Comics Review: Doctor Who: The Seventh Doctor


AuthorAndrew Cartmel
Illustrators: Christopher Jones, Marco Lesko
Contributor: Ben Aaronovitch
TitleDoctor Who: The Seventh Doctor
Publication Info: Titan (2018)
Summary/Review:

The three parts of this Titan comics miniseries include two different stories.  “Operation Volcano” takes up most of the pages with “Hill of Beans” filling out each volume.

“Operation Volcano” is set in 1967 when a hydrogen bomb exposes an alien craft in the Australian desert.  RAF Group Captain Gilmore – a character introduced in Aaronovitch’s Remembrance of the Daleks – calls in the Doctor and Ace to investigate. Subsequent issues reveal a horrifying snake-like species that can attach itself to humans and tap into their consciousness.  But all is not what appears and the Doctor knows more about these aliens than he lets on. Can his plan prevent the destruction of Earth by nuclear weapons, and how does Gilmore end up in the future with a snake on his back? There’s a strong UNIT/spy thriller feel and the artistry captures the 60s style (write up to the illustrator lovingly detailing the women’s breasts and short-shorts in the classic style).  This is faithful the Seventh Doctor stories as portrayed by Sylvester McCoy and the Virgin New Adventures and I could see it succeeding as a tv adaptation.

“Hill of Beans” catches up with Mags, the werewolf from The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and the physic circus.  She’s under threat as her planet Vulpana is under fascist rule and rounding up werewolves and other noncomformists. Eerily, the villain looks like Donald Trump and says “fire and fury.” The art style is softer and works to capture an 80s aesthetic.  Being the shorter of the two stories, it is very bareboned, and everything gets resolved rather easily.   Again, though, it could be fleshed out into a tv show or book.

Rating: ***1/2

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Book Review: Transit by Ben Aaronovitch


Author: Ben Aaronovitch
Title: Transit
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who, 1992.
Summary/Review:

Having read Set Piece, I decided to jump back to this earlier book in the New Adventures series that introduces the character of Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart. The author, Ben Aaronovitch, previously wrote the teleplays for the classic Seventh Doctor serials Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield.  This novel was controversial at the time of its release because in response to the adult audience of the New Adventures novels, Aaronovitch depicted scenes with profanity, drug use, and sex for the first time in a Doctor Who story.

The main plot involves a transit system that connects the Solar System through “tunnels” which are actually transmat systems that carry “trains” over long distances at faster-than-light speeds. An entity from another dimension enters the transit system like a virus causing power surges and killing people.  The TARDIS gets caught in one of the surges separating the Doctor and Benny.  This is the first novel in which Benny is traveling with the Doctor and she ends up possessed by the virus, which is an interesting choice when her character hasn’t even been fully established yet.

Like other New Adventures I’ve read, this is a complex novel with dozens of characters and an entire fictional universe in the cyberpunk style without anything really for the reader to latch on to be introduced to the characters and their world.  I shouldn’t complain so much about the novels’ complexity, but I did major in English and read complex novels (heck, I even read Ulysses for fun!), so it’s frustrating to struggle with sci-fi tv spinoff novels from the 1990s.  Still, there are some great details, such as allusions to the Ice Warriors (here called “Greenies”) and a great war.  The final showdown between the Doctor and the entity is also well-written.

Rating: ***

Previously Reviewed:

Book Reviews: The Last Jedi by Jason Fry


Author: Jason Fry
Title: The Last Jedi
Publication Info: New York : Del Rey, [2018]
Adapted from: The Last Jedi
Summary/Review:

I’ve always enjoyed reading the novelizations of Star Wars movies.  Even the prequel trilogy is vastly better in book form.  I was especially excited to read this one because Jason Fry is someone I sort of know online because he’s also a Mets’ blogger.

Fry adapts Rian Johnson’s script (including scenes cut from the final film) and adds his own creativity to interpret the most complex and complicated of Star Wars stories. The great thing about a novelization is that the reader can get inside the character’s minds to explore the thoughts, feelings, and memories not expressed on the screen.  Fry is particularly good at detailing the thoughts of non-organic minds, whether it be Poe’s high maintenance X-Wing demanding repairs from BB-8 or C-3P0 reluctantly refraining from informing the Resitance that a group of crystal foxes should really be called “a skulk of vulpices.”

The humor in the book is great and balances well with the action scenes and moments of deep emotion. It would take a stronger person than I to not shed a tear when Leia and Chewbacca embrace as they remember the one’s they’ve lost: Han, Luke, and even Ben Solo .  This book will be a delight to diehard Star Wars fans and those who more casually just enjoy the movies.  And for the vocal group of people who actively disliked The Last Jedi, I think it’s even more important that they read this book as Fry makes the central themes of the movie all the more clear and ties them in to the unifying message of Star Wars dating back to 1977.

Favorite Passages:

“Let him think she’d given up — he’d soon discover otherwise.  Jakku had trained her to do two things better than anyone else could.

The first was to salvage broken things.

The second was to wait.” -.p. 70

“Poe was struck, and not for the first time, by how small Leia was – a petite, delicate-looking woman, seemingly at risk of being swallowed up by the bedding and the gurney around her.  It was an impression that many people had on meeting her — and that vanished the moment she engaged with them.  Her determination, her ferocity, her sheer force of will belied her size and made visitors remember her as far bigger than she was.” – p. 155

Rating: ****

Other Star Wars Books I’ve Read:

  • Star Wars by “George Lucas” – actually Alan Dean Foster (1976)
  • The Empire Strikes Back by Donald F. Glut (1980)
  • Return of the Jedi by James Kahn (1983)
  • Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn (1991)
  • Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn (1992)
  • The Last Command by Timothy Zahn (1993)
  • Specter of the Past by Timothy Zahn (1997)
  • Vision of the Future by Timothy Zahn (1998)
  • The Phantom Menace by Terry Brooks (1999)
  • Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Woodring Stover (2005)
  • Star Wars: Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka (2015)
  • The Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy by Alexandra Bracken (2015)

Book Review: Human Nature by Paul Cornell


AuthorHuman Nature
TitlePaul Cornell
Publication Info: London : BBC Books, 2015 (originally published May 1995)
Summary/Review:

In this novel, the Doctor has himself genetically modified so he can experience life as a human. Forgetting his real identity, the Doctor believes he is a Scottish teacher named John Smith at a boy’s school in rural England in 1914.  If this sounds familiar to Doctor Who tv viewers, it’s because Cornell adapted this book as the two-part episode “Human Nature/Family of Blood” in Series 3 with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor/John Smith.  It’s best not to think of the television adaptation while reading the book as the stories differ in many ways.

Cornell’s basic idea was to have a story featuring the Doctor in a romantic relationship with a fellow teacher, Joan Redfern.  Again, in the present day we’ve seen the Doctor fall in love with Rose, snog Madame Pompadour, and marry River Song, so the elaborate plot of making the Doctor a human for him to experience romance would be excessive. Apart from the love story, this book is a good exploration of being human and the Doctor’s character.

On the one hand this is a brutal and gory story. The villainous alien Aubertides are merciless in slaughtering (and eating) anyone who gets in their way.  In response, the leaders of the school are willing to mobilize the boys into a military unit to fight back. There’s even a disturbing scene early in the book where the school boys murder one of their own.

On the other hand, John Smith, while still in a human guise is able to determine a better way.  To throw away the guns, lead the children to safety, attempt diplomacy, and then win through guile.  The willingness of the human characters in this book to support and sacrifice for one another shows our species at it’s best.

Like many Virgin New Adventures, there’s a surplus of side characters and interwoven sideplots that could be excised to make a tighter, more focused adventure.  But it’s still a gripping read and Doctor Who at it’s best.

Favorite Passages:

“I can see why Rocastle thinks that way.  It’s attractive.  Imagine, never having to make any decisions.  Because of honor. And etiquette. And patriotism. You could live like a river flowing downhill, hopping from one standard response to the other. Honour this. Defend that.”

“‘Isn’t it odd,’ opined Alexander, ‘how close masculinity is to melodrama?'”

Rating: ****

Book Review: Warlock by Andrew Cartmel


AuthorAndrew Cartmel
TitleWarlock
Publication Info: London Bridge (1995)
Previously read by the same author: Through Time: An Unauthorised and Unofficial History of Doctor Who
Summary/Review:

Andrew Cartmel was the final script editor on the original run of Doctor Who on tv from 1987-1989, and is known for allegedly having a master plan for the Doctor’s story that would be revealed over time.  Interestingly, he never wrote a screenplay for a Doctor Who tv  screenplay, so it is in books that one gets to see how he’d tell a Doctor Who story.  And this one’s a doozy.

The Seventh Doctor is living in a cottage near Canterbury with Ace and Benny, using the cottage to carry out research while sending his companions on missions. Benny goes undercover with a top secret drug enforcement agency (called IDEA) in New York to find out about a mysterious new street drug called warlock, while Ace becomes involved in a pair of animal rights activists working to undermine animal testing at a nearby research facility.

What’s stands out about this book is that the Doctor is hardly involved in the story at all, and it can also go chapters at a time without checking in with Ace or Benny.  Full plotlines are carried out by the characters Cartmel invented for the story including the NYPD detective Creed, IDEA agents, the lab researchers conducting experiments, and a couple named Vincent and Justine who have psychic powers (and were introduced in an earlier Cartmel novel).  It’s a tightly-plotted crime drama with just hints of science fiction/fantasy underpinning.  There doesn’t even seem to be an extraterrestrial element unless you consider, …. well I won’t give away the ending, but readers will probably figure it out well before then.

The strangest thing about this book is that a reader with little to no knowledge of Doctor Who could pick it up and read it as a solid, standalone novel.  And it’s a strange book which includes things such as human consciousness entering animals, a woman suddenly forced into prostitution and just as quickly rescued, the complete destruction of Canterbury cathedral, and a couple sneaking into Buckingham Palace to have sex, and these are all relatively minor plot points.  Whatever you’re expecting from a Doctor Who story, this novel will defy expectations.

Rating: ***1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Book Review: Blood Harvest by Terrance Dicks


Author: Terrance Dicks
Title: Blood Harvest
Publication Info: Virgin (1994)
Summary/Review:

Terrance Dicks has a long association with Doctor Who, writing scripts for the 2nd to 5th Doctors, serving as script editor for 5 years, and writing 60 novelizations of TV stories as well as original New Adventures. He can always be counted on for a ripping yarn seeped in Doctor Who lore. This story sees the Doctor and Ace running a speakeasy in Chicago and rubbing shoulders with Al Capone. Meanwhile, Bernice is left on a planet with a medieval culture and an infestation of vampires, and ends up teaming up with Romana. On top of all of this, evil Time Lords are plotting against the Doctor.

The last two plots follow up on TV stories Dicks wrote, the 4th Doctor story “State of Decay” and “The Five Doctors” 20th anniversary special. With the multiple plots and heavy continuity, this book should be a mess, Dicks does a good job of alternating the first two plots while bringing them together with the third at the end.

That said the writing also reflects Dicks’ old-fashioned mentality and casual sexism. This works well in the first-person portions written from the point of view of a Chicago detective, Dekker, less so in the third person omniscient parts. He also repeats the unsettling idea from Timewyrm: Exodus of alien influence causing human violence. In the earlier book it was the Nazis, here it is Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Still, the Prohibition Chicago story is an entertaining read, and it’s fun to have Benny and Romana teaming up.

Rating: ***1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Book Review: The Highest Science by Gareth Roberts


Author: Gareth Roberts
Title: The Highest Science
Publication Info: London Bridge (1993)
Summary/Review:

This is the first published novel for Gareth Roberts who went on to write numerous Doctor Who books, audio dramas, comics, and episodes of the revived tv series and the Sarah Jane Adventures including “The Shakespeare Code,” “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” “The Lodger,” “Closing Time,” and “The Caretaker.”  His stories are known for being clever and funny. Unfortunately, Roberts has also revealed himself as a bigot who rants against LGBT people and I believe the BBC has rightly decided to not have him write for the show again.  If it’s any consolation I got this book second hand so he won’t get any royalties.

As to the book, it features the Seventh Doctor and companion Benny investigating a Fortean flicker, a temporal anomaly bringing together beings from different people from different times on one unremarkable planet.  This includes the Chelonians, a militaristic turtle-like species who clear planets of “infestations of humans,” a group of hippie-like individuals traveling to a music festival; people riding an English commuter train; and a galactic criminal traveling with a stolen organic intelligence called The Cell.  Without giving too much away, the book is largely a parody of the elaborate plots and schemes that the Seventh Doctor is known to create, with the twist of this time the Doctor failing to anticipate someone else’s scheme.  But is it worth it to have to keep up with so many different characters and their plotlines, especially since only some tie in with the conclusion while others are shaggy dog stories?

Rating: **

Previously Reviewed:

Movie Review: Avatar (2009)


TitleAvatar
Release Date: December 10, 2009
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Lightstorm Entertainment | Dune Entertainment | Ingenious Media
Summary/Review:

Avatar is a movie that has the unique distinction of being one of the top-grossing movies of all time while simultaneously being a movie that no one seems to like all that much.  I decided to finally watch it in small bits over five nights until I drifted off to sleep.  That I kept falling asleep during this movie is more of indication that I’m old and tired than that the movie is boring, but it should be noted that it is excessively long.

The gist of the movie if you’re not aware is that corporate interests from Earth want to exploit the natural resources of a moon called Pandora, but they find that the indigenous peoples, the Na’vi, in the way.  A team of biologists lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) negotiate with the Na’vi by genetically engineering Na’vi bodies which they control remotely through their minds.  The protagonist of the film is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled Marine who is called into use the avatar of his deceased twin brother.

The story has Sully gradually question his role in exploiting the Na’vi as he comes to learn more of their culture and falls in love with a female Na’vi named Neytiri.  It’s a message movie, but one that fails to hold the conviction of it’s messages (exploitation of indigenous people, imperialism, environmental destruction), and instead falls into tropes of the “white savior” complex and “explosions are cool.”

This is a very militaristic movie, and curiously the technology and behavior of the military forces in the movie are so similar to those depicted in Cameron’s Aliens, that I wonder if the two stories are set in the same universe.  There’s no subtly at all in this story, and in addition to the other “messages” in the movie the military are depicted basically reenacting atrocities from Vietnam and Iraq.

What stands out from this movie are the stunning visuals of the world of Pandora.  The movie is probably a bit better if I saw it in 3-D on a big screen as intended.  The best parts of the movie are when the narrative slows down and we the audience get to just explore the environment and learn about the Na’vi, even if these scenes add a lot to the movies length.  There weren’t Netflix series in 2009, but I kind of wonder if the whole story would’ve been more interesting if they had time to develop the world and characters rather than falling back on tired cliches to accompany the special effects. On the other hand, I’m not sure if Worthington’s acting would improve any.

Rating: **

Book Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older


AuthorDaniel José Older 
TitleShadowshaper
NarratorAnika Noni Rose
Publication Info: Scholastic Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

This young adult fantasy novel is set in Brooklyn and features a teenager named Sierra who discovers that her family is able to communicate with the spirit world through art.  And it is up to her to save her family and community from an anthropologist who has learned their secrets and is now turning the spirits against them.  The book is full of humor, truly sinister monsters, and believable world building.

It’s good in weaving traditional YA fantasy tropes in with Caribbean folklore and a young woman of color as the protagonist.  It also works as a metaphor for contemporary issues such as gentrification and cultural appropriation.

Favorite Passages:

“hipsters are basically yuppies with tighter pants and bigger glasses.”

Recommended booksHow It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, Mama Day
by Gloria Naylor, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, and Krik? Krak!
by Edwidge Danticat
Rating: ***

 

 

Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury


AuthorRay Bradbury
Title: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Narrator: Jerry Robbins and the Colonial Radio Players
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2007)
Summary/Review:

This is a book a read as a child and I revisited it through this dramatization by the Colonial Radio Players.  All I could remember was a mysterious carnival and a dust witch (which is different from a sand witch).  The material lends itself well to dramatization with the exception of characters constantly having to describe what they’re seeing.  The story captures that frightening feeling in a child’s life when they know something is wrong and for the first time realize that the grownups can’t fix it.  I also really came to appreciate the father and son relationship of Charles and Will Holloway, and how Charles tries to do his best despite not knowing the answers.  The story works well at maintaining a sense of dread and horror which is then released with laughter and joy.

Recommended booksThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Rating: ***

Book Review: How to Stop Time by Matt Haig


Author:Matt Haig
TitleHow to Stop Time
Narrator: Mark Meadows
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

The narrator of this novel Tom Hazard has a genetic condition that makes him age physically at a significantly slower pace than the typical human.  In the present day he is over 400 years old but only appears middle-aged.  The narrative switches back and forth from Tom’s present day attempt to make a normal life for himself as a history teacher in London and memories of his past.  These include the horrors inflicted upon him by superstitious people, his one true romance with his wife Rose in Elizabethan England, and his recruitment into a club of similar people who age slowly in the late 19th century.  It makes for a charming mix of historical fiction and a contemporary romance.  Haig is good at filling in the details of what it would be like to live, work, and love over the time of centuries, accumulating memories and experiences.

Recommended booksThe Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Time and Again by Jack Finney
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy by Alexandra Bracken


AuthorAlexandra Bracken
TitleThe Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy: An Original Retelling of Star Wars: A New Hope
Narrator: Rebecca Soler, Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group , 2015
Summary/Review:

The is a new novelization of the  original Star Wars film adapted for younger audiences (albeit the original novelization is something I enjoyed as a kid and this is something I enjoy as an adult so those specifications are rather loose).  Bracken uses the movie script, the 1981 Star Wars radio drama, and her own imagination to retell Star Wars: A New Hope in three parts: first from Leia’s point of view from her capture by Vader to the destruction of Alderaan, the story picks up with Han from the cantina to their escape from the Death Star, and Luke holds the point of view for the final third of the movie.

Since everything is seen from the point of view of one of these three characters, scenes from the movie such as those involving R2-D2 and C-3PO and Darth Vader and other imperial leaders are left out, while the part of Luke’s story from the early part of the movie is only told in conversations and Luke’s memories.  But what is lost is made up for by the rich detail of each character’s inner life and perspectives, as well as scenes that aren’t in the movie (my favorite involves Luke going through an X-Wing simulator test with Wedge Antilles).

I can’t imagine that there are many people who would come to this book with no previous knowledge of Star Wars but I think it would be a treat for that reader, while stilling allowing a lot of surprises if they eventually see the movie.  The audiobook is enhanced by familiar John Williams music, sound effects, and voice acting by the narrators Soler and Thompson.  This would make an excellent accompaniment to a long family road trip.

Recommended books: Star Wars by George Lucas and Star Wars : Before the Awakening by George Rucka

Book Review: Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett


Author: Terry Pratchett
TitleMonstrous Regiment
Narrator: Stephen Briggs
Publication Info: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004
Previously Read by the Same Author: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (with Neil Gaiman)
Summary/Review:

I’ve been wanting to find a way into the Discworld series but not knowing where to start, I asked folks on library Twitter, and this book was recommended as an entry point.  This novel follows Polly Perks as she disguises herself as a man and joins the army in order to find her missing brother.  Her ragtag regiment has a lot of individuals not ready for war as well as a vampire, troll, and an Igor.  It turns out that Polly is not the only one in the regiment with a secret.  Spoiler: It turns out that pretty much every member of the regiment is a woman. This leads to a comical plot where they go undercover disguised as washer women.  This is a funny and sharply satirical book, and it does make me want to read more Discworld (recommendations welcome).

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger


Author:  Audrey Niffenegger
TitleThe Time Traveler’s Wife
Narrator: ‎ Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
Summary/Review:

It’s worthwhile to sometimes go back and reread one of the books that made my list of Favorite Books of All Time.  It’s been 14 years since I’ve read this book, and I’ll append my original review at the end of this post.

A lot of the things that made me love this book in the first place are still quite appealing.  I love stories of time travel, and that this one has a protagonist whose travel through time is uncontrollable and unexplained makes an interesting twist and creates a great structure for the book.  I also like that he’s a librarian who likes punk rock, because you know, that’s like me.  There were a number of things I forgot from my previous reading as well, most importantly Kimmy, Henry’s childhood landlady who acts a surrogate mother and is an absolutely wonderful character I’ll never forget again. Having become a fan of Doctor Who in recent years, it’s interesting to revisit this book and see how it influenced the story of River Song and the Doctor.

Of course, there are a lot of creepy things about this book, such as an adult man visiting his future wife as a child and establishing a relationship with her (arriving naked to boot).  I do credit Niffenegger for taking a direct approach to these uncomfortable issues rather than shying away from it.  Another thing I realize now that I must’ve been clueless about as a younger reader is that it plays with the romance novel genre as well.  But that’s one of the things that keeps this on my favorite books is that it works on so many levels, science fiction and fantasy, realism and magic, romance and for lack a better term “manliness.”

The voice performances of Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole as Henry and Claire add a lot to this audiobook version of the book as well.

Ok, here’s my short review from 2004:

This book reads almost as if Jasper Fforde took a serious turn. Almost. Complements to Niffenegger for adroitly managing the timeline, both in the story world and how she presents it to the reader. I also admire that she made Henry real by not always having him likable. Yet you can sympathize with him for what he has to do to survive with his chronological problems. I find it interesting that he travels in both time and in space, yet he never seems to travel too far from Chicago or Clare’s childhood home. Curious also that he always bounces back to the “present,” never jumping onward to another time or just staying there for a long time. But I’m quibbling, not with the book, but with the thoughts that occur as I ruminate this brilliant novel. Over 500 pages and I read this in less than a day.

Recommended books:

Time and Again by Jack Finney, Q : a novel by Evan J. Mandery, Every Day by David Levithan, and The Little Book by Selden Edwards

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Coraline (2009)


TitleCoraline
Release Date: 2009 February 6
Director: Henry Selick
Production Company: Laika
Summary/Review:

Coraline has been on my “too-watch” list for some time, so it was good to finally take in this visually stunning stop-motion animated fantasy based on a story by Neil Gaiman.  Coraline is a preteen girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning, with the expressions and mannerisms perfectly matching the voice) moved into a strange old apartment building with eccentric neighbors by her inattentive parents.  She discovers a small door with a passage to a mirror universe of the apartments where her Other Mother and Other Father live and spoil Coraline with her favorite things, and the sad neighbors are actually spectacular circus performers.  It seems a wonderful place even if everyone creepily has buttons for eyes.  All is not as good as it seems and Coraline will have to team up with a black cat (my favorite character) and neighbor Wybie, she uses her wits to avoid being trapped in the alternate universe.

I think Coraline is spectacular visually and great at creating mood and atmosphere.  The story feels a bit thin and Coraline’s game against Other Mother is rushed compared with the rest of the movie and the resolution feels too easy.  That being said Coraline is a remarkable piece of art.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Groundhog Day (1993)


TitleGroundhog Day
Release Date: 12 February 1993
Director: Harold Ramis
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
Summary/Review:

I hadn’t watched Groundhog Day since the 1990s so I figured the 25th anniversary of its release would be a good time to see if it has held up.  The first thing I noticed about the movie is that the production is very 80s/90s, and OMG! Bill Murray looks so young!  The story is familiar, seeped into our culture by now. We see egocentric meteorologist Phil Connors head to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony and then he has to live that same day again and again and again, until he learns a lesson and does it right.  The thing that’s always impressed me is that Phil doesn’t repeat the same day for a week or two, but it’s implied that he’s caught in the loop for thousands perhaps tens of thousands of times. It’s also impressive that the filmmakers were brave enough to never offer an explanation of how or why Phil gets caught in the loop (or how he gets out), it just happens.

Groundhog Day is more melancholy than I remembered.  It moves very smoothly among madcap comedy, romantic comedy, and a more solemn reflection on mortality and morality rather seamlessly.  Much of this is due to the versatility of Bill Murray who can offer both wacky and gravitas depending on the situation.  I guess Groundhog Day  set him up for these type of roles that he’s become more well-known for in his later career in movies such as Rushmore and Lost in Translation.

So it turns out that Groundhog Day is actually better than I remembered and a deserved classic.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik


AuthorNaomi Novik
Title: Uprooted
NarratorJulia Emelin 
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2015)
Previously Read by the Same Author: His Majesty’s Dragon
Summary/Review:

This epic, high fantasy rooted in the Polish folklore focuses on a land tormented by an evil, sentient forest (the Wood) that can only be held in check by the magic of wizards.  The wizard who lives near the provincial village of Dvernik in the kingdom of Polnya, known as The Dragon, selects one teenage girl every 10 years as a tribute.  The novel begins when the protagonist Agnieszka is unexpectedly selected and brought to the Dragon’s castle, The Tower.  There she’s made to perform domestic chores and the Dragon trains her in simple magical spells, frequently berating her for her clumsiness and unruly appearance.  From this “Beauty and the Beast” scenario it’s not surprising that these two will fall in love.

It turns out that Agnieszka is in fact skilled in magic although not in the way that The Dragon expects.  As she becomes more experienced, her compassion moves her to challenge The Dragon’s pragmatic approach of using magic to simply hold back the approach of the Wood.  Instead she liberally applies magic to rescue people trapped by the Wood and pushes the Dragon toward more aggressively combating the evils of the Wood (yes, this book can totally be read as a metaphor of the 2016 Democratic primary campaign).

Agnieszka ends up finding herself thrown into the politics of the royal family and into the ultimate conflict against the Wood.  It’s grim and gory but with a satisfying ending.  I found the book a bit too long and humorless, but a good example of informing a women-centered heroic narrative with elements of classic folklore.

Recommended booksBaba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro


Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
TitleThe Buried Giant
Narrator: David Horovitch
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2015)

Previously read by the same authorA Pale View of HillsAn Artist of the Floating World, and  The Remains of the Day 
Summary/Review:

I went through a phase in the 1990s when I read every Kazuo Ishiguro book up to that point. Since then, I’ve completely failed to read any of his new books as they were released.  I decide to make up for that by reading his most recent novel.  While his earlier works are set in the 20th century and have first-person narrators reflecting on their interior lives, and the melancholy of everyday life, this novel is quite different.  The Buried Giant is set in England at a time after the Saxon invasion when the Britons and Saxons are living side-by-side in an uneasy peace.  The novel focuses on an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who have low social status in their community and are suffering from a forgetfulness that’s plaguing the land.  They decide to visit a son that they vaguely recall living in another community, and as they set off on their journey, the seemingly historical fiction begins to take on elements of fantasy.  King Arthur lived and reigned in recent memory and the meet his aged nephew Sir Gawain as well as a Saxon warrior Wistan, and a boy named Edwin who is feared to have been bitten by an ogre.  Others encountered on their journey are a mysterious ferryman, duplicitous monks, and the she-dragon Querig who is responsible for the mist that is causing the forgetfulness. As memories returns, the characters begin to question if they want to remember as forgetting has helped them heal and put aside guilt.  It’s a deeply meditative and atmospheric book that works as a fantasy story and a highly symbolic parable.

Recommended booksThe Sword in the Stone by T. H. White, Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White


Author: T.H. White
TitleThe Sword in the Stone
Narrator: Neville Jason
Publication Info: Naxos AudioBooks (2008), originally published in 1938

Summary/Review: For a long holiday road trip with my son, I thought he’d enjoy this introduction to Arthurian mythology.  I did it with some hesitation, as The Once and Future King was one of my favorite books as a child and I feared it may not hold up to nostalgia.  I’m pleased though that this first installment of the tetralogy is still an enjoyable, modernist spin on the story of King Arthur, filling in the story of Arthur’s childhood. Of course, I always thought the The Sword in the Stone was the best of the four parts.  One thing I didn’t know is that White actually made major changes when he incorporated The Sword in the Stone into The Once and Future King, and while I can’t really remember enough to recognize most of the changes I was surprised that Disney didn’t actually make up the duel between Merlyn and Madame Mim.  Another thing I didn’t notice is a kid was just how blatant the anachronisms are, with Meryln living backwards in time making them a running gag.  Knowing how much White loved hunting, I also noticed that he puts a lot of detail into his descriptions of hunts throughout the book, something I must have glazed over as a child.  What remains the same is that the book contains a lot of humor, adventure, animal lore, a cameo by Robin Hood (er, Robin Wood), and surreptitious pacifist social satire.  And my son, well he covered his ears a lot during the scary party, but insisted we keep listening to the story and that we move on to The Witch in the Wood next.

Recommended BooksThe Dragon Stone: A Tale of King Arthur, Merlin & Cabal by John Conlee, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, and The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck
Rating: ****1/2

TV Review: Doctor Who (2017)


Title: Doctor Who
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 10
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:

The 10th series of Doctor Who includes several landmarks.  First, it is Peter Capaldi’s third and final series as The Doctor.  I’ve grown to love his performance and wish he could stick around for one more series.  Of course, I thought that about previous Doctors too, but Capaldi has joined the ranks of my favorite Doctors of all time.  Second, this is the sixth and final series for Steven Moffat as showrunner.  Moffat has been an innovator and changed Doctor Who for the future.  He does have a habit of repeating himself in his themes and ideas, though, so it may have been better if he’d finished a little earlier.  He apparently intended to leave after series 9 but was asked to do one more series, but oh wouldn’t Hell Bent been a story to go out on.   Nevertheless, series 10 shows that Moffat had a few more good story ideas left.  Third, the series sees the return of Matt Lucas as a full-time companion Nardole, a decision that seemed odd at first, but paid off across the season. Finally, this series introduced Pearl Mackie as the new companion, Bill.  As a young, working class woman of color and a lesbian, Bill is a unique character in Doctor Who history, and Mackie shined with her humor, intelligence, and clear chemistry with Capaldi.

Moffat stated that the season was a jumping on point for new viewers and the first four episodes followed a familiar pattern for new companions: meeting the Doctor in the first episode, traveling to the future in the second episode, an historical adventure in the third episode, and the supernatural intruding into the companion’s everyday life in contemporary times in the fourth episode.  All of this is undergirded by the mystery of what The Doctor is keeping in a vault underneath the university.  The middle four episodes took a huge left turn and were more reminiscent of highly experimental style of series 9.  First there was Oxygen, one of the standout episodes of the series that is a caustic critique of capitalism, and features a grave threat to Bill and The Doctor making a sacrifice.  This is followed by three episodes linked together as “The Monks Trilogy,” although each episode features a different screenwriter and director.  Moffat introduces a major new villain in the Monks but unfortunately they’re too reminiscent of previous villains the Silence and the Headless Monks.  The trilogy starts off well with Extremis which could easily be edited to make a stand alone episode, but there are diminishing returns in the ensuing two episodes.  There are good parts to each story, although I don’t know if it would be possible to pare it down to just one or two episodes instead of three. The final four episodes feature a couple of more episodes that fit more into the theme of Bill discovering the thrills of travel in time and space, while also incorporating Michelle Gomez Missy into the Tardis team (spoiler: she’s what was hidden in the vault).  The concluding two-part story World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls is a tour-de-force that explores Missy’s efforts to try to be “good,” the return of John Simm as an earlier incarnation of the Master, and some extreme body horror in the form of the Mondasian Cybermen.  Capaldi, Gomez, Simm, and Mackie all put in a remarkable performance in a mindblowing and heartbreaking story.

The mid-season “Monks Trilogy” derail makes it hard to give the series as a whole top marks, but for the most part it’s some excellent television and a fitting finale to the Capaldi era.  Now Christmas needs to get here so we can say farewell to these characters and meet our first woman Doctor!

Below are links to my reviews of each episode from my Doctor Who sideblog on Tumblr:

  1.  The Pilot (7 of 10)
  2.  Smile (5 of 10)
  3.  Thin Ice (8 of 10)
  4.  Knock Knock (6 of 10)
  5. Oxygen (8 of 10)
  6. Extremis (8 of 10)
  7. The Pyramid at the End of the World (6 of 10)
  8. The Lie of the Land (5 of 10)
  9. The Empress of Mars (7 of 10)
  10.  Eaters of Light (8 of 10)
  11. 12. World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (8 of 10)

A note on ratings:  A score of 5 is the baseline for a decent story from end to end with 10 being an all-time classic and 0 being an utter stinker.  Basically, any story rated 8-10 is a great story, 5-7 is good and worth watching, 2-4 has its moments but can be passed, and 0-1 is only for the Doctor Who completionist.