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Archive for March, 2010

Doctor Who: Arrangements for War (2004)
Paul Sutton
Big Finish #57
Starring: Colin Baker, Maggie Stables

When we last met the Sixth Doctor and Dr Evelyn Smythe, they were attempting to rescue Cassie from The Forge, and her death, we all knew, would have consequences. Added to this, Dr Smythe had learnt she had a terminal illness and she was keeping this secret from The Doctor.

Arrangements for War picks up almost immediately after the death of Cassie. Evelyn needs time alone, away from The Doctor, away from the life she knows, and so The Doctor takes her to Világ, just after an intercontinental war has ended and months before an alien invasion is due to begin: a peaceful lagoon in an ocean of turmoil. Just what The Doctor ordered. Upon their arrival, Evelyn and The Doctor part – but coincidence be damned, don’t they just both meet lovers who want to be together but cannot, and don’t they contrive to bring them together. The setup for this story: a princess is in love with a solider but must marry the prince to unify the two nations, and the Doctor unintentionally bringing them together, destroying the peace process, is extremely schematic. Even bringing Evelyn here, through the way it is written, it is thuddingly obvious what will happen…

And then Arrangements for War does something startling. It has Evelyn fall in love. Governor Rossiter, played warmly by Gabriel Woolf, is a widower in the twilight years of his life who never expects to meet the unexpected in Evelyn. Against the backdrop of these two nations going to war, a romance blossoms, and mirrored against the princess and the soldier’s tale, a wonderful double play begins. We see The Doctor becoming embroiled in political scandal: cannily shown through news reports, rather than action, and we see him lose a fight. When the alien invasion begins at the end of part three, Arrangements for War has become incredibly moving: Evelyn admits her illness to Rossiter, and there is acceptance there and for a moment Doctor Who becomes incredibly human.

The depiction of this alien invasion is done well too – we hear it through a telephone line, we hear news reports, and when the aliens arrive at the palace near the end of the story, we know that tragedy is at hand. The deaths that mark the end of the tale, and the sabotage of the TARDIS that accompany it, end the story on an extremely bittersweet note. Once again The Doctor and Evelyn have found their adventures marked by sadness and loss…

I enjoyed Arrangements for War immensely, and think it one of the finest stories Big Finish have produced. I sense the ending is coming for Evelyn Smythe as companion and though the Wikipedia entry for this story has spoilt one future plot twist, I still await eagerly the next outing for this duo.

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The Axis of Insanity (2004)
Simon Furman
Big Finish #56
Starring: Peter Davison, Nicola Bryant, Caroline Morris

The Axis of Insanity, the first story featuring Peri and Erimem in fifteen months (in Big Finish’s monthly release series), takes The Doctor and his companions to The Axis, a region of time and space where broken timelines are split off from the rest of the universe, so as not to affect them unduly. It is a region overseen by a guardian, but he is missing, and has been replaced by a Jester in a coup: and very soon the fabric of time and space is disintegrating and the Jester is fighting to be free…

The Axis of Insanity reminded me of Zagreus a little: this story plays off nursery rhymes and rotes, familiar phrases; it makes the ordinary into the extraordinary. For the first two parts it is almost entirely successful, but in the final two parts becomes nothing more than a madman babbling in his castle and some of the tension dissipates. What it does achieve in the final two parts, however, is to highlight Erimem: Caroline Morris shines here, with her character revealing some of the toughness inside. She fights back against the evil Jester while The Doctor and Peri attempt to gain access to his lair.

The story ends with a particularly haunting note: they return a fellow Timelord’s TARDIS to the TARDIS graveyard, where these machines, bereft after their owner’s death, go to die. It is a moment that resonates.

It has been a few weeks since I listened to this tale, so I hope this few thoughts suffice for explanation and opinion on the tale. It is also interesting to note that by the time this story was released, it had been announced that Doctor Who was returning to television after a nine year absence. What impact this will have upon Big Finish’s releases will soon become known…

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The Discovery of France (2007)
Graham Robb
Picador, 455pp

Graham Robb is an expert on nineteenth century French literature, noted for his biographies of Victor Hugo, Balzac and Rimbaud. In this, his history of that country in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as France was beginning to discover her nationality, Robb comes to realise he knows less than he should. He says in his introduction: “I began to explore the country on which I was supposed to be an authority… my professional knowledge of the country reflected the metropolitan view of writers like Balzac and Baudelaire, for whom the outer boulevards of Paris marked the edge of the civilised world.” This distinction – of a France of the city and a France of the country – becomes clear as the dominant worldview of many learned French as Robb’s history progresses.

The Discovery of France is a perfect introduction into the social, economic, and political growth of this nation: it misses out some of the more well known episodes – the Revolution, for instance, though the effects of such things reverberate through many of the tales told herein – and instead chooses to focus on the more minor stories, those things that form the fabric of a nation. It is a book to savour, to digest in small doses – I read it over a period of some months, sometimes not picking it up for a few weeks. Every page is crammed with fascinating detail: the Camargue stilt walkers, the murder of surveyors, the destruction of natural wilderness, the changing face of rural life. It is like reading a particularly brilliant episode of Q.I., the BBC’s erudite panel show. You can open this book on any page and find something of interest – the kind of book that makes you say openly: “Well I never knew that!”

My knowledge of France, and its history, was, I must admit, limited before reading this fine book. What Robb has managed to achieve is make me fascinated more than ever by France, and also illuminated my understanding of writers such as Balzac – there are details in the classic French novels that made little sense before, and now they ring clear as day.

I said earlier that The Discovery of France was a history of that nation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but Robb ends his work on a pointed note: he refers to the murder of French Algerians in 1961: “On the night of 17 October 1961, thousands of French Algerians protesting peacefully against the curfew that had been imposed on them, were rounded up by the Paris police. Though records have disappeared and though official figures still disagree with scholarly estimates, it is certain that many Algerians were tortured, maimed and stuffed into dustbins, and that about two hundred were beaten up by policeman and thrown into the Seine, where they drowned, in the tourist heart of Paris.” In 2001 a plaque was erected at knee height in memorial to this tragic day, but most Parisians are still unaware of it. He ends his book on this note: “In the twenty first century, many parts of France remain to be discovered.” It is a bitter note to end on, but perfectly encapsulates how far France (and by the same code the world) has come and how far it still has to go; that this journey of discovery is never over.

Robb’s book was the winner of the Royal Society of Literature Ondaajte Prize in 2008 and the Duff Cooper Prize.

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Sketches of Young Gentlemen (1836 – 1844)
Charles Dickens
Nonsuch, 317pp

Nonsuch Classics have been releasing a number of lesser known works from famous authors – its catalogue includes such names as Elizabeth Gaskell, John Galsworthy, Anthony Trollope, and a number of volumes from Charles Dickens: Sketches of Young Gentlemen and The Uncommerical Traveller being two.

This volume, Sketches of Young Gentlemen, is a collection of writings:

Sketches of Young Gentlemen
Sketches of Young Couples
Sunday under Three Heads
Bentley’s Miscellany “Extraordinary Gazette”
The Mudfrog Papers
The Pantomime of Life
Some Particulars Concerning a Lion
Mr Robert Bolton
Familiar Epistle from a Parent to a Child
The Lamplighter
To be Read at Dusk
Joseph Grimaldi
John Overs

These pieces have been released and collected in numerous forms over the years: The Mudfrog Papers was published as a book in 1880, containing the titular piece, as well as the four pieces that follow it in this collection. The other pieces are from various points in Dickens’s early career, and contain short stories, political commentary and introductions to others works, notably Joseph Grimaldi and John Overs.

The first two pieces herein are light whimsy: they remind me of those “Little Books of” that you get in book stores, and whose value is slight – they provide some cheap knowing laughs and a selection of cod philosophy. From Dickens they are very workmanlike, though they do contain a few choice moments of humour. I suspect Dickens used them as a mean to experiment with and learn his craft in. It was an evidently popular series, hence the sequel.

Sunday under Three Heads is an attack on a current piece of legislation – the plan to forbid any activity on the Sabbath. Sir Andrew Agnew’s proposed bill comes under stern attack by Dickens (writing as Timothy Sparks), and he destroys the bill so thoroughly, that I am sure parliament cannot have considered it seriously afterward. The portrait Dickens gives of a Sunday in London without activity is enough to terrify, and he is right to show how it is a law that affects the poor, not the rich. Dickens’s already noted activism is in evidence here.

The Mudfrog Papers – published in Bentley’s Miscellany, and for which we have an introduction in this volume – ran with Oliver Twist in that literary magazine (giving rise to the belief that these stories are a continuation of Oliver Twist: They are not.) Dickens’s relationship with Richard Bentley was fractious calling him a “Burlington Street Brigand”, and his association with that magazine soon ended. The Mudfrog Papers contain a short story “Public Life of Mr. Tulrumble–Once Mayor of Mudfog” which is comic and well done, with an air of inevitable disaster about it – and then the less successful fake minutes of The Mudfog Association for The Advancement of Everything which is at times humorous, times weak, and at times groan worthy.

The other short pieces that make up this collection from The Mudfrog Papers are nothing more than thoughts Dickens has written down, and there seems to be no intellectual depth or attempt at real humour here.

The two stories, The Lamplighter and To Be Read at Dusk, reveal Dickens’s increasing interest in the supernatural. They are both ghost stories, of a sort, and revel in macabre horror. They are, however, both rather undercooked and undramatic in structure – Dickens still relies upon the techniques used in Pickwick: introduce a set of characters and have them tell us another story. This distancing removes any dramatic tension from the tale. Their unsophistication is seen from a modern vantage point, however, and I suppose they may have been more successful in early nineteenth century England.

The final two pieces, as I have previously mentioned, are nothing more than introductions to others work: though Dickens did edit Joseph Grimaldi’s memoirs entirely. As it is, they are barely worth commenting upon.

Nonsuch’s presentation of these works is exemplary. Presented in small volumes, with clear type but devoid of notation (except for a brief and rather basic introduction), they should nevertheless be congratulated for taking the effort to bring these lesser known works into the public sphere.

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Doctor Who: The Twilight Kingdom (2004)
Will Shindler
Big Finish #55
Starring: Paul McGann, India Fisher, Conrad Westmaas

The Divergent Universe saga continues. The Doctor, Charley and C’rizz have been led by the Kro’ka to a rainforest. Charley, tired and thirsty, stops at a nearby waterfall and goes for a swim. The Doctor and C’rizz discover a decomposed body. All three are being watched, as are the soldiers approaching in a speeder. The Doctor and C’rizz are arrested, and The Doctor is soon helping the soldiers into a nearby cave to hunt down rebel fighters. Charley – as we suspected would happen – is captured by the rebels. All three will meet again at the end of the first part, as an execution is about to take place. Only there is something more going on here than local politics: our intrepid explorers are in the belly of the beast (literally and figuratively) and The Doctor is about to reveal his reasons for entering this universe…

Entering into a universe that is not indebted to previous Doctor Who lore could have been a masterstroke by the writers: it frees The Doctor from all connections and the writers from the extensive Doctor Who chronology. In some instances – Scherzo and The Natural History of Fear – this universe has been used wonderfully, with chilling tales that perhaps might not have worked otherwise – and then there are stories like this. There is nothing wrong with The Twilight Kingdom – the scene setting in the first part was expertly done: I could feel the rain forest, the humidity, the fear. The second part even managed to maintain that mood. However the third part began to pad the story out unnecessarily, and there was too much of that old Doctor Who padding technique – running down corridors. Listening to The Twilight Kingdom I realised that the writers at Big Finish need to free themselves from another constraint of Who lore – the four part story. If it needs three, use three. If it needs only two, use two. I’m writing that sentence knowing that it does happen later in Big Finish’s releases, but more than ever it is clear here. The Twilight Kingdom would have been a fantastic two parter, or a pretty good three-parter. But over four it is stretched, and the baggy weight of dead story destroys its impact.

There is much to enjoy, despite these flaws. McGann and Fisher again prove themselves the best double-act in the Big Finish range, and Conrad Westmaas still continues to keep C’rizz bland. No, that’s not right: it is the writers who do not know what to do with C’rizz. I feel the character was created as the writers felt they needed a guide to this divergent universe, but C’rizz is as oblivious as the others and so remains nothing more than an incompetent figure in need of constant rescue. The depths that were hinted at in his introduction seem to have been smoothed over, or rather forgotten. The original double act and nothing more might have been a better choice.

As is often the case with McGann’s seasons for Big Finish, this run of stories set in the divergent universe ends with a cliff hanger: a single name is enough to propel the story into new light. The Doctor is here, not because of curiousity, but for what sounds distinctly like revenge: the way he hisses the name to the Kro’ka is infused with menace. Rassilon is here, and The Doctor is out to find him…

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Black Parade (1935)
Jack Jones
Library of Wales, 414pp

Jack Jones was a political man. In his day he joined the Miners’ Federation, he joined the Communist Party, then Labour and then the Liberals, standing as Liberal Candidate for Neath in 1929. He served as a regular soldier in the First World War. He was a man involved in the South Wales collieries, active in his community. Like all great writers, he watched and listened, and Black Parade, his novel of 1935, is the fruit of all this engagement.

His first novel was Rhondda Roundabout, a year before, but Black Parade (at one time called Saran, after the lead character) was the novel that made his name. Written in South-Walian inflection, it reveals a Merthyr Tydfil that is at once beautiful and horrific, a place blighted by success, and torn apart by poverty. Its men spend their days working and their nights drinking, while its women attend the theatre, reproduce, care for their children, and spend their nights fretting about whether their man will come home from work or from play: the mines are just as dangerous as the bars.

Black Parade details most of Saran Morgan’s life, from her courtship with the hard-working, hard-fighting Glyn, through her motherhood, until close to her death: through the prism of this life Jack Jones reveals the grotesquery of the First World War, the General Strike, the changing face of this most Welsh of towns. Immigration, harlotry, the refusal of Whitehall to acknowledge the debt of the miners and so much more beside fills these pages. Saran’s life is – for her – a mostly happy one. We meet her, an independent working woman: she drags her Glyn from the pub when he is in one too long, an unimaginable insult to a man, and yet Glyn sticks with her. Saran has children with him, some who survive the War and the mines, some who do not, and their loss is as sudden and unexpected as such things are, and Jack Jones simply shows life continuing: in this harsh life there is no point in mourning the unalterable.

Jack Jones’s Merthyr comes to life through Saran and her family, but it thrives because of its supporting cast. Some characters appear only for a chapter, others appear throughout, all of them one feels drawn from real life counterparts. Twm Steppwr, a “feckless pub entertainer and balladeer” (as Mario Basini calls him in his introduction to this novel) is a character still alive in Welsh pubs: indeed the prototypes for so many are here, living and breathing and surviving.

The closest cousin to Black Parade that might be known outside Wales is Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, turned into an Oscar Winning film by John Ford in 1941: unlike Llewellyn who raised in England and only briefly worked in the mines, Jack Jones lived this existence: he knew these people, these lives, this hardship and it infuses every page. I cannot say that it is a better novel than Llewellyn’s, having not read it yet, but I suspect it will have a hard time trumping Black Parade as the definitive portrayal of this now forgotten life.

Once again The Library of Wales have presented a forgotten Welsh novel with excellence: they are beautifully presented volumes with insightful commentary (this time, as I said, by Mario Basini). I cannot recommend this series enough.

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The Colour of Magic (1983)
Terry Pratchett
Corgi, 283pp
Unabridged reading by Nigel Planer

When I was eleven years old, I reviewed Truckers for my school, submitted to a local paper and won book tokens when it was selected as the best review – my first professional writing experience. I remember enjoying Truckers, though I can recall nothing of its plot now. When I was older I began reading science fiction and fantasy, and almost everyone pushed me towards Pratchett’s Discworld. All of them told me not to start with The Colour of Magic, but to read Mort, or Wyrd Sisters, and I tried them and got nowhere. A few years ago I picked up The Colour of Magic at a friend’s behest, a dedicated Pratchettian, and I got a few pages in before giving up. Having begun walking long distances most days, I have been listening to lots of audio plays (see all the Doctor Who Big Finish audio plays I’ve reviewed for evidence) and I’ve tried a few audio books, thoroughly enjoying them. Then another friend, hearing of my audio book enjoyment, and being another of these dedicated Pratchettian’s (is that even what we call them?), who told me: start with Wyrd Sisters, Mort, anything but The Colour of Magic. Is this story that bad? I thought. He loaned me the first three stories on disc, and so I began listening to The Colour of Magic, read by Nigel Planer. I expected to get no further than the end of the first part. I decided to give it thirty minutes.

So you’ve guessed I finished it and have probably also guessed I have The Light Fantastic queued up on my MP3 player. But am I a convert?

First of all, the sound recording was awful – or perhaps my burning of the CD went wrong, I don’t know, I’ve got to ask my friend to see if it is indeed that bad normally – the volume went up and down, it was distant then close. Nevertheless, I could hear at all times what was happening, so I persevered. I didn’t enjoy the first half hour much: everything that I’ve repelled against with Pratchett I did so hear: I’m not sure it’s because I find his narrative voice so arch, or because I just don’t ‘get’ the humour, or what it is, but something in the first half hour rankled me. I was about to turn it off. Then Twoflower arrived in Ankh-Morpork and we met Rincewind: these two characters alone made me keep listening. Their interaction and stupidity was delightful. The whole sequence at the inn was well done, full of great detail. Then the action skipped and a quest begun, and the characters separated. My attention wandered. I lost some of what was going on. When they were together again, and the familiar fantasy tropes were being employed, I found I enjoyed it again. Not entirely, but there was something keeping me invested in this journey.

The final hour of the novel became a little overblown: I felt Pratchett stalling, delaying the end. The final cliffhanger of the novel, though not the dramatic moment I felt it should have been, was enough to entice me to consider The Light Fantastic.

As a beginning to what has become one of fantasy literatures great achievement, The Colour of Magic is not great. It is a rather weak novel filled with some rather great moments: or perhaps it looks like that now because so many people have copied or adopted his style. Perhaps it is because I have heard so much praise for Discworld that it cannot live up to its hype. The creation of this fantastical world also irks me: I cannot believe in it, for it is so unlikely, and yet I can see the potential in this world: I’m especially intrigued to learn that Pratchett uses the Discworld in later novels to comment upon aspects of our own society.

I think I must give it another novel before I decide whether to listen to more but one thing is certain: I am more enamoured with Discworld having listened to it, rather than having read it. Perhaps its tone and structure works well with the stride of my feet, as I cover all those miles.

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