Sunday, 30 March 2014

'Aliens of London'



‘I don’t do families.’

Can the best Doctor Who stories be summed up in a question?
What was missing from every Aliens-invade-Earth Doctor Who story of the 1970s?

Best moment for Old School Who?
Glimpsing elements from the 1970s UNIT stories, but watching them being played out in this new version of Doctor Who is wonderful, surreal and exciting. While Twentieth Century Who excelled (and probably peaked) in the first three episodes of ‘Terror of the Zygons’ in 1975, with misty moors, spooky pubs, country lanes and space ships made out of pizza toppings – that story really came apart when we followed it to London for part four. Doctor Who in 2005 brings us the wider picture –  smashed landmarks, 24 hour media coverage, traffic jams, chaos and intrigue in the halls of power, and the reactions from council estates. And still the Doctor is at the heart of every one of these scenes. He’s the best expert on aliens that the world has ever had – still. Just as he was back in the day. He just hangs out in people’s living rooms as often as he does secret laboratories.

Best new thing?
These two episodes form the best-structured story Doctor Who has ever had, up until this point. Hands down. Everyone gets something to do. It even pulls off a triple-headed cliffhanger. It’s the same length as an old school four-parter – and it orchestrates itself beautifully. There are no slack bits, boring bits, or characters who don’t get their moment to contribute or shine. This is the biggest new thing in New Doctor Who at this point: characters who stay in character and say and do things beautifully in character.

They’d never have got away with that in the 20th century…
It’s the way it cuts straight to the heart of the story. Aliens land on Earth. Or rather, aliens fake aliens landing on Earth. What happens? Why? Where’s the real story? It’s in the juxtaposition of the cabinet room at Number Ten Downing Street with Mickey’s skanky kitchen and that of activated nuclear warheads and pickled gherkins. Doctor Who has never been as confident in its use of bathos and outrageousness as it is here. Also, it’s very political – the script is filled with references to bogus evidence of weapons of mass destruction and UN resolutions and very direct references to the ‘War on Terror.’ The comedy of it all allows it to be much braver in its satirical targets.

Hurray for Jackie Tyler – best guest moment?
I’m tempted to say Jackie Tyler again for almost every scene she’s in, but my favourite here is Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North. Penelope Wilton is the spiritual descendent of Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in New Who – kindly, bewildered and ultimately courageous. Her reactions to the unmasked Slitheen family members are absolutely priceless. Everything she goes here is golden. She didn’t return to the series half enough, as far as I’m concerned. I was longing to see at least one story in which she went to another planet. Something along the lines of the Brigadier trying to remain unflappable in the universe of anti-matter in 1973. Maybe it could still happen.

The ‘I love me Nan…’ moment
I don’t feel any of the emotions or character work are over-milked here. Everyone is spot on. I love Jackie’s reactions to seeing Rose again and the tears and shock of her coming back from the presumed-dead. The very human reactions to alien invasion are wonderful. Watch it happen on telly. Have a party to celebrate first contact. The other very welcome injection of pathos comes with the fabulously old-school scenes with the space-pig. Even that tiny walk-on / drop-dead role is imbued with proper emotion. He’s a victim and the Doctor’s righteous anger is marvelous. Nothing and no one is beneath this Doctor’s notice. He even finds a way, late in the story, to pay Mickey a compliment.

What?!?
Here the mythos-building is to do with the way the Doctor is remembered on Earth. The internet knows about him. Mickey has been looking him up in the year that has passed since ‘Rose.’ When the word ‘Tardis’ is mentioned alarms are tripped, and the military are waiting for the Doctor, who hasn’t been seen around these parts for quite some time. In this story we get a great sense of the mysterious history of the Doctor on Earth and his secret career in foiling invasions. Of course, it’s less mysterious to us than it is to his new friends, and there’s a great frisson in the fact that this new series is embracing all those past adventures. Both old fans and new are being welcomed equally warmly.

Huh?!
Mickey’s getting into the UNIT files from his back bedroom and activating submarine missiles to destroy Number Ten really works here. It’s outrageous and we believe in it. But… Jackie says that she could stop him, any second, and save her daughter. And it’s true – all she’d have to do is smack him one or, even better, unplug his PC at the wall. This little moment stayed in my mind because, over the next few seasons, Doctor Who – like any other SF TV show, had quite a lot of computer screens on show. Cast members gazing at screens and clicking buttons very quickly and saving the day would become a bit too common for my taste. Here though, it works, because it’s still real and palpable somehow.

Where was I?
We watched this back in Norwich, on a return visit. We watched it with old friends. People I’d watched old Who with into the early hours over quite a few years, and we’d often have those conversations about what Doctor Who might be like if it came back. And here it was. I never gave a hoot about farting aliens and the comedy aliens because it was clear that they were nasty deep down in the good old-fashioned way. The story struck me then as great fun, and a way of resurrecting all those fabulous UNIT adventures of the past, but in a wholly modern way. Watching it again now, it’s clearly the best constructed and performed story in New Who so far.

Singlemost fabulous thing
I think it has to be the Doctor’s grinning excitement when he finds out that aliens are invading, and the way he sparkles whenever things take a turn for the worse. He reacts like someone has laid on a surprise party for him.


'The Unquiet Dead'




‘What the Shakespeare is going on here..?’


Can the best Doctor Who stories be summed up in a question?
Can the Doctor and Rose inspire Charles Dickens to cheer himself up, plus foil an invasion of disembodied bodysnatchers all in one night?

Best moment for Old School Who?
Surprisingly, Twentieth Century Doctor Who rarely visited the Victorian era but when it did it was great. ‘Talons of Weng Chiang’ is one of the all-time classics, and its influence is felt here and there in ‘The Unquiet Dead’ – not least in the theatre scenes and the mordant wit of the early scenes at the undertaker’s.

Best new thing?
The Doctor thinks he has a plan. Why shouldn’t he help these aliens to achieve their objective, and survive on Earth by inhabiting human corpses? It’s simple recycling. If Rose doesn’t like the idea, then she’d better think again about travelling with him. But he’s wrong. He’s got it completely wrong. If things went his way, Earth would be overrun by the Gelth. It’s brave, humble Gwyneth who actually saves the day. One of the distinctive features of early New Who is the decentring of the Doctor: the recasting of our hero as less of an all-knowing superman.

They’d never have got away with that in the 20th century…
The scale and spectacle of everything is much grander than it ever was in Twentieth Century Who. We see a whole old-time-music-hall audience decked out in their finery, we have horses and carriages and fake snow. It feels like a proper BBC costume drama, with a bit of lavishness and all the attention to detail you’d expect.

Also, the telling of a story that feels old-school allows us to appreciate the differences – that everything is a whole lot more dynamic, and we aren’t stuck inside studio sets all the time. But we do feel a lack of a proper villain, prancing and gloating and taunting the Doctor. That’s two out of three episodes already without a solid adversary… and that’s something Old Who rarely chanced.

Hurray for Jackie Tyler – best guest moment?
It has to be Simon Callow as Dickens and his journey from moping about in his dressing room, feeling he had nothing new to learn from life – to his practically skipping about in the final frames, dizzied by what he’s experienced.

The ‘I love me Nan…’ moment
Rose’s scene in the scullery with Gwyneth comes too soon after her bonding with the plumber in episode two. Some of the same notes are hit here, and it feels a bit obvious to find her chiming in with another supposedly low-class character.

What?!?
The astounding story arc stuff is to do with Gwyneth actually calling the Time War by name, and the Gelth explaining how only the higher species were aware of something disastrous and cosmic going on. Suddenly Doctor Who’s monsters and villains are talking about the same universe out there, and galactic goings-on beyond our ken. This is real continuity and mythos-building, and it’s exciting. Also, ‘Bad Wolf’ is mentioned outright by Gwyneth in connection with Rose. All the clues are here, building up, episode by episode.

Huh?!
This was the first episode I was conscious of ending too soon. The climax in the morgue comes much too quickly. I’d love a few more characters – policemen, landladies, reporters and Welsh chapter of a Limehouse Chinese tong, perhaps. It’s a story that cries out for more time and a few nighttime stakeouts in graveyards and a bit more slowly-developing creepiness. For me, we learn much too quickly about the Gelth and what they pretend to want, and what they actually want. Really, episode three was the beginning of my feeling that the stories weren’t getting enough time before we were zooming off elsewhere.

Where was I?
I loved that fact of its bookishness. I loved that we were going back into old-school Who territory and seeing a bit more of the Victorian era. It was literary and macabre, and the Doctor and Rose being so irreverent and slangy and – at times – silly, was a breath of fresh air.

Singlemost fabulous thing
I think it has to be Dickens’ rapport with the Doctor, who he first disdainfully describes as looking like ‘a navvy.’ And, of course, that’s exactly what this Doctor would seem like to a Victorian Gent. Many of the previous Doctors would swan up to Dickens in their frock coats and cravats and he’d be much more respectful. And so would the Doctor, but there’s no reverence here – there’s fannishness, as the Doctor burbles on in the back of the cab to an astonished and flattered novelist. ‘Do the death of Little Nell! That cracks me up every time!’


Saturday, 29 March 2014

International Ungow! Day



This weekend it's a full year since we lost our wonderful Fester Cat. Back then Jeremy decided that the last Saturday in March should from then on become 'International Ungow! Day' for us - named after the Fester's favourite word. It'd be great if all of Fester's friends on Facebook (and there were lots of you!) gave him a little thought today. And also it's as good a time as any to give a thought to those other animal friends who've been a big part of our lives and given us so much - loyalty and laughs and love - and then gone.


Friday, 28 March 2014

'The End of the World'





‘They did this once on Newsround…’

Can the best Doctor Who stories be summed up in a question?
If you wanted to impress someone with your time and space machine, is taking them to the year five billion, freaking them out with a bunch of aliens and making them watch their world explode the best way of going about it?

Best moment for Old School Who?
I was always very fond of the motley Murder Mystery alien ensemble in ‘Curse of Peladon,’ and the lovely bunch of creatures assembled on Platform One to watch Earth’s Heat Death seem to be a conscious nod to that story. At the time it was surprising that much-vaunted creatures such as the Moxx and the Face of Boe barely got a speaking part. But the big thing for me was that this version of Doctor Who wasn’t afraid of bringing on the weird-looking aliens. This wasn’t going to be like some latterday Star Trek effort in which alienness is signified by a few funny bits stuck on an actor’s forehead. This was all about talking trees, bird people and brains in bubbling tanks.

Best new thing?
The Doctor does a spot of ‘jiggery pokery’ on Rose’s phone so she can call her mum, five billion years ago. Jackie’s doing the washing and surprised to get a call from her daughter. The Doctor’s showing off, but he’s also being kind, knowing that Rose has been knocked sideways by this first step into the unknown. Her attempts to acclimatize to the dizzying future are so well done in this episode.

They’d never have got away with that in the 20th century…
Pop classics from Marc Almond and Britney Spears are used in the soundtrack to exhilarating effect. It always makes me wish the old series had used more pop. T Rex on the soundtrack of ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs,’ the Human League guesting in ‘Meglos’…

Hurray for Jackie Tyler – best guest moment?
My favourite guest star in episode two is the obvious one: Zoe Wanamaker as Cassandra, the last ‘pure human’ and a ‘bitchy trampoline’ according to Rose. My favourite moment is when the Doctor reverses her transmat beam and brings her back to the station mid-bitch.

The ‘I love me Nan…’ moment
As with episode one, it’s so fast and new, and all the character-work seems so novel and interesting. There’s nothing that feels overdone.

What?!?
The astonishing bigger-story revelations come from the scenes with Jabe, the tree lady Doctor Who flirts with. Realising his provenance, she is in awe that such a being should have survived the war. The Doctor tells her, and Rose and us, a little of how his world and people are all long gone, and he is alone and travelling the universe because there is nothing else for him to do. Again, these details are being eked out so carefully. There’s no info-dumping or tedious space-gabble. By now we want to know who and what he is. Those of us who already know want to know how much the new Show is prepared to delve into the past, and what secrets might come out…

Huh?!
Plot twisty things or conveniences… well, it’s a bit of a classic obstacle moment with the spinning blades that have to be dodged by the Doctor so he can push the Big Button and save everyone. But who cares? It’s a disaster movie trope, and we love them, and that’s the genre we’re in.

Where was I?
I was so relieved we’d gone into space and the future and we were seeing exotic beings. I was delighted that when we went into space the aliens were made out of bits of old costumes and some were bright blue and most of them were grotesque. I loved the fact that this far-flung future could look a bit retro as well as having fabulous effects. I remember being astonished by the effects for the space station spinning round the world and the expanding sun turning them all bright gold. Doctor Who had never looked as good as this before, ever.

And yet – because we cared about the blue plumber lady who got dragged to her death in the ventilation shaft, and because we cared about the camp steward who got roasted in his office and because everyone was there for a reason and were an actual part of the story, the whole splendid thing had a human scale to it. It’s a lovely balancing act between the sublime and the familiar.

Singlemost fabulous thing
The Doctor’s wonderful riposte to Cassandra: ‘What’re yer gonna do? Moisturise me?’ Especially when that’s countered by his sudden hard-heartedness when he refuses to save her from drying out, and the poor villainess goes TWANG. She’s new Doctor Who’s first villain and it’s a fab performance.



Thursday, 27 March 2014

Nine Years since 'Rose'...!



‘Go home and have your lovely beans on toast…’

Can the best Doctor Who stories be summed up in a question?
Once taking bronze in a school gymnastics competition is the very thing that jaded shop girl Rose Tyler requires in order to help her new friend Doctor Who – fugitive from a space war – to defeat a living plastic entity that wants to eat the world, but does she really want to join him on his adventures in time and space?

Best moment for Old School Who?
Much was made in 2005 of how Who’s effects would have to compete once more with flashier SF franchises and once again it proves that the best effects are when something mundane starts doing something unexpected. Such as when shop dummies come to life and smash plate glass windows, all over again.

Some of the marching about is a bit ropey, but the Autons are remarkable here for their sound effects – the popping noise of their hand-guns is the same as it was in 1970, but they also have new, very sinister creaking noises when they move.

Best new thing?
We are in the present day. That’s the new thing. We’re in a world of shopping malls, mobile phones, the internet and the London Eye – all are grist to the mill for new stories about aliens attacking London.

They’d never have got away with that in the 20th century…
The new companion has a boyfriend, who she’s sleeping with. She has a life. She isn’t related to a scientific uncle who works for the military. She isn’t posh. She folds jumpers in a shop and lives in a flat with her mum, who’s as common as muck.

Hurray for Jackie Tyler! The best guest moment?
Jackie does some late night shopping and, by the time she reaches the bottom of the escalator, she notices that the shopping mall is under attack from evil waxwork dummies who are shooting bargain-hunters dead. Jackie’s struck momentarily dumb and her response, when it eventually comes, is to give a very old-school Doctor Who lady scream and to throw her shopping bag away. Then she toddles off in the revived series’ first proper moment of sheer camp.

The ‘I love me Nan…’ moment.
These are moments of egregious sentimentality or over-egging of the emotional pudding (so-called because of a Charlotte Church sketch from circa 2005.) I’d say ‘Rose’ is completely free of them. There’s not an ounce of sentimentality here, nor any slackening in the pace.

What?!?
Those moments that make you sit up and realise something astonishing’s been said. Here it’s the revelations to do with Doctor Who’s recent past: ‘I fought in the war.’ And how he tried to save the Nestene homeworld.

Remember, at this point we didn’t know what the war was, or who was involved, or what the Doctor’s part in it might have been. We were avid for scraps of this developing storyline. Also, we didn’t know how much the series would take from the old, in terms of the mythology of the show and the character. It was quite a blast to hear the Nestene Consciousness named as such, and for it to address the Doctor as ‘Time Lord.’ It was exciting, and like slowly watching the massive backstory of the series bleed through into the new in a very measured, clever way.

Huh?!
Those twisty plot things. Here’s it’s a phial of blue ‘anti-plastic’ that the Doctor produces from inside his oddly-fitting jacket. In almost reverent homage to his voluminous pockets of old, and his instant-fixes of old, here comes the literal solution to the world’s predicament. But ironic or not, it’s still an overly convenient fix.

Where was I?
Here in this house. We’d only just moved in. After all those years waiting, and such a long time since the announcement that the show was coming back. It was almost impossible to believe that it was upon us. The music made it feel too much like that strange reboot of ‘Randall and Hopkirk Deceased.’ It was trying hard to be upbeat and youth-oriented and action-packed. But the Doctor was gangly and awkwardly charming, and everyone talked like real people - twenty to the dozen and caught up in their usual preoccupations. It was like someone was taking hold of an old six-part Pertwee story and shaking it hard till all the rubbish fell out and we were left with something shiny, and new.

Singlemost fabulous thing
For me, it has to be Doctor Who and Rose running over Westminster Bridge towards the underground lair of the Nestenes and the final act of the adventure. Heading towards deadly danger Rose is GRINNING like crazy. Clearly she oughtn’t to be. Maybe they used the wrong take, or they couldn’t shoot it again. But I love the fact she’s smiling like that: it’s like she can’t believe her luck.






'A Place to Call Home' by Carole Matthews




A PLACE TO CALL HOME by Carole Matthews

Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
Sri Lankan woman escapes with her mute daughter from Milton Keynes and an abusive marriage and flees to Hampstead, where she seeks refuge with a motley household of reclusive pop stars,  jocular lap dancers and grumpy gardeners.

When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
I received an advanced e-copy from the publisher.

What’s your verdict?
I love Carole’s books. Twice a year she hits us – with a festive-themed novel at the end of the year and, each spring, a bright, sunny romance. I’ve been enjoying her books for a few years now – they’re chatty, convivial, and completely engrossing. You really care about what happens to her characters.

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
It’s the kind of book you keep with you for a few days, not wanting to finish it too fast. Her books are like sitting down comfily and hearing long, involved, sometimes outrageous gossip from a friend you haven’t seen for about six months.

What genre would you say it is?
This is romance, yes – but there are touches of real peril here, with the pursuit and crime sub-plot. Her books are often much funnier than straightforward romantic novels.

What surprises did it hold?
The story of the husband Ayesha is running away from is quite shocking, I think. At first we think it’s a case of nasty, banal domestic abuse, but his character is much wilder and more dangerous than that. The chapter in the jewellery shop towards the end is quite startling.

With Carole Matthews’ novels you always know that you are going to like the main character, who generally narrates about three quarters of the novel in first person. The surprises are to do with how they are going to find a way to be happy, against sometimes impossible odds. The other twenty five per cent of the novel is generally seen through a third person view-point – often a male character’s – and here the surprises are often to be found, when the novel affords us a glance back at our heroine in the round, in a different context. Sometimes, cleverly, these third person chapters fling us unexpectedly into a different genre altogether.

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
Stand-out character here is the endearingly shameless Crystal, with whom Ayesha becomes best pals, almost immediately upon seeking shelter in Hayden’s house. Crystal wears ill-advised outfits and is unrepentant about some of the dodgy things she’s had to do to scrape by. She takes Ayesha to the lap-dancing club where she works and the great thing in this book is that Ayesha is never judgmental, and neither is the authorial voice. The most touching episode in the whole book concerns Crystal and the child she lost, and the way she tells Ayesha this story.

The most memorable scene of all for me, is the foiled abduction attempt in the back garden, and the way in which the women fight off the men in balaclavas…

Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?
I’ve read perhaps half of Carole’s entire oeuvre, and I try to catch up on the backlist between the six-monthly novels. She has a distinctive world that I enjoy revisiting – an inclusive one in which people are muddling along, hoping for the best and making the best of themselves.

What will you do with this copy now?
It’s an ebook, so it’ll stay on my ipad – which means that it’s in my bag forever now. I’ll send my mam a paperback copy, since I’ve got her into Carole’s books lately too.

Is it available today?
It’s published in paperback on April the 10th

Give me a good quote:
“’To us,’ Crystal says. ‘We are fabulous and fearless.’
         ‘I was very afraid,’ I admit.
         ‘We all were. It doesn’t bear thinking about.’ Then she laughs. ‘But where on earth did you find that language, lady?’ “Knee him in the bollocks”?’”




Tuesday, 25 March 2014

'The Collected Works of A.J Fikry' by Gabrielle Zevin




Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
A mysterious baby is left in a bookshop owned by a well-read, widowed grump, who slowly comes to life and finds love again with a book rep and they very nearly live happily ever after.

When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
It came from Little, Brown for review – I’d had my eye on it in their catalogue. Anything about a bookshop – from ‘Shadow of the Wind’ to ‘Neverending Story’ – gets me (almost) every time.

What’s your verdict?
I loved this, and I know I’ll re-read it before the year is out. It’s concise, it’s quirky, it has stuff about a precocious, clever kid and a disenchanted middle aged man; a lovable cop and a ratty sister-in-law, and a cool, clever girlfriend – and lots about how to write fiction.

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
I finished it in a flash. And I know it’ll be like the ‘Guernsey Literary Society’ for me – I’ll read it again and again because I love being among the characters.

What genre would you say it is?
This is slightly hip and quirky literary fiction – but about characters we actually care about and with a great deal happening. But it’s also about fiction itself, and poses big, big questions and it’s unashamedly about love, loss and second chances – and it’s got a couple of good mystery plots winding through there, too.

What surprises did it hold – if any?
The solutions to the mysteries were surprising – and I loved the satisfying jigsaw-clicks in the later chapters.

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
There’s a lot of tragedy and melancholy… but there’s also a knockout chapter of screwball, silly comedy, involving an ancient author at a book event that A.J rashly organizes. This is literary fiction that’s not at all afraid to relish silliness and embarrassment.

I think my favourite character must be the cop, Lambiase, who becomes an increasingly important presence throughout the book. At the start he gruffly admits to never really reading… but soon enough he’s running his own book club for law enforcers. His journey through the book is a very entertaining one. A decision he makes at one stage – to ignore the evidence of what he knows is a crime – is very touching indeed.

Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?
I haven’t read other books by Gabrielle Levin, but I’m pleased to see that there are plenty, and I’ll definitely seek more out.

I did wonder… do we really need another book starting with an abandoned child, and how they grow up to change everyone’s lives around them? After ‘The Snow Child’ and ‘The Light Between the Oceans’ and all… but, yes, I guess we did.

What will you do with this copy now?
It’s a keeper, of course. It goes on my shelf for re-reading.

Is it available today?
It was published in the UK on March the 16th.

Give me a good quote:

“P.S. The thing I find most promising about your short story is that it shows empathy. Why do people what they do? This is the hallmark of great writing.”





Monday, 24 March 2014

'Man on the Run' by Tom Doyle



MAN ON THE RUN by Tom Doyle

Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
Millionaire songwriter begins the Seventies estranged from his band mates, mired in legal wrangles and lacking confidence as he settles into rural life with his vegetarian wife and kids – but can he turn those closest to him into a record-breaking supergroup with a string of catchy hits and their own private jet before the end of the decade?

When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
Just last weekend. It was a Facebook chat about the solo albums of the Beatles in the Seventies that started it. Someone mentioned this book – and there it was on Kindle for 99p. So I found myself defying my book-buying ban and interrupting my reading pile for a wodge of Seventies nostalgia and showbiz gossip.

What’s your verdict?
I loved it because there’s a feeling that it comes straight from the horse’s mouth. Tom Doyle spent a good long time interviewing McCartney over a number of years for magazines such as Q. The two of them appear to get on, and McCartney seems to spill the beans about bits of his life and times that I never really knew about. The opening and ending of the book, in the Soho office in the present day bookends the tale of this 70s Fall and Rise of the ex-Beatles’ creative fortunes, and it makes it seem a bit like a wonderfully old-fashioned novel or cheesy biopic. The whole thing is deliciously readable.

What genre would you say it is?
It’s a rock star biography, but one that brings you into the eye of the tornado. One where you find out what it was like in the epicentre and you learn what they had for tea, how they spent their evenings and what they all really thought about each other. I’m placing it alongside books such as Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ and Suze Rotolo’s ‘A Freewheelin’ Time.’ Books in which the legend is in the shadow of domestic arrangements.

What surprises did it hold – if any?
For me the most surprising stuff was about McCartney’s apparent lack of confidence in himself and his own abilities – his drinking and breakdown in the early Seventies. Also, his apparent lack of self-knowledge or awareness of how he’s presenting himself. I love the fact that he freely admits to just making it all up as he goes along. His selfishness and naivete in places are astonishing. I’d always had him down as more hard-nosed and cynical than he appears. Here he comes over as more of a hippie than Lennon ever did.

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
There’s a longish scene at the Dakota building in the late Seventies, with Paul and Linda spending an evening at John and Yoko’s, watching Saturday Night Live and old movies. There’s jokey stuff about deciding impulsively to catch a taxi downtown to the TV studio and get the Beatles back together on air, in response to a silly challenge. This is countered by an earnest moment, the following day, from Paul – rebuffed by a grumpy, baby-sitting John – and then a final sentence to the scene that caps it all off and is a very wounding final word on the matter. I don’t want to spoil it here – just go and read it. It’s one of those moments you only get described in memoirs written long after the event, and they come for the reader with the sensation of being present at something both humdrum and momentous at the same time. Here and elsewhere it’s like eavesdropping on scenes you never imagined you’d be able to…

Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?
I’d be interested to see what else Tom Doyle writes. At times, especially when he’s covering gaps between anecdotes, the writing has the glossy facility of music magazine prose (not surprisingly) – with lots of sentences top heavy with clunky clauses and rock critic clich├ęs. But when the material’s allowed to breathe a bit more and read more like a novel, it really flies.

I’ve read many books about the Beatles over the years, thinking about it. Often Lennon-centric ones. The albums and houses and years have a familiar shape to me. But there’s a freshness to the perspective here. It turns out McCartney had a much more exciting 1970s than any of the others from the world’s most famous band.

What will you do with this copy now?
It’s a Kindle – so it’s a keeper anyway (that’s a strange, not always welcome feature of e-books – you can’t lend them out, give them away or chuck them.) I imagine I’ll dip into this again. Probably, as I did this time, listening to all the albums mentioned as I read.

Give me a good quote:
“’I actually used to have some very frightening phone calls with him,’ McCartney admitted. Paul told John what he’d been up to – eating pizza with the kids, reading them fairy tales.
         ‘You’re all pizza and fairy tales,’ Lennon retorted bizarrely.”


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

My Facebook Fan Page



I've been updating my Facebook Fan Page at last!  I've neglected it a bit - but now it'll be a good place to get all the news about what I'm up to - and also to drop me a line. Here it is! 


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Beach House Reads: 'The Wheel of Darkness' by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child



THE WHEEL OF DARKNESS by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Encapsulate the book in one (spoilerish) sentence?
FBI Agent / Holmesian archetype plus mysterious female companion, tasked by reclusive Tibetan monks to chase after stolen Armageddon-engendering artefact, find themselves aboard a cruise liner crossing the Atlantic, with only seven days to catch a killer, avoid a catastrophe at sea and foil the smoke monster sent by the anti-Buddha.

When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
It’s a charity shop copy that has hung around a couple of years on various reading stacks. I’ve had the vague notion of trying Lincoln and Child again for a little while after reading one previous novel. The Beach House project has bumped me into doing so – thankfully.

Why is it something you stashed away and hoarded?
I think ‘Reliquary’ struck me as too long and over-complicated –despite some marvelous set-pieces. I couldn’t get the ‘hang’ of the series when I read my last / first one (back in 2007, the year ‘Wheel of Darkness’ was published.) I wished I’d persevered and got the measure of the Pendergast novels sooner. This is a series I would love to read as and when the books come out.

I’m delighted that the authors provide an afterword for this book, reassuring us that – though all their books are interlinked and take place in the same universe with lots of character-bleed – we can read the series in any old order we fancy. That’s a great thing to be told. Any series worth its salt tries to give reader hopping-on points with every book, and explains all the back-story we’ll ever need in the most entertaining way available. That’s what the novel series biz is all about.)

What year or edition?
A tatty Orion paperback from 2007. Their covers make these books look – rather unfortunately – like all the knock-offs of Dan Brown that you see everywhere. This would put me off straight away if I was coming to these authors new.

What’s your verdict?
I just loved it. Every moment of it. I’m not a big reader of thrillers. Global conspiracy / slightly mystic / FBIesque thrillers can make me despair (see my review of ‘Sanctus’ recently.) But this… there’s something like catnip in the writing. It’s suddenly like Sherlock Holmes is having thumpingly good mysterious adventures in the present day with monsters and killers in exotic locales.

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
I had to move to a kindle version – again! – halfway through. The copy from the Beach House was a tiny pulpy paperback, with miniscule print. It was such a relief to snap it up on kindle. (But am I defeating the purpose of the Beach House project by buying these buggers twice?)

What genre would you say it is?
Mystic thriller; classic whodunit; monster disaster movie.

What surprises did it hold – if any?
Many! Almost on a chapter-by-chapter basis. The twists are pretty good – and the switch-backing from genre to genre is fantastic. The authors crank up the tension by being completely unafraid to bring in elements from all kinds of genres. As if a prolific serial killer caught up in a high speed collision between vast ships mid-Atlantic wasn’t enough, let’s throw in rare art theft, adventures with Buddhism and an evil smoke monster, too!

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
The man who clings to the outside of the bridge window in the teeth of the storm, trying to talk sense into the mutineering captain as she pilots the ocean liner towards the deadly Carrion Rocks..! While she’s possessed and implacable, he’s hanging on by his fingernails for dear life itself…

Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?
Their first novel – the museum lock-in monsterfest that is ‘The Relic’ was made into one of my favourite movies of the 1990s. I read the sequel, ‘Reliquary’ about seven years ago. I enjoyed it, but questions of reading order and the changes between book series and the movie I loved confused me. Pendergast was removed from the film, but is the focus of most of the books. My own confusion ended up putting me off exploring the series further, until now.

What will you do with this copy now?
I’m going to send it to Stuart and tell him to read it at once because I think he’ll enjoy it.

Is it available today?
Yes, all the Lincoln & Child books are widely available as real and virtual books. They are less well known, perhaps, in the UK than they ought to be.

Give me a good quote:
‘Excuse me for speaking frankly, Captain, but we’ve got a brutal murderer roaming on board this ship. If this Pendergast is to be believed, the man’s killed three people already. The passengers are freaking out, half of them are hiding in their cabins, and the rest are getting drunk in the lounges and casinos. And now it seems we’ve got some kind of mass hysteria building, talk of an apparition roaming the ship. Our security director has as much as admitted the situation is beyond his control. Under the circumstances, don’t you think we should seriously consider diversion?’