Thursday, January 31, 2008

Short Trips: A Universe of Terrors

This seems like a brilliant idea: short stories featuring all of the first eight Doctors with various companion combinations, from “established” and “new” writers. I’m not sure how suited Doctor Who is to the short form, but it’s very appealing to be able to read a few stories and then come back to the rest later, as opposed to a Doctor Who full-length book, which is full of plot intricacies you may not always want to wrap your head around.

I was somewhat surprised to find the distribution of stories per Doctor was uneven, ie, the First Doctor had three stories whereas the Second, Seventh, and Eighth only had one each. I was also surprised by the fact there was a typo on the first page. Oh well. It’s nice to see a smattering of female authors as well.

My favorite stories were often the scariest (I love the collection subtitle, from one of the Seventh Doctor’s best speeches). I think I liked “Ash” by Trevor Baxendale the best. It features Steven, one of the most underused companions, and tells it from his perspective. It uses an age-old but effective device of a filter, ie, the First Doctor tells Steven a story about an adventure he had with Susan, and the effect is that you want to keep reading to the end of his tale. It’s a scary, gripping story the Doctor tells. Baxendale has got the First Doctor almost perfectly: ‘Must have seemed pretty barbaric, back then,’ Steven ventured. ‘Sometimes,’ conceded the Doctor, but his eyes narrowed slightly. ‘In some ways it was quite charming. Yes, quite charming.’ Although the story never really resolves, it does play on the fears theme well, and the Doctor even smashes a mirror.

I also liked “Mauritz” by Jonathan Morris (who wrote Anacraphobia, an Eighth Doctor book I didn’t much like). Again, an unusual perspective choice—from Adric’s POV, which he has pretty well down, even to the point of parody. I could kind of see where it was going, but it had a nice atmosphere of déjà vu, the drawings of M C Escher, and even “Castrovalva” and was definitely scary. I also liked the Fourth Doctor’s banter about Trappist monks. “Long Term,” by Andy Campbell, anticipates (or seems to) “School Reunion,” though it is much more disturbing. At first I found the tone to be too much, but I realized how it fit in. It’s weird to see the Fifth Doctor without companions, but it certainly makes him more compelling. This is a really scary story. For the Doctor, it was one more boy he had failed to save: strangers or friends, the guilt was the same.

I also liked Marc Platt’s “Whiskey and Water,” in which he proved himself a veteran writer. Surprisingly, this story was about the Sixth Doctor. As far as the collection went, I didn’t think either of the writers who tackled the Sixth Doctor got him quite right, but then again he didn’t have companions in either of the stories, and I admit it’s much easier to write Six when he’s bantering with Peri. Of all the stories, I think perhaps this best managed to cram in a unique, interesting full-fledged plot into the short amount of space. I can’t say I understand why the Wild West appeals to Who writers, but at least Platt seems to have researched (a bit). There are some funny moments: ‘If I’m going to be robbed, it’ll be by an outlaw with better dress sense.’ I was kind of annoyed that it was implied the Doctor couldn’t handle his liquor, but it made sense of course in the end. Lola Montez seems to speak like Molly Brown in Titanic, but admittedly the idea of the Doctor drunkenly playing the piano in a California dive is quite funny. Platt even manages to put some profundity in an often irascible incarnation: He saw millions of points of light, pinpricks of gold and ice streaming around him against the cavernous darkness of space. ‘Home,’ he said, his voice trembling. He looked embarrassed and dabbed a finger to his eye.

There were quite a few stories that fit the bill as scary or disturbing, but were just too weird to have quite congealed for me. “The Fear” by Alexander Leithes is a perfect rendering of the Fourth Doctor’s attitude, but in the end it seems like a dialogue rather than a fully-formed story. John Binns, the editor, contributes “The Comet’s Tail,” which is well-written, but left me scratching my head and wondering “what the hell was that?” afterward. “Gazing Void” by Huw Wilkins is quite well-written, a sober piece about the Eighth Doctor, but again I didn’t see there was much point to it. “Face-Painter” by Tara Samms was perhaps the most disturbing for me. The story would be more effective, I think, if it had been proofread by an American. It’s boldly set in Santa Monica circa present-day, with again a bold decision involving its point of view, but I had a niggling suspicion (later confirmed) from the beginning the writer wasn’t American. A small thing, but it bothered me.

Both of the Third Doctor stories, “Losing Track of Time” by Juliet E McKenna and “The Discourse of Flies” by Jeremy Daw, were pleasant enough (I enjoyed both of their settings) but they seemed really traditional and were not really scary. “The Death of Me,” by “Dalek”’s Robert Shearman should probably not have been included in this set because it seemed like a derivative of “Mauritz” although I’m sure both stories were written independently. Again, sympathy evoked for the Sixth Doctor—‘No,’ said the Doctor softly. ‘Most of my companions leave me’—amazing! He also got in a gag about carrot juice, ha. William Keith meanwhile takes a completely different tack—a poem about the Seventh Doctor called “This Is My Life”—but it’s some fairly bad limericks, though I applaud the effort.

I admit I read the book not just for fun, but to size up the “competition” as it were [in preparation for the Short Trips short story contest of January 2007]. This is why stories such as Lance Parkin’s “The Exiles,” Gareth Wigmore’s “Mire and Clay,” and David Bailey’s “Soul Mate” were the most surprising. Because, frankly, the stories I submitted to the competition were all uniformly better than these three [in my obviously WRONG opinion]. Lance Parkin, such a big name in Who, produces a fairly insipid piece of work about the First Doctor and Susan, though he gets in a good line or two: No one had left. Ever . . . There was no concept of leaving. No one had ever thought to. Why would they? Grandfather had the idea, and it was dangerous, but it was the right thing to do. While I enjoyed the setting (1840s Afghanistan) and the companion choice (Ian, who is a great companion and seldom used) I found the Most Annoying Character of the Year award goes to Zaheer in Wigmore’s story. As for “Soul Mate,” I feel I myself handled this issue better in a fan fiction (for another fandom!). Poor Tegan’s been bullied around by things in her head; no more, please. Though this made me laugh: ‘Geophasic?’ Tegan laughed. ‘I bet that’s not even a word.’

In short, I really enjoyed reading the collection. Some of it was fluff, but some of it was engaging and most of it was scary. I just hope this gives a good indication of what kind of writing they’re looking for, because if so, it gives me hope [alas].

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Dreams of Empire

[Note: where I have lived in the USA, it’s been hard to locally find Doctor Who books. When I moved to Swansea, Wales for a year, I made it my mission to read every Doctor Who book in the Swansea Public Library that I possibly could. I did pretty well, at first.]

This is a relatively old book, from 1998, featuring the Second Doctor. It's about twice as long as the last Justin Richards book I read [The Clockwise Man], and the fonts are tiny and the leading almost unreadably small. It was an entertaining book and certainly well-plotted, though there were dull patches. (PS although I had the strange sensation as I was reading it that I'd read about chess before, I didn't connect that the plot was somewhat similar to The Clockwise Man until I reread one of my friends pointed it out.)

I love the Second Doctor, but I have read (on Teaspoon and an Open Mind) that few writers go after him because he's a difficult character to capture. I would tend to agree, but Richards has nothing to worry about, for his Second Doctor is quite believable. Troughton was, of course, the cosmic hobo, and he used an unassuming exterior and rather clownish demeanor to conceal the intelligence, integrity, and intensity we know to be uniquely the Doctor's. Richards manages to get some very funny moments in, though I sense sometimes it's a struggle to express in writing Troughton's comic physicality. Much is made of the Doctor's apparent clumsiness, the rather funny running joke having to do with sandwiches, including them getting stuck to the Doctor's "bottom" after he sits on them. The Doctor also gets to indulge his penchant for disguise by playing a chilling Chief Torturer in a cunning yet ultimately fruitless plan. He even gets to resonate concrete--er, sort of--to help himself and his companions escape.

It's also typical of this slightly flustered Doctor to get upset if he is seen as a buffoon by his friends, which understandably happens often. 'Take me, for example,' the Doctor continued. 'As your role model in our adventures, I make it a point of displaying a perfect combination of all these attributes and talents.' Neither Jamie nor Victoria spoke. AND Trayx coughed. 'Nonsense, Doctor. I can already see that you are at the very least a gifted amateur.' The Doctor turned suddenly . . . there was a remarkable depth to the Doctor's gaze that somehow had been absent just moments earlier. . . . 'No, I am not a gifted amateur, as you put it. Rather I am an absolute professional in fields that your people do not yet even count among the professions.' Like all the Doctors, he has his moments: 'You know, Doctor, I am never quite sure when you are being serious.' 'I have that problem myself,' the Doctor replied quietly.

Overall, the story is a good evocation of the Second Doctor's era. The setting would seem to support this--a castle that's not really an Earth castle--and even the fact that the Doctor demurs about the fact he's not human (no mention of the Time Lords, not yet). The companions are likewise written into period. Victoria, particularly, is very consistent with what I've seen of her on the show--frustratingly so, sometimes, as when she's relegated to making sandwiches. 'Why can't we go somewhere nice for a change, Doctor?' she whines on page 19. What I tend to forget about Victoria is her youth and the fact that she's a proper Victorian girl--to expect her to act take-charge is not really fair.

Now Richards seems to imply that Jamie--one of my favorite companions--is just plain stupid. I haven't watched all that many 1960s episodes, but my impression was that, like Leela, Jamie was doing his best to cope with situations that were anachronistic. So when Victoria teases him thus: Victoria giggled, despite herself. . . . 'Oh, I'm sorry, Jamie,' she spluttered. 'But strength and good intentions aren't always the answer to everything,' I feel she's being a bit unfair. Of course, it's well-known that Jamie was head-over-heels for Victoria whether he even knew it or not, and I like the way Richards implies this a couple of times. Victoria's apparent attraction [to Prion] was enough to persuade Jamie that it was his duty to demonstrate to her just how shallow the man really was . . . It did nothing to alleviate the feelings that Jamie would never realise were simple jealousy. And again, when Victoria dons skin-tight armor, which tongue-ties Jamie (and I think embarrasses the Doctor a little).

There are some interesting elements to this story, which has been carefully thought-out. There is a scene-by-scene quality, making it like a TV script and at the same time, slightly awkward for it. The vastness of the conflict and its Shakespearean conspiracies, mostly seen in Opening, seem very 1960s Doctor Who to me. The VETAC robot soldiers really reminded me of the new Cybermen for some reason, though I expect that's just coincidence. Two of the plot twists I expected--with Cruger being the main villain and Prion being a robot--but a third, involving Emperor Kesar, caught me completely off-guard. So much for men in masks!

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, most of the secondary characters lacked emotional depth. The two female characters, Helana and Haden, were somewhat disappointing. Helana's scandalous love affair with Kesar was a bit too melodramatic. Haden seemed to be a concession to modernity, with her being a soldier and all; I felt her romance with another soldier, Darkling, was a plot device to an end rather than a character choice. Of course, these could all be sour grapes since I could never come up with a plot this intricate.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed following the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria around. I don't quite buy the Doctor's assertion that chess evolved independently everywhere in the universe, but I guess there'd have been no story without it. Oh, crumbs.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

sooo many books

The best way to introduce me is to introduce the media and my wacky takes on it! Here is a list of the books I’ve read in the last year (roughly) with annotations and in some cases, links to longer reviews. Enjoy.

How Poetry Works (PD Roberts)
I made myself get through this. For a poet I have a very atrophied sense of rhythm, which I constantly attempt to ameliorate. This book helped in a little in that respect, though perhaps the most enjoyable part of it was reading the anthology of poetry in the back.

Lascivious Pleasures: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century (Julie Peakman)
I read this as research for my short story about Casanova. I have to say I really liked researching it and writing it! This is a very colorful, well-written history of a period that, indeed, had a lot of sex in it.

(Nigel Jenkins)
A slightly older but still accomplished offering from Nigel [my poetry professor at University of Swansea]. My favorite poem was probably his rendering into “English” the words to the Welsh national anthem, illustrated with exciting pen and pink drawings of “O let the hens fly!”

Dreams of Empire (Justin Richards)
see the full review at the link

The Collected Poems of Idris Davies
Idris Davies preceded R S Thomas by a bit, but his long poem “The Angry Summer” is an amazing piece of work. By today’s standards he might be considered a little old-fashioned, but I was impressed by his oeuvre.

The Three Sisters (Anton Chekhov)
In my time taking creative writing courses in University, I’ve never heard anyone criticize Chekhov. In fact, I got so fed up my final year of undergrad at my professor worshipping Chekhov, I wrote a poem called “F*ck Chekhov.” That was when I had only read one of his short stories. Having read this play by him, I can now see the praise might be justified. Subtlety was his middle name, and I can understand why his plays can remain so fresh because it’s all in the subtext.

Mesmerized (Alison Winter)
Another excellent history survey, which I used to research my disgraced radio play.

101 Sonnets ( Ed. Don Patterson)
A strong and varied collection of sonnets, from the familiar (Shakespeare and Milton, of course) to the more contemporary. My attempts at a sonnet were completely shot down.

Burning the Candle (Christine Evans)
Fabulous long poem and quite an inspiration for my long poem about tea. I went to Christine Evans’ reading from the book before I knew I had to buy it and read it for my poetry module. I wish I had known them what a great book it was going to be. It’s about light and science and creativity (and Michael Faraday, who showed up in Mesmerized) and it’s thus a little cheesy to describe it as luminous, but that’s the best description I can come up with.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 (Asa Briggs)
This was a large, coffee-table-sized book with a good selection of illustrations. Again, research book, and indispensable, though I can’t say the style really knocked me out.

Paterson (William Carlos Williams)
I admire Williams’ tenacity in writing this mother of all long poems, but to tell you the truth, I got quite bored with it. I did, however, read it all the way through, and parts of it are definitely beautiful and lyrical and meaningful. It’s all the stuff in between!

Short Trips: A Universe of Terrors
see the full review at the link

The Book of Nightmares
(Galway Kinnell)
I admire a lot of Galway Kinnell’s poetry, and even wrote a poem in his honor. Unfortunately I don’t remember a lot about this long poem.

Station Island (Seamus Heaney)
I can’t remember where I was first introduced to Seamus Heaney, but we did read some of his work in my Modern Irish Novel class in undergrad. He is good at being concise, which I always find difficult. This collection includes a long poem, the eponymous one, but also some shorter ones. In general I think I preferred the short poems.

Correspondences (Anne Stevenson)
This was an interesting transmutation of the long poem, or the poem sequence. This poet wrote poems based on letters and the lives of her ancestors. One particular poem I remember was from an Edwardian father to a daughter upon the daughter wishing to go to college. I was impressed by the tone the poet was able to capture in each of the poems, with none of that self-conscious evocation of history that so many of us are guilty of.

Singing in Chains (Meredid Hopwood)
The englyn is the most difficult poetic form I know of, and though I almost achieved a proper English englyn, it would not have stood up for the purists. Meredid Hopwood does her best to explain cynghanedd in this slim volume with its accompanying CD, and dutifully I tried my best to understand Welsh verse. I came to Wales with the intention of trying to learn some Welsh, and the closest I got to it was singing it in choir.

The Shadow in the Glass (Stephen Cole & Justin Richards)
see the full review at the link

How Are Things? (Roger Pol-Pot)
see the full review at the link

Marie-Antoinette: The Journey (Antonia Fraser)
see the full review at the link

On Film-Making (Alexander MacKendrick)
This is supposed to be a classic for film writers by a master at the craft. I found it to be helpful in the abstract sense; it gave quite a few common sense rules. I even took some notes on his ideas about structure and dialogue (don’t write dialogue that you think is funny just to demonstrate how clever you are . . . ha).

The Empire of Tea (Angus and Iris Macfarlane)
One of my tea research books, very attractively put together and an attempt by the old scions of the tea plantation industry to defend themselves from criticism of exploitation and imperialism. While I found the mother Iris’ introduction interesting (describing “how the way things were” on a tea plantation in Assam in the 1930s), her overly apologetic tone got on my nerves. The history sections of the book were much better with an especially good overview of the early years of European tea as well as its alterations to meet a twentieth-century consumer market.

The Book of Tea (Kakuzo Okakura)
A classic, one that I had wanted to possess for years and finally bought it for my “research.” Again, beautifully arranged. I feel like Okakura and I would have gotten along (he wrote this text in English at the end of the nineteenth century, though it has to do with explaining to a Western audience the role of tea in Japanese life). He has reverence for tea but also a sense of humor about it, too. It was highly influential for my tea poem.

The Ruby in the Smoke (Philip Pullman)
I tried to use this as research for my radio play, but in truth it looked interesting and I was curious about it, since I missed Billie Piper and her famous lisp starring in it over the holidays [2006]. Pullman is an excellent author and one of those few who can create a historical world you absolutely believe. His characters were just on the edge of historical credibility, but they were loveable and I cared what happened to them.

Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire (Roy Moxham)
Unapologetic in tone, this study skewers imperialist policy on the tea plantations while providing some really interesting facts that were completely absent from the Mcfarlanes’ study. For example, there was a roaring trade in smuggled tea in the eighteenth century. It also provides an up-to-date picture of tea in the era of Fair Trade and Tescopoly.

Short Trips: Monsters
see the full review at the link

The Resurrection Casket (Justin Richards)
see the full review at the link

All the King’s Men (Robert Penn Warren)
I got recommend this by a friend on a drunken night in Gregynog. It was superb. I get chills thinking about how consummately Penn Warren opened the novel—I was completely sucked in by the tone, the diction, this fallible yet fabulous narrator, and the characters of this Depression-era southern US world. Penn Warren’s background as a poet comes through clearly in the amazingly calculated phrasing, while his ability as a novelist comes through in structure and giving us stunning portraits of characters. Easily one of the best books I’ve read all year.

Perfume (Patrick Suskind)
I saw the film first, read the book in France (which was appropriate). The main character Grenouille is more difficult to sympathize in the book; he is completely remorseless, less than human really. Cleverly written and taking us to places we’ve never been before (especially in the olfactory sense) this was a lot of fun to read and kudos to the translator.

Mistress of the Elgin Marbles (Susan Nagel)
I was given this after a friend in my course read it and wrote a review for her journalism module. I agreed with her assessment that the book was deceptive and written by an author with sensationalism and bias as her backbone. The story, of course, is a fabulous one—Mary Nisbett, wealthy Scottish lady travels with her husband to Turkey and France at a very exciting historical epoch—and the concluding love triangle is definitely filmable. However, it has almost nothing to do with the marbles of the title and is very clumsily told indeed.

The Gallifrey Chronicles (Lance Parkin)
see the full review at the link

HMS Surprise (Patrick O’Brian)
see the full review at the link

The Time Travellers (Simon Guerrier)
see the full review at the link

Being Alive (ed. Neil Astley)
I read the first poetry collection in this series last summer. Both are spectacular. I love poetry anthologies because they introduce me to poets I might never have found before, particularly ones in translation, and if I get sick of a particular poet or theme, I can just move onto the next poem or section! Some outstanding poems on loss in this collection.

Short Trips: Seven Deadly Sins
see the full review at the link

Poems (Robert Penn Warren)
After All the King’s Men blew me away, I was somewhat disappointed with this poetry volume. I found most of the poetry boring.

New Poems (Kenneth Rexroth)
I gave it a go because I had liked some of the poet’s work I’d seen elsewhere. His debt to the East definitely shows, as his poems are mostly haiku-like and about nature. Some of them are very beautiful.

Winter in the Blood (James Welch)
Randomly picked this up at the library. It reminded me of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water which I was forced to read back in high school. The author is an American Indian writing about life in Montana in the 1970s for a young man with no prospects. It would be facetious to call it a Cree Catcher in the Rye, but the same sense of drifting aimlessly pervaded it. I hated Catcher in the Rye but I thought parts of this had a lot of wisdom, plus it was a nice change of scene.

The Last Dodo (Jacqueline Rayner)
see the full review at the link

Elizabeth’s London (Liza Picard)
Exhaustively researched with a definite authorial voice of a certain charm. A strong history book and more than mildly entertaining. Unfortunately I read it on the plane back from Wales to the US and was crying my eyes out most of the time, so that colors memories of the book slightly.

Who Is Witter Bynner? (James Kraft)
Witter Bynner is a poet from the early twentieth century whom I admire, having come across his work randomly when I worked at the Center for Southwest Research in Albuquerque. He is an underrated poet and New Mexico transplant, and I read this biography (the only one, so far) in order to write an article on him for Poetry Canada (which they never published). The book itself seemed slight, when I don’t think the life was slight.

Pint-Sized Ireland (Patrick McManus)
Amusing, likeable, sometimes trying too hard but on the whole an enjoyable travel book. Definitely a good command of the accent and probably does pick out the best bits of everything, though a little prejudiced against American tourists, I think! Since I’d recently been in Ireland when I read the book, a lot of it rung true—though I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve still not had any Guinness.

That’s Not What I Meant! (Deborah Tanner)
Long on interesting socio-linguistic explanations, short on any meaningful ways to improve communication.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J K Rowling)
I got to it about a month after everyone else, partially because I didn’t want the series to end and partially because it was such a huge undertaking. I’m a Harry Potter fan of both books and films, not an obsessive one, mind you, but I love Ron and even got a bit Snape-obsessed because of this book. Anyway, I remember being miserable at the time I read this, so the book made me even more miserable because so many people died. But I think it was an impressive achievement and overall one of the better books of the series.

Boy: Tales of Childhood (Roald Dahl)
Well-written and charming. Read, of course, because I knew Dahl grew up in Cardiff and I was desperately yearning for Wales. I’ve always been a Dahl fan, but I knew next to nothing about him (even though I’ve been to the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay twice). His childhood in Wales, England, and Norway was quite interesting and well-expressed for a young (and not-so-young) audience.

Gwalia in Khasia (Nigel Jenkins)
Given to me as a birthday present by the author. I was a bit weirded out by the fact I was given an autographed book by its author, but in all fairness to Nigel, it ended up being one of the best birthday gifts I’ve ever received. Really interesting and unusual book, well-written except for some poetic flights of fancy Nigel takes with the language. It could have benefited from some photos, of course, but overall good weaving of old and new stories. It is, by the way, the account of the Presbyterian presence in the northern Indian provinces in the Khasi Hills in the 19th century, and by extension, Nigel’s forays there in the 1990s to do research.

How Green Was My Valley (Richard Llewellyn)
Evidently I was on a Welsh kick. Actually I had heard this was great for years, and I thought it was finally time I read it. Told in a strange chronology, but very Welsh—unsentimental while being nostalgic and beautifully written in some places—offering no easy answers. I’m glad I waited to read it until after I had been to Wales, because it felt so familiar.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera)
see the full review at the link

Just Jane (Nancy Moser)
see the full review at the link

Timbuktu (Paul Auster)
see the full review at the link

Inventing the Victorians (Matthew Sweet)
see the full review at the link

Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness (Sheila Kohler)
see the full review at the link

The Shadow in the North (Philip Pullman)
see the full review at the link

The Mouse and His Child (Russell Hoban)
see the full review at the link

Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez)
see the full review at the link

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell)
see the full review at the link

The Shipping News (E. Annie Proulx)
I didn’t much like it. Obtrusively poetic language, unlikable characters, no hope or joy—until it got all local and cutesy. The dialogue was good at least, real. Pulitzer people must be off their rockers.

Eventually, I’ll have posted all the long reviews with links and all.