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.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

I'd Like To Stay Here And Be Normal - The Smaller Sky by John Wain

Here's irony for you. In his fine blog Paul Magrs had recommended Susan Hill's 'Howard's End Is On The Landing'. I'll deal with that in another post, but in short tt's a book about Hill's decision to abandon buying new books for a year and explore her own collection instead. A fine idea, and one my tottering to read piles suggest would be a good idea for me too. Instead of heeding Hill's words though, I did my usual and ended up thinking 'that sounds interesting'. Actually, Hill's words must have sunk in to some extent as I managed to restrict myself to ordering just two.

The Smaller Sky was the first (and currently only one) to make it through Britain's current Ice Age. I'd never heard of Wain before, a man who'd been on the fringes of the Inklings, the 'Angry Young Men' of the 50s and 'The Movement', a group including the likes of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. But all the details I could find all line indicated he was a peripheral figure to all that, one of those dragged in the wake of others and destined to be half-remembered at best. If his potted autobiography at the front is anything to go by that's a shame, it's witty, considered and indicates a prolific if dilettante mind. My favourite type of writer.

The story's all about Arthur Geary, a middle-aged scientist who's left his job and family to live on Paddington Station, spending his nights in the station hotel. Paddington's fairly cavernous roof is the smaller sky of the title, a haven and retreat for Geary which stops the sound of drums he can hear in his mind. It's a place he can lose himself in the crowds. We never really learn if the drums in Geary's head are driven by events in his past; there are vague hints of work he couldn't talk about under the Official Secrets Act but there's no real indication that Geary's work and domestic pressures are any greater than normal for the time. Essentially, it's dealing with the issue of stress decades before it became a common topic. We're not given any insight into the reasons as to his decision bar the absolute basics needed for the story. It's obviously deliberate, as it keeps the question as to Geary's sanity fairly open - he's clearly not sane by the standards of a society that doesn't understand his actions, but each passage from his viewpoint indicates that he's thinking rationally. You can subscribe to either viewpoint depending on your sympathies for his actions.

Wain's take is definitely a 60s one though, his apparent penchant for social realism leading him to examine how it impacts on his family. It's arguable the whole issue at the centre of the novel is rooted in the Sixties though, although in this case the man 'dropping out' isn't a counter culture steeped hippy but an older man who's almost the most unlikely person to drop out . I wasn't quite sure if Wain was ridiculing the whole notion of 'dropping out,' although that's a valid reading. It seems to me to be more to be an early tackling of the issue of people who find themselves trapped by the straitjacket of everyday life, and lacking a release, rebel against it - Geary fits in a line including the more flamboyant likes of Reggie Perrin or Blur's Tracy Jacks. Wain's oh so Sixties realism marks this out as a different approach to most other takes though. Instead of concentrating on the heroics of Geary's small act of rebellion, he also shows how it might be judged by others; family, friends and even how it might be exploited by the media. And Wain's not afraid of taking that to the logical conclusion, turning the book into a tragedy as his protagonist finds there is no real peace as he's hounded to his death; his desire to go unnoticed sacrificed on the altar of another's need to be noticed.

Wain's writing in itself is lovely, at times acutely and acidly observant, particularly on character. He's particularly good with the young characters, perfectly capturing their yearning for to grow up, but that they lack the tools to properly deal with the adult world.

It has small imperfections - Swarthmore is a little too much of a black-hatted bad guy (although well drawn and motivated) and Elizabeth Geary's connection is perhaps tenuous enough that you can feel narrative gears grinding. They're minor flaws though, Wain's dealing with issues still relevant today and his take on it is still eloquent and cutting.

Oh, and one final point; the image on the cover? Was the artist trying to suggest Tony Benn's sanity as questionable or just that Geary missed out on an easier career as Benn's double?

C*nts Are Still Running The World - No Logo by Naomi Klein

In many ways this is a left wing equivalent of all those right wing columnists who tell us doomsday is nigh. The difference here is that Klein actually uses thorough research to back herself up rather than base her opinion on isolated incidents. As a result it's a fairly depressing overall read, from this you'd think that the corporate drive for profit during the 1990s were completely undermining not only Western society, but also the poorer parts of the globe. Which, to an extent they are. Klein charts how large corporations are systematically divesting themselves of their base earthbound corporeal form (in terms of jobs and goods) and are attempting to ascend to a higher corporate plane, where all they have and sell is their own identity. Even if you disagree with Klein's ideological position it's a fascinating account of how corporations and society are changing. If it has a major flaw it's that it seems to be hankering after a utopian past, where corporations and branding were less pervasive. Despite that, Klein seems to want this to be an intelligent call to arms, pointing out the problems of rampant capitalism and how, even at an individual level, it can be checked.Like the opening quote of the book, on the surface No Logo is simply a document of corporate practice. But undeneath that it's an angry polemic positively seething with anger at the sweatshops, job cuts and invasive advertising. It might be overly reductive to say this, but No Logo is an anti-corporate wake up call whose theme is even more relevant today, even if some of the details aren't.

From the Fields of Anfield Road - Compendium & The Dynasty Companion by Paul Tomkins

If you've got Tomkins' other books this one's inessential but if you're looking for an introduction to one of the smartest football writers around, particularly on the subject of Liverpool, then this is an excellent place to start. As the title might suggest it's a sort of greatest hits and doesn't quite hang together as his other, more focused, books do. As ever though, Tomkins near unique combination, which conveys his passion for his team and the game without clouding his more rational judgement, more than compensates. The final section might prove tough going for those without a head for statistics and I'm uncertain as to whether trying to mathematically prove who were the best and worst signings actually proves anything or tells us anything we didn't know already. Fascinating as ever but probably the least of his books so far, still miles ahead of most other football writers though.

Give Me Your TIred, Your Poor, Huddled Masses... - The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama

(Note: this was originally written around the time of Obama's inaugration last year).

Or as it should probably be known, Barack Obama's first election manifesto. Obama is unquestionably the most exciting political figure in the Western hemisphere in my lifetime. Rather than the tired dogmas that have dragged down previous election campaigns he ran on a platform of positivity and hope, summed by his simple and brilliant slogan 'Yes, we can'. It was inclusive and challenging to the electorate, invigorating.The hook here is to see what we can divine of Obama's possible actions as President. It's clear from the book that he's genuinely unaffected by the cynicism that often develops in politicians, but that his enthusiasm is tempered by intelligence and thoroughness, setting forth what he sees as the major issues facing modern America and possible solutions.And instead of rendering politics a dry, dead subject, as professional politicians often do, Obama makes the subject engaging. Policy is never talked about in abstract terms, he always gives a human dimension to the issues and has a gift for striking imagery that encapsulates the ideas he's trying to get across (speeches to an empty Senate chamber, the stunning view from a jet). And the prose itself is beautiful, although occasionally becoming flowery. It's a book you couldn't imagine any of his recent predecessors (particularly the immediate one) having the sincerity, compassion or way with words to write. Whereas the previous regime tried to link compassion with conservatism, one read of this book should show them what compassion truly looks like, and in this case it isn't just a hollow word.Obama himself comes across as a man of rare perspective, probably due to his eclectic, catholic (the small c is crucial there) upbringing. He seems open to ideas and genuinely thoughtful as to the wide ranging effects policies may have. His beliefs and conclusions are based on thoughtful analysis tempered with human compassion - almsot too good to be true. I actually finished the book even more fascinated by the possibilities of Obama's term. If he is a man of deeds as well as words, and he's alllowed to follow the guidelines he sets down here, then his Presidency may live up to the hope and expectations placed upon it.

The Jesus Lizards - Doctor Who: The Creed of the Kromon

It's a fairly good job that Gary Russell asked Philip Martin to make the titular monsters insectoid rather than reptilian, otherwise this would seem even more of a retread of Martin's 80s TV scripts. Rapacious aliens, companions transforming, a Doctor pretending to cooperate with the enemy while encouraging a rebellion and a lot of corridor running? It's definitely been done before. This time though, there's no particular depth, lacking the sort of moral question Varos (TV violence) and Mindwarp (genetic engineering) posed.It's saved to a degree by one of the best thought through and realised races to appear in the Big Finish range, writing, acting and sound design combining to present a convincing alien society. Martin's script is at times overly focused on the Kromon society to the detriment of the story. He also doesn't quite seem to have the hang of writing audio drama, falling into melodrama and the trap of having the characters tell us things we can't see. The acting rescues this to a large degree though, Dan Hogarth and Steven Perring being particularly good in multiple roles. If you want a Doctor Who story that fairly slavishly evokes what the series was remembered as, Kromon is ideal. Not bad, but appropriately for a stereotypical story, fairly average.

Remembering Auld Acquaintance - A Night Out with Robert Burns: The Greatest Poems

I’m particularly fond of John Carey’s theory regarding the British and their relationship (or lack of) with the arts. I’ll oversimplify grossly to keep it brief, but it’s essentially that a lot of British people have been put off engaging with art due to the way it’s been taught and regarded since the Second World War, as elitist trophies to be admired rather than works to be engaged with and actively enjoyed, works which may still have vital ideas, maybe even something to say about our own time. He further argues that if this attitude were to be changed in the teaching and presentation of art, more people would find works of art accessible rather than offputting. Essentially, he’s passionate about trying to bring art to the people by democratising it. It’s best expressed in his book Pure Pleasure , which selects books not for perceived literary merit but by how much enjoyment can be derived from them. Professor Carey struck a chord with me there, particularly with some of my own reading experiences and as such A Night Out With Robert Burns looked like an ideal book for me. It seeks to take Burns from the cosy nostalgic tomb in which he’s generally been sealed, and reposition him as still vibrant and relevant today.Introductions for each poem are provided by Andrew O’Hagan. For much of the book I wasn’t quite sure O’Hagan was the ideal man to write and select the introductions, dropping names such as Seamus Heaney’s into these paragraphs comes across as a tad elitist. Various poems in the first three sections occasionally raise the spectre of that whisky fuelled nostalgia. While that might seem offputting, there was occasionally a certain element of that to Burns’ work, so their inclusion is valid. As I progressed through the book though, it became more and more clear how much thought had been put into both the selection of, and the introductions to, the poems, how they were designed to complement rather than tell what the poems are about. O’Hagan selects the poems not because of perceived greatness (although his most famous works are present and correct) but for the pleasure that can be derived from them and to give a good overview. The introductions generally bring out an aspect of the poetry without directly telling or patronising the reader, the occasional mention of famous friends is a small price to pay there – I was particularly fond of the use of one of the Mail’s more hysterical pieces.Where I found this collection scoring highly was in the final section, dealing with the more political poems. The relevant passages accompanying the poems are immaculately selected and really bring out the obvious anger and frustration that course through Burns’ words. It’s this section more than the other three which gives cause to re-evaluate what you think you know about Burns.In the end O’Hagan proves a fine advocate for Burns (although bracketing him with Shakespeare may be taking things a touch too far). As a perfect host, he only intrudes on proceedings when necessary, remembering Burns is the star of the show and not he. The rough energy and vibrancy of Burns’ words are allowed the space to speak for themselves whilst being given a relevant modern cultural context. It may not entirely bring Burns out of the Scottish dialect ghetto, but as an exercise in trying to correct historical misperceptions of a great figure it’s hugely successful.

Back to Life - Doctor Who: Project Lazarus by Mark Wright and Cavan Scott

This is so relentlessly morose and depressing it's almost teenage. Still, it's a solid sequel to the authors' first audio enlivened by the clever structure of the story and a well executed twist.

New New Adventure: The Dark Flame

Fairly standard Doctor Who runaround with an ancient evil being resurrected. Doesn't quite manage to resurrect the spirit of the New Adventures, feeling more of a pastiche than a tribute, and let down with some clumsy audio writing (characters telling you what they can see and infodumping like mad) and a horrible performance from Sophie Aldred. Overall a passable waste of a couple of hours, albeit one you'll probably have trouble remembering much about a few hours later.

Guess who's back, back again...

Yeah, I let it slide for the last twelve months again... oops. I'll import a few reviews I'd put up on Librarything before trying it all again.

Of course, there was good reason for it. If there's anyone out there and they're remotely curious, head to Hirst Books to find out where most of my writing for last year has ended up, or check out two other fine Doctor Who fanzines, DWIN's Enlightenment (issue 155) and Bob Funnell's Whotopia (issue 18), which should be available soon, if they aren't already.