.

Postal strikes and revisions meant the publication date slipped back to January, but that allowed a couple of articles to be switched and a stronger, changed running order of articles. I did a late proofread of the book and, despite it being late and knowing a lot of the material, found myself being drawn into it.

So what is it exactly? Well, it's a great big fuck you to the narrow minded concept that the best Doctor Who is exclusively the telly show. It's a love letter to the diversity of Doctor Who out there, the books, comics, audios, spin offs, conventions, plays... essentially about how damn great it can be, and how great being a fan of it can be. It's introduced by two Doctor Who alumni, first the multi-talented Paul Cornell, editor of original fanzine collection Licence Denied, and a quite wonderful and moving tribute to fanzines in general from ex-fanzine writer and editor and proprietor of Telos books, David J Howe. It's almost worth the cover price of the book alone. And it finishes with a loving tribute to Doctor Who and its fandom from 60s Doctor Who actress Anneke Wills. In between those pieces, all Time Lord life is there. There's fan theorising, edgy humour, convention reviews, directions to some sorely neglected corners of Doctor Who, holding fandom itself up to a mirror... it's an extended love letter to being a fan, the creative possibilities of fanhood and an exhortation to be as open-minded as possible, because otherwise you might miss something brilliant. It's perhaps less eclectic and anarchic than the collection that inspired it, but that's probably as much to do with the pieces all being drawn from one source, and possibly a certain generation of fandom being a little more mature, if still not short on mockery.

While the enthusiasm's one of the major selling points, it doesn't detract from the quality of the writing. Obviously excepting myself for egotistical reasons, it's excellent. Paul's an intelligent, genial host, knowledgeable, but never wanting to intimidate or show that off, wanting to share it instead. And his cadre of writers follow that lead, sometimes seriously, sometimes tongue in cheek, but always with a love of Doctor Who first and foremost in mind.

I'm proud to be part of it.

Buy Shooty Dog Thing here. And check out a few of the other fine publications from Hirst Books while you're at it.

Everything Picture - Round Up #1

...or the stuff I've read but want to keep what I say about the, short and sweet.

First up, Jo Durden-Smith's The Essence of Buddhism. It's a basic guide to Buddhism, essentially more of the history of the religion (and therefore a bit of a slog occasionally) and the various factions, with fairly shallow of dips into the philosophy underpinning the religion. Interesting, but only a starting point if you want to know more.

Colin Wilson's biography of Alister Crowley, The Nature of the Beast is fairly remarkable in that it's one of the most credulous books I've ever read. It doesn't shy away from Crowley's manifold flaws, but when it comes to Crowley's more mysticism he's got a disturbing tendency to take him literally at his word. It's an interesting position to try to hold, balancing scepticism with credibility, and I'm not entirely sure Wilson pulls it off. But it's interesting to get a fuller picture of one of the original tabloid daemons, and no man who pissed the Daily Mail off so much can be all bad, even if he did descend to eating shit.

And finally the band biography of one of my favourite bands, The Flaming Lips. There's nothing essentially remarkable about their story, bar their persistence, but when a remarkable character like Wayne Coyne's at the heart of the tale, it can't help but be interesting. Like the Lips music it feels like a mix of wide eyed cosmic optimism of with garage and punk, it's like tracking someone with a great deal of enthusiasm and determination trying to build a spaceship from the principle of trial and error. It's often close to crashing and burning in flames, but as much by luck as judgement, they eventually manage to successfully shoot for the stars. Author Jim DeRogitas often makes a classic rock critic mistake of telling you exactly what's good, and oh look, it's received orthodoxy. Trying to build a consensus, which seems extraordinarily appropriate for a band like the Lips. Although he's right when he says that the magnificent atheistic hymn 'Do You Realize??' should have been one of the biggest hits of all time. It's a reminder of how, in a ruthless bastard of an industry, there's still room for a bunch of hardworking nutters to make it on their own terms. The world would be a shittier place indeed without the cheeringly indomitable presence of the Lips, the purveyors of the finest, most joyous and inclusive rock 'n' roll show I've ever seen.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Sweet Dreams My... Lost 6.1/6.2 LAX Parts 1 & 2

You don't get cliffhangers much better than the one Lost ended Season 5 on. The mythologised Jacob had died at the hands of Ben, accompanied by a man who looked like Locke but which the dead body in the coffin indicated wasn't. And Juliet had just apparently set off a hydrogen bomb in an attempt to change the timelines so Flight 815 never crashlanded. Not so much a 'how do they get out of that' but a 'what the hell happens next' topped with the intriguingly obligue hint of Lost's usual logo being presented in negative - black on a white background. There's very few shows get to the end of five seasons and leave you with utterly no idea as to what the next season will be like. It's that 'where the fuck are they going?' that's made Lost one of my favourite shows. Other people are hanging on for the answers, for all to be revealed. And I can understand that. But it's very difficult to make the answers satisfying when everyone's been hanging on for them for so long. And I'll bet that, whatever the ending, some people are going to end up disappointed. Certainly Damon Lindelof seemed to be trying to soften people up when he mentioned Newhart's 'all a dream' ending in an interview with MTV News. Even if, as he implies, the ending's clever and germane to Lost, there'll be plenty vocally upset about it. Their loss, particularly when the ride so far's been so enjoyable.

There's no messing about to start the new season. It picks up precisely where Season 5 left off, with Ben killing Jacob in the modern day with a man who looks like, but't isn't, Locke, and, back in the other time zone, 1977, Juliet setting off a hydrogen bomb that - according to the theory of Daniel Faraday (physicist and member of the rescue party for Oceanic Flight 815. And... it immediately heads for left field once again. We go into a timeline where Oceanic Flight 815 doesn't crash, where the turbulence from 2004 is merely brief and doesn't bring them down, and the island they blew up is at the bottom of the ocean. We're back where we started, but this time heading in an entirely different direction, where the crash and subsequent consequences never happened. Desmond's here, not settled down off the island, Charlie and Boone are alive. Interesting to note that Shannon wasn't on the flight with him though - scheduling difficulties or plot to unfold? Hang on, Desmond's on board? We get to see what happened if the flight reached LA. It'd be a shock if it didn't take the full season for those consequences to unfold in this timeline. Part One ends as the flight touches down and everyone disembarks, the only really obviously notable event being Jack saving Charlie's life from an overdose, and Charlie resenting him for it.

And we're also back in a timeline where Juliet didn't manage to detonate the hydrogen bomb. Everybody lives! And just like that we're following parallel alternate timelines. How can you not love a series that actually considers the audience intelligent enough to deal with that without a word of explanation? You have to respect a series that's reformatted itself season by season without, despite appearaces around a slightly flabby midsection, losing direction. Anyway here we've got Juliet dying in Sawyer's arms, seemingly irrevocably breaking their never straightforward relationship down altogether. Even slash fans couldn't mend this one confincingly (unless it's a ritual disembowelling knife Sawyer rams where the sun don't shine). And Jacob's ghost appears to Hurley to tell him he was killed an hour ago, gives him a guitar case and tells him to take everyone to the temple. Which leads us to...

Another 'and', this one being being Not-Locke and Ben dealing with the aftermath of Jacob's death. We discover what Not-Locke is (not who, that's not up for revelation just yet) in spectacularly violent fashion. And gives us a kind of answer to the island's apparent power of cheating death. It's instantly the most gripping element of the episode, partly due to being so close to giving us definitive answers and partly thanks to the endlessly fascinating performances of Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson.

As if everyone hadn't got the idea over the past five years, Cuse and Lindelof are too savvy to satisfy viewers by returning to that. Instead the first half hour or so of part two is spent alternating between the two timelines, Jack discovering his father's coffin is missing and Kate escaping her captor. There's all sorts of meetings that seem halfway significant between characters we've come to know over five years, that have you asking if they mean anything. And meanwhile, back on the island, we find the Temple, although there's a further mystery opened with the people we find there. And some seriously major developments for one of the leads. While it's not dull, perhaps a touch on the slow side at times while events develop, I was hankering to get back to Ben and Not Locke. Yep, that's despite cast fatalities and a foxy lady kicking arse. And when we do get back to Ben and Locke? Explanations of a kind. And hints, and a sense that things are really moving at pace towards a big climax.

I think I know where they're going with the resurrection of Sayid. And with the Ben and Not-Locke storyline. But not a scooby with the LA story.

More answers then, but even at this late stage they open new questions. Lost's back, and it's business as usual. And as ever, business is good.

Monday, 1 February 2010

House of Books - Howard's End is On The Landing by Susan Hill

Yeah, I've mentioned this one before.

I confess I've never read one of Susan Hill's novels, I haven't even the slightest idea of what she writes, although Those Who Know reckon she's A Literary Heavyweight. Cest la vie, you can't read everyone, although literary snobs would undoubtedly be looking down their nose at me for that admission. But, as a bibilophile with a book collection that's evolving into a world devouring entity, the central idea of the book was irresistible - opt out of the literary rat race and instead turn inward to devour your own collection. Like I say, irresistible, particularly since I don't think I could do it myself.

This is far more personal than a straight autobiography could be. Anyone can tell their life as they saw it. Hill instead puts her library up for public scrutiny, and thereby exposes her personality and tastes for all to see. That's far more daring and interesting than selecting the events in your life you want to show people. And she isn't shy, openly proud of her collections of children's books and pop up books where others might have deliberately dodged mentioning them. I'm not sure I'd actually like Hill if we ever met, there's often the loud clanging of literary name drops, her life path and attitudes differ and our generational outlooks and tastes seem vastly divergent. And she often seems a touch on the haughty side, but given the literary circles she came to maturity in, that's perhaps only to be expected.

The book's at its best when she's enthusing about her favourite books, or books I didn't know about but which she makes fascinating. She's quite brilliant on the subject of the King James Bible and why it matters to her so much, and you'd be a curmudgeonly individual indeed (or a massive bibliophile. Or both) not to be moved to follow up on at least a couple of the books she comes across. I considered it a triumph to restrict myself to two (the already-covered-in-this-blog The Smaller Sky and The Paper House). It's that type of recommendation of books you otherwise probably wouldn't hear of that makes this such a fascinating and worthwhile book, although following up on those recommendations is obviously at odds with the book's central conceit. I'm determined to follow that conceit myself one day, but that book addiction is a hard habit to break. Probably worse than crack, although with less physical symptoms.

It doesn't matter if you've no idea who Hill is, by the end of this book you'll feel like you know her personally. And probably be impressed by how lovely her use of words is. It might only appeal to book lovers, but a book that can make you feel that not buying books is not only a worthwhile exercise, but something of a triumph, and not leave you feeling like a philistine, is a remarkable thing indeed.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

It's A Bad World - Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre

I've never been a fan of crime fiction, it tends to be about leading to definitive answers, and that's not what I like in my literature. Brookmyre's my one great exception. He kind of sneaked up on me, constantly mentioned by friends who shared similar tastes as a top read. SO I picked up a copy of A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away and... yeah, you know where this is going. Smart, snarky, lurid, pop culture literate, angry and energetic - it was wonderfully bracing, a jolt to the system, a literary defibrillator. Probably too lowbrow to be considered for high faluting literary prizes but sod that, this was relentlessly entertaining stuff. And I've been dawdling through his back catalogue ever since, eventually working my way back to the start.

A word of warning, Broomkmyre's as proudly and defiantly Scottish as Irvine Welsh. It permeates Brookmyre's outlook, from his politics, through the humour and right through to the language. With the often phonetically rendered slang this couldn't happen anywhere but Edinburgh, an Edinburgh that's more colourful and vivid than Welsh's more self-absorbed books allows.

Brookmyre's an energetic writer at the best of times, and Quite Ugly One Morning turns up that energy to eleven. It's got the unpredictability, vitality and occasional crudeness of all the best debuts have, the sheer glee of someone finally let loose in a literary sandpit. It's in your face from the start, with a vivid description of a horrific crime scene, the horror undercut by judicious employment of human bodily waste. And Brookmyre's caustic humour's there from that start, the police officers almost slapstick in their attempts to get through a huge puddle of vomit. Quite literally stomach churning but an instant hook, and welcome light years away from the trend for forensic descriptions that leave you feeling nothing. Brookmyre's demands that you care, that you at least get a sense of horror from the gore he often employs (the macabre mutilations inflicted on Mortlake here are wince inducing, almost making the character sympathetic despite his actions).

Other familiar Brookmyre tropes are present and correct. My views on the Margaret Thatcher's Tory regime chime with the author's, so I'm happy to go along with the richly deserved kicking he hands to the Thatcherist ideology and those who follow it. The anti-Tory rage (namechecking Thatcher, Tebbit and Virginia Bottomley) dates the book a little, but it's always good to have a reminder of what a vile self serving regime it was. Main villain Stephen Lime is the grotesque villain embodying Establishment cancers that Brookmyre excels at, from his name (Stephen Lime, S Lime, geddit?) to his ultra capitalist outlook. Brookmyre's exceptional at getting inside his mindset and imbuing him with a certain humanity without ever leaving the reader in any doubt that he's Thatcherite scum. In that sense Brookmyre's almsot a Biblically moralistic writer, with the good and bad guys clearly labelled up and ending up receiving their just desserts. It'd be preachily simplistic but for the pissed off black humour that gives the book its energy.

Parlabane himself isn't a memorable creation on the face of it, a slightly seedy bundle of one liners and handy abilities who acts as the Angel of Vengeance to Brookmyre's authorial God. But it's the flashes of background we get that brings him to life, hangovers, hitmen and hotel room shagging. It's the details, the texture that make him memorable. He's a moral journalist who's learned the hard way that things are not always as they seem and powerful people are, by and large, absolute bastards. Like Roger Cook, but likable and with added hubris and understanding of the bigger picture. Sometimes his resources strains credibility, such as his former shag from Companies House, but Parlabane's undoubtedly a man who'd exploit every possible asset and have all sorts of strange contacts. In a Brookmyre book, what might seem outlandish is just part of the circus.

And one more reason to love it? If you take the 'One' in the title in Roman numeral form the initials of the title spell 'quim'. Yeah, it's not big but it's clever and, most importantly, funny.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Young God in the Building, Bout to Start A Religion - Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock

It was my final year of primary school that I was first encouraged to question the Bible - in retrospect, a brave and mad thing for a teacher in a Church-in-Wales school to do. He provided a prosaic explanation for miracles such as feeding the five thousand or turning water into wine, and then letting us come up with similar explanations for how miracles may have been enacted. In retrospect it's probably the healthiest religious education lesson I ever had, teaching me to question religion's precepts.

Behold the Man comes from a similar perspective. On the surface it's highly blasphemous, putting an ordinary man in the stories where Jesus conventionally fits, and the depiction of Mary and Jesus seems deliberate provocation. And from that point of view it's similar to Monty Python's Life of Brian with the surface blasphemy being cover for deeper blasphemy, being a wider critique of organised religion and the myths that grow up around them, although the Pythons swapped Behold the Man's righteous anger for sharp jokes. Glogauer isn't particularly sympathetic as a chacracter, being antisocial and driving everyone away from him by combining a messianic complex with a tendency to self pity and lack of direction One of the 'Angry Young Men' contemporary with the book being written, but without anywhere to direct his anger. The combination of an unsympathetic lead, spare prose and an author's righteous anger means the book always feels an edgy and uncomfortable read, particularly when Glogauer realises he's fulfilling his historical role. The tropes of a time traveller finding himself playing out an alloted role have become well worn, this was written at a time when they were fresher, and such books weren't quite as plentiful. The reader might sniff where events are leading relatively early on, but it's only in the last third that Moorcock turns it into a tragedy. Being sparing with it means the story's not mawkishly exploitative as it could easily have been, and doesn't come across as simply trading on the central premise.

This will certainly offend churchgoing Christians, maybe even committed folk of other religions. Otherwise it's a sharply drawn looks at how myths can accrete almost simply by the power of belief, how what originally happened is almost irrelevant. Not an easy read, but extraordinary and thought provoking.

And yeah I know, with Moorcock I probably should have searched for a Hawkwind lyric for the title...

Walls Come Tumbling Down - The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez

And this is the other book I bought after reading Susan Hill's book-about-not-buying-books Howard's End Is On The Landing. I feel quite proud at having stopped at just two. And after finishing The Paper House, probably relieved that I went no further.

I'm sure some pedant somewhere will take umbrage with The Paper House's self-description of itself as a novel. It barely breaks the hundred page barrier, taking the plentiful full page illustrations into account it probably wouldn't even get close to that. And, for such a short novel, it moves at a somewhat languid pace. Yet it has much to say about bibliophiles and the love of books, but never feels forced or hurried in what it says. It probably helps that it's a translation from a Spanish language original and, as with the few other authors I've read whose first language is of Mediterranean origin, the language feels poetic, helping to compress ideas and meaning without . How much of this is down to the author and how much the translator is difficult to know (perhaps translators have in mind that all South American authors should be as strange and beautiful as Marquez or Borges), but it's a stylistic translation tic I adore. It's a feeling of craftsmanship with words that never gets tired for me, but might be too rich for other readers, one that makes me feel there are sensations, feelings and happenings that the English language is inadequate for. In this case, the brevity means that richness never quite cloys as it does in longer, denser works from the South American continent. Adding to the slight dislocation caused by thoughts and ideas from one language being translated to another is the tale's structure. There's no real action, it simply follows the main character as he tries to track down the origins of a mysterious book sent to a colleague of his. Much of this involves him being told stories by others who knew the story of the man who sent the book, so the story at the heart of the book is always told at one remove, through the eyes of others.

For all that, it's strangely compelling. Well, it would be for me since my bibliophilia meant I could empathise with the book collectors and lovers here, even if not always with their reasons. There's always a grim fascination with getting to the heart of a man in the grip of a mania, as the mysterious Carlos Brauer is. It's the love of books taken to the logical conclusion, once he's obsessed over them to the point of anthropomorphising his books to the point where his personal index system means authors with grudges or disagreements with one another cannot be shelved next to each other (Shakespeare and Marlowe to pick merely the most obvious example). He ends up living alone in a house of his books, within the worlds of paper and words. And yet the most troubling aspect is that it's clear he loves the books, he's not merely a collector. He reads and annotates them, to the obvious disapproval of the book collector who narrates part of his story to the main character. We never meet Brauer, never even come close to it, never know anything about him but his obsessive all consuming passion for literature, but this aspect of his personality's lucidly realised. He even predicts the exact manner of the death that begins the book, another logical end to an obsession.

Also integral to the book are the illustrations. Starting with the cover, they're allusive, illustrating the text without ever being straightforward. It's an approach I'm not overly familiar with from English literature, but it's a refreshing and engaging approach which complements the textual style of this book (and the South American literature that's been translated).

It almost feels wrong that a book exploring the love of books dwells so much on the unhealthy aspects of it, it's almost an anti-book in parts. It'd no doubt raise a smile from my long suffering wife as books continue to pile up around the house. Actually that's a touch unfair, if anything it's a parable about the dangers of obsession lensed through a literary passion probably drawn from the author himself. But in warning of the perils an obsession with beauty, it finds a strange beauty of its own.

Friday, 15 January 2010

The Girl From 15 Years Ago Has Packed And Gone Away - Mojo Britpop Special

It always looked like the last survivors of a nuclear war would be cockroaches, Keith Richards and Oasis. Until August 2009 it looked like nothing could stop any of them, even the annihilation of the rest of the world. Noel Gallagher's left Oasis? Again? He'll be back, he always comes back. Except this time, just outside Paris, after one fight too many, he left for good. And the last major Britpop zombie was finally laid to rest.*

The timing might already have been dictated to tie in with Blur's reformation, but Mojo's timing couldn't really be much better. The big music stories of the summer were both related to Britpop's major players, fifteen years on from the release of the albums which made their names with the public at large. God knows if it had any effect on sales, but the fact I only picked it up because it was packaged with another music magazine (hey Q, looking like a glossy lifestyle mag doesn't mean your content is any less shit, just more homogenous). It's a marker though, fifteen years is around the time when the era starts to acquire the sheen of fond nostalgia and the horrors of the likes of Northern Uproar are forgotten by all but the former hardcore addicts. And even then the drugs can thankfully blur your memory.

The magazine covers the major players via a combination of archive interview and a few more words from more minor players. The big names of the era still seem reticent to talk, Brett Anderson's reluctant to discuss the more debauched aspects of Suede's career, or Bernard Butler's departure and the Elastica piece is an exercise in trying to spin towropes from gossamer, Justine Frischmann moving on and even trying to keep others from discussing it. That said, it's worth it for a seriously cute pic of Donna Matthews in her prime, before the drugs really kicked in. The Oasis piece tries to offer an insight into their rise, as part of a few articles documenting major moments (also including such moments as Jarvis' stage invasion at the Brits), but doesn't really offer anything new. That's the central problem here, there's no real new insight for the devotees of any of these bands, and being cruelly honest that's going to be the main audience for this. Instead, it's a nostalgia tour, not quite superficial, but without enough new to say to interest me. Perhaps it's that this was the musical time that dominated my time at university, and unlike most Mojo specials I was familiar with much of the material by living through the music papers for much of the time.

It climaxes with a best of Britpop album list. Creditably it ignores the prejudices of the music papers of the time and comes up with a diverse selection that provides a fairly complete picture of the movement (as always you can argue over omitted favourites such as The Verve's A Northern Soul or how-the-hell-did-that-make-it-in moments such as Stereophonics). Could've done with a little proofreading though, a couple of glaring textual errors aside it's rather unforgivable that Echobelly's 'Everybody's Got One' is accompanied by the sleeve for their second album 'On'. Particularly when said sleeve has ON in big neon orange letters on it.

As an overall picture then it's just fine, and a decent introduction for latter day Oasis or Blur fans looking to get some context. But if you were there, beware.

* Yes I know Supergrass are still going, but despite the attempts to convince you otherwise here Supergrass really weren't that big, much as I love them. No more than Dodgy really and commercially less than the undermentioned Verve

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Let's Put Our Heads Together, And Start A New Country Up - Nation by Terry Pratchett

I go back a long way with Terry Pratchett, all of 23 years now. Back when Caldicot Library was a portakabin on the school grounds and I was still in the early stages of being allowed to explore the adult section at last. Not that the thrill of having the half of the library on the other side of the issue desk suddenly open stopped me from sampling the wit and imagination of the children's section, with the likes of the Doctor Who novelisations of Nils Olof Franzen's Agaton Sax books. In fact the adult section wasn't that wonderful, Caldicot being a tiny library at that point. And a lot of the adult books I might've contemplated taking out I'd already read - the likes of Douglas Adams or Tolkien. So I'd mainly confined myself to football autobiographies (where the deeds of heroes are so much more epic and grand in scale before you grow up and realise they're only human) and the odd interesting looking book. In 1987 I found a very odd, interesting looking book indeed. It hadn't been taken out that much if the stamps in the front were to be believed, and I was too young to know what horrors 'comic fantasy' usually entailed. Despite the unpromising element of it having a couple of female leads, I still checked it out. And I was glad I did, because Equal Rites introduced me to the wit, wisdom and comic timing of Terry Pratchett.

In retrospect Equal Rites was a fine place to start. It's where the Discworld novels as we knew them really started to form, where Pratchett moved beyond the more simplistic fantasy parodies of The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, but before any sort of predictability could set in. It's where Pratchett begins to really underlay his stories with vicious satire, but could still almost be taken for a simple fantasy author. Just ahead of when his popularity exploded, just before he really got into his stride with Mort. And I've largely stayed with him ever since, even when I thought the books were perhaps becoming a little predictable and seemed almost churned out rather than inspired (around the turn of the millennium). I'm sure they weren't, but that was how it felt.

I say largely as I'd taken something of a sabbatical from his books whilst expanding horizons elsewhere - I'd read Thud!, but a copy of Making Money still lies in one of the vast, teetering to read piles. It took the resolution to clear the books I'd got for Christmas or bought second hand to bring me back to him. I'd found a copy of Nation in the local Oxfam shop, and snapped it up along with Colin Wilson's biography of Alister Crowley and Christopher Brookmyre's Quite Ugly One Morning. And Nation was first off that particular pile.

It's always a pleasure to return to Pratchett, a writer who's always had the ability to tell a strong story clearly and beautifully whilst layering it with themes and meaning. That warmly exasperated tone is like an old friend, effectively communicating humanity's potential and failure to achieve it, inextricably meshing his main theme into his work. It's a voice that I can always match to writer when I see him interviewed, and one that's clearly still well honed, seemingly ever sharper as the years pass and books pile up. Reading Nation, I could at times almost hear that exasperation tip into anger.

Nation sees Pratchett taking on big themes, religion, science and how they help (of have helped) us deal with the world and, inevitably, religion vs science. It'd be simple for him to simply encapsulate them in his main characters, Mau (tribesman) and Daphne (shipwrecked aristo) but, creditably, he never descends to that level of simplicity, that simply wouldn't fit with what he's trying to say at all. Pratchett comes to definite conclusions about the uses of religion and science in dealing with the world (specifically and fairly obviously that the best way to deal with the world is to think about and understand it in whatever terms), but it never feels force fed and merits of both positions are examined. It's noticeable, as ever, that the characters who end up worst off in a Pratchett book (largely dead in this case) are the ones who can't adapt, and those that do end up triumphant at the story's end. It's Darwinism played for laughs. The tackling of a religious theme, where the existence of gods is left indeterminate, doesn't lend itself to the deity ridden Discworld. Pratchett locked that world into having deities way back in The Colour of Magic, the need to be deliberately vague about the supernatural explains why he's writing outside the confines of a recurring series for the first time in a long time.

Pratchett's experience and natural aptitude for a good story means these themes aren't anywhere near as dull as they'd be in other hands. As much as the topics he's discussing this is a fine adventure story in the classic sense, about two msimatched people rebuilding a society following a natural disaster. While there's jeopardy aplenty, the story's got just enough room to breathe and provide us with character moments and little narrative twists you don't expect. Pratchett's always understood the journey of a good story will take you places you didn't expect, and he's also understood the best stories leave you somewhere you didn't quite expect (but ends up being exactly where you want to be). He refuses to bend the logic he's set up to provide a cosy, conventional happy ending. Because, as he points out, life isn't like that.

It's refreshing to return to an old favourite after so long away, and even better when he's encountered in less familiar surroundings. Nation maintains my love of Pratchett as one of the smartest yet least didactic writers out there, one who's always conscious of never cheating his audience, nor talking down to them. The Radio Times was almost apologetic when previewing Radio 4's current adaptation of Small Gods, with the usual caveat of 'if you thought Pratchett was for 40 year old men still living with their mums'. The thing is, his work is not and never has been. Nation's simultaneously as smart an allegory, and gripping an adventure as what's perceived as more literary fiction. Being outside his other series may mean it comes to be regarded as an oddity, but it shouldn't be, because, in a quieter way, it's as strong as any of his previous work.