29 October 2015

Books: The Shepherd's Crown By Terry Pratchett (2015)

For me, while The Shepherd’s Crown will be the last new Terry Pratchett to be published, I still have a bunch of his novels to go through. Perhaps I’ll never finish them, only time and tide will dictate that. But I will try to get through as many as I can before I too shuttle off this coil. 

But with this book, published six months after his death this past March, the last Discworld novel, fifth and last Tiffany Aching novel brings to an end a large chapter of a long series of novels in which Pratchett, under the guise of fantasy, took on human foibles. 

But this last book, in which it seems its creator might’ve known this would he last before the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease finally overtook him (the disease took a relatively rare form that affected his sight and coordination rather than his memory), fills the story with death and life. There is much darkness here, yet Pratchett left us with some hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

He also, through the death of long-time character Granny Weatherwax, gives readers and fans, long and new, young and old, a guide on how we shall process his passing. If there is a “good” part to knowing your time is short, it enables that person a way to prepare those that are left behind. Here, in 41st and final Discworld novel, Granny (like all witches and wizards) has anticipated her death, and quietly and calmly goes about the business of preparing for the time. She makes her own casket, she selects where she wants to be buried, and then cleans her home, leaving instructions to the one who will now take over it. And when she meets Death, it’s done in such a charming, heartfelt way, as a reader, you’ll feel that Terry Pratchett was telling you that life must go on and (thanks to many things about publishing) will always be near. 

Also, the story is somewhat disjointed, a bit blunt, and simple. It features the return of the Queen of the Elves from the first Tiffany Aching novel (Wee Free Men), who has regained her power and has discovered the rift between the Land of Elves and Discworld has grown thin. But before she can hatch her revenge plan, an upstart goblin (whom she though humans hated) who has learned iron can hurt the elves, has dethroned her and tossed her onto Chalk where she must survive. Taken in by Tiffany, who distrusts her (along with the Nac Mac Feegl), but knows that she can make Nightshade understand that humans, witches, goblins, and wizards can live together.  So an alliance of sorts is hemmed, as Tiffany (already overburdened with taking care of a lot of people, as well as training a new apprentice {a boy who wants to be a witch} along with being the heir to Granny Weatherwax’s home and people) must prepare for a fairy horde that is about to invade Chalk. Her land.

In the Afterword at the end, we are told that while Pratchett did finish the book, he was unable to go over it again, to add or subtract new plot points -it reads like a first draft. This is fairly evident throughout the story, as it seems to missing the tangents he would often go on. The action is fast paced and some characters get lost in the crowd, so to speak. I mean, one of the great things that made these novels work, for new readers especially, was the ability to start almost anywhere, despite the books building one upon the other. Here, Pratchett makes several direct references to past novels, including the trains that were part of the last book, Raising Steam (which seems to me a bit of analogy about change, not only in the Discworld, but the real one as well). It’s as if he knew this would be the last book and was trying to tie the series together. 

Overall, it’s a satisfying novel, even though a funeral like atmosphere hangs over the book. For fans who’ve kept up reading each new book as they came out, it’s a sad day. For me, of course, I have many more to go through. But like life, while this is the end, we will continue on. I think this is what Terry Pratchett was trying to say, along with the empowering notion that he had the ability to pass away with some sort of dignity. And he maybe that will get us, his family and his fans, the strength to march on towards our own undiscovered country.

22 October 2015

Books: Ghost Story By Peter Straub (1980)

I originally read Peter Straub’s Ghost Story in 1980, right around when the paperback version was released. I was in the midst of reading Stephen King and knowing that Straub and King were friends, I thought I try another horror novelist. I had already read Dean Koontz, and found him lacking (and find him even today, a pale imitation of King, and John Saul seemed to be stuck going over the same territory again and again. I had enjoyed –for a time-the gothic aspects of V.C. Andrews. But on the whole, over these decades I’ve been reading, only King remained the one author I read continuously in the horror genre. 

After the huge success of Ghost Story in 1979 –Straub had published two mainstream novels before he found moderate success with Julia (1975) and If You Could See Me Now (1977), books with heavy supernatural themes –he went on to write the best-sellers Shadowland (1980) and Floating Dragon (1983). He teamed up with Stephen King to write The Talisman in 1985 before his writing took a turn into more gothic and psychological territory that was formed with what would be called The Blue Rose Trilogy in Koko (1988), Mystery (1990), and The Throat (1993). These complex and intertwined novels extended Straub's explorations into metafiction and unreliable narrators. The thriller Hellfire Club (1996) and Mr. X (1999) would follow, continuing his more literary approach things that go bump in the night. In 2001, he and King published the loose sequel to The Talisman called Black House (which was also disguised as a Dark Tower novel).

Lost Boy, Lost Girl (2003) and In the Night Room (2004) where a return to previous characters featured in The Blue Rose Trilogy (like King, Straub had a tendency to set his stories in and around the same areas, which meant characters and towns from previous novels popped up). A Dark Matter was released in 2010 and remains his last book, though he seems to have a book coming, possibly in 2016.

Anyways, I’ve not read every Straub book, like I’ve done Stephen King. While I like his work, his books are fairly dense and defiantly more literary than long-time friend King. But I had been thinking lately of re-reading a few of his old books, in particular Ghost Story, Shadowland and Floating Dragon. As I’ve noted many times before, I don’t usually re-read books. But here is October and maybe, in this month of Halloween, reading a spooky book seemed appropriate. So, yeah, I re-read Ghost Story.

While I still remembered the structure of the book –it is a ghost story that spans fifty years- I found I still things I had forgotten. The book is way over long, though. This book could’ve been 100 pages less and not lessened his ideas one bit. But it also contains one the best scenes I still remember to this day, when Peter Barnes figures out where some of the ghosts haunting Milburn are hiding out. 

It also got me thinking about the 1981 movie adaptation of this book. I remember how much I disliked it, as the movie jettisoned a lot of the book and stuck with its basic themes of a vengeful ghost. Much like what Stanley Kubrick did with Stephen King’s The Shining, director John Irvin and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen sort of took a bare-bones approach. Most likely though, because the novels structure of flashing back and forwards in time and its large cast of supporting characters would’ve made a linear movie difficult. 

Honestly, though, much like Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, I would not mind a large screen (or even a small screen, multi-part) remake of this book. I think it deserves a better treatment.  

13 October 2015

Books: Doctor Who: City of Death By James Goss (2015)

When Target Books ended its run of publishing novelizations of Doctor Who serials in 1990, only five (well, seven, but Evil of the Daleks and Power of the Daleks were well on their way to being adapted and even though Virgin Books would release them, they still fell under the Target Books mark) stories remained unwritten in book format. Three were by the legendary Douglas Adams (who spent a year as script supervisor of the show), and two were by former story editor Eric Saward.

You see, the Target had a long standing policy that allowed writers of serials to pen novelizations of their stories for around £600. Some writers took it, and others passed, allowing novelist like the prolific Terrance Dicks to do the job. But when Douglas Adams penned The Pirate Planet, the second serial of the sixthteen season of Doctor Who, the Target offered him a chance to adapt it. However, he declined (probably rightfully so), saying: “I don't want to be embarrassing but I do have a tendency to be a best-selling author”. Which, of course, translated as: Target Books would fear other authors would demand a higher paycheck for adapting their stories, so The Pirate Planet would remain a “lost” book within Target Books line-up (for now). He would do the same with City of Death and the unfinished and unaired Shada that would be part of season seventeen of the series. 

The other two stories, Resurrection of the Daleks and Revelation of the Daleks (season twenty-one and twenty-two respectively) faced similar issues, with writer Eric Saward asking a higher price to adapt them, along with the always complex licensing issues the BBC and Target Books had with Dalek creator Terry Nation.

But getting back to City of Death, which I noted aired during season 17. Originally, this was not a Douglas Adams script at all. David Fisher had been assigned the story A Gamble with Time, which was about a very rich, suave Count and Countess who were rigging tables at a casinos to fund their time travel experiments. The story was to be set in the 1920s and 1970s with some very limited filming scheduled to be done in Paris (the first time the series would leave the UK to film).

But series producer Graham Williams and Production Unit Manager John Nathan-Turner (who would go on to produce the series from season eighteen to its demise) figured out a way to spend more time in Paris than originally planned. This meant a bit of a re-write on episodes, especially the fourth part of the serial. As according to BBC policy, David Fisher was offered the chance to polish up his script. But, as author James Goss notes in his afterword, “…Fisher was in the middle of an interesting divorce at the time”, and was unable to re-write his story. Thus, it fell to new script supervisor Douglas Adams to type out a new script, with aide from producer Williams and the director Michael Hayes. The four-part adventure would eventually be credited under a pseudonym of David Agnew. 

City of Death, despite its production history, became one of the most popular and most watched Doctor Who shows during its original 1963-89 run. Part of the reason was rival broadcast network ITV having a strike, which led to repeats which led Doctor Who to be one of the only TV stations airing new episodes. But City of Death is actually very good. Oh sure, it has plot holes like most Doctor Who serials, sure the plot was a bit wonky, but what made it shine was the script, the witty dialogue and performances from series stars Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and guest-cast Julian Glover, Catherine Schell, and Tom Chadbon. They all seemed to be having fun.

But like Shada, the legend of City of Death grew. Douglas Adams always said he had plans to eventually adapt these two stories and The Pirate Planet, but they were way far down his “to do list”. Sadly, of course, Adams would die of a heart attack in May 2001 leaving a large cadre of fans in mourning. He remains, in my opinion, one the most creative, most genius authors, of the late 20th Century. Had he lived longer, he could be have been called the funniest humorist since Mark Twain. And yes, many fans like me also mourned the fact that his three Doctor Who stories would never be seen in print (though Adams never saw a good idea he could not steal, even from himself, and reworked a lot of elements from both City of Death and Shada into his novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency). 

Eventually, though, BBC Books would work with Adams Estate to have Shada adapted into a book, which was written by Gareth Roberts and released in 2012. For Roberts to write the book, he drew on the latest versions of the scripts that were available, as well as adding new material of his own to "fix" various plot holes and unanswered questions of Adams original script.

Author James Goss does same here when adapting City of Death. He’s added a lot his own material here, but he’s incorporated notes left by Adams, in particular those on the rehearsal scripts for the episodes; it was here he discovered the Countess Scarlioni had a first name, Heidi. But the book, like all the novelizations of Doctor Who, follows the transmitted version (another-words, there are no additional subplots that were deleted during production). But, like Gareth Roberts before him, Goss fixes some of the serials plot holes –like cliffhanger to episode one where Scarlioni (for unknown reasons) removes his fake face to reveal his true visage. Of course, on TV that makes for a great fright, but in book format, it needs to be explained. And surprisingly, Adams made note of that, as Goss discovered. It seems the twelve splintered versions of Jagoroth, who are working through time to save his race, are not aware they’re aliens at all. This new wrinkle adds some great depth to Scarlioni. 

The novel also breathes life into secondary characters like the tour guide at the Louvre, and creates more background information on the artist (which includes his name) who draws Romana with a cracked clock for a face and the two art gallery lovers (played by Eleanor Bron and John Cleese). 

While Goss is a capable writer, and he’s done a fine job adapting this book, like Shada and The Pirate Planet, I feel Adams could’ve made those into wonderful books, if only because he saw things more differently than others. He found humor and meaning in the absurd and there is not many people in this world today who can do that. 

Finally, James Goss will adapt The Pirate Planet, which BBC Books will release next year. It will be interesting to see what the author will do with that story, as it is one of the oddest, funniest, and wholly weirdest serial Doctor Who made.

11 October 2015

Books: Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt (2015)

One of the biggest things I miss about the closing of Borders was getting Advanced Reader Copy’s of writers books. Most that came were by new authors, but you could always count on an oldie but a goodie (such as Stephen King) from time to time. One book that came in 2011 during the last few months of the companies existence was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. It was a darkly comic, Western-inspired story that takes place in Oregon and California in 1851. The narrator is Eli Sisters and his brother Charlie are assassins sent to kill Hermann Kermit Warm who is accused of stealing from the Sisters' fearsome boss, the Commodore. Was it the Sisters fault that the man turned out to be sort of likable?

While the novel, with it’s short chapters and and sparse narrative, sometimes seemed indicate deWitt was penning a screenplay, the book was wonderfully odd. And then, by accident, after reading this book, a remainder version of his first book, Ablutions, came into the store. Of course, as things happen, I’ve yet to pick up the slim book. It’s somewhere here, but at this writing I’m not so sure where it is. Life of a bibliphile.

Anyways, while in Portland working on Something Like Summer, I was surfing through Powell’s and saw that deWitt’s newest book, Undermajordomo Minor, got released. So I scored a copy at the library when I got back. 

And while it’s clear that The Sisters Brothers was a Western (well, western themed, because it really wasn’t about cowboys), Undermajordomo Minor is sort of hard to categorize into a genre. It could be a literary fantasy book, but I don’t think it is. It has tinges of English gothic to it, as well. It may, for me who needs to categorize things, really fairy tale or fable. Well, a fable without a moral. It is certainly a love story and an adventure story but it’s also an ink-black comedy of manners.

“Lucien (Lucy) Minor is the resident odd duck in the bucolic hamlet of Bury. Friendless and loveless, young and aimless, Lucy is a compulsive liar, a sickly weakling in a town famous for producing brutish giants. Then Lucy accepts employment assisting the Majordomo of the remote, foreboding Castle Von Aux. While tending to his new post as Undermajordomo, Lucy soon discovers the place harbors many dark secrets, not least of which is the whereabouts of the castle’s master, Baron Von Aux? He also encounters the colorful people of the local village—thieves, madmen, aristocrats, and Klara, a delicate beauty whose love he must compete for with the exceptionally handsome soldier, Adolphus. Thus begins a tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery, and cold-blooded murder in which every aspect of human behavior is laid bare for our hero to observe.”

Once again, deWitt employs short chapters that remind me of what screenplay looks like. But while I don’t find that jarring –it actually propels the story- it may put people off a bit, especially those more literary readers. The prose, which may seem light, is filled with many weighty issues. Much like science fiction writer Joe Haldeman, deWitt is able to give a lot of meaning in short passages. The humor, dark and often laugh out loud, is brilliantly rendered here. Sometimes I often felt I was watching an old BBC costume drama, mixed with Hammer Films spooky castles. The book does take a weird left turn towards the end, but it’s not out of place in the atmosphere deWitt was trying to create. 

But I miss those ARC's because without them, I would have never discovered Patrick deWitt. Now where is that copy of Ablutions?

08 October 2015

Books: Human Nature By Paul Cornell (1995)

As I’ve mentioned before, my association with Doctor Who goes make to 1979/1980. It was around this time that my PBS station in Chicago began airing the show. And while Third Doctor Jon Petwee had some minor success on PBS, it wasn’t until Fourth Doctor Tom Baker debuted that the series really took off for me. Also, beginning in April 1979 and running June of 1980, Pinnacle Books, an imprint of the publishing company Kensington Book, released Americanized editions of ten Target Book novelizations. 

They were:
  1. Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks
  2. Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon
  3. Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion
  4. Doctor Who and the Genesis of the Daleks
  5. Doctor Who and the Revenge of the Cybermen
  6. Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster
  7. Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang
  8. Doctor Who and the Masque of Mandragora
  9. Doctor Who and the Android Invasion
  10. Doctor Who and the Seeds of Doom
The first three were adaptations of the Third Doctor stories, while the rest were of the Fourth Doctor (which may explain further why the Tom Baker’s Doctor remains many Americans -of a certain age-favorite Time Lord). I, of course, owned all 10. But because most PBS station across the nation were airing the adventures of the Third and Fourth Doctors (mainly because they were in color –the first two Doctor’s serials were produced in black & white) only, we were still missing a huge chunk of the franchise. 

So when the first of many American distributors began importing the Target Books line-up in the early 1980s, it was our first chance to read –video tapes were in its infancy then- adventures of the First and Second Doctor along with the rest of the Third and Fourth. Even for many Britons, the novels remained their sole gateway to those older episodes, as the BBC hardly ever re-aired them, and as a matter of fact, began a system wide destruction of those earlier serials (which was among many programs the Corporation destroyed to save money). 

I acquired all of them over the next decade and half and would eventually be able to see all the surviving Doctor Who episodes as well. 

Target Books launched the Doctor Who novelizations back in 1973 –even though there had been a few stories of the First and Second Doctor released in the 60’s- and quickly became the go to house for these books (American’s would see only the paperback versions, but Target also released hardcover versions) until 1989, when the show was cancelled, and W.H. Allen & Co would sell the imprint to Virgin Books in 1990.

The Target Books line was retired on new books following the publication of Victor Pemberton’s The Pescatons (which was an adaptation of radio play) in the fall of 1991, which left just 7 TV serials unpublished in book form. However, when Virgin Books later made deals with the Estate of Terry Nation and published novelizations of the serials The Evil of the Daleks and Power of the Daleks, along with an adaptation of the radio play The Paradise of Death, these books were identified as being part of the Target series on their title pages. Thus The Paradise of Death, published in April 1994 as No. 156 in the "Doctor Who Library", was the last book to be connected to Target.

It was Virgin's new fiction editor, Peter Darvill-Evans, who quickly realized that there were few stories left to be novelized, so he approached BBC for permission to commission original stories written directly for print. In some small part, this would’ve been a good idea, as some franchises, especially cult shows like Star Trek, were seeing some success with original stories (Batnam published a line before Pocket Books too them over). But the BBC, failing to see what a financial boom it could be for them, refused him. But when the show was cancelled in 1989, Virgin was granted the license to produce full-length original novels continuing the story from the point at which the series had concluded. Between 1991 and 1997, Virgin Books released a whopping 60 novels in their “New Adventures” line-up all featuring the Seventh Doctor, with Dying Days, the 61st book and the only one featuring the Eighth Doctor, was the last one published by Virgin. They also released 33 “Missing Adventures” featuring the other six Doctors. After the “success” (depending on your point of view) of the 1996 TV movie, the BBC then began releasing a line-up of original novels featuring the Eighth Doctor. 

Most of the Virgin line-up books were written by long-time fans of the TV series, and some went onto to be huge success writers. One was Russell T Davies, who later became the chief writer and executive producer of Doctor Who television series when it was revived in 2005, who wrote 1996’s Damaged Goods. Another notable was Paul Cornell, who wrote five of the novels, including the single most popular one (according to the Doctor Who Magazine poll), Human Nature. Cornell went on to write for the 2005 revival of the television series, penning Father’s Day and adapting Human Nature into the two-part episode Human Nature/Family of Blood.  

Of course, by 2005 all of the Target Books and Virgin Books were long out of print. And when the revived series took off right away, a lot of fans, both old and new, began looking for these older book titles. And when Human Nature was adapted for TV in 2007, it became the single most sought after title, with sellers on EBay asking hundreds of dollars for the paperback, which probably sold for 6.95 back in 1995. I’ve been looking for it for a while, as I threw out a lot of Virgin paperbacks many years prior to the end of the century. Of course, I regretted this action, but that’s the way things work. I mean, I do enjoy these original works, but my problem with them was some were well written, while others seemed penned by a 10 year-old. Also, because I was (and still somewhat am) a person who is canonist, these novels were always separate from the TV timeline. 

Anyways, BBC Books began to began re-issuing some Virgin’s more popular titles of the New Adventures (now called The History Collection)line-up a few years ago, including Human Nature, which I finally found at Powell’s Books when I was in Portland helping make the film version of Jay Bell’s acclaimed novel Something Like Summer.

Bernice Summerfield is grieving since the death of Guy de Carmac, (as seen in the previous novel, Sanctuary). The Doctor takes her to a market on a planet called Crex in the Augon system. He quickly sets off, telling her he'll be back in an hour, and Benny finds a pub where she orders a beer and finds a group of female human drinking partners. After Benny's had several drinks with them, the Doctor arrives and places a patch on her cheek — a pad that disperses the alcohol in her system. He tells her that they need to leave immediately, and leads her back to the TARDIS. He hands her a scroll, tells her he'll see her in three months, and collapses. Meanwhile, the genesmith Laylock meets with his associates. They plan to follow the Doctor. In a long, dark room, a teenager named Tim awakens from a dream, having had a premonition that everyone will die. Unable to understand Benny's grief on a human level, the Doctor has purchased a device which alters his biodata, transforming him into a human named Dr John Smith. Smith lives as a history teacher at a public school in 1914 England, and falls in love with a fellow teacher named Joan. However, the Aubertides, hoping to acquire Time Lord abilities, attack the school. 

The book, in many ways, is different than the filmed episodes. Both novel and episode occur near the Great War in a small English village that is home to a school for boys and Joan Redfern is the object of Smith's attention in both. Timothy (given the surname Dean in the novel) is the schoolboy that finds the object containing the Time Lord essence (a cricket ball in the novel, a fob watch in the episode), and experiences some mannerisms of the Time Lord personality. John Smith does write a book that draws from his Time Lord personality - in the novel, this is a children's story borrowing terms like "Gallifrey" and "TARDIS", while this manifests as the "Journal of Impossible Things" within the episode. The Aubertide, like the Family of Blood, take on forms of the villagers, including a little girl with a balloon, though in the novel, the balloon is a sentient and deadly creature controlled by the Aubertide. The Doctor also gives Bernice a similar list of instructions of things to prevent him from doing -omitting what to do if he should fall in love.

The ending in the book is nearly the same in the TV episode. I’ve also read that while Cornell is credited for adapting his own novel, and given high praise for it as well, it appears a great deal of the episode had in fact been rewritten by executive producer Davies. I’m not sure what was added, but it’s clear that Davies ramped up the romance between Smith and Joan than was seen in the book –or played better on TV?

It’s a strong book, and I can see why it remains popular. Mostly, I think, because it tries something different with the format, even when it does contain some stereotype characters and situations (it’s a military school, so we get tons of dialogue about honor, abuse of the underlings –and those who take great pleasure in exerting it). The Doctor falling in love was something never seen before, so I think this hook was what makes the book so popular. The Aubertide’s come off somewhat bumbling, and not as evil as The Family of Blood is portrayed in the episodes.