Monday, July 20, 2009

the story of martha

And Martha didn’t hesitate, she put her own hands upon the Doctor’s cheeks too. She felt how cold they were, and she was so warm against them, and she pushed harder until she could feel she’d reached the Doctor’s warmth too, she knew it must be deep inside somewhere.

I wonder if any of the BBC books can claim to be any closer to fan fiction than The Story of Martha. In that case I wonder why I held off reading it for as long as I did! It’s a curious book, because imbedded in the overarching narrative (of the Year That Never Was, the grand 365 days described in “The Last of the Time Lords” which saw Martha walking the world, spreading the Gospel of the Doctor) by Dan Abnett are short stories Martha tells of the Doctor to inspire the pseudo-religious faith we see so ridiculously demonstrated. I realized halfway through that the short stories are our way of actually making this a Doctor Who book, because without them the Doctor would figure almost not at all. I guess that’s one way in which it differs from fan fiction: if I’d written The Story of Martha you can be sure there would have been a lot of angsty Doctor-yearning, though I suppose this might be the place where Martha might start to “get over” the Doctor . The narrative is really quite spare; I almost wonder if Abnett had made it more complex and was told to tone it down so the book didn’t end up being 1,000 pages long. Again, see, if it were my fan fiction it would have been twice as long because it would have followed Martha with more precision, rather than picking the random incidents to detail. But I digress.

The quality of the incidental stories varies. I wasn’t surprised that the strongest one by far was by that Very Clever Man, Rob Shearman. The others are “unknowns,” at least to Doctor Who book fandom. Many of the stories are so short, I imagine it’s difficult for the writers to get any kind of characterization in before the plot begins—at least I hope that’s why the characterization is, in my opinion, a little sloppy. “The Weeping” reminded me of the Adrian Salmon “Universal Monsters” comic from Doctor Who magazine in fall 2007 (the dialogue in this is a bit off). “Breathing Space” reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke and I liked the general idea, but I found the dénouement rather confusing. 102 “The Frozen Wastes,” I’m pleased to report, starts out a bit like “Over and Under” part two! It was certainly the most memorable part of the book, dreamy and engagingly manipulative of time. It had some great images and appealed to the senses. Plus it had the Doctor and Martha dreaming together , hot air balloons, and a French explorer trying to get to the North Pole (like Raoul, alas). (Though I can’t see Martha fantasizing about Leonardo DiCaprio, can you?) “Star Crossed” has a twist reminiscent of “The Doctor’s Daughter,” and somehow the grungy atmosphere reminds me of Firefly!

Martha’s UCF (Unified Containment Force) nemesis, Griffin, is okay for an adversary, but some of those scenes suffer from blandness. Early scenes feel like 28 Days Later, yet I can’t imagine Martha would make the rookie mistakes of wearing perfume and earrings when she knows the perception filter is the only thing keeping her alive. Martha’s French operative friend Mathieu obviously made me think of Mathieu Frenchie the whole time, which was very amusing. I was very disappointed when the Brigadier in charge of the Turkish side of the Underground was not Alistair or even Winifred (though this guy’s father knew Benton, which is why he assumes the Doctor is still a dandy). Where was the Brigadier? Everything goes a bit too real when Martha ends up in the slave camps in Japan—her despair was so palpable and depressing (visions of Empire of the Sun). However, this is probably the strongest point in Abnett’s narrative. The Master, interestingly, shows up very little!

I guess the best compliment I can give the book is that it inspired me to write more fan fic! :-D

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Discovery of France

‘You must be a stranger, sir, in these parts.’
‘Yes, my home is very far from here.’
‘How far?’
‘More than a thousand leagues.’
The old woman looked incredulous.
‘More than a thousand leagues!’ at length repeated she; ‘and why have you come so far from home?’
‘To travel;--to see how you live in this country.’
‘Have you no relations in your own?’

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

How do I review this book? More than almost any other I’ve read recently it seems to defy description. Parts of it were impossible to put down, other parts were relatively dull so I skimmed them. It’s written by an Englishman who doesn’t fit the mold of Peter Mayle and those in that genre (I loved Encore Provence but it does seem an overwritten genre)—his grasp of French history, sociology, psychology, folk methodology and presumably language matched only by his desire to see France by bicycle. My only reservation about the book is the baffling tone, which at first seems to venerate the lost traditions of provinces or pays of France and the people of these places, but later seems to attack their ways of life as backward. In fact he just seems to grumble about everyone and bemoan everything, whether the traditions were lost or kept. Maybe that was just how I read the book.

I hope I haven’t put you off it. I saw it in Waterstones in Cardiff in February as I was browsing and put it on my list because I was intrigued—some of the photos are haunting, for example the shepherds of Landes who clocked 10 mph speeds on their stilts! For a Francophile and history buff like myself, it was a fascinating read. I started learning some of the greater ideas the book espouses as early as in my high school years—for example, that the Voices told Jeanne Darc to go “into” France from Lorraine because Domrémy wasn’t in France at the time—and later on in French Chic in University—learning that bits of French actually come from old Celtic/Gaulish terms as well as Occitan and Provençal and the other regional languages—and from personal experience in France—seeing how much the Breton signs in Brittany resembled Welsh ones! (And the fact that a popular saying in the Alps was “Happy as a corpse” doesn’t surprise me after having lived in Chambéry.) But I have to confess like many of the reviewers of this book, the greatest fun was in going “huh! I never knew that” over and over at the amazing facts and anecdotes Graham Robb has uncovered.

Why has France had so many instances of feral children (mostly in the 18th century)? Until extremely recently—the last 50 years—Robb says it was “an undiscovered continent” where Paris stood for all of France but wasn’t really. A fascinating group in this loosely organized continent whom I had never heard of were the cagots, a persecuted caste about whom very little is known—in fact it doesn’t even seem to be clear what made a person a cagot and why they were considered inferior. Yet somehow seeing the photo in the book of a church column depiction of a cagot in Monenin I feel a resonance, even if it’s just because it reminds me of the wonderfully eccentric statuary museum in Avignon.

While I know I would find spending all winter “smoking, playing cards, hunting, and sleeping” as the people of the Rhône did in winter extremely dull, what’s a bit more shocking is that as late as 1807, people in Arras spent their winter months in underground cities carved into medieval quarries! (I picture the Mole People of New York City.) Old people were keen to die when they could no longer be of service (one thinks of some Native American tribes whose elderly would walk off into the sunset) and thousands of children were abandoned or given to “enterprising women known as ‘angel makers’” who would “perform what can mostly kindly be described as post-natal abortions.” My three jobs at once seems to have been a French precedent—“The millions of people who seemed so stubbornly inefficient to administrators were engaged in the mysterious activity known as ‘muddling through.’ The closest economic term is probably ‘cross-subsidizing.’” It is likewise not surprising to me that women did all the work, as evidenced in their omnipresence in the fields. It was that damn Code Civile of 1804 that curtailed much of women’s power (much as British Victorian legislation was slow to give women any kind of rights).

I was astonished to learn the Tour de France had its beginnings in a foot-propelled tour carried out by apprentices, going from town to town learning their trades and returning to their pays to marry and become masters. Dogs as workers and modes of transportation (surely if you’ve read 19th century literature you’ve come across a dog-cart?) is contrasted with tales of mindless animal cruelty. Surely someone’s made a film about the great map-making voyages made across France, starting in the 1740s and continuing through the Révolution (one map-maker was killed by villagers who did not wish to be on the map!). The evolution of hoteling in France is very amusing. There is certainly sadness on Robb’s part that the tourist trade was ever allowed to develop and cause native people of the pays to pander to what tourists wanted in order to earn a better living, which led to their children moving to the cities, etc, etc. It’s astonishing, yet again, that anthropologists and budding ethnologies assumed that the darker tendencies of Picards and Bretons was due to them being closer to Neathderthals! (One almost wants to cheer when an effigy of Béccassine, the cloddish make-believe Breton woman, was destroyed in the 1930s.) My absolute favorite section, however, is Mme de Génlis’ German/French phrase book of the late 18th century. Reading her phrases gives you a good idea of what travelling was like:
Postilion, stop; the brakes must be attached.
The descent is quite steep, I wish the brakes to be attached.
I believe the wheels are on fire. Look and see.

Postilion, allow this poor man to climb onto the seat.
He is so tired! Leave him alone. He is an old man!

The horses have just collapsed.
Is anyone hurt?
No, thank God.
The horse is badly wounded. It is dead.

Poor man! Be assured that I sympathize with your suffering.

I suppose I won’t bore you much more with things I read in the book that made things I had experienced while living in/ visiting France more clear (maybe I could write my own book about that). In the end maybe what I enjoyed most about this book was that I got to read it on the plane to France sitting next to the person who gave it to me.

the vampire of paris

The gap of BBC Doctor Who books that I haven’t read is decreasing quickly—I think I only have six to go (until they release more, again). To combat this (I guess?) I decided to try one of the books for “younger” readers, The Vampire of Paris by Stephen Cole (from the 10-book Darksmith Legacy). Was it really a good idea to start with book 5? Well, it was an interesting experiment. In contrast to the BBC books, this book clocks in at just over 100 pages with an enormous font and lots of visual devices to entice younger readers. Despite this very obvious appeal to a certain age range, I liked this book! Maybe it’s a bit closer to the Target books. Whatever it is, it’s skilfully done and quite impressive that Stephen Cole (who in general I find quite verbose) to have distilled Doctor Who so successfully this way.

There’s a helpful “The Story So Far” at the beginning (some of the EDAs could have used this!). The Doctor is in a Key to Time-like quest and has a new companion named Gisella (who will put you in mind, not completely falsely, of Compassion). I was attracted to this particular title because the synopsis said Paris and 19th century—I was so there, imagining a St-Germain-type vampire. I was totally wrong on that front, but I was rewarded with the Doctor almost replacing Steven’s escapades with the Eiffel Tower in 1900. Great minds obviously think alike! Stephen Cole as you know has a sort of uneven history with me—some of his books I’ve enjoyed but in general I’ve not been as uniformly impressed by him as by writers like Jaqueline Rayner or Justin Richards. But he really entertained me with one. It’s got a great story (genuinely scary/disturbing), memorable if quickly-drawn characters, and he has a real understanding of the key traits that make Tennant’s Doctor work. Cole is very knowing, dropping in some hints for some of the older readers. When the Doctor starts climbing the Eiffel Tower, he exclaims, ‘Blimey, I hate climbing towers . . .’ He also takes the not-very-amusing joke from “Fires of Pompeii” (sorry, I didn’t find it amusing) about Welsh and turns it on its head:
‘What was that Welsh bit, sir?’ the driver called back.
‘Blimey,’ the Doctor muttered. ‘Whenever I speak in the local lingo it comes out as Welsh. But maybe if I try Welsh . . .’ He cleared his throat. ‘All right
–dewlch ymlaen !’

There are some features of the book that take you out of the narrative—like TARDIS Fact File on Paris, Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower, etc—it makes me think of the Hartnell episodes where Barbara and Ian were constantly dropping pedagogical info into the sci fi. All in all I’d be tempted to read more of the Darksmith Legacy.