Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Monthly Mini-Reviews: September - Young Adult Novel Special

Despite how it may look on this blog, I haven't simply spent the last two months watching the new series of Doctor Who non-stop (you have to do something in the time that it takes to load the next episode). I've also been reading, and the following post will focus on the Young Adult titles I have consumed of late. 
There's always something of a debate going on between literary people about whether adults should read Young Adult books or not. Personally, I'm a big advocate for the former as I have no idea why you would close yourself off to such an imaginative and all-consuming range of books. Something these mini-reviews will hopefully demonstrate...

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

There's always something especially alluring (at least for me) about books that are quirky and indefinable, and Ransom Rigg's hit début novel Miss Peregrine... definitely fits this bill - a light sci-fi/fantasy novel, it is inspired and illustrated by old photos of peculiar children. As fascinating as the images are - and the book itself is a beautiful thing to behold - the story is also engaging, featuring lots of great ideas. For a British reader, I noticed a few Americanisms slip through into the Wales-set story but that is not enough to detract from the well-disseminated mystery plot, with a brilliant monster and, on occasion, unexpected depth. Apparently, that old master of the macabre, Tim Burton is set to direct a film version and, after enjoying the book as I did, I'd say he could have something very good - but certainly peculiar - on his hands.

 Skulduggery Pleasant

Sometimes things in the world just don't make sense. When the first book in the Skulduggery Pleasant series - sporting the fabulous premise of an undead detective caught in a war against the forces of darkness - was released I was the perfect age to read it... but I didn't. Several, years later, I'm now playing catch-up. The first book is, as one would expect, a fun adventure with great snappy dialogue and a enjoyable apocalyptic plot. It's one that feels familiar but writer Derek Landy uses this to his advantage, to spend more time filling out the bare bones of the characters (and, yes, that pun was definitely intended), most notably the skeletal Skulduggery and his new teenage sidekick Stephanie (or Valkyrie, as is her preferred name). After the experience of reading this one, I look forward to the rest (I'm told that the latest, final, book is absolutely heart-breaking). As for why it took so long for it to occur to me to read the books, that is still a mystery. In fact, I might need the services of Skulduggery himself to investigate it...

A Monster Calls

Whereas the previous two books I've looked at have been popular series-starters, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is a very kind of book. From an idea by Siobhan Dowd, who sadly passed away before she could write it, this story sees Conor, whose mother suffers from cancer, being visited by a giant, story-telling monster every night. It's a very moving and heartfelt book and, again, supported by gorgeous illustrations from Jim Kay (I'm loving this trend for well-designed books - I wonder if it's a stand against the rise of ebooks?). Ness handles the sensitive material well, making the tale a very human story with elements of fantasy rather than the other way around. If a monster comes to your window tonight to tell you a story, you wouldn't go wrong if you asked it to tell you this one.

 11 Doctors 11 Stories

No, I can't go a whole post without mentioning Doctor Who. I'm well aware I have a condition and I'd thank you not to mention it. Harrumph.
For the 50th anniversary last year, BBC Books brought together eleven of Young Adult fiction's finest writers to pen a story for each of the eleven Doctors (aw bless, only eleven) and this chunky compendium is the result. As all anthologies do, the collection has its highs and lows. Some authors, sadly, while no doubt talented, do not quite connect with the world of Doctor Who enough to pen a proper Doctor Who tale. However, applause must be given to Malorie Blackman, Charlie Higson and our old friend Derek Landy for some of the best stories in the collection. Rather predictably, my favourite was Neil Gaiman's effort featuring the Eleventh Doctor and Amy fighting the chilling monsters, old enemies of the Time Lords, the Kin. If Mr Gaiman ever writes for the show again (and he'd bloody better do) here's hoping he brings the Kin with him to the smallscreen.
Typically, just as I have purchased this, the BBC are about to release the collection with an extra story starring the Twelfth Doctor. To make sure this doesn't happen again, I think I'll hop a few years into the future and grab the 25 Doctors 25 Stories version.

If you are interested in reading more, then please visit my run-down of the 10 Best Moments of Series 8 So Far. For every view it gets, one pound is given to the British Whovian Foundation, a charity dedicated to helping Doctor Who fans deal with their terrible life-long affliction. Thank you, every little helps.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Review: Doctor Who - The Caretaker

After taking care of the universe for centuries, the Doctor becomes the caretaker of Coal Hill School when an alien menace arrives. This really is the end of the world for Clara...

'I'm the one who carries you out of the fire. He's the one who lights it.'

Last week we had Doctor Who as a classy crime caper but this week was a very different kind of class as the show turned into a high-school drama - demonstrating the perils of Parent's Evening and examining the home lives of teachers. Waterwho Road, if you like. However, if this all sounds a little domestic (you wannabe Ninth Doctor, you), the Doctor and his impact on the everyday is very much at the heart of this school day in the life. 

Contrasting with other episodes this year, 'The Caretaker' had a simple plot, merely used as a tool to hang lots of heart and humour on to. Much more than most Doctor Whos this episode was led by its characters with the three leads all giving wonderful turns. Clara and Danny's relationship continues to impress and Samuel Anderson displays a nonchalant charm as his character treats the Doctor with irreverence rather than the usual awe, quite rightly pointing out the Doctor's hypocrisy when it comes to soldiers. There will surely be sparks to come in the TARDIS soon, and it won't just be because of some faulty switch...

The highlight of the episode though is, as it should be, the Doctor. Cast hilariously as Clara's disapproving dad, he's eager to meet his ward's suitor and sports a proud glint in his eye when he thinks she has chosen a boyfriend like himself (or one of his selves). This was surely Capaldi's most endearing performance in the role yet with the dour tones of his first few episodes thankfully toned down to be replaced by a twinkly-eyed irascibility in the vein of the First and Third Doctors.

On the other hand, after the magnificence of the Teller from last week, the twitchy, ungainly Skovox Blitzer must be one of the least threatening Doctor Who monsters ever, despite it apparently being 'one of the most deadly killing machines ever created.' Personally, I assume the Doctor was embellishing the danger somewhat to impress Clara - rather than having the potential to blow up the planet, the Skovox Blitzer seemed to merely be the scourge of school chairs.

Overall, as with any episode by Doctor Who's king of comedy, co-writer Gareth Roberts, 'The Caretaker' gave us lots to smile at, even if it was not his best work (that's a tie between 'The Shakespeare Code' and 'The Lodger' for this reviewer). By virtue of it being the episode that took care of the series' ongoing plot threads (Danny meeting the Doctor and, going by the 'next time' trailers, providing us with a new companion in schoolgirl Courtney) it was not a standalone great. However, with an abundance of warmth and wit, plus a welcome appearance by Peter Capaldi's The Thick of It co-star Chris Addison as Missy' prissy secretary. this caretaker episode of the show went about its job with flair. Top marks!

The Caretaker throws a spanner in the works of Clara and Danny's relationship

Next Week: The TARDIS takes the Time Lord, Clara and Courtney on a grand day out to the Moon. However, the Doctor must take a giant leap and face a grave decision - can he really 'Kill the Moon?' 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Time Heist

The most impregnable bank in all the universe, you say? The Doctor thinks differently in this week's crime caper of an episode...

'It's just a phone, Clara. Nothing happens when you answer the phone.'

For Doctor Who's seventh series, you may remember (unless you've had a bite from the memory worm) that every episode was plugged as a 'movie-of-the-week' with stories riffing off westerns, film noirs and horror films alongside others. This week we were treated to Series Seven's missing adventure, Namely, 'Time Heist', an episode that does exactly what it says on the tin and provides a sci-fi spin on the classic heist movie. 

As with the writer's previous effort, Stephen Thompson's adventure has timey-wimey painted all over it. The set-up could have come from any high-concept thriller film - four people wake up knowing they must rob a bank without remembering why they're doing it - and continues the strong openings of this year's run so far. The momentum is also generally kept up throughout the episode thanks to the pace and the camaraderie of the characters. If there is a fault in the plotting then it's that some of the twists don't come off quite as surprising as intended - although second guessing the characters is sometimes part of the fun.

In other areas, however, the episode certainly succeeded on all fronts. This, the second episode this year from veteran Who director Douglas MacKinnon, is as slick and stylish as Doctor Who has ever been and fits in with the flashier direction this series has been gifted with. It seems that since its visit to the silver screen the show is clearly making more of an effort to match up to its cinematic counterparts. 

Word must also be given to the cast which is ably filled out by Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Bennett-Warner as the Doctor and Clara's fellow bank robbers. They are not the Doctor's best ensemble gang ever but both are given enough to be likeable amongst all the action. Keeley Hawes is also well cast as the prickly Miss Delphox, a woman of many facets... 
Something that also struck this reviewer this week was how much Peter Capaldi has completely consumed the role of the Doctor. This is only episode five but it seems like he has always been in the role, insulting Clara's appearance and telling everyone to shut up. Crucially, though, his antipathy for others has occasionally bordered on making the character too far removed from our classic hero but here the Doctor shows his intelligence and compassion, as well as his grumps. This is the Doctor we all know and love. 

On the whole, 'Time Heist' is a fun jaunt away from the heavier episodes this year ('Listen, 'Into the Dalek'...). A kind of Doctor Who does Hustle (Doctor Who-stle?), it provides a solid 45 minutes of cleverly-plotted entertainment. It may not linger in the memory as much as some others but still serves as a important addition to the series - particularly in its inclusion of the Teller. With a memorable design, creepy power (the 'that's not tears. It's soup' line was utterly chilling) yet sympathetic edge, it is surely the best monster this year. And I'm telling the truth about that. Trust me, he'd know.

Reign of Teller - The Doctor and co have to watch out for this monstrous guilt-tripper.

Next week: The Doctor gets a new job - as Caretaker of Coal Hill School. Just as Clara is trying to sort out her relationship with Danny. This can only mean trouble. Oh, and there's an alien involved. This can only mean Doctor Who...

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Listen

Listen up! This week the Doctor searches for the thing in the corner of your eye in this utterly unique adventure...

'What's that in the mirror, or the corner of your eye?/ What's that footstep following but never passing by?/ Perhaps they are just waiting, perhaps that when we're dead/ Out they'll come a-slithering from underneath the bed.' 

For a that show can literally go anywhere, Doctor Who has quite a lengthy checklist of things we expect from each episode. But sometimes an episode comes along that breaks the mould - and 'Listen' is one of those episodes. This week we were delivered many inversions of the show's norms - just this once there was a hugely ambiguous nature to the monster of the week, it centred around the Doctor and Clara on their 'days off'' and, most tantalisingly, went to places that the show has never been before. Well, it has but it hasn't. Trust me, it's timey-wimey.  

There seems to be a deliberate effort to up the thematic content of the episodes this year as, beneath the whimsical adventures in space and time, we've had stories that are really about change, hatred and heroism. This week's episode not only continues the theme but emphasises it. While 'Listen' may start out as a familiar - but still spooky as heck - Moffat scarefest it then goes down a completely unexpected avenue to become a sensitive mediation on loneliness and fear. As the First Doctor - and now Clara - said 'fear makes companions of us all.' 

While we've come to expect great blockbuster finales and Christmas specials from Steven Moffat, this episode takes him back to his creepy one-off roots, In fact, Moffat has described the episode as a 'chamber piece' a small-scale adventure with few performers. In such a story as this, then, the cast is all important and, thankfully, the three leads of Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson do not disappoint. Firstly, Capaldi embodies the Time Lord better than ever before here, as we see him inspire children and face terrifying sights but also explore new facets to the character like his almost unhinged obsession with the notion of a perfectly-evolved hider. Can such things really exist?

Meanwhile, as several incarnations of Pinks were met this week, Anderson's Danny (don't call him Rupert) is fitting well into the show, aided by the actor's awkward charm that fizzes with Jenna's perky Clara. Speaking of whom, Clara herself proves once again this week how invaluable she is to the Doctor - we've already seen her save his entire life and inspire him to rescue the Time Lords but here she makes her biggest impact on the Doctor yet. The Doctor is the solider who never carries a gun - I wonder where he got that idea from?  

'Listen' utilises all the classic horror film tricks and motifs (the thing under the bedsheet is one we've all seen before but that makes it no less eerie here) to treat us to a sleepless-night-inducing episode but then is also not afraid (ha!) to pull the rug from our feet and surprise and scare us in different ways. But embrace that fear because being scared is a superpower. And being scary is just one tool in the endless arsenal of Doctor Who, the show that can do anything. Just as this episode reminded us. 

It's the end - Is there something waiting on the last planet in existence?

Next Week: The Doctor and Clara save the day - by robbing a bank? Find out how in 'Time Heist'...

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Robot of Sherwood

As Alan-a-Dale might say 'Tonight, the TARDIS did land in Sherwood's bonny glade/ But when the Lord and the Earl did meet was a great episode made?' 

'When did you start believing in impossible heroes?' 'Don't you know?'

Doctor Who meets Robin Hood. How has it taken fifty one years of this time-travelling show, that loves to swallow up familiar genres and give them its own twist, for that to happen? As this week's episode pointed out itself, the nobleman who appointed himself champion of the people... and Robin Hood are ideal bedfellows. However, it's fitting that the meeting of these two legendary heroes comes now as it leads to much discussing of the nature and requirements of being a hero, very much fitting in with the themes of this series. Most importantly, though, it also gave this moodier, broodier take on the show the chance to have a laugh.

In the grand tradition of lighter-hearted Doctor Who episodes, 'Robot of Sherwood' is a swashbuckling romp and proud of it. The sci-fi plot is wholeheartedly standard Who fare (aliens have crash-landed on Earth and will do anything to get off - even blow it up) but that's not really the focus of this story. Not so much a tale of a hero versus villain, this is the story of hero versus hero as Robin and the Doctor rub each other up the wrong way. Their bantering (oh, yes, Doctor, you were bantering) is the highlight of the episode, reminiscent of the Doctor's rivalry when he meets his other selves. The two heroes may have their differences but they are more alike then they care to admit.

The cast all performed well with Ben Miller playing himself as the Sheriff of Nottingham (but with added murderousness, one would hope) and Tom Riley successfully channelling Errol Flynn as the Man in the Tights. But, as he should be, Peter Capaldi was the most fun, returning to the deadpan humour of 'Deep Breath' (I adore the pure Doctorishness of the sword-on-spoon fight). In contrast to previous adventures, the Doctor's resolute po-face and grumpy nature is poked fun at here and it helps to endear the spiky new Doctor considerably.
On the other hand, while the previous two episodes have taken substantial lengths to strengthen Clara's character, here she is relegated to the traditional companion role, even falling victim of the oft-used cliché of being the object of affections for both the lascivious villain and the smitten hero,

That aside, though, 'Robot of Sherwood' is a true lark, just what the Doctor ordered after two fairly dark offerings. It may not be an instant classic but it was the fastest and funniest (with the exception of 'Deep Breath''s Strax) episode so far, making it feel like an adventure that could have been had by any of the last three Doctors. In fact, this episode could perhaps open to the door for the Doctor to encounter other British heroes that people sometimes think are real in the future, for instance King Arthur or, oh, I don't know... Sherlock Holmes? In any case, this head-to-head between the Time Lord of Gallifrey and the Earl of Loxley turned out to be, appropriately enough, a Bullseye.

Box N' the Hood - The Doctor and Robin have to work together.

Next week: 'What's that in the mirror, or the corner of your eye?' A new horror awaits the Doctor and friends. Just 'Listen'...

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