Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Complete Wildthyme IV: "In the Sixties"

In the Sixties ('Walking in Eternity', Faction Fiction Press)

In finest Comic Book Guy style, I can safely say that this is the Best Who Story Ever. Anyone who cares to argue better be prepared to back up their erroneous and delusional opinions with a description of the Alternative Universe in which they live.

In fact, I'd go further and say that this is one of the best pieces of short fiction I've ever read. Rather self-evidently, it's a story about the sixties - but not the actual sixties, where it was frequently overcast and dirty and where many people led boring lives in much the same as they do now. Instead, this is a story about the author imagining a specific time at the end of the sixties in which Peter Cushing was Dr Who in very bright colours and made friends with all sorts of the great and the cool who lived nearby.

I'm not even going to attempt to sum up the plot, because there isn't even the glimmer of one. It's just a story about people being people in a specific time and place, part fictional and part real - and it doesn't matter which is which.

The Master's in it, posing as a hippy mystic; Jamie, Joe Orton and a Cyberman consider a threesome at one point; and Iris makes a fleeting appearance wrapped round Robin (which is enough to justify this review). Other than that, characters from the real and fictional worlds pop up and discuss literature, politics and the state of the nation. And it ends with the birth of the author during a rain-storm (he's a little shy of a fortnight younger than me, seemingly).

Which, reading back what I've written, utterly fails to do the story justice.

So, try again. The writing is wonderful - where else do you get people 'moving in a kind of bleeding elastic tango of compulsive need' and a Black Mass where 'there was this awful stink of goat's cheese and boiled eggs' in the space of a few lines? The imagery is magical - it starts 'were there really Quarks and Krotons queuing peacefully on the platform at King's Cross?' and gets better from there. Best of all, 'In the Sixties' manages to make the Cushing Doctor seem like a legitimate 60s icon, rather than just a quick knock-off thrown together in order to cash in on Dalkemania.

But I'm still not giving 'In the Sixties' the write-up it deserves. Why not just go and read it - it may well be the best thing Paul Magrs has ever written.

In the Sixties is available online, so you have no excuse for missing it...
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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Dan Brown's Clan of the Cave Bear

So Harry Potter was rubbish. Fortunately I had another new book to read whilst away.

It wasn't exactly stunning either though.

The Lonely Dead - Michael Marshall

My mother's a great one for recommending thrillers and detective novels which, combined with my realisation that Michael Marshall was the same man as Michael Marshall Smith (author of the excellent science fiction novel Only Forward), meant that the first book in this series, The Straw Men was an essential purchase. Sadly, it turned out to be just a generic 'serial killer thriller' (as the backcover blurb describes it) with some cavemen antics added on for freak value.

The writing itself was as excellent as in Only Forward, though, so when I saw a copy of the sequel, The Lonely Dead, on ebay it seemed worth a read.

But where Only Forward is witty and inventive, and even The Straw Men makes some fairly interesting points about the nature of base humanity (although it's nowhere near as deep as it likes to think), The Lonely Dead is basically The Da Vinci Code neolithic-style.

If the novel had stuck with its primary plot - the desire of the Straw Men (a serial killing group working in the background of society for millenia) to kill one of their own number, and the activities of a group of three colleagues who are trying to find the same individual for their own reasons - The Lonely Dead might have been capable of passing off as another in the line of consciously mythic serial killer novels, headed by John Connelly.

Instead, Marshall again tries to ramp up the level of meaning by throwing in some barely coherent waffling about Neanderthal Man and then info-dumps mercilessly on the heads of his readership, by trying to tie The Straw Men into everything from Roanoke and Oak Island to ancient Chinese coins found in the north-western United States and an Egyptian shrine hidden in the Grand Canyon. All of which just comes across as the sort of pseudo-scientific/historical nonsense which makes Dan Brown's single plot so irritating, no matter what he calls the specific book in question.

There is a third in the series, but really I wouldn't pay the twenty pence for it this time...
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Monday, July 25, 2005

Money for Nothing: JK Rowling's Half-Written Story

Just back from a surprisingly enjoyable and active holiday with J and the kids at Center Parcs in Sherwood Forest (which I can recommend wholeheartedly by the way). Due to time spent fencing, sailing, doing Teddy Bears Picnics and the like, I managed to read far fewer books than usual and, more disappointingly, the new books I read were less than enthralling.

There is an popular school of thought which says that as soon as an author becomes very successful (in the sense that people might actually buy their books rather than the Guardian Review section stating the author has a narrative voice reminiscent of early Banana Yoshimoto), it is pure intellectual snobbery to claim that he or she is nowhere near as talented as is generally suggested and that other, far more obscure writers are considerably better and more worthy of adulation.

This is, of course, sometimes true, but in general it's just so much hot air, designed to help people avoid any actual thinking about whatever it is that they're reading and to instead continue to believe that high book sales are a sure fire sign of literary quality.

In fact, extremely popular authors tend to fall into two categories.

First and best, are those writers who are genuinely very good at all levels of what they do (Terry Pratchett for the fantasy/sf crowd; Marian Keyes for the chick-litters and so on) - their writing is solid and well-done, their ideas are witty and original; their characters, within the scope of their chosen genre, rounded and believable. In general, no-one tends to come out and say 'Terry Pratchett is a very poor writer of dialogue', for the simple reason that evidently he isn't.

The second group are those authors who really aren't very good at writing, but who can churn out intriguing, if often illogical, plots which hold the attention in much the same way that soap operas do. Jeffrey Archer although an absolute tosser, is the most obvious example of this second breed (as a teenager I once read Archer's Kane and Abel whilst on a family holiday in a B&B in Fort William and it was perfectly acceptable stuff - certainly much more attention-grabbing than the pile of Zane Grey westerns which were the place's only other literary offerings). People frequently do come out and say things like 'Jeffrey Archer is a very poor writer of dialogue' which is fair enough comment because equally evidently he is exactly that. Which is not to say that he can't tell a story - and that is an accusation not often levelled at him.

All of which apparent digression brings me to JK Rowling's latest book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. One in three hardbacks sold in this country are written by Ms Rowling and, if the papers are to be believed, she made £20 million in the first day of sale of this novel, the sixth and penultimate offering in the Harry Potter series. The series regularly tops reader polls as best children's books ever and Ms Rowling is now the richest woman in Britain (possibly the Universe). She was even, it is rumoured, invited by Russell T Davies to write a story for the rebirth of Doctor Who. To suggest that Ms Rowling is a less than stellar writer and that - for instance - Ursula K LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy is so far above Harry Potter as to be invisible is presumably just the type of intellectual snobbery mentioned above.

And yet her new book is - and apologies in advance for the profanity - fucking awful.

So awful that it would never have been published had it been written by anyone other than JKR.

So awful that even the sycophantic drone at Bloomsbury who...ahem...edits the Rowling manuscripts must have winced.

So awful that even the author appears to recognise that she's putting no effort in any more.

So awful that everyone involved should be throughly ashamed of themselves.

Like the recent Doctor Who audio play The Juggernauts, The Half-Blood Prince has the story's hero spending much of his time (several hundred pages in fact) doing something which does not need doing, simply in order (a) to have him doing anything at all and (b) waste some time. Dumbledore clearly already knows what has passed between Professor Slughorn and Lord Voldemort, so there is no need for Harry to spend so much time on the subject, other than artificially boosting the pagecount. What makes this particuarly galling is that Rowling knows that what she's doing is rubbish - there's even an explicit reference to the fact that the hero need not have been Harry but could just as easily have been the ineffectual Neville.

We should, however, really be glad that Rowling's third-rate rip-off of the Origins of Gollum section of Lord of the Rings (which makes up much of the 'plot' and which is the supposed reason for Harry's enquiries of Slughorn) does take up such an incredibly large part of the book as it at least prevents Rowling shoe-horning in yet more tedious, badly written and shallow bits of teenage love and snogging. This is a book bought mainly by ten to fourteen year olds after all, and if they want romantic teen angst they can presumably go out and buy a Jacqueline Wilson book, rather than this hand-me-down tat.

In any case, once the 'Lord Voldemort is Smeagol' and 'Harry meets Ginny' sections are over, there's only about 150 pages left of the 607 page book and we're heading helter-skelter for the Obligatory Dead Hero section of the book - by my count this is the third book in a row where one of the good guys is killed.

Surprisingly perhaps, given the emotional impact Rowling managed to put into the death of Sirius Black in the last book, the O.D.H here is just as poorly done as the rest of the book, and although you can easily conjecture ways in which the scene might make more sense and have a greater impact in light of the final book in the series, it's very hard to care enough to try. Which is something of an achievement in itself when you're talking about the death of a key and sympathetic character the reader has been following for five previous books.

Which leaves the mystery of just who is the Half-Blood Prince? Who cares? The solution in the end is a Pull-the-Never-Mentioned-Previously-Rabbit-Out-the-Hat affair that you couldn't possibly have guessed given the available evidence but it doesn't matter because you won't care. The character of the Half-Blood Prince, once revealed, is neither believable, nor interesting, nor even very necessary. It's just more page-filler, saying in fifty thousand words what a good writer could have said in fifteen (not 15 thousand, just 15).

'Harry is tempted to cut corners and can be a little bit bad sometimes' - there you go, that's only 14 and I'm not a writer of any description.

As someone recently mentioned on one of the mailing lists I frequent, the whole 'Harry thinks Snape is up to no good, Ron and Hermoine aren't sure, and Dumbledore isn't saying' shtick is now well past its sell-by date and increasingly seems to be the only idea Rowling has for a Potter book. Here that idea reaches a potential conclusion and, frankly, I was bored stupid by just how lacklustre, lazy and badly done it all was.
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Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Complete Wildthyme III: "Femme Fatale"

"Femme Fatale" (More Short Trips, BBC Books, 1999)

Ah, this is more like it. This is where it really gets going. To coin a
phrase, there's a riot goin' on in this story.

This is Doctor Who recast as the Avengers, obviously, but it's also Who as
written by Michael Moorcock, with the Doctor, Iris et al filtered through
Paul's take on the 1960's New Wave, with the music of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed
playing in the background.

Equally obviously therefore, it's about as far from trad Who as you can
get - timelines bend round in knots, chunks of text are repeated word for
word a page or two after their original appearance, and it's never entirely
certain just whether everyone is who they seem to be (actually, it's very
clear that often they're not - what isn't always obvious on first reading is
who they *are*).

Themes which pop up in later Iris short stories make their first appearance
here - using clones for sex; literally re-writing one or other version of
history; the problems of maintaining a consistent continuity - but
concentrating on that kind of thing only serves to blind the reader to the
sheer exuberance of the prose. This is genuinely unlike almost anything
seen in Who fiction up until this point (Jim Mortimore's 'Campaign' actually
goes even further, even down to using wacky New Wave typesetting styles, but
that's the only comparable text in Who until John Anderson deliberately - I
assume - utilised a more upbeat version of the same style in DWIN's Myth
Makers collections). This is proper literary fiction, with little or no
concessions made to the fact that Doctor Who is, traditionally, aimed at
'intelligent 14 year olds with glasses'. It's very well-written, requires
some thought from the reader and utterly fails to do anything expected.

That's not to say that "Femme Fatale" is incomprehensibly dense or
deliberately hard to comprehend. Instead it's packed full of great ideas
and good jokes - just off the top of my head, there's Andy Warhol in 1968
wondering if he'd agreed to merchandise the Marilyn Monroe T-Shirt Iris is
wearing and which she'd bought in Camden Market in the 1990s; there's a book
written collaboratively by the Marquis de Sade, Gertrude Stein and Flaubert;
Iris writing a porn version of her travels for the Olympia Press; a clone of
Valerie Solanas; Sam and Iris discussing time travel in the Factory toilets;
the eventual destinaton of the Doctor and Mrs Jones...and so on. Take your
pick of your personal favourite.

There are more cool ideas in this short story than in most novels you'll
read - buy a copy of More Short Trips on ebay for a pound and turn to page
317. You won't be disappointed.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Complete Wildthyme II: "Old Flames"

"Old Flames" (from the BBC 'Short Trips' collection, 1998)

In terms of Paul's published Doctor Who fiction, "Old Flames" is the cuckoo
in the nest. It's the Iris story which doesn't really play metafictional
games. It's the Iris story with a conventional beginning, middle and end.
It's the Iris story with a straight companion. In short, it's not terribly
Irisy at all.

This feeling of dislocation from the rest of the Complete Wildthyme (or
'The Magrsian Chronicles' as I was briefly tempted to title these reviews,
until I realised that would be *very* crap) is increased by what seems to be
Paul's hesitancy in writing Doctor Who for the first time.

Whilst he was by this point a respected non-genre author, with his debut
novel
already three years behind him, there is a nervousness and caution in
'Old Flames' which isn't wholly unexpected from the new kid on the block.
Where in the next collection, he lets himself go and recasts his Who leads
as the Avengers' team, then drops them into Andy Warhol's Factory, here we
have an instantly recognisable Fourth Doctor and Sarah-Jane involved in some
fairly low-key shenanigans, as Iris attempts to marry off her latest
companion to the grand-daughter of the rich Lady Huntingdon.

Not that 'low key' and 'instantly recognisable' don't have their benefits.
Sarah-Jane is especially well-done, sounding *exactly* like the TV version,
and the Doctor is enjoyably erratic, moving from down-beat worry to gay
abandon in the turn of a page. Iris, too, is a treat (this Iris reads like
a dry run for the Big Finish audios - you can just hear Katy Manning
speaking the dialogue) and, at this early stage, the Doctor seems far more
genuinely fond of her than normal. Add to the mix the linear narrative and
clear-cut villain, and 'Old Flames' is something that even the most trad of
Who fans should have no problems in following.

Maybe that's why I'm not as fond of it as other Iris stories - if I want
what's generally termed traditional Who I'll go and watch 'Time Warrior' or
'The Invisible Enemy' or whatever. The fact that Paul generally pushes the
boundaries a bit and gives the reader something more than was possible on
the TV screen is a large part of the attraction in reading the Iris books,
and that sense of adventure is missing here. You can see it trying to burst
out now and again, most obviously in the villains who are the last remnant
of a dead race of tiger aliens, but the rest of the story is so
straight-forwardly written that when, for instance, Rector Adams describes
Lady Huntingdon as 'a terrible black spider on a golden throne', it jars
rather then delights and seems oddly out-of-place.

At heart (and imo obviously), 'Old Flames' just tries too hard to be a story
for the Everyman Who reader and although that's perfectly understandable,
being Paul's first Who short story in the BBC's first Who short story
collection, it leaves things a little flat, especially in comparison to
Paul's later Who work (and, in fact, his non-Who work published up to this
point)

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Friday, July 08, 2005

"Home of the brash, outrageous and free"

A couple of the best blog posts from Londoners regarding the events of last Thursday, from Mark and Liadnan.

Nothing need, I think, be added...

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A Cloud of C*n*s

I may have to temporarily take down the Tag Cloud situated to the left and down a bit from here. All it does is provide a "cloud" of weighted, clickable links based on the frequency with which words appear in a grouping of nominated blogs - in this case, a selection of Doctor Who authors.

Following the events of yesterday in London, though, the cloud is now packed with some fairly choice (if wholly understandable) language - which I'm not too keen on having on my blog.

Must go and check if the contents of the cloud are editable...

***

edited to add: And almost immediately I find that you can stop words from appearing in your Cloud. Excellent.
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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Complete Wildthyme I: "Suitors, Inc"

[With Wildthyme on Top due out (hopefully) very soon, I'm about to re-read all of Paul Magrs' Who fiction, starting with the short stories.

And as I happen to have just posted a review of Paul's latest short story to the Iris/Paul newsgroup, I thought I might as well post it here to get things started. So...]

Suitors, Inc (Seven Deadly Sins, Big Finish, 2005)

Some things are anathema to all right thinking people - the Daily Mail, Ant
and Dec, and the use of short sentences ending in exclamation marks are
surely amongst most people's top three such irritations.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I came to read Paul's latest Iris short
story, 'Suitors, Inc' and found the damn thing was littered with them. Short sentences that is! Ending in exclamation marks! Not Ant and Dec! Or the Daily Mail!

Less surprising though is the fact that this otherwise horrendous practice
works perfectly here. 'Suitors, Inc' - for all its subject matter of
anatomically correct sex robots and shanghaied horny pensioners - is a story
from an alternative universe where Target kept the Who fiction license and
started publishing short story collections for younger readers. And in that
context the plethora of exclamation marks serves to give the dialogue a
certain zip and dash and imbdues Paul's prose with an engagingly dynamic
quality. This is a story which rattles effortlessly along and which
manages - in the space of a dozen pages - to feature four Time Lords, a
couple of assistants, an enemy from another book and what seems to be the
Obverse version of a certain well-known robot dog. The dialogue is as crisp
as you'd expect and catches the tone of the respective TV characters well
(particularly the fourth Doctor), the plot is completely nuts (and the
ending is left unresolved, with absolutely everyone heading off together
into further thrilling adventures) and there's even time for an amusing
metafictional reference or two. If you had to sum 'Suitors, Inc' up in a
word, that word would be 'joyous' because you really do get a feeling of
Paul's joy in writing for this particular era of Who and as a result it's an
absolute joy to read.

Apart from a bizarre typo at the bottom of one page where a meaningless word
has been added to the end of a sentence, this is well nigh perfect and
confirms that Paul is the pre-eminent writer of short Who fiction. Lovely
stuff.

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Monday, July 04, 2005

Where there's smoke...

I'm annoyed at myself.

It'll be six months yesterday since I stopped smoking but J's aunt is over from Canada and didn't know we'd stopped, so brought us 200 cigarettes.

Which we are now smoking (well not right at this second since I'm at work, but you know what I mean).

Stupid, stupid, stupid...
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