Saturday, December 13, 2008

top fifteen radio plays

Top Fifteen Radio Plays, July-December 2008

Top Five Doctor Who (DWM) Comics
Top Ten Batman Stories
Top Ten Graphic Novels
Top Ten Books
Top Fifteen Radio Plays
Top Ten Fan Fic

I don’t think I knew really what a radio play was when I decided to take the course as part of my creative writing MA spring 2007. Nevertheless, I quickly learned that I loved the medium, and some people at least thought I had an affinity for writing for it. Whether that’s true or not, I can’t stop the radio plays from coming from my keyboard. While I’m here in Britain I’m making a concerted effort to listen to as many radio plays as possible, and now that I have a laptop, an internet connection, and iPlayer, it’s very easy to do that.

I won’t pretend that I don’t have preferences as far as radio plays are concerned. I do tend to listen to historical plays, but I try for a variety. I have been keeping track of what I listen to in order to notice trends, pick out good writers, directors, and actors, also so I can write lists like these! Know your enemy, or know your market, however you prefer to see it. I also just enjoy radio, though radio plays do require a certain level of concentration (which is perhaps why no one else my age seems to listen to them). If you consider how many new plays Radio 4 alone seems to generate, the fact I listened to 60 between mid-July and mid-December is not as impressive as it originally sounds. It was, however, very difficult to pick favorites, which is why I cheated and went with 15!

15. Murder Every Monday (Pamela Branch/Mark Gatiss) I’m really hard on radio comedy. Even if I’ve enjoyed it at the time, I always wonder if it would appeal as much if I heard it as much a second time. Usually I conclude that it wouldn’t, and good radio comedies go on the back burner in my memory. But that isn’t fair, especially when they’re as clever and funny as this adaptation by Mark Gatiss (the first of many Doctor Who luminaries in this list ...). This is fluff, but it’s very English, very Gatiss (“rather!”)--a sort of radio amalgamation of Gosford Park and “The Unicorn and the Wasp.” Mark Gatiss also plays a character, and I must say it was very disconcerting to hear him kissing all these women! There were some very funny jabs at Americans, excellent sound production, and you could tell the actors were having fun hamming it up.

14. Caligari (Amanda Dalton) This was a very ambitious experiment, and even if perhaps it didn’t all come together, it was very memorable. It’s an attempt to shift German Expressionism from the silent film--The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari0-into radio. I hadn’t seen the film until after I heard the play, so I went out and rented it (this was right around Halloween). Both play and film share an atmosphere of dreamy menace, where nothing is quite what it seems, and both are quite frightening in places (or I should say, disturbing). Caligari himself did not have a speaking role in the play, but Césare, his sideshow somnambulist, was sung by a counter-tenor. This is very interesting in regards to the film, in which Césare did not speak. The play also added a militant soldier-fool (with a northern accent) who was a particularly well-realized character (for passing judgement on World War I).

13. Dover and the Unkindest Cut (Joyce Porter) This was a bit long (I tend to think 45 minutes is the ideal length for a radio play) but very, very funny. It had to do with a detective called to a Welsh village to investigate dismemberment, though it was chiefly told from the detective’s assistant’s perspective. From that perspective, the detective was a fruit loop and so were all the occupants of the village. The Chief Constable was played by Philip Madoc, who you hear a lot on radio, and who sounds just like my former poetry tutor, so that is always disconcerting. I found it lampooned Welshmen and Englishmen in equal measure, and the women in the village--well, they were something else!

12. Frank
(Ian McMillan) I really didn’t like this for the first few minutes and was considering turning it off, but I persevered. It was altogether too silly, obsessed with rhubarb--and then the play finally got going and started to make me laugh. The idea of a frustrated Yorkshire rhubarb farmer wanting to get his dole benefits by making his doppelganger do his work is funny enough (and how English!). But the fact that Frankie “the monster” is Scottish and far sexier than Frank his maker is outrageous. I also really liked the ending--very sly. This was the play on Halloween, by the way.

11. Doctor Who: The Zygon Who Fell to Earth (Paul Magrs)I don’t know if it’s cheating to include BBC7 plays, particularly Big Finish, but I’m going to anyway. I was so excited this year to have gotten to hear the Eighth Doctor’s new radio season with Lucie Miller--I heard all of the plays but one. They were all great, but the two on this list were good enough to stand up with the “normal” radio plays. You can always count on Magrs to be whimsical and weird, but I was really touched by this play of his. He writes comedy beautifully. His barely-disguised Zygons are hilarious (though apparently continuity was getting its wires crossed as the Eighth Doctor and Lucie are in the Lake District here in the ‘70s and then the Tenth Doctor and Martha will be there again in 1909 ...). But he also achieves pathos and sympathy for a Zygon who falls in love with a human, and brings a surprising and bittersweet twist. As usual Sheridan Smith as Lucie shines, but McGann takes a bit of a backseat in this one. Oh, and the music’s good.

10. The Art of Conversation (Dylan Thomas) I heard this play’s world premiere at my new workplace, the Dylan Thomas Centre, during the Dylan Thomas Festival in November. It was discovered by Thomas’ latest biographer among some papers in Texas (?!) and was apparently never produced though it was commissioned during a time when Thomas was writing propaganda for the British war effort. It’s a virtuoso piece, but uneasy--I can’t tell if Thomas’ world-weary cynicism in people’s garrulousness is genuine or a mockery. Parts of it are very funny, very witty, and the adaptation and effects are for the most part very good. Philip Madoc plays the narrator, and to acquire Richard Burton’s “To begin at the beginning” apparently cost more than the rest of the play put together.

9. The Late Mr Shakespeare (Robert Nye) While I enjoyed the fact this story was about Shakespeare, what I liked even more about it was its meta-fictional approach. Jim Broadbent is a child actor handpicked by Shakespeare who, at 81, recounts his life in a garret above a whorehouse during the London Fire. The actor Pickleherring makes an engaging narrator, but what’s more, he splits himself into two selves, his younger (played by George Longworth) and his older, and then has these selves play off each other. It culminates in the older Pickleherring playing Shakespeare’s father and the younger playing Queen Elizabeth!

8. Tulips in Winter (Michele Wandor) My two problems with this were that it was too long (a Radio 3 hour-long play, I believe), and the device of the Angel, which was interesting and even hilarious when interacting with Spinoza, but when mouthing oddities came off as a bit pretentious and annoying. Otherwise, though, I really enjoyed this grand story of Spinoza and his excommunication from the Dutch Orthodox Jewish community. It had such an array of 17th century stars—Cromwell, Downing, and an especially excellent Rembrandt, played by Timothy Spall. Gabriel Woolf even lent his distinctive voice. The religious element was always presented directly and forthrightly, which made it seem even more natural as opposed to some sort of historical pastiche. It managed to use simple images and an arresting soundtrack to bring the story to life.

7. Doctor Who: Max Warp (Jonathan Morris) This was my first Eighth Doctor play, and I did not expect to like it, given the setting and general plot. But I loved it. I never thought a play on this subject--parodying space stories as well as Top Gear--could be so funny or so engaging. McGann and Smith were wonderful together. Lucie is a distinct companion. The sound quality is superb, and Morris really knows how to create a full-sounding audio landscape. You didn’t need tons of characters nor any kind of romantic relationship with the Doctor and companion for a great tale, imaginative and fun. James Fleet and Graham Garden were excellent as well.

6. Worktown (Michael Symmonds Roberts) This was an oddity, but I found myself smiling through every second of it. It was a bit like Under Milk Wood for the 21st century, using a photograph of 1930s Bolton as a springboard for an imaginative, surreal story. It earned is rather staid narration style because of the incongruence of its stories. Absurd but never quaint situations including romance in the snake oil trade, a young boy terrified of cock fighting, motor accidents, a man with dogs. And it featured, rather surprisingly, very lively jazz trios from dogs and cows!! (Only on radio.)

5. Torchwood: Lost Souls (Joe Lidster) This was way too much fun. I wasn’t sure how this would pan out--I wasn’t sure if Torchwood would translate to radio well. But it was fab. It’s Lidster, so it’s dark, full of death, and necessarily science-technical. But, because it was radio, exposition and explanation were not out of place when tempered by humor and strong performances. Much of it was uproariously funny--everyone was laughing when Ianto was declared Ambassador for Wales with Jack as his assistant and Gwen as his wife. I was very pleased at the way it dealt with the deaths of Owen and Toshiko. The sound techniques were quite impressive, and parts of it made me shiver. May I say that Freema Agyeman is perhaps a better actress on radio, too?

4. A Tokyo Murder (John Dryden/Miriam Smith) This three-parter (45 minute segments) surprised me utterly. Again, it was not something I expected I would like. The first part described the frustrated murder investigation by the female DI, played by Rachel Ferguson, into a missing British girl who was last seen at a school in Japan. Besides the intrigue at this stage, I was really curious to see if the DI and her Japanese counterpart, played by Takuya Matsumoto, were going to pay attention to the sparks that were flying between them. Alas, we never found out, as the second part went back in time to the girl’s murder, so that the characters we thought we knew in the first part (the girl’s roommate, Japanese boyfriend, American colleague) cleverly revealed themselves. The third part, which let me down slightly, was her parents trying to find her killer. The performances were fantastic, a more successful feat than Lost in Translation on ex-pats in Japan- more cynical, but well-structured, with meaty characters. I looked forward to it for the three days it was on, and the storytelling techniques were disarmingly simple.

3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor Hugo/Alex Bulmer) This is one of my favorite books of all time, and while many have adapted it, I was really knocked out by this version, again in three parts. It’s a Graeae production, which is a disabled-led company, and deaf actor David Bower plays Quasimodo. He is amazing and very moving in the role, managing to pack all the profundity, simplicity, confusion and pathos of the Hugo character in. Esmeralda, played by Romani actress Candis Nergaard, is much stronger than in the book, though still earnestly in love with her precious Phoebus, and also much more tolerant and empathetic than her book counterpart. Kevin Doyle is also superb as Frollo, effortlessly marrying all the facets of his character. It was streamlined, of course--no emerald bag, Gringoire, Court of Miracles, torture scene, etc--but it was sensitively done, surprisingly faithful to the core message and the main Gothic story. Great music and sound production. It made me cry!

2. Fridays When It Rains (Nick Warburton) Overall this is one of the best radio thrillers I have ever heard. I have since figured out that Warburton uses the same motifs a lot, and that somewhat lessens the startling originality, but that’s of little consequence. This was creepy in the extreme with some excellent mood music. Starring only Lyndsey Marshall as the girl and Clive Swift as the man, the suspense and the dialogue were perfectly pitched. Swift was terrifying. I remember sitting in the living room staring out the window gripping my seat because I was on the edge of it! The end didn’t make sense entirely- -maybe I needed to listen to it a second time--but there’s no doubt I loved the fact it took place entirely on a steam train in 1910, 1964, and the present day. This is what radio can do!

1. HMS Surprise (Patrick O’Brian/Roger Danes) This should be no surprise. One of my favorite books of all time adapted as a three-part radio play? Yes! It was not easy to divide the book into three parts and keep the tension going, but it was done masterfully. The sound production quality was high class, very evocative. The voices for Aubrey and Maturin took a bit of getting used to, but Stephen in particular was absolutely perfect. (By the time I read The Mauritius Command, I was hearing David Robb rather than Russell Crowe and Richard Dillane rather than Paul Bettany in my mind.) It broke my heart to have the end of the play be Stephen’s pitiable reaction to Diana’s rejection (and by the way, I wasn’t sure about Adjoa Andoh as Diana, but she was great). Audio is, sukrprisingly, perfectly suited for some of O’Brian’s best one-liners. I was also impressed with what they did with Dil (her death was the end to part two). Obviously they had to sex things up a bit, which they did in the form of Jack and an old flame, and I think a bit of Jack/Sophie. Diana and Stephen only got one interrupted kiss, but I don’t mind telling you, it was hot. O’Brian, I think, would be very proud of this excellent, well-rounded adaptation.

Some other highlights of included The Babington Plot (Michael Butt), Prayer Mask (David Pownall), Boscobel (Ian Curteis), Memorials to the Missing (Stephen Wyatt) , Away Day (D J Britton), Dr Freud Will See You Now, Mr. Hitler (Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran), and The Pattern of Painful Adventures (Stephen Wakelam).

And finally ...

I feel I have to mention Doctor Who: Chimes of Midnight (Rob Shearman) and The Phantom of the Opera (Gaston Leroux/Barnaby Edwards). I started listening to them on BBC7 but won’t be able to finish them because I’m going to the US for Christmas. I was so impressed by the adaptation of POTO that I bought it and will be listening to it in its entirety on the flight (stay tuned). I am very tempted to buy Chimes of Midnight because it is amazing, and I can’t stand not knowing the ending.

Thank God for radio drama!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

top ten books

Top Five Doctor Who (DWM) Comics
Top Ten Batman Stories
Top Ten Graphic Novels
Top Ten Books
Top Fifteen Radio Plays
Top Ten Fan Fic

Top Ten Books 2008

With 56 (non-comics) books read this year, I didn’t do too badly (especially considering that several of them were over 500 pages long!). Although I try to break my reading up with non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and drama, the top ten are overwhelmingly in the fiction category.

10. North and South (Elizabeth Gaskell) I’m cheating a bit here, as I haven’t finished this yet, but at 570 pages, you can forgive me for being a bit precipitous! I’ll do a full review at some point, but I’ve really been pleasantly surprised with this, after being frustrated into reading it, that no one took my Facebook hint to buy me the mini-series, which of course stars Richard Armitage. (Look what the man has done for me! Got me to read my Shakespeare, research the Crusades, watch Spooks, read Gaskell ...!) In theme and structure, North and South is similar to Pride and Prejudice, though I might at this point argue I like John Thornton more than Mr Darcy. I know, shock, shock (though I have said before I prefer Colonel Wentworth in Austen’s array of romantic heroes). I’m also learning a great deal about the Industrial Revolution in the UK (as opposed to the American Civil War).

9. Translations (Brian Friel) My friend Maria wrote her dissertation on Brian Friel and even went to Ireland to meet him and research in Dublin’s libraries. He was always highly recommended to me, but it was only by chance I picked up this play by him in an attempt to help my own writing of stage plays. I was amazed at the simplicity and naturalness of Friel’s writing historical drama. I had to look at the stage directions to realize that it was set in the 19th century. The story is about an Irish hedge-school, visited by an English regiment whose job it is to convert all the place names in Ireland into English. This is a sly observation on language, communication, and culture, with a mournful and yet tender romance somehow not “lost in translation.”

8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams) How I never came upon this book before now I don’t know. I was too young to appreciate the BBC mini-series when it came to PBS; I was amused by the Hollywood film. I earlier compared reading the book to the experience of clone!Leela and clone!Doctor going inside the real Doctor’s head in “The Invisible Enemy”: funny, absolutely insane, satirical, philosophical, and highly imaginative. I could quote the bit about towels ... but I won’t.

7. The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov) The Master and Margarita is a book that defies categorization (a bit like Phantom of the Opera, I find). I was given the book by my friend Renée, with whom I co-taught Gothic Horror (and who taught me to love many varied and interesting texts in the Novel as Social Commentary), who is something of an expert in Russian literature. Bulgakov was a sincerely valorous writer, in that he wrote The Master and Margarita with the full knowledge it would never be published within his lifetime—he was living in Stalinist Russia, and its exploration of Christian religious themes would have censored it immediately. The Devil is a character. Witches ride on broomsticks above Moscow. Margarita serves as Lucifer’s hostess in a hellish masquerade. The Master, while not the Master of Doctor Who, is nevertheless an enigmatic figure, a writer of an uncannily realistic account of Jesus and Pontius Pilate in A.D. 43. So it becomes a story within a story within a story ... Highly imaginative, very funny, and an interesting window into 1920s Soviet society-highly recommended.

6. Beethoven’s Hair (Russell Martin) I’ve read much on Beethoven, Hummel, Mozart, and Haydn due to something I’m working on. I was amazed at how much I enjoyed this nonfiction book and how it kept me on the edge of my seat. A really well-constructed and organized sampler of Beethoven’s life, with an easy-to-read, conversational style. It’s also the intriguing story of his hair after his death! I particularly liked reading about Hummel’s student Hiller (who ended up with the hair in question for awhile), though of course the Danish heroism and subsequent mystery was pretty gripping. If you remember in the news a few years ago hearing about the high levels of arsenic in Beethoven’s hair, which may have caused his death-this is that story, and a lot more.

5. Notes from a Small Island (Bill Bryson) I’m a bit cross with Bill Bryson since he’s the Chancellor of Durham University and wrote to my friend Katie, a graduate of that educational establishment, to ask her for money. But normally I’m one of his staunchest fans because I find him terribly hilarious, immensely shrewd, and like me, he’s an American with a huge soft spot for Britain and Britons. This is one of the books that cemented his reputation. I have learned that Brits in general find it as funny as I did, which is no small feat, to amuse both sides of the Atlantic equally. His other works all retain the sense of humor with surprisingly strong and acerbic opinions all bundled up with a sense of wonder and delight-yet this one takes the cake. Yah.

4. Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) My aunt, who introduced me to costume drama, told me for years to read Gone with the Wind, as with my affinity for description of costume she knew I would love it. She’d also bred a hopeless romantic, and though I went in very sceptical of having any affection whatsoever for Rhett Butler, I came out conscious of its deserving its status as one of the greatest love stories of all time. The color, the beauty, the flippancy of the Old South, the picking, gnawing tedium of the Reconstruction, inner conflict, outward battles. Scarlett experienced it all, and for all her lack of education, her selfishness, she is the type of woman who is more or less inside all of us. If you want a character who really goes through hell, this is the place to find her. But wait! you might say. Isn’t this a racist book? Well, I doubt you will ever see the n-word repeated as many times in a book. I think it’s acceptable when a book includes characters who are merely reflections of attitudes that were once genuinely espoused. You may disagree. In any case, no one can deny the scale and the energy in this moving history and love story.

3. Stumbling on Happiness (Daniel Gilbert) Every page packed enormous and consequential teachings that everyone should know. Sometimes the irreverent tone was a bit much-Gilbert does find himself a bit amusing-but overall extremely thorough and 100% engrossing. It’s a bit depressing to realize that there is no perfect way to predict happiness, because basically our brains are hard-wired against it! I read a book late last year called That’s Not What I Meant! which annoyed me because it didn’t give any practical hints for how to deal with miscommunication. It could be argued that Stumbling on Happiness won’t bring you any closer to happiness (though I think he does see the value in writing down how we feel, so we can look back at it and say, ooh, THAT’s how I felt). Gilbert tells us by way of ingenious and thorough experimental and empirical data, is that humans are very poor at predicting and remembering what makes them happy. Yet I suppose there is something comforting in the fact that I’m not alone in not understanding my own happiness or lack thereof!

2. The Road to Samarcand (Patrick O’Brian) While I didn’t enjoy my Master and Commander book this year as much I as I expected to, The Road to Samarcand more than made up for it. This was cracking good fun. Maybe it didn’t contain the emotional depth of Aubrey/Maturin, but it was a tremendously good yarn. I cried, I laughed, I couldn’t put it down. I felt I’d gone through the Himalayas, sailed the south seas, and through the Gobi Desert with the expedition. The characters are charming, and this is a story of O’Brian’s that isn’t set in the Napoleonic era. I just loved it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

1. Broome Stages (Clement Dane) No one has heard of this book, not even antique book dealers in Hay-on-Wye. I was very, very fortunate to find a copy in the University of New Mexico library- I was tempted to steal it- after my former radio tutor D J Britton told me he had found the book in a church bazaar and that it reminded him of my writing. It’s long, but to me it trumps even The Forsyte Saga and The Magnificent Ambersons, also family sagas, in terms of scale. It isn’t quite as heavy-handed as Galsworthy, and, as a dramatist, Dane has an impressive sense of great scenes. His characters are so magnificent and so real, it almost broke my heart to follow their very human rise and fall. What also sets it apart from the other two books I’ve mentioned is its Shakespeare/acting angle- it follows a family of actors from the early 18th century to the early 20th. The book is exceptional, and it deserves to live outside the long-neglected pages- if it were up to me, it would! Now I just have to find a production company that will take me on ... If you can find the book, you will be impressed.


top ten (nine) graphic novels

  • Top Five Doctor Who (DWM) Comics
    Top Ten Batman Stories
    Top Ten Graphic Novels
    Top Ten Books
    Top Fifteen Radio Plays
    Top Ten Fan Fic

    Top Ten (well, Nine) Graphic Novel/Comics Collections

    While I’ve read enough Batman comics to make an informed choice in this category, I haven’t really skimmed the surface of other graphic novel collections partially because I haven’t been given clear recommendations other than the obvious (and by the way, no, I have not read Watchmen yet). Still, it felt like I’d read enough to at least acknowledge where I’d found excellence.
  • 9. Manga Shakespeare: Richard III (Shakespeare/Patrick Warren)I was wandering Borders in Fforestfach some time ago, trying to figure out what to spend my gift voucher on. From the moment I laid eyes on Richard III, I knew it was destiny. Though my favorite play Hamlet was there on the display along with Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest (and I’d like to acquire all the books in this series someday) I made my move on Richard III. Only later did Adi point out that Richard was drawn quite a lot like that other Richard (as in Armitage) which must have influenced me on a subconscious level as I had not started the obsession with that Richard yet. (To be honest, the first thing I thought when I picked up the book was that Richard was drawn like how I had drawn my Hamlet, who was in turn based on Vampire Hunter D, but that’s another story.) This is Patrick Warren’s first full-length graphic novel, and his art is stunning. With Shakespeare’s immortal prose (a bit edited, it’s true), it makes a fascinating combination. Many-a-time, I’ve been struck with buyer’s remorse—but with this, never.
  • 8. Batman: Ego (Darwyn Cooke) This was the first Batman comic I picked up, and it’s still one of my favorites-a serendipitous choice, obviously. It contains Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score, which as I mentioned previously, is one of my favorite Batman stories, as well as the titular story and a few other gems (though it contains the first Tim Sale production I ever saw, where Catwoman looked like a man and hence put me off Sale for awhile!).
  • 7. Fables: Legends in Hiding (Willingham/Medina) As usual, I approached things backwards and started reading vol.8 of Fables before I got to vol. 1. But it intrigued me enough to go back to the beginning, and with Bill Willingham’s clever scripts and my affinity for fairy tales revisited, it was clear it was a good match. This may be a slim volume, but it’s bursting with creative concept, humor, and narrative-driven, action-packed art. Much appeal rides on the Wolf—Bigby—a detective rather than a huggable sheep-worrier, but certainly the same genre of tough-guy, yet oddly, disarmingly, charming. The premise is that the Fables (as the fairy tale characters are called) fled to the world of the Mundanes (Mundys) after the Adversary drove them from the Homelands. Since they are long-lived (immortal?) they’ve been in hiding for a long time. The majority live in New York City with certain protective measures, while “nonhuman” creatures are on the Farm in upstate New York. There’s a wonderfully wicked humor running throughout, as Bill Willingham seems to take perverse pleasure—as did Stephen Sondheim before him—in making our childhood characters into swearing, smoking, debauching moderns. The art is quite good, too, and very distinctive.
  • 6. The World Shapers (Alan McKenzie/Mike Collins/Jamie Delano/John Ridgway)I had to name at least one Doctor Who comic collection, and looking back, this one seemed to have the most consistent ability to impress me both with its stories and its art. I already noted that I loved “The Gift,” but the titular story, while slightly fan-wanky, is a joy. There’s a ridiculous but very funny comic called “Salad Daze,” and “Profits of Doom” is also quite hilarious. Ridgway retains an uncanny ability to draw Colin Baker to perfection (though unfortunately sometimes his Peri looks like Nyssa!). I also really loved the Eighth Doctor collection, The Flood.
  • 5. Batman Begins: The Movie & Other Tales of the Dark Knight (Beatty/Plunkett/LaPointe/O’Neill/Giordano/Burchett/Rucka/Brubaker/McDaniel/Willingham/ Fowler) I know from first-hand experience how difficult it is to draw comics characters who actually look like their real-life film and TV antecedents—ie, the actors. The artists here do that stunningly, for all the characters. I’ve been complaining ever since I started my comic-reading quest that I’d much prefer Batman to look like Christian Bale than anyone else, and what unabashed, fangirlish joy for me to at last experience that. The strength of this collection is the four other stories the brainiac behind all this chose to match up with the story of the film, as they are all similar in tone to the Nolan!verse. “The Man Who Falls” by Denny O’Neil and legend Dick Giordano must have influenced Batman: Year One and the Nolan!verse. The drawing style of “Air Time,” by Rick Burchett, reminds me of Heroes for some reason, and it’s the colors, as well as the innovative panelling and strongly technical inking, that keeps the non-traditional narrative, er, afloat. Equally legendary Ed Brubaker contributes a morally uplifting story that perfectly complements Scott McDaniel’s active, colorful art in “Reasons.” That genius Bill Willingham contributes “Urban Legend” which is worth the price of the volume on its own. I have almost never laughed so hard at a comic in my life. With very great reluctance I returned this volume to the library, and it’s definitely going on my to-own list.
  • 4. V for Vendetta (Alan Moore/David Lloyd) From Hell was the first graphic novel I ever read, back in 2005 when I was preparing to co-teach Gothic Horror in the Honors program. Its scale impressed me, but we decided not to teach it in the course! I next saw the film of V for Vendetta, and it influenced me on one of my very few (and therefore memorable) immediate gratification purchases. I had to get the graphic novel. I did, and though I later went on to read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I decided V for Vendetta was the Moore story I would choose to represent the legend in my top nine list.
  • 3. Cancer Vixen (Marisa A. Marchetto) Missouri Review had it up there as one of the greatest graphic memoirs. Marchetto proves that not only can a woman write and draw her own comics, she can sell them to the New Yorker, she can marry the man of her dreams at 43, and she can successfully foil cancer. Don’t be put off by the fact Marchetto seems somewhat Sex and the City, she is a funny, inventive, tough chica and artist. Her art and writing move fluidly, and her unique vision of the world is both appealing and realistic. If anyone has to face more rejection than a writer, it’s a cartoonist. Marchetto is no-nonsense about the lack of women in her field and she is quick to admit to her own irresponsible behavior when she allows her insurance with the Writers Guild to lapse. But she is extremely sympathetic, and I can relate to her in so many ways. I don’t know if a man would read Cancer Vixen in the same way, but for me it’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read all year.
  • 2. Harley & Ivy (Dini/del Carmen/Chiodo/Timm) Harley & Ivy was one of the first Batman comics I read, and I have photocopied pages from it all over the walls of my room. There’s something so appealing in the way it’s drawn (even if the male artists do their damndest to get our two super-villainesses naked), and Dini writes like no one else. Harley is his girl, he created her, and as comic characters, Harley and Ivy are quite fun. Necessarily because the universe is more like Batman: The Animated Series, there is less violence and grimness than in Batman: Detective, and it’s kind of screwball entertainment. It’s very funny, and I love Dini’s vision of the Joker as well. It’s surprising how sweet the Clown Prince of Crime and Harley Quinn can be together.
  • 1. Serenity: Those Left Behind (Joss Whedon/Brett Matthews/Will Conrad) With the writing talents of Joss Whedon, how could this graphic novel from the Firefly universe go wrong? The writing is laugh-out-loud funny in places, particularly where River is concerned, and all the characters are perfectly written. There’s fuel for the fire for us Mal/Inara shippers, and some lovely Simon/Kaylee and Wash/Zoe moments. That said, the art is just superb. There are some pin-ups for the cast that are among the best I’ve EVER seen, for any fandom, and more than any other comic I know that’s based off of TV/movie characters (ie, so the drawings have to look like the actors), the likenesses are incredible. There’s also a wonderfully-warming, feel-good introduction by Nathan Fillion who looks so goddamn good as Mal in these pages. Just a tour-de-force of fun. I tried the Buffy graphic novels, but I just must be part of the 0.01% of people who don’t get Buffy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

top ten- top ten fan fic

Top Five Doctor Who (DWM) Comics
Top Ten Batman Stories
Top Ten Graphic Novels
Top Ten Books
Top Fifteen Radio Plays
Top Ten Fan Fic

Top Ten Fan Fic

And now we come to the most self-indulgent of all categories. I did, some time ago, a fairly comprehensive listing of my favorite fan fics in different categories, though I daresay I was preaching to the wrong crowd. But as I was musing the other day, I’ve written 58 fan fics (well, I have 58 posted on ... there are a few more that never made it there). The trade-off of is that you have a worldwide audience (potentially) and usually if you’re writing within a certain fandom, you’re guaranteed good reception from at least some of the readers who like more of the same. But you’ll never get your work published, and there are many readers who don’t leave reviews- you can’t make money off fan fiction (except in rare cases) so I guess for me it’s always represented practice, personal amusement, and meeting likeminded people. But for fun, we’re going to look at what other people might consider the top ten of the fan fics I’ve got posted on How do I determine this? Well, we’ll go with the fics with the most reviews, the best reviews, the longest fics, and the one-of-a-kinds. Allons-y!

10. Birthdays (2006) is the first Doctor Who fan fic I wrote. I personally think it’s not very good, but of all of my Doctor Who stories on, it’s got the most reviews (9). It’s a little vignette between the Ninth Doctor and Rose and sets us off in the “Holidays” universe.

9. Origins (2006-) is one of the few things on that I haven’t completed. I never got the additional research done to complete the section in Russia, and since there never seemed to be a huge demand to finish it (7 reviews) I haven’t made the effort. A reworking of Erik the Phantom’s past (as opposed to the version written by Susan Kay in the published Phantom), it has gotten some good reviews. Deirdre of the Sorrows wrote:
This fic is a veritable diamond in the rough, what with the dreck that's been posted on this site recently. Wonderfully written, thoughtfully crafted and just generally well done.

8. Mirrors (2006) is a one-off written for (the movie of) V for Vendetta. I just dashed it off, but to my surprise, readers really liked it. EnigmaSphinx said:
What a rich little jewel I have found!! This is a pretty tale, just the right touch of longing and loss. Poor Evey and poor V. One wonders if they might have ever synched up and gotten somewhere, were the fifth of Novembr not guaranteed once a year. You did a great job with this story. I was impressed with how you divided their thoughts and yet blended them too. Astonishing. Truly.

7. Doctor Who the Musical Season 2 (2007) is the only other representative of Doctor Who fan fic here. Even though it’s incomplete, due to the fact I just couldn’t be arsed to write parodies for “Love & Monsters” and “Fear Her,” people still seemed to find it quite humorous, giving it 11 reviews.

6. The Pajama Game (2005) has 14 reviews, twice as many as its antecedent “Cold Shower.” Both have to do with giving a personality to Dr. Jonathan Crane, my first villainous fascination from Batman Begins. Both of them use flashbacks to find a window into the psychologist’s psyche (a psyche full of frustration, shame, and rejection). Lady Awesomepants was tongue-tied:
Holy **. Adding to favorites. I think this is the best thing I've ever read in my entire life. Just...holy **.
Blodeuedd, a talented Crane-fic writer herself, said this:
Your Cranefics just keep getting better and better and, just when we think they couldn't, still better. This one is just so...unbelievably good. (big, happy sigh) I'm so content right now, knowing there are amazing writers like you out there. Thanks for sharing this one with us. :) (raises glass)

5 & 4. Butcher, Baker, Tailor & Queen of Hearts(2008) BBT trails behind its sequel by a few reviews (48 to 51) so it’s easier just to discuss them both at the same time. Out of Nolan!verse Joker fever came the first story, a sort of parable set in Québec with a tailor’s daughter named Cécile Blandine. “Queen of Hearts” followed Cécile to Gotham with murder and mayhem in her wake. L Bea said:
An OC who's original? Now there's a change. I like so many things about this story. The ending in particular -- the Joker's failure to initiate something normal ("Drink some coffee!"), it's sad but not sentimental. A lot of fics I've read focus on his violence while this one only hints at it, which comes off a lot more subtle. The non-Gotham setting is unusual too, but you pull it off nicely.
Wonderful author KatxValentine said: Wow.
Oh, wow. Sincerely, truly, fantastically, ultimately wow. This was one of the singular most incredible fanfics I've read in a long time. I'm violently impressed with it on an overall-- the word-choice, the descriptions. You've made such an incredible idea out of the tiny idiosyncrasy that his suit was custom. I applaud you for this, this is amazing.
Blodeudd’s review was perhaps the most telling:
I'll admit it - I wolfed this story down. It reads like a legitimate comic book, spun off from the Nolan-verse. I can almost imagine the pictures that accompany it; each sentence is like a box of artwork, completed with all the trimmings - dialogue bubbles, vivid color, dramatic angles.
And Girl With a Planet wants a part three:
Wonderful, fascinating, haunting. I'd love a third installment for nothing more than to follow the travails of Cecile because she is fascinating.
We’ll see how these stand up to the test of time.

3. Making It Stranger (2008) is a baby compared to the rest, yet it was an instant hit both on and A Teaspoon and An Open Mind (earning 18 reviews at the former and 23 at the latter). It crawled out of my mind, pairing characters from Doctor Who and Torchwood with Nolan!verse Batman. JJPOR explains the appeal:
I really enjoyed this - you brought both the Torchwood/Doctor Who characters and Batman and his rogues' gallery vividly to life. The standouts for me were the Joker and Ten, but I really liked your portrayal of Crane/the Scarecrow, one of my favourite characters from the Nolan movies, and I always have a soft spot for Mickey!
Peachy, like several readers, asked for more:
This was EPIC. Seriously, amazing job with everything. Your Joker was perfect, especially in the scene where he tames the Weevils. Everyone interacted so well. Wow, I have no words. I need more! Please?
My favorite review was one asking me to write a Martha/Joker fic!

2. Bring Me That Horizon (2003-2005)is both the longest piece (68,442 words!) and has the second-largest amount of reviews, 71. This is my epic love letter to Sparrabeth, that is, Jack Sparrow/Elizabeth Swann fandom, rendered non-canonical when Dead Man’s Chest came out. Yet DMC and At World’s End danked some of my ideas, which I found very strange. People begged me for a sequel for a very long time! Kathryn Sparrow said:
Oh my goodness. That was the best fanfiction that I have ever read.
Knit-wear said:
i just wanted to say that sometimes i look at the number of reviews a story has as an indication of its quality-- i would expect this one to have hundreds just because of how amazing it is.
Sheriboalmighty quite amused me by saying:
i have stayed up all night reading this. i have litereally been on the edge of my seat waiting for jack and elizabeth to realize their feelings!! AGHH! SEQUEL!! please... PLEASE!! *begs begs begs on hands and knees* please? pretty please?? and i can't believe she cut his hair.
(Readers were generally mortified when Elizabeth cut Jack’s hair in chapter 4!)

1. Scars (2000-2005) has an astonishing (for me) 83 reviews. And many of them are very good reviews. I must have established a rapport with the readers; it’s one of the few times . “Scars” is actually very old, I started it when I was 17. It is a sort of pre-quel to Phantom of the Opera, in that it takes place in 1870-1 when the opera house was being used as an arsenal and then a prison. It concerns a nurse named Manon Lapaine and her meeting the hideous, musical Erik. HDKingsbury wrote:
Thanks for an enjoyable, entertaining, and bittersweet story.
Mad Lizzy wrote:
You are talented and original, and I've enjoyed Scars immensely.
Mastersofnight had this to say:
Wonderful premise. So glad you posted this. Your language is superb, I can feel the fear and cold that surround Paris. I can also appreciate your historical research." And stineblicher offers the ultimate compliment: "I am really surprised this story hasn't got more reviews. It is one of the best that are on the net until now.

Monday, December 8, 2008

top ten- top ten batman comics

  • Top Five Doctor Who (DWM) Comics
    Top Ten Batman Stories
    Top Ten Graphic Novels
    Top Ten Books
    Top Fifteen Radio Plays
    Top Ten Fan Fic

    Top Ten Batman Stories
    Obviously, The Dark Knight propelled me into Batman obsession. It’s the Batman of the comics, of the Nolan!verse, and of the Batman: The Animated Series that I’m primarily interested in, and again I am deeply indebted to Swansea Central Library for having so many of the recently published Batman titles. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I have made a significant dent into the most famous and most highly regarded of the comics, enough to have preferences as far as writers and artists are concerned. Batman as a fandom and a mythos is similar to Doctor Who in many ways, and as such its universes diverge into diverse territories. Here are some of my favorite individual stories that I’ve read in the last six months.

    10. Mistress of Fear (Peter Milligan/Duncan Fredego) This Scarecrow story (1998) is from the volume Scarecrow Tales. Long before I fell for the Nolan!verse Joker, I was a Jonathan Crane fan girl, and this is one of his best stories. The art by Duncan Fredego is gritty and in a palette of Halloween brown. There’s a fantastic teaser-opener, and I guess what I like best about it is that Becky Albright, the only person brave enough to testify against the Scarecrow and get him behind bars, looks exactly like a mish-mash of how I imagined my two female characters in the first Crane-fic I wrote, “Cold Shower.” Most of the comic is dark and stylish; while Crane is younger than in chronologically earlier stories, he’s no Cillian Murphy: in fact, he is believably weird and grotesque-looking. The Scarecrow sequences are suitably freaky, but obviously what I like best is that it isn’t colleagues tormenting Crane, it’s an abusive, cruel childhood. Sharing with Becky a background of pain, Crane actually cries— and wants to make Becky his “mistress of fear.” But of course she rejects him, saying she’d rather die. Fortunately Batman is there to rescue her from the Scarecrow’s rage.

  • 9. The Bet (Paul Dini/Ronnie del Carmen) “The Bet” is purely for amusement purposes. From Harley and Ivy, this is one of the very first Batman stories I read, and I retain great affection for it. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created Harley Quinn in Batman: The Animated Series, and most of the time her character brings an element of silliness to otherwise grim Gotham. Neither Harley nor Poison Ivy even don their costumes in this quickie. They’re both stuck in Arkham, Harley is boy-crazy, and Ivy bets Harley she can kiss every single man in Arkham. When you’re a green skinned sex-kitten with poisoned blood, this isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Both of the villainesses are appealingly drawn, and the whole thing is just fun. The punchline is really sweet.

  • 8. Bent Twigs (Bill Sienkiewicz) I have a feeling that, left to my own devices, my comics might look something like Bill Sienkiewicz’s. He doesn’t seem too bothered about straight lines, neatly delineated panels, and though his art is scratchy, jumpy, cartoonish and yet strikingly humanistic, his characters do a lot of talking. This story, from Batman Black and White is beautifully conceived from beginning to end. It’s compassionate and keening and its characterization of Batman rich, overwhelmingly sympathetic, and I ache for him. Amazingly, this is all done in one setting, with four characters: Batman, a boy, his father, and a dead cat. “Blaming others for our ills is easy. Pulling a trigger is easy. Victimizing ourselves and others is easy . . .”

  • 7. Kinda Like Family (Paul Dini/Don Kramer) No one writes Harley like Dini. I could do without Don Kramer’s interpretation of her drawing-wise, as like most comic book women she has helium balloons where her breasts should be. Arguing the Joker had her in the throes of the Stockholm Syndrome, Harley asks for early parole from Arkham Asylum. She’s broken out by the female Ventriloquist, who appeals to Harley’s sense of “a woman scorned.” It’s written fast and furious, with most of the good lines going to Harley. She successfully beats the Ventriloquist and her posse at their own game. And for her sincerity in wanting to make good, Harley is granted parole. There— a Harley story that ends happily, and she’s proven she’s not an idiot, nor is she just the Joker’s stooge.

  • 6. Untitled (Mark Verheiden/Patrick Broderick) From the great Two-Face collection, Batman vs Two-Face. There are at least two levels of narrative going on at the same time. Despite wearing half of a bell-bottomed, checked atrocity, this Harvey Dent is amazingly sympathetic. Grace, Harvey’s wife, is shrewd enough to compare Two-Face to Batman in his need for disguises and detachment from the self (I love how all these Batman villains are so like Batman himself in some ways). Phantom-y angst to the max: “I love you. I hate you. Kiss me.” I love this story.

  • 5. Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score (Cooke) Darwyn Cooke worked on Batman: The Animated Series, and his collection Ego was one of the first Batman comics I read. Included in it was this story, which won the Best Graphic Novel of 2002— and it’s easy to see why. It’s fast-moving, beautifully drawn, brutal, and populated with fascinating— if amoral— characters. Heist stories seem to fascinate people, and this is one of the best I’ve seen. An intimate knowledge of Selina Kyle— aka Catwoman— is not required, as Cooke draws and writes her beautifully. She is made to look like a cat-eyed pin up of the ‘50s— yet she is clearly a bad-ass, modern (anti?)heroine. Her ex-lover/partner Stark is a great character, as is Jeff, Cooke’s self-proclaimed “Chow Yun Fat” of Hong Kong crime. The locales are suitably picturesque— Las Vegas, Morocco, Miami, and of course Gotham (though Batman does not show up). The heist itself has the exuberance of Firefly’s “The Train Job.” It ends in tragedy, however, with Selina as lonely and angsty as Batman.

  • 4. Slayride (Paul Dini/Don Kramer)In the Phantom phan-verse, we used to have Christmas-themed writing contests, always a bit tricky considering the morbid subject matter. It’s equally ludicrous in Batman, but that doesn’t stop Dini from injecting some madcap holiday spirit into a surprisingly good Robin comic. The Boy Wonder gets hauled into a car on a snowy night, only to be confronted with the Joker wearing a Santa hat saying, “ ‘Sup?” In flashback Robin tries to justify the Joker’s insanity, while being forced to watch as the Joker tries to run people over. Robin outwits his tormenter: the Joker allows himself to be thrown off an overpass by a mack truck in some spectacular art from Kramer. How’s that for the Christmas spirit? I’d buy the book just for this strip, though I haven’t done it justice.

  • 3. Catwoman: When in Rome (Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale) Why does Catwoman get all the best stories? Both of these gentlemen are known from their work on Heroes among other things- in the past I have found Sale’s art either enormously brilliant or rather strange. I love the conceit of this— it makes for hilarious writing and fantastic art. Selina manages to be Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, and Halle Berry rolled into one— ergo, she’s super-cool and super-sexy, ergo, Rome is the perfect setting for her. The relationship between Edward Nigma (aka the Riddler) and Selina/Catwoman is my favorite part of the plot. Sadly, all the handsome, hyper-masculine (yet I’d call them pretty boys) hitmen-type characters who try to resist Selina’s charms but ultimately fall in love with her don’t seem to last long, including the amusing and hulkish Christopher Castillo. These also feature six gorgeous covers by Sale.

  • 2. Love on the Lam (Paul Dini/Joe Chiodo) So far, Dini’s been paired with good, competent artists, but nothing prepares you for the rainbow explosion of Joe Chiodo! Gorgeous, gorgeous watercolours, this is high art. I don’t really know that it makes a lot of sense, the story, as it involves somewhat useless disguises, but it’s got those Phantom-y elements— mirrors and Two-Face— and this is my favorite comics version of the Joker, complete with two-toned shoes. It’s very funny, quite hip to the times, with Harley defusing a deadly situation between Two-Face and the Joker, preventing a shoot-out and a nitro explosion. Poison Ivy appears at the end to take in the rather pitiful Harley and help her with a heist. Chiodo makes Bruce Wayne and even the Robin kid look hubba-hubba, quite a feat. Robin and Harley even work together. As it’s a Harley story, it’s a lot less grim and therefore is a lot of fun.

  • 1. A Black and White World (Neil Gaiman/Simon Bisley) Again, from Batman: Black and White. The truth is, all the stories in this collection have amazing art. But the most striking stories are a perfect marriage between strong story and art. Neil Gaiman’s name has been mentioned up there with God’s and “A Black and White World” is the first thing by him I’ve ever read. It doesn’t really matter who does the art (though for the record it’s Simon Bisley, whose edgy, frenetic style is not really my cup of tea but works fine for this narrative) because Gaiman’s writing is so far out of the box, it will really revise your way of looking at comics. I love meta-fiction, and the clever, humorous, ultimately grim conceit at the heart of this is like Beckett, but better. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it does include this exchange: “Is that a joke? I’m the Joker, for Chrissakes. Roseanne’s funnier than me.” “I think her writers are better paid.”

    Also worth checking out:
  • In Dreams (Andrew Helfer) from Batman Black and White leaves you with a warm feeling inside; you feel Batman has just hugged you instead of Karen, a woman with a buried past who keeps having nightmares about Batman. The art by Tanino Liberatore is beautifully realistic— oh, this one is just lovely.
  • Two of a Kind (Bruce Timm) I love Bruce Timm, of course, because he co-created Harley— but I was curious as to how his drawing would come across in black and white. He goes for a really retro style, almost akin to Darwyn Cooke’s but more designed, more like animation (duh). Timm (and Harley co-creator Paul Dini) seem hung up on twisted love, and Timm returns to it in this story about Two-Face. It’s a bit Phantom-y, and I really like Timm’s approach, stylistically and character-wise. But imagine Phantom-izing yourself twice!!
  • The Face Schism/Schismed Faces (Doug Moench/Kelley Jones). Batman is a blur, a painted watercolor of the folds of cloak and exaggerated bat “ears” that look more like horns. Light and dark are both stylized and vividly imagined. You could hardly believe that Jones’ Harvey Dent was ever good-looking, but there is something troglodytic, Hyde-like, about him. That a huge role is played by half-criminal, half-blameless sideshow “freaks,” including Deadeye Dagger (whose inability to hit Batman with a knife is a source of constant amusement), Skeletor, and Mega-Max the Modern Sampson, clearly impresses me. There’s certainly a vibe of Tod Browning running through this story, especially as its protagonist is Mal and Cal Skinner, an improbable three-eyed, two-headed, three-armed conjoined twin, are exploited by a justice-obsessed Two-Face. That Mal and Cal speak like they’re from Firefly is a bonus. Everyone in this story is Gothic and grotesque, including Batman, who in flashback refuses to cooperate with an overzealous Dent. Two-Face also clearly gains some dress-sense in this story as he puts on the pinstripe.
  • Batman: Year One (Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli) has long been touted as one of the best stories in the genre for its reinvention and kick-start given to the origin story. It’s long been cited, too, as one of the major influences for the Nolan films, and in reading it, it’s easy to see the connection. It’s telling that Batman encounters no super-villains. He is truly alone, pursued by petty crooks whose lives he’s spared, prostitutes he’s rescued, crooked cops, and a dogging media, so he doesn’t need a larger-than-life flamboyant madman to deal with (though, just like in Batman Begins, mention of the Joker as a future menace is included at the very end). Miller is indeed an excellent storyteller. He cuts the fat and goes for the jugular, and his view of Gotham is extremely grim—it would not have passed the censors of the ‘50s and ‘60s, as almost the entire city police force is corrupt and vicious, and the people really have no hope until Batman and Jim Gordon join forces (though Harvey Dent has not yet become Two-Face and is therefore fighting the good fight in the DA office). So for all this, you may wonder why I didn’t put it in my top ten. Well, without thinking too much about my disappointment with the way Miller’s Batman stuff went after this, though I can recognize its quality, the tone is not really for me.

    Anyway, that should get you started should you ever want to take up the Batman comics universe!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

the top ten- Top Five Doctor Who (DWM) Comics

The Top Ten

I love top ten lists. I love writing reviews, period. I don’t know why. My talent (if that’s what you call it) seems to be bringing disparate things together, comparing and contrasting (“seeing patterns that aren’t there,” in the words of the Eighth Doctor). So, it’s nearing the end of the year, and what do I have to show for it?

Some statistics for you: in the last six months I have listened to

  • 55 radio plays; read

  • 38 graphic novels of which

  • 26 were Batman/Catwoman; in the last year I’ve read

  • 54 books of which

  • 8 were Doctor Who books; and

  • 12 were volumes of poetry.
    So, for you I have:

    Top Five Doctor Who (DWM) Comics
    Top Ten Batman Stories
    Top Ten Graphic Novels
    Top Ten Books
    Top Fifteen Radio Plays
    Top Ten Fan Fic

    Top Five Doctor Who (DWM) Comics

I’ll preface this by saying this is far from exhaustive. I’ve missed a volume of the Eighth Doctor, all of the Ninth Doctor, Ten and Rose, with only some Martha/Ten and Donna/Ten adventures to show for the year I was actually keeping up with Doctor Who Magazine. But bless Swansea Central Library, they do keep up on their Doctor Who comics collections, and it’s from this small pool that I base these rankings. By the way, I define a comic story as a self-contained story rather than the book or collection it’s been published in. For example, Doctor Who would be the fandom, Key to Time would be the collection, but the individual serials (even though they are made of episodes of their own) would be considered stories. Does this make sense??

5. The Shape Shifter (6) (Steve Parkhouse/John Ridgway) I’m a big fan of John Ridgway’s art, and Steve Parkhouse is no slouch when it comes to writing adventures for several Doctors. This is Frobisher’s introduction story from the Sixth Doctor’s collection Voyager. The whole thing channels Dick Tracy-style potboilers with a dose of humor and ingenuity. There’s also a funny section where the Doctor is attacked by a sandwich and is naked in the bath (!). In close-ups, John Ridgway demonstrates his absolute prowess, and to think he was pursuing a full-time job as an engineer while he drew the strip in his spare time!

4. Universal Monsters (10) (Ian Edgington/Adrian Salmon) I’m not sure when I first noticed Adrian Salmon’s arresting art—possibly a cover to Big Finish’s Benny Summerfield range or else his illustrations for the Time Team in Doctor Who Magazine. He was the perfect choice to illustrate this dark, Gothic, and unsettling story for Ten and Martha. Unlike your typical comics artist, there don’t seem to be any stages to drawing, inking, lettering, and coloring- he just paints! The art was gorgeous, Martha kicked butt, and the suspense was matched only by the reversals when the Doctor realized he’d gotten everything horribly, horribly wrong. This is a story about compassion, duty, and love, set in a rather “State of Decay” universe.

3. Where Nobody Knows Your Name (8) (Scott Gray/Roger Langridge) Okay, so sue me: I like Frobisher! This is a sweet story from The Flood with wonderfully distinctive art by the accomplished Roger Langridge (who draws the Eighth Doctor so winningly). I could hear Paul McGann’s voice as soon as his Doctor started processing dialogue bubbles (and that’s a good thing, of course!). The story is sweet, warm, and life-affirming, despite the Doctor having just lost Izzy (“It’s a terrible shame when you lose someone special, isn’t it? When they die . . . When they leave . . . When they change”). It ends with the Doctor regaining his confidence with the unwitting help of . . . Frobisher! Neither of them recognize each other, but it’s a lovely idea.

2. The Gift (6) (Jamie Delano/John Ridgway) This unusual story is from The World Shapers. There’s something of Simon Guerrier’s “Categorical Imperative” in the atmosphere of a birthday party for the 21-year-old Lorduke of Zazz. The decor is vaguely Jazz Age, and Peri at last gets a good costume. The Lorduke himself is a fun character, perfectly capturing a 21-year-old’s combination of enthusiasm and ennui. The Doctor proves he can dance looooong before “Moonlight Serenade.” There’s a hilarious meta-fictional scene as a “Monektoni Shug faces oblivion.” The best part of this story, though, is that music comes out as the ultimate weapon in defeating mindless robots.

1. Happy Deathday (8) (Scott Gray/Roger Langridge) Oh, like you’re surprised?

Others worth checking out:

  • The Power of Thoueris! (8) (Scott Gray/Adrian Salmon)

  • The World Shapers (6) (Mike Collins/John Ridgway)

  • The Dragon’s Claw (4) (Steve Moore/Dave Gibbons)

  • And that recent 10/Martha story, I think it was Jonathan Morris/Roger Langridge where the Doctor’s enemies destroyed themselves in an attempt to eliminate him, and he only came upon the scene, wondering sadly what could have caused such carnage.

snowglobe 7

I just read that Mike Tucker was an effects supervisor on the classic series as well as the first two seasons of the new series. This certainly shows in his work, which is highly visual and appeals impressively to the senses. I can see, too, the sincere love he has for the program and its conventions and tenets. I am certain that Snowglobe 7 came into being on the basis of its conceit, and the conceit is genuinely startling and terrific. The year is 2099, and due to global warming, the polar ice caps have been melting. To preserve them, the world governments have erected seven giant domes in different parts of the world with the arctic environments encased inside. To fund them, some of the domes have been turned into winter sport facilities for the rich and famous. Unfortunately, there seems to be something waking in the depths of the permafrost to attack . . .

The alien-menace-in-the-ice is a familiar sci fi formula (two adventures that come immediately to mind are the X-Files episode “Ice” and “Seeds of Doom”) but there’s nothing wrong with the way Tucker reworks it. Parts of this are as graphic and horrifying as the worst The Many Hands offered; in tone it reminds me in some ways of “Voyage of the Damned.” There is the nasty entrepreneur and his mercenary sidekick, whose escapades we follow through half the book. The hapless doctors, nurses, technicians, bureaucrats, and scientists, plus a race of sanctuary-seeking aliens called the Flisk. It has all the elements of a Doctor Who TV story—I expect had I seen it on TV I would think nothing of it. But what is it about print that makes me search for a Doctor Who story that has it all?

While Martha’s medical training comes in handy when she’s trapped in Snowglobe 7’s infirmary, I feel sometimes she’s more in ambiguous companion role, so that just about any Doctor/companion combination could be written into the story. Tucker is trying to hint at Martha’s pining over the Doctor, but it just feels slightly off to me: ‘A holiday romance. Right. Doctor, that’s just what I was hoping.’ I guess I’m just picky about Martha, even more so than Rose; only a few authors in the books have really captured her to my satisfaction. Tucker’s monsters, however, certainly have the ring of a man familiar with effects to them: It was as if someone had thrown together a strange amalgamation of monkey, spider, and bat. (They also use echolocation.)

And how do I feel about how Tucker writes Ten? Well, I love what he’s done with the robots in this story—they have a distinctive way of speaking (as printed on the page as well as syntactically), and I can see their chunky silhouettes in my minds’ eye, a hint of Pete’s ‘Verse Cybermen with a dash of the robot graveyard in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi. The way Ten interacts with them seems wholesomely the Doctor, and very Ten: ‘Why shouldn’t it be frightened?’ snapped the Doctor. ‘Every generation of artificial intelligence is designed to better mimic its human counterpart. Poor old Twelve here is in the robotic equivalent of shock.’ There are vibes of “42” and “Human Nature” (I was almost going to write that it reminded me of the scene from “Making It Stranger,” but that would hardly be fair!), and there’s certainly a bittersweet ending. You can feel the Doctor’s mantle becoming hard to bear—all the things Davros accused him of, murder, genocide, dumping responsibility onto others . . . Ten feels himself guilty of it in Snowglobe 7. The Doctor nodded sadly. ‘The last of their kind.’ ‘And you wanted to save them.’ ‘I thought I could.’

Snowglobe 7 shares with The Last Dodo a fairly obvious message about environmentalism and conservation (if you reflect that these books are primarily for young adults, it makes sense). However, its tone is darker. ‘The humans that you are so concerned about, the thousands out there, simply don’t care about this planet any more. They don’t deserve to survive! They pretend to care, but when it comes down to it they cannot even be bothered to help save themselves.’ Frankly, by setting this in 2099, I think Tucker is being optimistic; the situation will probably happen sooner than that, and I hope I am not around when it happens.

Snowglobe 7 is flashy and fun, though it felt pretty generic rather than tailored to Ten/Martha. No harm in that, just a personal preference thing.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

robin hood and stuff vol. 5

I have no overarching comments this time, so let’s jump right in!

“Ducking and Diving” by Debbie Oates at last presents Allan (and Robin) with an ultimatum, as Robin has finally twigged that he has a traitor in his gang. The messenger who was supposed to get to King Richard (somehow) to tell him he was in danger was killed by Guy after Allan leaked the information. I wrote “sexy sexy” in my notes so I must have been referring to Guy, but I can’t remember what it was. Anyway, despite Allan’s suggestions that the Sheriff’s latest messenger, Lewes, is late because Marian “made a mistake” in her spying, Robin manages to knock Lewes into a coma.

Oates has, in the past, brought a woman’s touch (of sorts) into the programme, and she continues this trend with Matilda, a “witch” (well, wise woman) with a colorful vocabulary. First, though, David Bamber makes an inspired cameo as the Sheriff’s personal physician, a very impressive, pompous man who is “calming him [Lewes] to death!” Guy, surprisingly, sends for Matilda, who is actually a wonderfully refreshing character. “Hello, baldy,” is how she greets the Sheriff. To show her disdain, she announces she “would not damp you with my wet underwrappings if you were on fire!” Unfortunately, her daughter is heavily pregnant so Matilda must cooperate to revive Lewes.

I really do love Much. I guess it must be my love for Sam (which is in turn, probably, a love for myself!) that makes me so fond of him. He disobeys Robin and is incensed that he might be considered a traitor to his master. “What do I have to do to prove my loyalty to you?! I’ll cut off both my arms! Well . . . one arm, because then I wouldn’t be able to cut off the other one . . .” I would hope Robin would have the good sense to see that it wasn’t Much, but my abilities to predict Robin are slim indeed. Robin makes it in the castle to find Lewes and Matilda, who conveniently enough was midwife to his mother. He wants to kill—or at least addle the wits of—Lewes because, “Matilda, I can’t let him live to speak treason.” Her very shrewd reply is, “Men always think in a straight line.” In a surprisingly amusing development she drugs Lewes so that he tells the Sheriff “I have come from the holy pork!” (Later he develops a Fezzik/Vizzini complex, when he says “presents!” to the Sheriff’s “peasants.”)

Marian has to get out of the castle again, I already forgot why, and having exhausted all her other means, she chats Guy up. “You’re up to something.” “Yes, I’m charming you.” Marian still breaks out of the castle, following Guy (oh, that’s right, she wanted to find out who the traitor was). When he finds her out, she protests, “I just wanted to spend time with you.” Ah, how easily the lies spring to her lips—though one could argue they aren’t really lies. Who knows? She begs “punish me but do not punish my father.”

With the Sheriff growing suspicious of Matilda, the court physician is back, asserting that Matilda poisoned Lewes and that she’s in league with Robin Hood. Marian is horrified that the Sheriff is going to duck Matilda as a witch, but Guy urges her to “say nothing, these allegations spread by association.” “Did I leave you to drown?” Marian points out (quite rightly!). For ducking a woman, the Sheriff has constructed a very impressive machine! (One could argue it would be much more efficacious for the Sheriff to burn her at the stake, but since the Sheriff has such a sadistic, exhibitionist personality, it almost works.) Matilda holds up very well under the torture, but fortunately Robin and co. are there to rescue her underwater, making even the Sheriff think twice about calling her a witch (she even leaves her underwrappings as a deliberate insult). I am, however, surprised like Marian that Guy can stand there and watch this torture without having a pang of compassion.

In the camp, shrewd Djaq has her suspicions that Allan is the traitor. This and the next few episodes are a gold mine of Djaq/Allan shipperiness if that’s your thing. “What if he knows he’s made a mistake?” he asks her hypothetically, unable to admit his guilt outright. “Your brother was stuck,” she says, referring to Allan’s brother’s failed attempts to walk the straight and narrow. “No, he was a good man underneath it.” For all this, Djaq is unable to get Allan to confess, and Robin finds out who the traitor is. I am sorry to say that this final confrontation, and indeed the end to this otherwise pleasant episode, is disappointing and anticlimactic. Robin is prepared to kill Allan, for he will “kill for the King.” Robin denies that there can be any shadings to Allan’s character: he betrayed them, therefore he is evil. “That’s easy for you to say. Everyone loves you. You’re always in the sun, I’m always in the shade.” I suppose this is Milton’s Satan’s argument, and Robin recognizes its flimsiness. “Innocent betrayals don’t exist.” He merely lets Allan go. He tells the gang that he betrayed them “for money—why else?” like Judas, which is very interesting. Thirty pieces of silver . . .

“For England ...!” proves once again that Marian is the only good-looking, worthwhile noblewoman in the whole shire as everyone desires her. The next step in the Sheriff’s dastardly plan has been to put together the Nottingham Pact, a traitors’ signatory, and make his fellow conspirators go the whole nine yards in the Richard assassination plot. He brutally throws the scribe who wrote up the pact (mute anyway) off a castle battlement (to which Guy’s only reaction is a sneer). What a monster, that Sheriff! It’s the King’s birthday, by the way, so we MUST be in 1193—though that really makes no sense at all. What happened during the winter? I’m so confused!

Marian is required to attend the celebrations, in some outfits Guy has picked out for her. “Something tells me this is a document of which I wouldn’t approve.” “It could benefit you in time,” as it will improve Guy’s power and position and possibly Marian’s . . . “Am I so easily won?” “You must be the least easily won woman in England.” Indeed. Meanwhile, Allan has made his bed and is about to lie in it, as he gets past Guy’s guards—“your guards—useless—You need smarter people on your team.” There is totally gratuitous shirtlessness, on Guy’s part of course, and he manages to look a bit like Gavin Rossdale and ‘50s greaser at the same time. Meow, but I really can’t see the point of it, unless someone really is pushing the Allan slash agenda, which frankly frightens me a bit! After all, Robin is annoyed to find out “he’s being Guy’s ‘man’.”

Marian and Robin discover the Pact, as Robin uses Marian’s hairpin (“I’ve done this before”; “with which girl’s hairpin?”) which worked for Marie Antoinette according to the Fourth Doctor, so . . . Robin scoffs that the Pact describes Richard’s “scant regard for the people of England,” but I nod because in the historical case that was true! He manages to get in to see Sir Edward, still in the dungeon, by using the same priest trick Wamba and Cedric did in Ivanhoe. Robin and Will have come up with the plan to masquerade as minstrels at the celebrations—“you crafty craftsman!”—and it’s the sort of daft, loveable stuff that I enjoy on the show. Also falling into that category is Allan dressing like some sort of Guy mini-me (“I had to put something on, didn’t I?”). Robin thinks he’s made an ally in the Earl of Winchester, but Winchester has his own agenda, and it’s money, power, and revenge. He mortifies Sir Edward in prison by suggesting he stole his woman and horrifies him further by announcing he will have Marian.

Predictably, and adorably, Guy is having none of it. “No!” “Shut up.” Winchester wants Sussex as well, but Marian’s “a personal thing.” “You cannot give her Marian.” He also seems to dig Allan, nixing the Sheriff’s plan to hang him. “He might still prove useful.” He seems to have lost on both counts, and in a wonderful scene, warns Marian about the plan and even tries to help her pack and escape. “Why do you always resist me?!” “Why do you work for him [the Sheriff]?” a stunned Marian asks. Guy continues to garner Phantom points when he says, “I have nobody.” “The Sheriff is mad—you know that.” “He is . . . single-minded.” Unfortunately before Gisborne can get Marian out, the Sheriff cottons on to his plan and reminds him where his loyalties lie—while being totally, skin-crawlingly disgusting by caressing Guy’s face. (By the way, I have nothing against slash in general—as long as the pairings are legitimate. But it isn’t something I like to read about, to be honest.)

Winchester shackles Marian, could care less about her personality. Robin has gotten it into his sanctimonious head that he’s got to kill all the black knights before they sign the Pact. He gives Marian a farewell letter which alerts his gang to the danger he faces. He next apparently kills people with ninja stars (?!) before they all come back to life (how?!). There is a huuuuge cake in the shape of England (ooodalolly!), the Sheriff engineers a vat of boiling pitch for Allan and Robin to fight over, both are loathe to destroy each other, and they get away. Winchester gets Marian and Sussex, but the Sheriff wants Sussex, so he and Guy rescue Marian and kill Winchester. Guy and Marian ride off into the sunset—well, not quite—and Robin has been spared having to kill a bunch of people. Yay.

“Show Me the Money” by Julian Jones doesn’t seem to have much of a plot now that I think about it and its main reason for being is to off Sir Edward and force Marian to run into the forest at long last. The Goonies apparently live in the forest with the outlaws because Data has rigged up a device that not only alerts the outlaws when someone is coming but also traps the intruders. The intruder they’re trapping today is a lovelorn knight named John of York who only has ten shillings and is trying to buy his love from the protection of a Canon Berkley, who “takes confession from the tavern girls every lunch time.” This sounded really dirty to me, I’m afraid, as it reminded me of the hypocritical priest in V for Vendetta. Anyway, Robin is committed to helping York.

The Sheriff is suddenly delighted by Allan (I wince to think why) and announces “upgrade this young man to leather!” I know there must be a reason for Marian to be so upset that she goes down to the dungeon to uncharacteristically berate her father, but to me it’s not apparent. “Is he [Robin] worthy of all the risks you take for him? . . . You’re dreamers.” Marian lashes out, “You stood there and did nothing.” They part badly, and immediately I think that is the last time she will see him alive. I am, actually, correct. I like a lot of this episode, but the dialogue is rather clunky in places—I really can’t see Guy saying “I’m not comfortable with the way the Sheriff has treated your father or you,” but he does.

Marian, rushing into the forest to warn the outlaws that Allan is giving away all of their secret castle entrances, gets caught in the Goonies trap, causing the ever-suave Robin to remark, “You look gorgeous from any angle.” Back in Nottingham, Djaq begs Robin not to harm Allan. “I love you, all of you,” Allan protests, rather incredibly. “I’m not a Judas,” he says, a nice remark considering my statement from earlier. “I’m not Jesus,” aptly replies Robin. In the next two episodes, Guy seems to be getting increasingly desperate and frustrated, unable to make-believe any longer that his feelings for Marian have cooled since she betrayed and humiliated him. “Marian, there is another side to me . . .” he whispers as he tries to accompany her to the dungeons to see her father. “I should like to visit him alone.” Marian is frustrated at her father’s silence, though if she’d been paying attention at their last meeting, she would have realized he’d taken the dagger/hairpin from her hair and used it to kill his jailer and escape! (To be honest, when I saw Sir Edward take the dagger, I thought he was going to kill himself because he had so disappointed Marian. I’m rather glad instead he used it to make one last bid for freedom.)

Marian forces Robin not to kill Allan, “you owe me your life!” Robin tells Marian he loves her, obliquely (though if she hadn’t been unconscious at the end of season one, she would have known that already). Sir Edward’s escape into the Sheriff’s bedroom, picking up the Pact and hiding behind the arras like Polonius is a bit of a stretch of belief, and it would have made a lot more sense dramatically for him to have died at the Sheriff’s hand than the bumbling Canon’s a bit later. As it is, Sir Edward dies in Robin’s arms, essentially forgiving him and giving his approval. Robin has to escape so it is Guy who first finds the body. His reaction is surprisingly heartfelt and stricken.

Marian is, of course, devastated, shrieking and sobbing, “leave me alone, don’t touch me!” When she is a little more collected he retrieves her dagger, telling her he knows its origin and if the Sheriff finds out Sir Edward used it to the kill his jailer, she will be toast. (Though how that follows exactly I’m not sure, unless the Sheriff just needs the slightest provocation to, er, slam Marian into the toaster.) “Let me look after you,” Guy purrs as he holds the grieving Marian close. “I thought they’d [feelings] gone away, but they haven’t, they’re stronger than ever.” Now, to be quite honest, the shipper in me is not at all bothered by the fact he tried to kiss her. But otherwise, I feel it was a bit tactless of him to do so. It certainly cost him her trust, as she pushes him away. It’s TOTAL FAIL for Guy as Marian runs out of the room, he twists in agony over the screw-up, and she finally accedes to Robin’s constant nagging for her to go the forest.

“Get Carter” by Richard Stoneman is an interesting episode on several levels. It makes a Guy/Marian shipper very happy, obviously, but I also like the way it explores how Marian joining the outlaws has perhaps not lived up to her expectations. The titular Carter is a killing machine who “kills people for fun—fun and money,” and kisses the Sheriff’s ring.

The village of Clun is, alas, a pawn in the savage game between Robin and the Sheriff. “They’re attacking the village!” cries the ever-earnest Marian. “Let’s get them!” I can’t see why she’s wearing a corset into the forest, much less into battle, but there are many things about Marian’s wardrobe that I don’t understand. She rushes off to fight, despite Robin’s admonition, “stay there!” Carter starts killing soldiers in a crusader’s uniform (more or less). Using the Saint’s stratagem in the movie of that name, he wounds himself in order to garner sympathy from the outlaws, who think he is on their side. They take him into the forest.

One could say Marian is acting aggressive, bitchy, and childish, which is against her character, but (I think!) it’s one way of showing the terrible toll the death of her father is taking on her. She isn’t the type to pine after her initial outburst of tears—she has inconsolable rage that she’s got to work out. “I am with you,” she snaps at Robin. “I don’t want to go back!” That Robin can be so prickly is harder to excuse, when he’s the one who was so anxious to get her there in the first place. I suppose you can use the whole thing as a metaphor for marriage; it’s not what either of them expected it would be. “I’ve been fighting these idiots for years,” Marian retorts. “We’re a team,” Robin emphasizes. “They do as you tell them!” “There can only be one leader.” There is a surprisingly touching scene as Little John holds Marian close and comforts her. “You’ve lost your father.” Sadly I think Little John gets the short end of the stick, so to speak, as he only really had that one episode to further his character development, and it wasn’t that great.

Carter, having infiltrated the gang, knocks them all out (one wonders why he didn’t kill them since he is so fond of it) and corners Robin. Like the Doctor, Robin’s weakness is his regard for his friends. Somehow Robin manages to knock this psychopath out. Marian rather reads my mind as she punches the tied up Carter in the face; “if he knows we’re happy to hurt him!” Robin, Solomon-like as ever, instead takes Carter back to Clun, tied up of course, to show him the damage his political manoeuvring has done. Apparently Robin used to be a killing machine as well (rumors on season 3 seem to confirm this) and tries to soothe Carter with his crusading tales. Much has, by the way, recognized Carter (well, actually his brother) and is annoyed that Robin has ignored him. “You’ve never listened to my story. . . . You’d listen to Marian.” I, for one, would love to hear Much’s story about the Holy Land.

The Sheriff is using the opportunity to rub Marian’s flight in Guy’s face. “There was something between us,” Guy doggedly insists. “Kissy kiss kissy,” the Sheriff mocks, to such a degree that Guy finally tells him to get off of him. “Grow up, Gisborne!”, which is rather taking Marian’s line, isn’t it? I really want to know why Guy’s got ants in his pants, why he’s so desperate for Marian at this juncture. He corners Allan. “I want Marian!” “She could be anywhere!” It’s hardly a reasonable request, but Guy forces Allan to seek her out. Allan finds her while she’s doing knife-throwing practice (!), offers his plan that she’s run away to an abbey (see season one). “Why would you help me?” Allan’s got “a way with nuns.” OMG.

Carter personal vengeance against Robin is flimsy, in my opinion. In an exposition-heavy speech, Carter reveals Robin led his brother to his death in the Holy Land, while Robin announces the brother was a coward. Carter falls weeping into Robin’s arms. It’s the Vietnam Vet saga all over again; personally I preferred when Carter was an evil super villain. With the help of Djaq’s chemistry, Robin fakes death, and Carter takes him to the Sheriff. Guy is, not surprisingly, unconvinced about Robin’s death and makes to cut his head off. Marian, running out of options, stops him by presenting herself. The Sheriff is very pleased at Carter’s “success”: “we have the best days of our lives!!”

Guy is too busy slavering over Marian. “Even though my letter said to leave me alone . . .” “You knew I would. Have you really given yourself to God?” “I haven’t given myself to anybody,” which a cynical mind could take in a wholly less innocent fashion . . . Guy is utterly putting his heart on the line. “Come home to me!” She brings up the fact he burnt her home down. “If I could take that back, I would . . .” “I need time to grieve.” “I thought I might never see you again. . . might never . . . kiss you . . .” As outlaws are filtering past to assist with Robin’s miraculous Lazarus effect, Marian takes the opportunity to pull Guy in for a kiss. I’m a shipper, so please don’t throw things at me, but I’m very much reminded of several performances I’ve seen from actors playing the Phantom in the Lloyd Webber musical. This is the final lair scene, when Christine sings, “God give me courage to show you, you are not alone,” and kisses the Phantom. Particularly in the case of Gary Mauer, the Phantom is so shocked by the kiss he takes several moments to register it before pulling his love close. So obviously I was very pleased at the way the kiss played out. Surely the producers wouldn’t torture us with this kind of stuff without some feelings on Marian’s part to back it up? “You can’t go,” he tells her once the outlaws are safely away, completely oblivious. “This was a mistake . . .” she says, no doubt meaning it on several levels. “This is the most perfect thing that’s ever happened!” He confesses that he has been using substitutes for the satisfaction of admitting love for her. No more.

Well, these mid-season episodes were mostly trifles, but from where I stand, they were good fun!

Friday, December 5, 2008

everything that goes up

‘A grapeshot in the heart is not my idea of bliss, and I shall do my utmost to avoid it.' -Stephen Maturin

As you all know, I read one Master and Commander book by Patrick O’Brian every year (or have done for the last four years) because I love them so much and wish to prolong the pleasure. Master and Commander blew me away, Post Captain rocked my socks because it was even better than its predecessor, and HMS Surprise further astonished me. With expectations so high, I knew eventually we would stop reaching for the meteoric heights and come down to earth—in a way, I guess it’s encouraging that even a super-human writer like O’Brian couldn’t maintain such a level of sheer excellence for four books in a row. The Mauritius Command is very enjoyable, but lacks some of the elements that make its predecessors truly superb.

The book begins, as did Post Captain, on land and in the domestic sphere. But the sphere has changed, as Captain Jack Aubrey has finally wed his bonny lass, Sophie Williams, and they now have two twin daughters. Guileless Jack enjoys his wedded bliss but aches for glory and adventure on the high seas. Plus, he’s only on half-pay. His best friend, Dr Stephen Maturin (darling of my heart), is the one to rescue him from being killed with kindness. O’Brian continues his witty skewering of Mrs Williams, Sophie’s mother, as extremely vapid and self-centered. ‘A handsome clock it is, too,’ said Stephen. ‘A regulator, I believe. Could it not be set a-going?’ ‘Oh, no, sir,’ said Mrs Williams with a pitying look. ‘Was it to be set a-going, the works would instantly start to wear.’ As in Post Captain, I spend pages almost suffocating from laughter as Jack and Stephen make very calm remarks about children—Jack can hardly tell his offspring apart and insists that throwing them up into the air is good for them! As for Stephen, he compares them to larvae! Lest you think Stephen a scrub, however, he next wonders why Jack is so hell-bent on having a boy. Jack and Stephen share a love of music, but I hadn’t realized that Jack—like Donna’s grandfather Wilf!—enjoys stargazing. Because of this we hear of but never meet an interesting character, Miss Herschel the astronomer. We also find out that, for all her good qualities, Sophie can be a jealous wife.

Stephen has used his clout—for he is a spy as well as a medical man—to secure Jack a ship, the Boadicea, and not only that, Jack will be elevated to the temporary post of commodore to guide a fleet of ships to Mauritius to install a new governor and steal it away from the French. Now, from watching Pirates of the Caribbean you may have gotten the wrong impression—Commodore Norrington, much as I love him, fictitiously assumes what that role requires. It is not a promotion as such, but it is an opportunity Jack leaps at. Jack has interesting captains under his command: the authoritarian Corbett, the inept Pym, and the showy, tragic Clonfert, and Stephen drinks away the afternoon with fellow physician McAdams, whom he actually wheelbarrows to the Otter in a drunken state. Surprisingly, though, neither of these relationships ever build to a head. As ever we rely upon Stephen and Jack to make us ponder and laugh; Stephen, bless his heart, is singularly unimpressed by Jack’s commodore pennant, about which Jack has been so excited he is fit to burst. ‘Cannot you see anything that strikes you dumb with awe, the mark of a living commodore, very nearly the most exalted being on the face of the earth?’ ‘The ornamental cloth? Oh, that.’

The weight of command falls heavily upon Jack’s shoulders, as he would rather be in the action rather than strategizing from afar (though obviously he is a good strategist , otherwise he would never have gotten this far). Stephen worries that as his friend grows older, he also loses the essence of his personality: ‘I should be sorry if, in Jack Aubrey’s case, it were to proceed so far as a general cool indifference; for then the man I have known and valued so long would be no more than the walking corpse of himself.’ In fact, Jack may be maturing, but for the better: his reflections on death and all that is done “for the good of the service” are certainly no propagandist’s pander. Stephen sounds curiously like the Doctor here: ‘Bless your innocence, Jack: an Irish peer is not necessarily a man of any consequence at all. I do not wish to make any uncivil reflection on your country—many of my best friends are Englishmen—but you must know that this last hundred years and more it has been the practice of the English ministry to reward their less presentable followers with Irish titles . . .’ (The Irish jokes abound in this book for some reason.) He also finds a friend in Mr Fortesque, and complains bitterly about always being promised shore-leave to examine the natural world, only to be hurried along again (something viewers of the film will know all too well).

In fact, I would be as bold as to suggest that clever, amusing, character-driven dialogues and reflections by our two principal characters form the backbone of this book, which is as it ever was in the series. However, in the past three books, exotic climes, daring action, romance, sea battles, and intrigue also played a large part in making them so enjoyable. Though they sail the east coast of southern Africa, engage in naval and terrestrial battles aplenty, and fight some nasty fights, I never feel really gripped by the conflicts in Mauritius Command. O’Brian’s great gift (well, among many) is making naval battles engaging and exciting, and maybe because I have the pirate pedigree in my past lives, I am particularly susceptible. I found myself skimming over the action sequences and manoeuvres, a definite no-no. While the other characters were interesting, they were not the best flesh-and-blood I feel O’Brian could have thrown at us.

In the end, Jack has lost his pennant—due to politics, not his own abilities—but Sophie, despite all odds, has had a son. Stephen gives hints to the eagle-eyed readers that he may not be as over Diana as he wants everyone to believe. They are both off on their next adventures, and despite coming down to Earth, I am more than ready to join them.