Monday, May 28, 2012

The Anatomy of Ghosts

This was another of those random, impulse reads from the library; I was attracted by the cover and the blurb.  Andrew Taylor, by the number of books he’s written, should be a good writer—in general, people seem to have been impressed by this book, which I would categorize as a historical novel with some mystery thrown in.  That is, it a lot more literary than Absolution by Murder—it’s clearly something standalone; I can’t see John Holdsworth investigating any more conundrums.  I found it very entertaining, though the final revelation was like a shocking, icy trickle down the neck.  It’s a novel set  in the late 18th century at the fictional Jerusalem College at Cambridge, and as such contains a lot of Stuff I Like.  I’m not a huge one for Hellfire Club rip-offs (any interest I had in that was cleansed of my system by reading The Adventuress of Henrietta Street and listening to Minuet in Hell)  but as this focused on the economic repercussions of such activities as much as the more scandalous dealings, I found it much less sensational.  It is also, of sorts, a Ghost Story.  

I like the way it looks at characters from all different classes—from Tom Turdman, the night-soil man, to Lady Anne Oldenshaw—but keeps the necessarily 18th century divisions in place, as the characters would have known them.  We have sympathy for characters like Augustus the grubby footboy and suffocated hussy Tabitha Skinner, but they are only as good or bad as their environment allows them to be.  Harry Archdale is one of the more memorable characters, changing a good deal in the course of the novel, and yet he can never extend more than pity toward struggling, penniless sizar[1] Tobias Soresby.  Mrs Phear is the delightfully Dickensian illustration of her name; in fact, the novel combines the Fielding-esque and the Dickensian in its rogues’ gallery.  Gyp[2] Mulgrave could only be played, as far as I’m concerned, by Ron Cook.  The main character, author, bookseller, and widower John Holdsworth delighted me as I tried to pin an actor down to play him; in the end I gave up and just enjoyed his character.  His love interest, Elinor Carbury, is less sympathetic yet seems wholly of her time:  she’s a young woman married to an aging, decrepit Cambridge Master, dependent on others for her financial support.  

The Anatomy of Ghosts is also the title of Holdsworth’s book, written to debunk spiritualism before it was spiritualism after the death of his young son.  I like the skewed perceptions of the book.  It could have easily turned into Holdsworth fancying himself some kind of psychic detective, and the scandal of the Holy Ghost Club could have quickly reached outrageous proportions.  However, the thick fog around Jerusalem College, and Holdsworth’s feet planted firmly on the ground, make this quite an unusual book that will keep you guessing til the last page. 

[1] Student studying on scholarship.
[2] A kind of college servant.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Catwoman: It's Only a Movie

Catwoman:  It’s Only a Movie follows the general progression of Trail of the Catwoman, with Slam Bradley, Holly, and Karon all playing large roles.  However, I have missed A LOT in between that serial and this; the defeat of Black Mask and Selina giving birth to a daughter.  Nevertheless, it’s easy to pick up where I left off.  Catwoman’s adversary through much of it is Film Freak, who unfortunately cross-pollinated in my mind with Matthew Shade in Conundrum, confusing me a lot.  Though I’m not really one for Superman or Justice League crossovers, I did rather enjoy when Catwoman had to go to Metropolis to steal a trinket from Lexcorp, which involves time travel and a cameo from that boy from Krypton himself.  

And may I say the covers by Adam Hughes are incredibly beautiful and I would be pleased to have them all as framed prints on my wall.    

Thursday, May 10, 2012



Conundrum is my second New Adventures novel.  Normally I am quite a fan of Steve Lyons; his audio writing for Big Finish has consistently been among the best.  However, I have to say I was quite disappointed.  Perhaps I would have been less so if Jamie hadn’t built the book up so high and sort of revealed the “wheeze.”  Plus, I hate the cover.

Some of the problems that bothered me about Legacy were also to be found in Conundrum.  I know it will sound pretentious for me to call it this, and it’s such an ephemeral term, but I am really getting fed up with writing that is too clever for its own good.  As such—and I may get pilloried for this—I think the fans killed Doctor Who in 1989.  If you can judge the way it was going onscreen by the way it was channelled in the New Adventures, it was becoming a fan’s playground, a continuity fanwank that was really up its own bum.  I bet the same fans who hated the bickering team of Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Adric, and Nyssa loved to read Conundrum’s vicious trio of the Seventh Doctor, a selfish/bitchy Ace, and a directionless Benny.  For me, personally, reading about them wasn’t any fun at all.  Nor did it feel like real characterization, either.  It reminded me of the first series of Torchwood, where the characters were paint-by-number, filled in with broad strokes rather than the nuance of character-driven, narrative-driven drama.

What do I think is too clever for its own good? The whole conceit of this book is that the village of Arandale is a fictional construct (much as the train-world was in Ian Potter’s story).  When we find out who the author (ie the Master of the Land of Fiction) is, we understand why he’s chosen the varieties of pop culture genres to populate his Arandale:  a hard-boiled American PI; too-good-to-be-true pre-teen investigators; a snowy English village with a pub; a witch; a crumbling supernatural castle; sacrifice; a psychic investigator; a game-geek; etc.  However, there is a great deal of cliché inherent in such forms (nearly all have been used in Doctor Who before).  What annoyed me is that the author (the real author, Steve Lyons) could blame any bad writing on it being the fault of the author (the Master).  There’s no incentive, then, to work hard to create depth or keep up a narrative.  If there’s no incentive to writing convincingly, why should we care?  I can’t say I cared much about any of the “characters” in this “story.”

Had I guessed that Arandale was the Land of Fiction from “The Mind Robber”?  Does it even really matter?  I had gotten halfway through the book when I thought to myself, “Hmm, this sound suspiciously like ‘The Mind Robber.’”  The final reveal, therefore, wasn’t really powerful.  Admittedly, I don’t know who is pulling the strings and who wanted the Master to trap the Doctor.  I’m not dying to find out, frankly. 

The pacing, for the most part, was good.  There were amusing moments, and moments where I actually felt some empathy for Benny, Ace, or Norman Power.  But some of the time I was just bored, trying to read as fast as I could to get to the end and find out if, against all hope, there was some unexpected twist to all this.  I think Conundrum, like Legacy, was a bit a product of its time.  Fans then wanted a dark, manipulative Doctor; an emotionally stunted, violent, hot Ace.  They wanted continuity nods, sex, violence, and “adult themes.”  They wanted meta-fiction.  In that case, perhaps I’m being a little unsympathetic; perhaps the trapped author at the end is really there to represent the authors of the New Adventures, not really anticipating the responsibilities and burdens of going from fan to fan-author?