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Archive for December, 2009

A Christmas Carol (1843)
Charles Dickens
Penguin Classics, 92pp

The timing could not have been better. I finished reading Barnaby Rudge five days before Christmas and the next fictional work Dickens published chronologically was A Christmas Carol, on the 19 December 1843: I read it for the first time on Christmas Day night 2009.

Now, I have seen film versions and TV versions and variations on this story countless times: that evening, on British television, was yet another version with Catherine Tate’s Nan character as Scrooge and David Tennant as a truly camp Ghost of Christmas Present, and in cinemas was a 3D version starring Jim Carrey. Unlike the previous Dickens novel I knew from cinematic adaptations (Oliver Twist), A Christmas Carol contained no surprises. Not every version has been faithful to the original story, but having seen so many, I knew each and every detail of this story. And yet, the magic and power of Dickens’s prose, and the truly wretched nature of Ebenezer Scrooge, meant that reading it, it was still as powerful. I felt overwhelmed when at the end Scrooge throws opens his windows and this famous exchange takes place:

“What’s to-day!” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.
“To-day!” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”

Why Christmas Day! Scrooge is redeemed and the story has its happy ending. There is more to it than first appears: A Christmas Carol has its roots in Dickens’s visit to a Cornish tin mine early that year, where he saw children working in appalling conditions. He read a recent government report, the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission dated February 1843, and considered writing a pamphlet publically deploring the nature of employment of children – he gave a talk in Manchester on the subject – but the pamphlet was put on hold as he worked through his anger in prose: A Christmas Carol was the result.

The idea was not new to Dickens. In The Pickwick Papers, there is one episode where Mr Wardle relates the tale of Gabriel Grub, a prototype Scrooge, who is visited by three goblins and shown the error of his ways. He worked on A Christmas Carol quickly – completing it in just six weeks: all this while his wife was pregnant, and he had been paid poorly for Martin Chuzzlewitt, which was by the end of 1843 over half completed, having started in January of that year. (Chuzzlewitt would be completed in July 1844, which is why I am placing it after A Christmas Carol chronologically.) The impact of this work was immense – every publishing run was sold out instantly, and public readings of it often moved people to tears. One factory owner, so moved, closed his factory on Christmas Day and gave every employee a turkey as a gift.

The impact upon government legislation was what Dickens wished for most: he got his wish. In 1834 the government unveiled a New Poor Law and it seemed British protection of the poor was moving in the right direction. The New Poor Law, as historians will testify, was however an unmitigated disaster, with it having to be replaced just four years later with the Poor Law Board which hoped to remove all the abuses of the system that the New Poor Law had allowed.

A Christmas Carol remains to this day one of Charles Dickens’s most popular works of fiction. Its plot and its message are known to people worldwide – and as it inspires charity in others 166 years after its first publication then Dickens novella must be considered one of the finest works of fiction known to man.

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Dalek Empire II (2003)
Nicholas Briggs
Big Finish
Starring: Mark McDonnell, Gareth Thomas, Sarah Mowatt

After a break of over a year, the second series of Dalek Empire was released by Big Finish. As the first series finished, Alby Brooks and Kalendorff had been taken prisoner by the Daleks as they hunted for Susan Mendez, the Angel of Mercy, who was being held somewhere close by. The first series was an excellent mixture of action and adventure, with a strong through narrative – the love story between Alby and Suse. Meanwhile, the Daleks, having operated Project Inifinty and opened a cross-dimensional gateway to seek aid from other Daleks in conquering the universe. The other Daleks, however, are ashamed of what their counterparts have done, and an epic battle begins…

This second series picks up some time later, with the human race having forged alliance with the alternate reality Daleks to destroy the Evil Daleks. Mirana and Marber, two alliance crewmembers, have bought a casket onboard the Defiant, their ship – it contains Susan Mendez, whom they waken. Is she still in control of the Daleks or is she free? Alby, meanwhile, is searching a ruined ship, having responded to a distress call. And Kalendorff – is he working for good or for evil? And what are the Alliance Daleks really up to?

There is an abundance of plot in Dalek Empire II: it is framed by narration from the future: Saloran Hardew has found evidence of the Dalek invasion and its ending, and is telling the men that have come the story. This story, then, is operating on numerous levels, with stories framed within stories, flashbacks and flashforwards. It is missing the leanness of the first Dalek Empire story. All of this would work if the central through story was strong – and part of it is – Susan Mendez is the Emperor Dalek, friends cannot be trusted, the Alliance Daleks having a plot of their own to control the galaxy – and Big Finish’s production is outstanding – but it becomes all a bit of a muddle. I find it hard to care about characters the writer seems uninterested in: much of the final part is set in the future, with Hardew narrating their fate. It was a bad decision to present events this way, as we remain uninvolved. Perhaps Briggs was afraid of repeating the formula of Dalek Empire I – but I think he should have. Alby Brooks, Susan Mendez and Kalendorff are good characters, engaging characters – and these figures from the future remain ciphers.

Dalek Empire II ends, as DEI did, with set-up for the next volume of stories, to be set in this future time. The Daleks have left the universe for a long time, but they are returning – in fact they could be here sooner than you think… it is a promising ending to a series that remained underwhelming and occasionally baffling in its construction. It does, however, promise a third series more in line with the first – and that can only be a good thing…

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Barnaby Rudge or A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty (1841)
Charles Dickens
Oxford University Press, 634pp

Barnaby Rudge, the second serial from Master Humphrey’s Clock (the first being The Old Curiosity Shop), was Dickens’s first idea for a novel, but was published as his fifth. He conceived of it alongside The Pickwick Papers, and though he sold Pickwick first, his mind was obsessed with the Gordon riots of 1780. He secured a publisher for his tale, but Pickwick’s popularity delayed Barnaby. Further renegotiations of his contract for this novel kept stalling, and he instead wrote the three other novels that precede Barnaby. Finally, in late 1840, he secured a deal with the Clock, and in February 1841, the first instalment of Barnaby appeared.

The title of the work is Barnaby Rudge, but this is somewhat misleading: Barnaby is but a small player in this work, and disappears for over three hundred pages. One of his earlier working titles was ‘Gabriel Vardon, the Locksmith of London’, which at least would concern a more major player. Though Barnaby is absent from much of his narrative, it is treatment and his actions that form the moral and critical centre of this novel.

The Gordon Riots of 1780 were an anti-catholic uprising, led by Lord George Gordon who created a Protestant Association to fight the recently introduced law that absolved Catholics the requirement to take religious oath when joined the armed forces. Lord Gordon felt that this action would allow Catholics to join with those in Europe and form a coalition that could attack or destabilise the British government, bring about absolute monarchical rule and a return to Papal control of the country. On the second of June, 1780, a crowd – some say 60,000 strong – marched on the Houses of Parliament and demanded a repeal of this law. They attacked Newgate Prison, taking the locksmith hostage and demanding he open the gates of the prison to allow captured protestors freedom. At the end of a week of rioting, 285 people had been shot dead; thirty were arrested and later hung. Lord Gordon was also arrested and tried for High Treason; he was found not guilty and allowed to walk free. It is a dark passage in British history, and one that fascinated the historian in Dickens. He was always going to write about it.

Barnaby Rudge sees the interaction of the real and the imagined. This dualism gives the work a frisson not found in Dickens’s earlier works. Lord Gordon appears, as do other key figures in the Gordon Riots, but for the necessity of the story, the majority of the cast are imagined. These are the people that are centred around The Maypole, a local public house, just south of London, near Epping Forest. A large cast of characters is introduced, and this section of the novel (the first half of the work) is highly Dickensian – there are family secrets, tales of murder, romantic entanglements, criminals, wanderers, and a talking raven named Grip (and yes, this is the influence on Poe’s famous poem). By allowing the novel time to luxuriate in the intricacies of village life, Dickens gives us time to know these people, their interests and their fears so that when the Gordon Riots begin in force, all our players are entangled and forced to act.

I admit to feeling rather underwhelmed during the first half of this novel: the opening, which describes a murder, I thought well done, but then it seemed to meander, cutting between these various characters with often little advancement (Dickens is, of course, waiting to get to the riots); but when the riots begin, his novel takes on a whole new level. The prose is electrifying, and the action tense, rapid – highly unusual thus far in Dickens career. He described the riots with precision, and the events hurry along at a great pace. The finest writing – at least for me – is in the final quarter, after the riots have ended and the key players are facing death for their roles. The descriptions and emotions evoked by Newgate Prison are formidable, and may just contain Dickens’s best writing yet. I read longer into the night than I normally do – finally finishing the book at gone three in the morning, as snow flurried down outside, and the window seemed to crackle with cold. An atmospheric mood in which to read such things.

There is a criticism of this novel from Poe in which he states that the raven should have been more symbolic. In the first few chapters it seems Dickens is lining the raven up to be so – but realising he needs us to know more about the rioters, he spends the next two hundred and fifty or so pages exploring them that when he finally returns to Barnaby and Grip the nuances he was setting up have been forgotten. This creates the same problem that some of his earlier novels have had: they end poorly, with a simple summing up of where each character has gone. What I think this needed, and which would have worked more powerfully, is if Grip’s symbolic purpose had been realised.

Barnaby Rudge, then. In the end an entertaining and exciting read. I just think it meanders a bit too much near the middle and never quite fulfils the promise it shows at the start. It is uneven – perhaps, I think, we needed to know less, not more, about the people involved.

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Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversations (2009)
Introduction by Marcela Valdes
Melville House Publishing
123pp

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a great admiration for the Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolaño. Bolaño died in 2003, leaving behind him a series of novels (some already published, others forthcoming through the next few years), at least one of which will last: 2666 (2004). This collection of interviews Bolaño held with Capital, Bomb, Turia and Playboy (the Mexican edition), introduced by fellow Bolaño-ite Marcela Valdes has clearly been assembled to benefit from the recent interest shown by the wider reading public in Bolaño. Before reading these interviews, I had not heard Bolaño’s views other than those expressed through his writing, and consequently I purchased this with great interest.

First of all is Marcela Valdes’s introduction: a superb introduction to this writer and to Bolaño, specifically his interest in the Juárez killings that inspired 2666. Much of his level of interest in them was new to me, and I think in future editions of 2666, Valdes’s introduction should be included – it has certainly expanded my thinking on this great novel. Sadly Bolaño was still finishing 2666 when he died, so the interviews that follow this make no mention of this work; instead Bolaño talks about The Savage Detectives and his other works.

The first of the interviews, conducted for Capital magazine, in Santiago, in 1999, is a short interview – as most magazine interviews are – but there is depth here: Bolaño talks about the importance of reading and his own writing, but avenues of thought are left unexplored – Bolaño almost seems to be setting things up and the interviewers miss them. The second interview, with Bomb, a Brooklyn based magazine, is much more detailed – though the interviewer seems to show-off to Bolaño with his own learning. The interview with Turia expands upon the Bomb one, and is again more detailed. It comes as such a shame, then, that the last interview, for Playboy, doesn’t allow much room for Bolaño to really speak – the interviewer keeps cutting him short, and asking him stupid questions: “What makes your jaw hurt laughing?” “What makes you cry?” Stupid, stupid questions that Bolaño swats away with short, curt answers. It reveals nothing. A shame that it ends the collection as there is much to savour here: for the fan of Bolaño, for the general reader, and for the writer.

There is much to be written on Bolaño, and these few interviews will provide some form of initial basis upon which to build that critical commentary: as such it is a useful volume. I do not know how many interviews Bolaño gave in his lifetime, but that some can be gathered (and annotated wonderfully by Tom McCartan) and distributed by a small, but brilliant publishing house, Melville, well, we should be grateful. Congratulations to them.

There is more on Bolaño at their website, http://www.mhpbooks.com/index.php – where you can also browse their small collection of publications.

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Cross Country (2008)
James Patterson
Arrow Books, 406pp

Off ill for a month with a nasty, virulent virus (aka The Flu), I found my concentration lacking, but still desirous to read, I picked up the latest volume from “The World’s Bestselling Thriller Writer” (as the cover deems him), James Patterson. This is the thirteenth Alex Cross novel – the character created by Patterson in Along Came A Spider, back when Patterson wasn’t the commercial factory he is today – and sees Cross trailing an African killer, The Tiger, who swarms with a legion of killer children. Patterson, then, is commenting upon the civil wars of Africa, using their horrors to create entertainment.

Like many of the bestselling thriller writers – Dan Brown et al – Patterson is a poor writer. His prose is striped to the bare essentials, with chapters of no more than two pages (though some appear longer because of the print size, the white space and huge chapter headings. I’ve not read much of Patterson’s work outside of the Alex Cross range (of which, I’m almost ashamed to admit, I have read them all), but it does strike me that this is his most successful brand (and it is a brand now). Cross, a detective and psychologist for the Washington DC police force, has faced his fair share of brutal killers – the common criticism of these kinds of books comes into play here: just how many psychopaths can there be to stalk just one man?

Cross Country, like all those previous books, roars along. There is barely time to catch your breath. It jumps continents and countries with almost no regard for the laws of physics, and the characterisation is, as ever, sketchy at best. The writing is almost unilaterally bad. Yet for the three hours I submit to this character, once a year, it’s entertaining in a bad movie manner, it’s entertaining in a way other novels are not. Never would I reconsider rereading one, or would I ever class them as good – even for their genre (there are much much better crime writers) – but I like Alex Cross – a good father and good son in a genre where many of its ‘heroes’ are flawed, alcoholic and damaged – and I think Nana Mama a hoot.

So not great literature, but for a few hours downtime, good fun.

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Doctor Who: Nekromanteia (2003)
Austen Atkinson
Big Finish #41
Starring: Peter Davison, Nicola Bryant, Caroline Morris

How unfortunate Austen Atkinson is: to have his debut story for Big Finish follow Jubilee. Following that masterwork is an impossible task: made doubly worse when the story you have is at best workmanlike, at worst derivative and dull.

I would summarise this story for you – I did listen to all four parts – but somewhere near the end of the first I lost interest. I kept going, hoping it would click, but it didn’t. It involved witches and space crafts and an alien planet. The Doctor got decapitated, only he didn’t, and well, I am so sorry Austen Atkinson, I can’t recall much else – and I only listened to it three days ago. Its details have already fogged over. There was a trader on a planet the Doctor helped escape. There was a rape (or almost rape, I’m not clear) of either Peri or Erimem that seemed to hold no consequences. It was a jumble, a mess – even the actors seemed to be coasting – perhaps they’d all read the script for Jubilee and were envious and consequently in a mood. Who knows?

It is also a sad thing to say this is the first truly negative review I have written. There is, I am sure, much to enjoy in this story, but with my interest in it completely withdrawn by the start of episode two, I became lost to it. Because of this, I will one day revisit this story, but for now I must leave it with this damning review.

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Doctor Who: Jubilee (2003)
Robert Shearman
Big Finish #40
Starring: Colin Baker, Maggie Stables

The reputation of this Big Finish adventure is what drew me to the range. Jubilee, the fortieth story in the series range, was adapted by its writer for Russell T. Davies as Dalek – the story where Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor met his old adversaries for the first time in the series revival. Dalek was the best story in that season, and Jubilee is often held up as the best story in Big Finish’s range. So imagine my trepidation in approaching it. Deliberately I read nothing about it first: all I knew was this, there would be The Doctor, and there would be a Dalek. The CD cover told me that the TARDIS was immortalised a stain-glassed window. Excitement as grew as it started. What is this? A trailer for Dalek Empire II? No, the Daleks are shouting “SCARPER!” They do not shout that! The Doctor is a billowing, muscular hero for the people. It is funny, unexpected. It seems to have nothing to do with the story that follows – or at least it doesn’t, not straight away.

Like in Dalek, the big reveal is kept until the end of the first part – we hear men torturing it (as in the television episode) but already things are different: we are on earth, but not our earth. The Doctor has lost control of and lost his TARDIS and fears something very bad has happened. The United Kingdom is the dominant power on Earth, we are led by a President, and the United States are led by a cowardly and obsequious Prime Minister. The UK, we will learn, repelled a Dalek invasion force in 1903, and one hundred years hence, the empire is to destroy the last Dalek survivor for the Jubilee celebrations – they just need it to talk first…

Unlike Rose in Dalek, Evelyn Smythe has met the Daleks, in The Apocalypse Element, and yet like Rose she refuses to believe that there cannot be just evil in these creatures, and an unlikely friendship develops between monster and woman – the Dalek refuses to exterminate her.

I mentioned in my review of Bang-Bang-A-Boom! that humour in Doctor Who can be either lampooning or black – this is black of the blackest kind. The President disfigures people so they can become his playthings, the Daleks have been turned into toys – there is a wonderfully critical commentary on the merchandising of evil things – and blood is shed in skin-crawling manner. The last cross and double cross of the leaders in the wastelands of London after the Daleks reprisals is wonderfully macabre.

Jubilee is rightfully held up as an example of how brilliant Doctor Who and Big Finish can be: it is, without a doubt, one of the strongest stories they have released – perhaps even the strongest (I will decide with a second listen to this and my other favourites in a year or so) – and Robert Shearman is the writer par excellence. There is much more I would like to say about this story, and yet I feel I have said too much already: if you want to listen to this, you are best going in knowing nothing.

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