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Glimpsed from the corner of your eye....
A review of Michael Marshall’s “We are here.”
I first read Michael Marshall Smith, as he was then, over 10 years ago. He wrote powerful, original, imaginative science fiction; funny, tragic, and brilliantly written. Such work includes Spares, Only forward and One of Us. Then he started writing more in the thriller genre, dropping the ‘Smith’ part of his identity, and I read the ‘The Straw Men’ trilogy. These were horror-thrillers, the kicked that Thomas Harris kicked into orbit with ‘Man-hunter’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ The horror, rather than the humanism and the humour of the earlier works, is what I remember.
And since then he appears to have stayed predominantly in the thriller genre. ‘We are Here’ has elements of that, and something new, urban fantasy of a Neil Gaiman flavour, with the occasional horror reference. This is territory that Stephen King and others have explored. Believe hard enough in someone, and they just might appear….
The story has a strong opening. A serial killer on the run reviews his career before burning burning to death in a motel room, apparently aided by the voice in his head that urged him to kill, now literally in the room with him.
Jump to an author on a trip to New York to meet his publisher. A chance bumping into a stranger in the street, not once but twice, unsettles him, especially when said stranger says ‘remember…’.
Are these incidents related. This made me eager to find out more. Then we move to an ex intelligence operative John Henderson, and his girlfriend Christine, who decide to investigate a complaint from one of Christine’s friends that she is being stalked. Again, we wonder about the connection.
And we are kept wondering for a very large section of the book. There is a very slow reveal. And unfortunately, a bit like me at 49, it gets very baggy in the middle. There appears to an urban sub culture, planning something, and there is a flavour of the supernatural about their affairs and how they are organised, with ‘corner-men’ and ‘journey-men’ and so on. This is what reminded me of Neil Gaiman. What are they? Ghosts? The recently departed? Some kind of other supernatural beings?
When the reveal comes you’ll either snort with derision and slam the book shut or keep going. I think most of you will keep going.
In the last quarter things hot up and there are some gripping set pieces where you genuinely don’t know what will happen. And horrible things do happen to good people. The chief baddie, Reinhardt, is a type of demonic gangster with apocalyptic plans. And I didn’t honestly know if they would be brought to fruition.
As it happens I still don’t. The novel ends in a tangle of unanswered questions. At one point there is a reference to a lot of deaths told in a few short sentences. Characters disappear, literally, in clouds of smoke. I honestly don’t think Michael Marhsall knew himself how to close. A shame, as this has has some cracking scenes and ideas, but they don’t really gel into a coherent whole. The characters are also incoherent and hard to realise imaginatively. I definitely did not have this problem with his earlier work.
The audio book is narrated in the dead pan, sardonic tones of the PI genre by Jeff Harding. His narration of the female characters grated a little, others have done this tricky feat a lot better.
Go with this if you are patient and appreciate novelists who take risks. There are definitely moments that will reward you, as there are ones that exasperate.
Good stuff. Want more.
As a long term listener of the Kermode and Mayo Five live 'Wittertainment' radio show, I was looking for a shorter, sharper fix of the Doctor's critical wisdom. He is funny, wise and an insightful commentator. Here we get a range of show formats:
* 'Listomania;' as it sounds, an exploration of various movie themed lists, including for example John Hurt's best films, Jesus films, etc.
* One on one interviews with e.g. Barry Jenkins, Duncan Jones
* Hell's Video Store (my favourite): really humdingers of rotten tomatoes
* 2001 films you must see before you die: as it sounds
* And some shows that were recorded live at the BFI, with various guests.
It's a good mix of formats, which keeps things fresh. They are bite size, 25 minutes in length, more digestible perhaps than the epic 2 hour Five live shows, and more focussed on movies.
But at 15 shows this is a short run, these formats could run for much longer. How else are those 2001 films going to be covered? So, hoping we'll get more.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
Where as I’ve never seen Survival, the audio book made a great holiday listen, and if you are a fan of Doctor Who, especially the Classic series, and thrice especially the Target novelisations, this is something of a poignant treat. Poignant because Survival is both the final serial of the 26th season and also the final story of the entire original 26-year run of the Doctor Who. The story was first broadcast in three parts, weekly, from 22 November to 6 December 1989. The story contained a number of finals, the final regular television appearance of Anthony Ainley as the Master, of Sophie Aldred as Ace and the last regular television appearance of Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.
The audio book is narrated by Lisa Bowerman, who played Karra, a ‘Cheetah-person’ in the tv Survival story, and has also voiced the New Adventures / Big Finish audio drama favourite Bernice Summerfield.
The book’s settings are, variously, Perivale in West London and a dying Alien world. We begin in West London, where the Doctor brings his companion Ace back to her home, Perivale, to catch up with family and friends. Other than Ace being in a real mood about the whole thing, something is very wrong (as it would be). People are disappearing. And a particularly feral black cat watches from teh sidelines, as does the Doctor’s most implacable foe…
It transpire that people are being chased by horse mounted ‘Cheetah-people’ into another dimension, where they run and hide or are killed by for sport by the same cat creatures. Worse, the planet itself is directing everything with a malign force that seeks to compel an accelerated Darwinian struggle and spread it to new worlds. Turns out the Master is stuck on the planet, and needs the Doctor’s help to escape…
The story has a number of characteristics typical of the show of this time. First, it is an original and pacy story. The show had not strayed into interminable story arc territory at this stage. It combines very domestic and familiar settings (London estates, suburbs, youth clubs, and so on) with alien worlds. It is full of the Seventh Doctor’s particular characteristics, the rolling, r’s, a kind but determined and persistent approach, and the familiarity of a trusted Uncle with vert eccentric habits. And the inter-play with Ace, extreme banter and a real bond.
It also has the casual and violent ends of quite a few minor characters (still a trope) that keeps dramatic tension high. You really don’t know who is going to make it (apart from the Doctor and hos companions. Companion death was still relatively rare.
The Master is a strong component in this story. He is thoroughly evil, some of his actions are wholly irredeemable, and yet darkly witty and engaging. We get some intriguing backstory of the Master and the Doctor’s shared story in this novelisation as well
Lisa Bowerman’s narration is really well done. She is clearly enjoying herself, conjuring the 7th Doctor, Ace and others before our eyes, and that is infectious.
The Devil's Bargain
Luke Harding's journalism has given us a depressing but gripping take on one of the most blatant, brazen and frightening political twists of modern times: that Russia, based on it's existing cod war, KGB and espionage infrastructure has launched cyber war on the West, and, Manchurian Candidate style, installed its own puppet in the Whitehouse. One that fit a template they had for such a candidate: vain, paranoid, ultra-wealthy, and with powerful connections, and the media presence and warped charisma to gull a large percentage of the American presence.
The book alternates between recent events of Trump's candidacy and presidency, and the larger backstory of Russian politics and espionage. The characters range from the naïve and utterly stupid to the ruthless Machiavel. Guess which one is which. It's not Trump with his hand rammed up the puppet's hole and squeezing.
For the audiobook the Russian story can be at times confusing, those long Russian names crossing and criss-crossing can tax the short-term memory. But it is very much worth the effort.
Luke Harding writes with a ruthless objectivity, but he cannot hide his dismay and contempt for Trump his Presidency, those who have profited and helped bring it about, and the amoral ruthlessness of Putin. The narrator, Jonathan Amis, does a good job of switching between a clear, dry delivery and absolute incredulous disgust. The switch from one to the other is sometimes almost comical.
It's the more intellectual sibling of Fire and Fury.
Read, and pray for the light to dawn.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Gossip powered current affairs
So you want measured scholarly analysis of the Trump Presidency? You want a sober, analytical dissection of this political phenomenon? Look elsewhere.
Because this is high octane "wait 'til you hear this" gossip, delivered by someone who corners you at the bar with a manic gleam in their eye, flushed with excitement. You try to catch someone else's eye, to make your excuses and leave, but before you know it, you're hooked.
This is larger than life (or in a sane world a would be) American grotesque. Like some kind of film where maniacs seize the White House, and you scoff at the implausibility, but snuggle down to a guilty pleasure, because the writer knows what he's doing.
And I do think that at its core is truth. The direction of travel it tells is attested whenever we read a Trump tweet, or see him on the news. I'd love to dismiss the contents of this book as lurid tittle tattle. But that it is not wise. For the barbarians have breached the gates, and have their torches poised to burn down the city.
Michael Wolff tells a story that is a demonic retelling of the American dream. Donald Trump, surrounded by a crowd of sycophants, power brokers, machiavels and political mercenaries makes a bid for the Presidency. The book reveals that he would like to have lost, as does his wife, the beleaguered Melania. Most of the rest share the conviction that this candidacy is a doomed bid, but one that will bring victory in defeat: an enhanced brand of the wronged 'man of the common people' contender brought down by Crooked Hillary. Stocks will soar. Portfolios will go stellar. This sounds plausible. Just as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove looked horrified to have helped win Brexit, so the Trump team looked visibly stunned and aghast at their victory. Especially Melania. But once victorious, Trump convinces himself that maybe he is the best President ever, and his team resolve to salvage what they can, make the best of it, and rescue Trump from himself, variously.
So you'll be familiar with a lot of this book's revelations, which have been well reported. The diet cokes, cheeseburgers, two tv screens in the bedroom, manic rages, air of contempt in the staff, bloody infighting, treason, and more, is all there, told in dry and sardonic tones that occasionally break into open disgust.
There are insights in addition, less well reported, as to why, for example, Paul Ryan is so supine, and of some of the pressures, internal and external, that lead to Trump saying such breathtakingly stupid and beyond offensive things, the "good on both sides" when talking about death dealing fascists for example, and more, too much more.
Wolff also conveys the culpability of large sections of the media, that can't break out of the hyper-speed news cycle, can't dwell on anything long enough to let it breathe and cause the damage and concern it should do, before falling into Trump's trap and speeding onto the next beyond belief stupidity.
Steve Bannon plays a big part in proceedings. Obviously Wolff's principal source, the book paints a very vivid picture of him, and I think it does give him too much attention. The portrayal steers over too much into anti-hero or likeable rogue. No, he's a grotesque, eviscerated by even Trump, not worthy of so much attention. He literally has the last word in the book, and shouldn't.
That said, this is un-missable. Historians are going to have so much fun separating fact from fiction. Grab a copy, because events are moving fast.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I still want to believe...
If you are new to the X-Files, welcome to a world where shape-shifting aliens bent on colonising the planet, various monsters and supernatural happenings are grist to the mill for our two dogged FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. The show aired ran for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, spawned two follow up feature films, a recent new series in 2016, and various spin offs, novels and graphic novels.
This drama is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Joe Harris. Series creator Chris Carter provided creative direction, and it was adapted specifically for this audio format by Dirk Maggs, who has been behind the excellent ‘Alien’ audio dramas on Audible.
And what a fantatsic listen it is. I loved the show for at least it’s first three seasons, before losing patience with the patchy quality of the stories and the increasingly convoluted story arc, where someone revealing things like, “actually, I’m really your father” became increasingly eye-rollingly familiar and ridiculous. However, when the show was on form it was really on form, with scary, original monsters (remember Tooms?), an epic feel and knuckle chewing cliff-hangers.
This drama feels like those earlier, show stopping episodes. The mystery is back and it’s a successful re-boot, scary, thrilling and fun. The original cast of Mitch Pileggi, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are back and clearly enjoying what they are doing, which is completely infectious. Also get ready for the return of William B , Davies, literally resurrected as Spender, or Cigarette Smoking Man. That familiar voice of quiet, genial menace together with the rustling packet of Morleys will bring a huge grin to any fan. Get ready also for many familiar names, monster, bad guy and good guy. I won’t spoil them all here, but warring alien factions, shape-shifters, and a certain black oil feature. It’s like a roll call of the original shows’ greatest hits, and yet it is testament to the writing and production that this never feels contrived. When each familiar face took the stage, I felt like cheering.
I loved this, and can’t wait for the follow up due next month.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
A man rides in
“The Kings Justice” is a fantasy novella of sorcerers, elemental forces, and good versus evil.
It begins with the enigmatic, cloaked figure who calls himself “Black” arriving at a small town settlement called “Settler’s Crossways.” He’s driven by a burning purpose that draws him on, a need to ensure that a terrible war between elemental forces is not repeated. He can smell evil, and Settler’s Crossway’s reeks of it. He gradually learns of the brutal murder of a small boy that has left the community stunned and reeling. What has this to do with his wider mission? Is someone or something attempting to conjure monstrous new elemental forces? What is the nature of “The King’s Justice” that the townsfolk have called for and how can Black deliver it?
This book is a rock hard diamond of compact storytelling. Not one word is superfluous, each syllable drives the story forward with a terrible urgency. In 119 pages it’s a masterclass in concentrated world-building. Donaldson’s Kingdom of elemental wars, Sorcerers, “Shapers” and “Shaped men” focused on a small community visited by a terrible evil has complete narrative integrity. Black is a familiar genre figure, the driven, cloaked and armed loner as an agent of justice. But the difference here is that he is a “shaped man,” covered with glyphs and sigils that can summon the elemental magic he strives to keep in balance in his world.
The tale’s examination of wider themes of good and evil does not stop at cliche. They are powerful and transcendent. The evil here is not just a fuming Dark Lord, but crimes of the most appalling violence that unfortunately we are all to familiar with in our own world. Donaldson writes compellingly of the effect of these crimes on those most closely affected, such as a grieving father. The powers of goodness are described are not twee or completely overshadowed by the evil as in some current popular fantasy series, but compelling and redemptive. Donaldson starts by having a his hero describe a reductive worldview where the world and all its elemental forces are all there is,(substitute these forces for science and our world and you’ll get the idea), and then transcends it as Black and those around him experience much more.
This is narrated by the excellent Scott Brick. His reading has a contained, driven passion that completely suits the tale.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
The obdurate past
King's time travel tale is a triumph on many levels; as science fiction horror, as an intriguing 'what if' tale and as a plunge into American history and the American psyche.
King has stated that he started this in the 70's and stopped it because of the huge amounts of research involved. He came back to it later in his career with the help of a researcher, and we can be glad he did.
Jake Epping is an English college tutor in a rut. His marriage to an alcoholic has derailed. He is frustrated and uninspired by his job as a teacher. Then, one day, grading an assignment whereby a college janitor recalls a terrible atrocity, he’s launched on a chain of events that culminates in Jake Epping attempting to change the course of American history. He receives a call from a local diner owner who has discovered a time portal in his pantry (stay with this) leading back to the US of the early 60's. Treating it first as a holiday, the diner manager realises the potential it has to avert the Kennedy assassination. He is stopped by lung cancer, but he passes his notes and mission to Epping, who decides to use the janitor's family atrocity as a trial run. If he can change that without a dreadful effect to the present, he reasons, he can proceed to try and stop one Lee Harvey Oswald...
The novel proceeds in a series of acts. The introduction to the present and the time travel mechanism and the US of the 60's; The early attempts to change history culminating in a Hellish scene at the janitor's family home; A large pastoral section where Epping (calling himself George Amberson) falls in love with early 60's America and with a young librarian called Sadie. Then there are investigations into Oswald and an attempt to eliminate the possibilities that he did not act alone; Then the dramatic day itself, 11/22/63 in Dallas.
Then there is a fascinating and horrifying ‘What If’ scenario when Amberson/Epping goes back down the 'rabbit hole' to see how his actions have affected the present (2011). Then he attempts to reverse the damage caused...
This is one epic novel, and whether you persist with it will depend on your patience with the sizeable 'pastoral' section of an ideal America and an ideal romance. Amberson realises that there is a much myth as romance, and the novel does not downplay the ugliness of this era of America (segregation, racism legitimised by Christianity, pollution etc.), but still he falls in love with the past and the woman, and his work as a teacher, forging relationships with colleagues and students, putting on plays etc. does weigh the main drama down. But it does not ruin the narrative, as King is always ready to point out the shadows at play and the storm gathering in Oswald's personal history and the national history of America.
There are some fascinating ideas; the obdurate past, fighting at attempts to change it through seeming accidents and frustrations, the mystery of the 'green card men' guarding the port-holes and attempting to prevent damage being done, different timelines colliding and tangling, a Hellish 'what if ' present that is a fascinating exercise in history by itself. The horror, not being constant but played in a series of blinding set pieces trough the novel, is utterly chilling. As usual King's most effective monsters are the human variety; Alcoholic husbands’ destroying their family with a sledgehammer; Horrifying matriarchs manipulating and damaging their children (as with Oswald's Mum), and Oswald himself, a scared and damaged kid who is also a prissy and pompous agitator and wife beating and President killing monster.
Thankfully the novel does not respect ridiculous conspiracy history, although acknowledges its impact on our collective imagination. King states in an afterword that the killing of Oswald means that the truth will never definitively be known, and so conspiracy springs up in the gaps.
Kudos also to Craig Wasson's fantastic narration. He nails King's sardonic wit, and he shows brilliant and smooth character acting in the inflections he gives to different roles.
This is an immersive, fascinating tale, one of King's best. Seek it out.