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Tales of the City (Obverse Quarterly)
Tales of the City (Obverse Quarterly)
by Helen Angove
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful collection, 2 Sep 2012
(This review was originally posted on my blog, and is of the ebook version. Ob. disclaimer -- I know both the editor and publisher of this book online, in a "friendly on Facebook/Twitter" kind of way. However, I got to know them because I like their books, so don't think this is biased by that).

I haven't been very good about reviewing the books I've read recently, mostly because I've been barely functional for a while -- last night I ended up having to go to bed at half past seven in the evening, for example -- but I've wanted to bring more attention to this one, as I think people who like my blog will really like it.

Despite his having confined his writing almost entirely to Doctor Who spin-offs, Philip Purser-Hallard is one of my very favourite science fiction writers of the last decade, in part because the preoccupations in his writing match up so well with my own (though he is genuinely good at writing about these subjects, too). From his wonderful Stapledon pastiche/critique Peculiar Lives through to the book he's best known for, Of The City Of The Saved... and beyond, he deals with the Really Big Issues of teleology and eschatology, in a manner that is somewhat reminiscent of a saner Philip K Dick (a big influence on Purser-Hallard, who features him as a minor character in more than one of his works), but one perhaps more influenced by Teilhard than Gnosticism.

Purser-Hallard's main vehicle for looking at these ideas is The City Of The Saved, a setting introduced in the Faction Paradox book The Book Of The War, and featured in Purser-Hallard's only full length novel, Of The City Of The Saved..., as well as in a few short stories. Influenced by the Omega Point of Teilhard (via Tipler's more technological version), this is a location at the end of the universe, in which every human or human-descended lifeform is resurrected, to live forever in an undamageable body. Posthuman cyborgs have to live in the same society as the oldest Australopithicenes, with all being equal and no-one being able to cause anyone else any physical harm.

Here, for the first time, in a collection edited by Purser-Hallard, other authors are allowed to play in the City, although they stick very closely to Purser-Hallard's established style. Some new themes are introduced -- in particular, there's a recurring sense that great myths, especially the Greek myths, are being lived out in a `second time as farce' kind of way, with a Cyclopean barman, the Trojan war continuing as "an endless beach party of banana-boat races and drinking bouts", and an Icarus-alike whose wings are shoddy body-modifications.

Purser-Hallard himself provides the bookend stories, which set up and resolve several threads in the other stories, but almost everything in here is good. My particular favourites are Blair Bidmead's Happily Ever After Is A High-Risk Strategy, a selection of traveller's tales told by hitch-hikers and the vehicle they're travelling in, The Socratic Problem by Elizabeth Evershed, in which a university specialising in philosophy is disrupted by the visiting Professor Sokrates, and Helen Angove's Highbury, which starts out as a Jane Austen parody before descending into something a little darker, with a very Gothic explanation for the cultural stasis imposed on its main characters.

As with all short-story collections, Tales Of The City has its faults -- some of the stories are better at atmosphere than at plot, and Dale Smith's About A Girl, I'm afraid, leaves a bit of a bad taste (the idea of a band consisting of the various famous musicians who died aged twenty-seven isn't a great one, but then adding in appearances from every celebrity from Albert Einstein to Philip K Dick starts to give the impression that far from being inhabited by a hundred undecillion people from throughout the history of the universe, the City Of The Saved is merely the green room for a TV chat show).

But the overall quality of the stories here is extremely high, and this is easily a match in quality for the Faction Paradox collection Obverse put out last year, which I loved. It definitely leaves me hoping for more of these collections (though I'd also like to see some more long work from Purser-Hallard in this setting).

Doctor Who: Shada
Doctor Who: Shada
by Douglas Adams
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.59

36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Respectful adaptation, 17 Mar 2012
This review is from: Doctor Who: Shada (Hardcover)
(Crossposted from my blog)

It's difficult to know how much information to give in a review of Shada, the latest in the BBC's line of Doctor Who prestige hardbacks, because it's aimed at at least three different, though overlapping, audiences - Doctor Who fans, Douglas Adams fans, and people who would, when in a bookshop, be interested in a book about Doctor Who if it's got the name of someone they recognise on the cover but wouldn't otherwise consider themselves a fan. I am, of course, a member of both the first two groups.

In the late 1970s, Douglas Adams (who almost everyone reading this will know was to become the best-selling author of the Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Dirk Gently series before dying too young) wrote three scripts for Doctor Who, as well as script-editing the TV series for a year. The first of these, The Pirate Planet, is a passable romp, while the second, City Of Death, is often regarded as the single best story the TV show ever did. Shada was the third, and was meant to be broadcast at the end of the series Adams script-edited, but filming was stopped two-thirds of the way through because of strike action, and the story was never completed.

It's not quite as lost as the publicity material around this book suggests - a VHS release about twenty years ago, now long-deleted, with Tom Baker doing linking narration, and a remake as a cartoon for the BBC website featuring eighth Doctor Paul McGann (the soundtrack CD of which is available from Big Finish for five pounds, and is well worth getting) mean that many of us have experienced this story in a relatively complete form already. However, it is true that it was never completed in the way Adams intended - and it's also true that Adams was unhappy with his scripts and thought they needed more polishing - so it's a perfect candidate for novelisation.

Gareth Roberts, the author of the book, will be less familiar than Adams by a long way, but is a reasonable choice for the job. I'm not a huge fan of Roberts' work, but he's what is generally called a safe pair of hands. He's written for Doctor Who on TV, audio dramas, novels and comics before, including a novel (The Well-Mannered War) featuring the Fourth Doctor, who appears here, and his usual style is a sort of whimsical mildly parodic SF that is clearly influenced by Adams.

Roberts is nowhere near the writer that Adams was, but he doesn't need to be for this. What he *is* good at is functional storytelling, and structure, two things that were among Adams' weaker points. So while he keeps all the plot beats and important scenes from Adams' script, and at least 90% of Adams' dialogue, he fixes at least one big plot hole, completes a sub-plot that Adams seemed to start and then give up on, and provides a lot of back-story and character motivation.

For the most part, Roberts' inventions fit perfectly with the Adams material, to the point where I'd challenge anyone unfamiliar with the source material to say what came from where. And it's still recognisably the same story - the story of Skagra trying to turn the entire universe into his own mind in a Darkseid-like fashion, and of his search for the ancient Time Lord criminal Salyavin, and how the Doctor gets involved with this when visiting his old friend Professor Chronotis at St Cedd's College, Cambridge. Reading it at times does feel spookily like reading a 'new' late-period Adams book - like a third Dirk Gently novel. (The first Dirk Gently novel, of course, used some characters and dialogue from Shada, along with the basic plot of City Of Death).

There are a couple of places where it goes wrong, though. For the most part, Roberts' prose is functional, but he occasionally tries to ape Adams' style, with predictably poor results. Adams' tics are very easy to emulate, the sensibility behind them much less so - Roberts actually feels far more like Adams when he's not copying his prose style but just telling Adams' story.

Also, the jokes Roberts adds in the descriptive passages are nowhere near up to the standard of those in Adams' dialogue, and often descend into an almost Peter Kay like "Remember the late 1970s? Things were slightly different then, weren't they? What's that all about?". The occasional pun (the status quo one stands out in the memory as particularly bad) seems to be put in more because this is 'a Douglas Adams book' and therefore has to be funny, rather than because it makes any kind of artistic sense.

Even less excusable are the occasional continuity references, thrown in merely in order that people like myself will recognise them - "Wow, the Fourth Doctor mentioned the Rani!" There are quite a few knowing winks to the status of Doctor Who as a national institution, as well, which quite frankly just feel smug (and a rather more forgivable single one acting as a tribute to Adams).

But this is, fundamentally, nit-picking. What we have here is the best actual story Douglas Adams ever wrote for Doctor Who, adapted as well as one could reasonably expect. If it's not as funny, clever, or exciting as it thinks it is, it's still funnier, cleverer and more exciting than it has any right to be given its tortured genesis.

If Amazon allowed half-stars in reviews I'd probably give this three and a half, because it's not going to change anyone's life or make anyone think differently about the world. But it's a very pleasant way to spend a few hours, and that's still worth a lot, so I'll round up to four.
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The Freelancer's Survival Guide
The Freelancer's Survival Guide
Price: 6.41

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Advice, 22 Feb 2012
Most writers who care about their business, especially self-publishers like myself, will already know that the blog of Kristine Kathryn Rusch (and that of her husband Dean Wesley Smith) is essential reading.

However, as well as her tips on writing and publishing, and her short stories, she has also put together this extremely long collection of business advice for anyone in any freelance business. It's obviously based on her own experiences as a writer, editor and publisher, but the advice on organising one's day and workspace, on contracts, on hiring employees and so on is both sensible and applicable to almost any business.

One criticism that is probably unavoidable is that this is a book written by an American for a primarily American market, and as a result some of the advice will not apply to UK readers. But the US-specific material is such a small part of the book as a whole that this is still a five-star book.

The Viewer'S Tale
The Viewer'S Tale
by Andrew Rilstone
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.44

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping Tale Of Disillusionment, 22 Feb 2012
This review is from: The Viewer'S Tale (Paperback)
I read these essays on Doctor Who as they were posted at the time on Mr. Rilstone's blog, but as collected here they take on a new meaning, telling the sad tale of one fan's disillusionment with the programme he loved.

The book starts in 2004, with Mr Rilstone's excitement at the then-forthcoming Doctor Who revamp, and ends in 2009 in disgust. Mr Rilstone's reviews of the first series of the show under Russel Davies' control are enthusiastic, excited and joyful, but as the series goes on, with David Tennant in the lead, this becomes a gripping but sad portrait of a man falling out of love with something that had previously given him utter joy.

The whole thing is wonderfully written, and well thought-out - the early, excited reviews are not just "Squee!", and neither are the later reviews the typical "Davies destroyed my childhood" nonsense. Rather, Rilstone carefully analyses the ways in which the programme succeeds and fails, both on its own terms and on those Rilstone would prefer.

Fascinating reading.

Where Dawkins Went Wrong
Where Dawkins Went Wrong
by Andrew Rilstone
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.40

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Theological essays that even non-believers will admire, 22 Feb 2012
This collection of Mr Rilstone's essays on religion, mostly previously posted on his superb blog, is a must for anyone, of whatever faith or lack of it, who is interested in religion and how it impacts society today.

The core of the book is a series of essays looking at Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and pointing out the many flaws in the arguments, such as they are. While Mr Rilstone is a practicing Christian, he does not fall into the trap of assuming that the negation of Dawkins' flimsy book is in any way a 'proof' of his beliefs. At no point in this book, in fact, does he attempt to make any case for the Christian religion at all.

What he does, rather -- much in the spirit of C.S. Lewis, a writer Rilstone hugely admires, though Rilstone is much more liberal (and to my mind a more rigorous thinker) -- is to say "whether or not there is a God, your arguments are flawed. And whether or not Christianity is true, Christians don't believe what you claim they do. Here is what they actually believe".

If everyone on either side of the increasingly tedious religion vs New Atheism debate was as clear-headed and tolerant as Rilstone, the debate wouldn't need to take place at all.

The Beach Boys FAQ: All That's Left to Know about America's Band (Faq Series)
The Beach Boys FAQ: All That's Left to Know about America's Band (Faq Series)
by Jon Stebbins
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.69

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellently researched, 11 Jan 2012
Most, if not all, books about the Beach Boys have tended to be very factually inaccurate, with the result that the band's history is awash with myths that 'everyone knows' to be true.

Stebbins' book, on the other hand, is absolutely rigorous - he is one of the best Beach Boys researchers out there, and has consulted the best of the others (notably citing Andrew Doe's Bellagio website) to ensure he's not repeating myths. I've only noticed one minor error in the book (he says that Brian Wilson's intention to complete Smile was announced in May 2003, when in fact it was first announced by Jeff Foskett at a small show in *March* 2003). It's organised into a series of small essays, so if you want to know all the facts about, say, the band's changing membership, or who sang lead on what track, it's easy to find.

Where the book goes into opinion and critical analysis, it's on less steady ground (can Stebbins *really* believe that 'heavy' psychedelic guitar would have improved gentle, gorgeous albums like Friends or Wild Honey?) and he sometimes strays into cliche (saying that Van Dyke Parks' lyrics were 'alliterative' and 'stream-of-consciousness' when they were neither to any greater extent than any other lyricist for the band) but half the fun of that kind of thing is finding something to disagree with, and Stebbins is just as likely to be dead-on accurate.

The one star knocked off is for Stebbins' somewhat clunky prose style, and his annoying habit of slipping in lines from lyrics wherever possible, whether or not they're appropriate - the book could have done with a quick polish for style - but this is undoubtedly the definitive factual work on the band.

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