Friday, March 16, 2018

Alrightreads: Prestige Who

The point of these 1,000-page slots was that I hoped they'd force me to read something a bit substantial each month. It's only March and I'm already on Doctor Who.

My excuse is that this vaguely-defined 'range' of Who books recruited established, proper authors to write something more worthwhile than the usual cash-in merchandise, even if their singular styles were being watered down to fit into the the magical world of a children's programme.

These had better be good, or I'm going to look really silly.

Michael Moorcock, Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles, or Pirates of the Second Aether

2010 / Audiobook / 343 pages / UK


After experimental, eccentric is one of my favourite flavours of Who, but it's a tricky tightrope. I enjoyed it when Douglas Adams wrote silly space pirates in the seventies (complete with robot parrot and LEGO® Technic eyepatch), but Moorcock's takes on anachronistic buccaneers and Wodehousian toffs come off like weak homages and don't give me much of an idea of what his own style might be like. I don't imagine many young readers made it through too many chapters, I would have called it a day too if it hadn't been in low-effort audiobook form.

This was written with the then-current stars Matt Smith & Karen Gillan in mind, but if the author didn't repeatedly perv over Amy Pond's beauty every time she stepped onto the page, you wouldn't know which iteration of the stock characters he was doing. When he even remembers that they're there.

Stephen Baxter, Doctor Who: The Wheel of Ice

2012 / E-book / 311 pages / UK


Black-and-white Doctor Who collides with contemporaneous hard sci-fi in the Arthur C. Clarke mould, written by Clarke's frequent latter-day "collaborator" (i.e. the one who actually wrote Time Odyssey).

Baxter endeavours to tell a typically grandiose future tech tale in the style of a cheap sixties TV serial. These desires are fundamentally incompatible, but when the characters aren't explaining advanced sci-fi concepts or gazing at high-budget marvels of engineering, it's easy to imagine the cramped sets and guest cast putting on fake American accents to sound futuristic. It's a false-nostalgic treat, while the glow lasts.

Unfortunately, this authenticity extends to it being padded out with as much superfluous fluff as the old six-part serials. Was lumping future genius Zoe with babysitting duties while the men solve the sciencey problem some ironic period sexism too?

Alastair Reynolds, Doctor Who: Harvest of Time

2013 / Audiobook / 368 pages / UK


The very best Who stories are format-breaking. This isn't one of those, as Reynolds rebuilds the structure of the highly distinctive early-70s iteration of the series to an impeccable tee, basically giving us the best Pertwee serial never made. If you're a fan of the UNIT ensemble era, this is as good as Who lit gets. If you're an Alistair Reynolds fan, you'll presumably find it a bit confounding and embarrassing.

My only issue is that it's a bit hard to take seriously with that phallic spaceship cover and enemies called Sild.

A. L. Kennedy, Doctor Who: The Drosten's Curse

2015 / Audiobook / 368 pages / UK


It's foolish to get your hopes up when tie-in merchandise is set in the period of a series that happens to be your favourite, especially when it's a pastiche 40 years down the line.

Kennedy's Tom Baker horror story is as heartfelt and informed as her predecessors' were, her Tom Baker's spot-on, and she's got a nice turn of phrase like Adams and Moffat that keeps this story of a psychic monster lurking under a golf course appropriately light-hearted. It just comes off feeling more like one of those later Williams-era Gothic revivals than a classic from the Hinchcliffe years.

I almost lasted four books before my reviews descended to incomprehensible jargon, could have been worse.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Alrightreads: Castles

It took me the best part of a decade to make it through Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, so I don't feel like fortifying myself inside another castle-bound epic just yet. Here are some shorter books about castles, or that may turn out to be using 'castle' in the title symbolically or whatever, you know what authors are like.

P. G. Wodehouse, Something Fresh (a.k.a. Something New)

1915 / Audiobook / 190 pages / UK


I've never found Wodehouse to be the comedy god others do. He doesn't have the inherently funny way with words of a Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, and his winding together of disparate, blatantly-telegraphed plot points isn't as satisfying as a David Renwick or Larry David. Plus, I know we're laughing at the idle, incompetent, undeserving rich, but spending so much time around these asses is still annoying.

It gets points for having a surprisingly strong female character and a character named Threepwood.

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

1962 / Audiobook / 214 pages / USA


What if Wednesday Addams was a real person? What if American Psycho was palatable? What if a classic Gothic novel had a reasonable page count?

Shirley Jackson's final novel should be required reading for adolescent goth girls everywhere, and for grown men who are adolescent goth girls at heart.

Italo Calvino, The Castle of Crossed Destinies (Il castello dei destini incrociati)

1969 / Ebook / 144 pages / Italy


Italo Calvino wrote one of my favourite books of 2015 (not that I can remember anything about it now) and another one that amazed me in concept, but less in execution.

This tale of mysteriously mute travellers telling their stories via Tarot cards, unreliably interpreted by our narrator, falls into the latter category. My enthusiasm for playing along with the digital Visconti-Sforza deck on petered out after the first couple of yarns. Great idea though.

Gene Wolfe, The Castle of the Otter: A Book About the Book of the New Sun

1982 / Ebook / 117 pages / USA


Before The Book of the New Sun was even complete, its author unapologetically wrote his own fanzine/fansite in book form. Featuring self-interviews, answers to mainly imagined FAQs, glossaries of obscure words and names, a jokes page and, best of all, obsolete insights into the early-1980s US SF publishing industry.

Originally a very limited edition before it was collected with other odds and sods, I don't think Wolfe intended this vanity project to still be knocking about decades later. I enjoyed the New Sun books, though it wasn't totally my thing, and this had made me appreciate it more on a technical level at least. There's a chance I'm the least fanatical Gene Wolfe reader to ever bother reading this curio, and since even I got something out of it, I'm glad it exists.

Dave Morris, Knightmare: Fortress of Assassins

1990 / Ebook / 113 pages / UK


"The wight seizes you and proceeds to tear you limb from limb. A very disarming chap, as I'm sure you would agree if you were still alive."

I had one of these Knightmare books as a child, and won't have been alone in hugely preferring the interactive gamebook half to the opening novella, which barely has anything to do with the series. At least Treguard's in this one, albeit in name only. Its bloody tale of crusades, decapitation, dismemberment, disembowelling and child death is oddly targeted at slightly more mature readers than the usual Children's ITV demographic, but they probably tuned in for Knightmare anyway.

The gamebook part is fairly brief and repetitive, but still brilliant. Featuring familiar characters and scenarios and smart riddles that I didn't always crack even as someone way too old to be playing, it's just what the fans would have wanted and a perfect introduction to the gamebook format too. Much better than those rubbish Sonic the Hedgehog gamebooks I moved on to next.

Iain Banks, A Song of Stone

1997 / Audiobook / 280 pages / UK


Banks' "mainstream" novels never shied away from being off-puttingly unpleasant, but he seems to be yearning for a Wasp Factory level of infamy here, only a lot more predictable. He wrote a better castle story in Walking on Glass, and Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick is a funnier take on the whole sordid business.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Reviewing The Simpsons (seasons 1-9)

At what point did The Simpsons stop being good? I didn't hang around long enough to find out, bailing out of the nostalgic 25th anniversary rewatch as soon as the cracks started to show, so I could part with fond memories rather than frustration. I didn't want this to be another X-Files.

This is one series I really didn't need to watch again again again, but it was an enjoyable waste of time that I'll doubtless do again again again.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Reviewing childish cartoons etc.

When I'm asked to write a website, loads of blogs or other whopping projects, I like to pace and reward myself along the way. If I'm being good, it might be a chapter of a book after every page. Other times, immature nostalgic abandon. All must be compulsively documented for judgement day. Turtle power!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Reviewing Rex the Runt

I got a bit obsessed with this off-the-wall claymation series the first time around, which was during that impressionable early teenage period when I couldn't just enjoy things passively. I even wrote a tragically incomplete episode guide on Amiga Wordworth that no one but myself would read. How far I have come.

Would it still hold up now I'm an adult, and not so easily won over by plasticine animals rebelliously spouting mild swear words in a teatime slot? Would the second series they apparently made that I never knew about be just as entertaining without the nostalgia to back it up? Obviously not, but is it alright?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ranking the Deep Space Nine comics

Deep Space Nine was always my favourite Trek flavour, but even as a fan, it took a long time for me to bother cracking open the station's continuing adventures in novel form. I don't know what I was expecting from licensed fan fiction, but they were only alright.

I'm not similarly deluded about the wonders that might await in DS9 comics written (mostly) while the series was still on the air under a strict non-interference directive. But it's something to do, innit? These decades won't waste themselves.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Reviewing ZAZ

The trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (let's call them ZAZ) is responsible for some of the greatest comedy films of all time. They made six episodes of a cancelled TV series, and that's up there too. Their efforts may have paved the way for less talented people to make some of the worst films of all time as well, but that's not their fault.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Reviewing Operation Good Guys

Before The Office, the Good Guys were already lampooning TV's fly-on-the-wall fad with grimy, semi-improvised realism. For a little while at least, before celebrity cameos and increasingly wacky antics made it easy to forget they were supposed to be police officers in the first place.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Reviewing One Foot in the Grave

Growing up in the '90s and non-discriminatorily watching pretty much whatever comedy was on, I hadn't spared a thought for Victor Meldrew in the years since. It wasn't until I noticed that the series was written by David "Jonathan Creek" Renwick that I took notice and revisited it as an older, wiser, more judgemental tosspot.

If, like me, your memories of this deceptively traditional sitcom only go as far as Richard Wilson saying his catchphrase and a few accidental pet deaths, I'd recommend giving it another watch.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Reviewing The Young Ones & Filthy Rich & Catflap

This would ideally go on to cover Bottom too, which is the Rik & Ade incarnation I grew up with and still consider the best. But I don't have to dissect the mirth from everything I love.