April Books 29) Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman claims here that he is returning to his roots, by writing a piece about his first serious fandom (though he does not put it like that); it is a two-part story about Batman’s funeral, but in Gaiman’s hands it becomes much more than that, developing into an exploration of story and modern mythology and what they might mean to those who experience them. I thought it was very good; the deluxe edition comes with several other Gaiman-scripted stories in the Batman universe, of which the best are the first two, one featuring the Joker and Batman sitting around waiting for their turn to appear on the page, the other exploring the character of Poison Ivy, constrained in the Arkham Asylum. So that’s two of this year’s Best Graphic Story shortlist read; I will be surprised if any of the other three beats this one.

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April Books 28) Short Trips [17]: The Centenarian, edited by Ian Farrington

I guess I’ve read half a dozen of Big Finish’s Short Trips anthologies by now, and found them a bit of a mixed bag; sometimes a decent linking concept makes the whole better than the sum of its parts, sometimes one or two outstanding stories are all that can overcome the problems of a duff central idea. This is one of the better volumes I have read in the series. Edward Grainger, born in 1906, find himself bumping into the Doctor repeatedly over the following century. Poor chap, he often seems to be on the spot when alien invasion threatens Earth, but he is not the only character in the Whoniverse of whom this is true, and at least he spends part of his career as a spy so there is some excuse. The standount story for me was “The Church of Football”, by Benjamin Adams, an account of the Fifth Doctor’s visit to a Sheffield United v. Arsenal match in 1936 told in the first person by Peri Brown. I was a little disappointed that Grainger didn’t pop up in the background of any of the Old Who stories with contemporary settings – the one reference to UNIT seemed anachronistic to me – but it’s generally a good collection.

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April Books 27) The Runaway Train, by Oli Smith

This was a free giveaway Doctor Who CD from the Daily Telegraph last week, apparently to be released more formally in a few months as one of the planned series of Eleventh Doctor original audio books. It’s set in the Wild West, which is less original a concept than it was before The Peacemaker (Tenth Doctor book and audio from 2008) and Freakshow (Companion Chronicle audio as told by Mark Strickson as Turlough from ealier this year), and of course was used in Old Who as early as 1966. Matt Smith is good at delivering both the background narrative and his own Doctor’s voice; elsewhere he is decent at characterisation but distinctly less good at either Amy’s Scottish or the other characters’ American accents. Also the story itself is rather poorly paced for audiobook, which can sometimes be an unforgiving medium. So on the whole this one is worth looking out for free rather than buying.
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

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April Books 26) The Forgotten Army, by Brian Minchin

The first three Eleventh Doctor novels were published last week, and I entirely randomly decided to start with the one written by my cousin. Actually I think Brian is the first script editor of Doctor Who to have a spinoff novel published while his episodes were being shown (though David Whitaker, of course, set the ball rolling with the very first Doctor Who novelisation back in 1964).

It is a good yarn. The Doctor and Amy land in contemporary New York, where a newly discovered mammoth in the Natural History Museum comes to life and starts causing chaos – but turns out to be harbouring a much more dangerous secret; and an army of Vykoids brings chaos to Manhattan even if they are only seven centimentres tall. It’s aimed at a younger readership – more so than the Ninth and Tenth Doctor novels I have read – but that just means you get it for your 8-13 year old friends or relatives and then borrow it back. Or read it first yourself. Or just forget to give it to them.

As you would hope from the show’s script editor, the novel catches the Doctor and Amy perfectly, particularly when the Doctor is put out of action for a couple of chapters and Amy has to take over the narrative. Trinity Wells, famous American newsreader, gets gratifyingly namechecked, and there are references also to mysterious cracks (qv) and to Nile Penguins (which baffled me but looked Significant). Mutual relatives will note with appreciation that the three main supporting characters are called Sam, Oscar and Polly; actually this will be a lasting source of pleasure to three of our younger relatives, though at least one of them is too small to notice as yet. (And apparently the great centres of learning include Yale, Harvard and Aberystwyth.)

I have the other two novels on the shelf, and will report back on them in due course, but this was a good start to the Eleventh Doctor’s career in dead tree format.

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The people have spoken, the bastards

A locked entry for now, as I intend to write a public commentary on the first (but not the second) of these two problematic cases, and obviously they are both sensitive.

I’m really sad that Mehmet Ali Talat lost the election in Cyprus last week. I’ve been working with him for just about three years; I found him committed, intelligent, witty, and vigorous in defence of his own views – as well as ready to admit his own mistakes. Unfortunately he never had a negotiating partner on the Greek Cypriot side who was as serious about reaching a settlement as he was. Tassos Papadopoulos, who was the Greek Cypriot president from 2003 to 2008, was committed to deadlock and stagnation; Dimitris Christofias, who defeated Papadopoulos on a moderately pro-solution ticket in 2008, has been too scared of his own hardline government coalition partners to cut the deal. Meanwhile the EU failed to deliver on the commitments it made to the Turkish Cypriot people after they voted in favour of reunification (and the Greek Cypriots voted against) in 2004. None of this was Talat’s fault, but the Turkish Cypriot voters have nobody else to punish; so he lost.

I see some commentators saying that a Cyprus settlement is so important to Turkey that Ankara will surely not let Talat’s successor, Derviş Eroğlu, slow down the process. I have to say that the idea that Ankara decisively controls the political process in northern Cyprus has surely been dealt a fatal blow by last week’s election results. I really don’t see any reason for optimism that the Turkish government will decide to bully the new Turkish Cypriot leader into accepting the agenda of candidate he has just defeated.

Much farther south, my main interlocutor in the Government of Southern Sudan, General Oyay Deng Ajak, failed to win a seat in the parliamentary elections held two weeks ago (which were deeply flawed, but the fact that three ministers lost seats suggests a more complex picture). He’ll survive – fortunately (and sensibly) you don’t have to be in parliament to hold ministerial office in Southern Sudan – but it has meant that he is rather distracted from his ministerial duties at present.

I’m fundamentally in favour of democracy, but applying it to peace-making is not always straightforward, and sometimes actually the wrong thing to do.

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April Books 25) The Twilight of Atheism, by Alister McGrath

Yet another book on religion where I basically agree with the author but found the book itself really unsatisfactory.

Basically, McGrath seemed to me to be asking the wrong question. His argument identifies “atheism” as a collective identity more than is really warranted by his own evidence; towards the end he seems to almost criticize atheists for not being as well organised as the Church, which sort of misses the point. More widely, he never makes it clear whose atheism or belief is under discussion, though I felt that in the present day he really just means Oxford dons. Non-Christian faiths are barely mentioned; there is an anecdote about the triumph of Christianity in Korea in the 20th century which simply does not refer to other religions practised by Koreans. This really isn’t good enough.

The internal structure puzzled me as well. I would have preferred a more strictly chronological organisation. But instead we have a chapter on Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, followed by one on the sciences post-Darwin, followed by an examination of atheism in classic literature from the Enlightenment on (that last being one of the better chapters in the book). It is as if Freud knew nothing of Darwin, and Darwin knew nothing of Keats. (I confess I had not preeviously heard of Feuerbach, but that may just be my ignorance.)

Other irritations: James II was not Charles II’s son (p 14). I was surprised to read (p 264-265) that “The role of religion in creating and sustaining communal identity has been known for some considerable time, and has become increasingly important since about 1965”; I think it’s just possible that religion played an important role in creating and sustaining communal identity for quite a long time prior to that date.

I suspect that this book was intended to be in part a rebuttal to Richard Dawkins, who is very briefly dissected, but unfortunately it is too full of its own complacency to be effective.

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Two books by Neal Barrett, jr

A few weeks back I confessed my ignorance of Neal Barrett, jr, who has been named this year’s Author Emeritus by the SFWA. I’m generally prepared to expand my horizons, so ordered a couple of his books from Bookmooch and read them in transit this weekend. I have to say that my ignorance has been replaced by some puzzlement; I did not think that either of these was a particularly good book. I hope that his other work has demonstrated the excellence that SFWA has chosen to honour, but there is little sign of it from what I’ve read.

April Books 23) Stress Pattern

A story of a bloke who crashes on an alien planet where strange creatures live, some of them formed by his own thoughts and desires. (Solaris meets “A Martian Odyssey” only nothing like as good.) His fantasy woman is created for him and it doesn’t work out. Only 160 pages, thank God.

April Books 24) Judge Dredd (the book-of-the-film)

I’ve never more than skimmed 2000 AD but was aware of the basic set-up of Dredd’s world; I have not seen the 1996 movie starring Silvester Stallone. Difficult to, er, judge what Barrett’s input to the final product is (he did not write the screenplay) but I felt that I missed the broad sweep of scene-setting which is necessary in a novelisation of this kind; no real sense of landscape or background. There are some nice inserts from a future historian commenting on the story as past history, including one (perhaps despairing?) piece near the end complaining that it is all made up. Barrett also wrote the novelisations for the Dungeons and Dragons movie and Barb Wire, but I will not rush to acquire either.

There must surely be numerous other authors of similar prominence and age to Barrett who would qualify as Authors Emeriti (or Emeritæ). Maybe I was just unlucky; I will concede that a book’s availability from Bookmooch may not be a good indicator of quality.

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April Books 22) Triumph of a Time Lord, by Matt Hills

This is one of the better academic books about Who that I have read. Hills is a sympathetic fan and also a media studies lecturer in Cardiff. In this book he has sensibly not tried to provide a global guide to Who, but instead has taken a small number of (big) issues and tried to illuminate them in detail. Looking mainly at New Who up to early 2009, he basically has seven things that he wants to say and takes a chapter to say each of them:

1) New Who is strongly authored (by RTD and now Moffatt) which makes it very different from Old Who; NB though that the credit for this authoring is shared by others (notably Phil Collinson and the BBC’s upper hierarchy)
2) New Who’s writers are themselves long-term Who fans; but this does not mean that they have a harmonious relationship with the fan base.
3) Time travel, though obviously central to Who, is not really used in an sfnal way in New Who (the weakest of the chapters, I thought)
4) Monsters are even more central to New Who, both as spectacle and as moral lessons.
5) New Who cannot clearly be categorised as ‘quality’ or as ‘non-quality’ TV (includes a very interesting passage on how Christopher Ecclestone’s comments on the show undermined RTD’s attempts to mark it as ‘quality’).
6) Murray Gold is one of the key creators of New Who (also the occasional use of pop songs in the show is mildly interesting).
7) New Who has managed to become both ‘cult’ and “mainstream’ (NB this is quite a different distinction to ‘quality’/’non-quality’).

I thought the two best sections were on Christopher Ecclestone and Murray Gold, but there is lots more here too.

By writing this book, Hills appears to have hoped to update Tulloch and Alvarado, but I think has done a better job. It’s not quite as magisterial as the Time and Relative Dimensions in Space collection (to which Hills contributed the chapter on Big Finish) but way better than the books I’ve read on Who by Robb, Newman, Chapman, Couch, etc.

I was a bit annoyed at first at yet another book which banishes footnotes to the end – why, with 21st-century typesetting technology, is this still considered an acceptable way to publish? – but fortunately most of the footnotes are simply references to other work, most of which I have already read (though I am still irritated by the handful that do have substantive content, marooned hundreds of pages from the statements they are illuminating). So that turns out to be a minor gripe.

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April Books 21) Doctor Who Annual 1970

This is a better effort than the previous annual, though we still have the irritation of “Dr Who” addressing Jamie and Zoe as “my children” and a couple of stories that seem to have been written with Hartnell in mind. But the art is a significant improvement, particularly the first of the two comic strip stories (which sadly leaves Zoe in the Tardis for most of the action). Only eight text stories this time, and they are all pretty standard landing-on-alien-planets stuff, though we are offered a completely different explanation of what happened to the Marie Celeste to that seen in The Chase five years earlier – the crew get abducted by aliens and die horribly when the Doctor is unable to save them. The usual mix of science and history articles includes a rather odd three pages on UFOs which seems to take them entirely seriously. All the stories feature Jamie and Zoe but one of the games for some reason has Jamie and Victoria.

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April Books 20) The Crucible, by Arthur Miller

A great work, of course, about mass hysteria, groupthink, and evil. The editor notes in the foreword that for today’s audience the McCarthy hearings, which were on his mind as he wrote, actually require more explanation than the Salem witch trials, which have been given a new lease of historical consciousnes largely by Miller’s play; which is kind of ironic. There are some powerful scenes but I didn’t find any standout quotes that lingered; the whole is greater than the parts. My edition includes also a deleted Act 2 Scene 2 set outside in the woods between Proctor and Abigail which makes their relationship more explicit, but I think it works better dramatically to leave that exposition to Act 4.

Despite having worked my way through the complete Shakespeare a year and a half ago, I’m still not great at visualising plays from scripts as I read them, so I hope I can find a screen version of this some time. Miller repeatedly breaks into his own script to give pen-profiles of a number of the characters, which helps to get a sense of how they might appear on stage, but almost all of the characters for whom he does this are male, even though the women are at least as interesting as the men if not more so. In particular this meant I had difficulty telling the teenage girls apart, and I expect I would have no difficulty in doing so in a theatrical production.

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April Books 19) Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett

This was for some reason the only main sequence Discworld novel that had so far escaped me (I also have TAMAHER on the shelf). I guess it must be a relatively early book in the series; the undead are still rather unusual in Ankh-Morpork, and Ridcully appears to be a newish arrival at Unseen University (and the Bursar is fairly sane). I got a lot of laugh-out-loud moments from it, but wasn’t completely satisfied with the plot; Death and the Discworld are to be under threat from, respectively, Elder Beings and supernatural supermarkets, and I didn’t feel it hung together as a whole (a subplot about poltergeists, for instance, is simply abandoned). However, the core concept, Death attempting to become human remains an old idea, but still a good one.

The Colour of Magic | The Light Fantastic | Equal Rites | Mort | Sourcery | Wyrd Sisters | Pyramids | Guards! Guards! | Eric | Moving Pictures | Reaper Man | Witches Abroad | Small Gods | Lords and Ladies | Men at Arms | Soul Music | Interesting Times | Maskerade | Feet of Clay | Hogfather | Jingo | The Last Continent | Carpe Jugulum | The Fifth Elephant | The Truth | Thief of Time | The Last Hero | The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents | Night Watch | The Wee Free Men | Monstrous Regiment | A Hat Full of Sky | Going Postal | Thud! | Wintersmith | Making Money | Unseen Academicals | I Shall Wear Midnight | Snuff | Raising Steam | The Shepherd’s Crown

April Books 18) The Hanging Garden, by Ian Rankin

This Rebus novel got rave reviews in a couple of places, but I was not completely satisfied with it. It seemed more a novel of gangland politics than of police investigation; there is a horribly bungled police raid at one point which emphasises the relative powerlessness of the keepers of law in this story. There is a character who is a Bosnian woman victim of sex trafficking, but I felt that crucial details of her background didn’t mesh with what little I know of that issue. There are two fairly dramatic crimes – a hit-and-run car accident involving Rebus’ daughter, and another character found hanging (hence the title of the book), but both of these crimes turned out to be a little bathetic in their resolution. The subplot about war criminal escaping from post-1945 France and Gemany was not really concluded (except with paranoia agaist the British establishment, which may or may not be well founded). It does score well on the reintroduction of Rebus’ relationships with his own family and, to an extent, with himself now that he is giving up alcohol. But I find it difficult to believe the somewhat anarchic working environment that he experiences. Probably I am wrong and simply imagine incorrectly that most people at that level of responsibility have and keep regular office hours. So only three points out of five on LibraryThing for this one.

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April Books 17) Sick Building, by Paul Magrs

This is a Tenth Doctor and Martha novel, set on a wilderness world where a crazed scientist and his family are holding out against a monstrous creature which is devouring the planet’s entire surface, helped by a domestic computer (which is also derganged). I thought it was a pretty poor effort. I hate cute robots, and this book has too many of them; Magrs is self-conscious in his writing down to the presumed young reader’s level, and the prose style is pretty awful; his characterisation of the Doctor is annoying and inconsistent; and the monster is called, I kid you not, the Voracious Craw. One to skip. (I think I got it for 50p on eBay.)

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April Books 16) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

There’s been a lot of buzz around this book, partly perhaps because of the author’s online visibility, but mainly I suspect because it is a rather good book. It is an immersive fantasy, to use the Mendlesohn typology, about Yeine, a young woman who discovers that she is a potential heir to the rulership of the entire world, and who has to grapple with palace politics and living deities to survive. The political situation is actually rather well set up, and the denouement is rather a twist in the plot but is actually entirely fair to the reader rather than deus ex machina. This will no doubt appear on a number of next year’s shortlists, and desrvedly so; it’s not my preferred sub-genre, but I enjoyed it.

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April Books 15) The Lives of Christopher Chant, by Diana Wynne Jones

I think this is my favourite of the Chrestomanci novels, a prequel with some retracing the steps of Charmed Life, but adding some extra wrinkles which I found more satisfying – the parental marriage disintegrating; the young goddess of cats; the boarding school; the interdimensional smuggling racket; and the answer to the question of what happened to Chrestomanci’s other lives. Young Christopher’s psychological alienation, temptation, and eventual redemption are a very effective story arc. Even though we see even less of the world of Chrestomanci here than we did in Charmed Life, it still feels like a rich and intriguing environment. Like all of the Chrestomanci books it reads perfectly well as a standalone, with no knowledge of the rest of the series necessary to enjoy it.

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April Books 14) Njal’s Saga

In a week when people have been thinking about Iceland for other reasons, it was odd to be reading Njal’s Saga, much of which takes place around the very slopes of Eyjafjallajökull. Though actually I found certain similarities also with my current trip to Africa; Njal’s Saga is in part about modernisation of an agrarian society, and the challenges caused by economic change to traditional patterns of internal conflict resolution. It was recommended to me ages ago by the rarely seen , whose detailed review I strongly recommend; I can’t add a lot more to what she says, except to add my praise for the sparse writing style, the three-dimensional characterisation, the (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to resolve family feuds through law rather than blood, the sense of a small, isolated community which is none the less intimately connected with the rest of the Norse world (one of the set-pieces towards the end is the Battle of Clontarf). Tremendous stuff.

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EU and volcano

  • Charlemagne fisks a UKIP press release:

    Eurocontrol is not an EU agency, it was not Eurocontrol that ordered the closure of Europe's skies, the closure did not follow a single computer simulation and EU regulations will not oblige airlines to pay the costs of passengers stranded by the ash cloud. Or, to put it more briefly, out of four factual assertions in the UKIP press release, four are incorrect.

    (tags: eu)
  • in which Charlemagne says No Comment at some length
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South Belfast – Shinners to pull out?

Latest rumours to reach me here in Africa are that Sinn Féin are to pull out of the election in South Belfast, in order to strengthen the chances of Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP holding the seat and also to up the pressure on the SDLP to stand down in Fermanagh and South Tyrone where the Unionists have agreed a joint candidate.

This certainly changes McDonnell’s position from exceedingly vulnerable to rather more comfortable. I don’t, however, imagine that the SDLP are likely to return the favour by withdrawing star candidate Fearghal McKinney in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

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Dollhouse: Epitaph One

As with Flashforward, I haven’t seen a single episode of Dollhouse so wondered how much entertainment I would get from the Hugo-nominated final episode of the first series, “Epitaph One” (which was apparently never actually broadcast in the US). Not a lot, is the answer. I had no idea of the significance of the space found by the fugitives in 2019; there was no real plot resolution, just setting up (I suppose) more plot for the second series; and there simply was not enough Eliza Dushku. I shall re-watch the three nominated Doctor Who stories before making a final judgement, but I suspect that this is going fifth on my ballot.

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Victory of the Daleks

Given my travels it took me a couple of days to catch up with this one. Also since my net access has been weak since Saturday evening, I’ve managed to remain largely unspoiled.

I see fan opinion has been a bit mixed on this. I rather liked it. I have no objections to remodelling the Daleks. I am the sort of person who has difficulty in telling the difference between different types of car, and do not credit myself with any fashion sense whatever, but the new version looks to me more substantial and perhaps evil. In my rewatch of Old Who I’m about to hit the most fundamental redesign before this, that of the Cybermen in The Invasion, and I feel this one may have a similar impact.

Still less do I mind the Moffatt/Gatiss idea of actually giving the Daleks a narrative and some sense of continuity. Under RTD the Daleks always seemed to be utterly destryoed and then coming back again for more, rather like the Master in almost every story after Delgado. I think it is rather good that the Doctor explicitly realises that the story is not yet over for them.

I liked the explicit reference to Power of the Daleks and to Philip K. Dick’s classic short story “Imposter” (that last giving Amy her moment of awesome humanity over the Doctor). And a small note, but one where this episode scored over last week’s: Gatiss, unlike Moffatt, seems to be able to dial down the British patriotism even in episodes about the Coronation or Winston Churchill.

But I was not completely satisfied. An RTD who story like this would have been crammed with incident and Significance. This season’s shows seem less heavily laden, less emotionally charged, which overall is a relief but sometimes leaves me feeling that the result could have been mroe substantial.

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Flight woe

This is minor stuff compared to what others are going through, I realise, but I am going to tell you about it anyway. My flight from Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) to Juba (Sudan) failed to take off yesterday; the plane had come in about half an hour late from Djibouti and that made it too late for them to get back from Juba to Addis before dark.

So we were all booked into a decent enough hotel and given dinner vouchers etc, and warned to be ready for aq 0730 departure this morning. I woke up at 1 am and couldn’t get back to sleep.

At 4 am they called and said the flight will be further delayed, so we should stay put. Aaargh. I shall try and get some sleep now.

Looking ahead, I do hope that the air has cleared sufficiently by the weekend for me to get home form Africa on something like the original schedule…

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April Books 13) Kursaal, by Peter Anghelides

The Eighth Doctor Adventures, having tried vampires a bit earlier, now switch to werewolves – though werewolves on a distant planet which is being exploited by ruthless industrialists trying to turn it into a tourist resort. The werewolf bits are memorably nasty and scary; there is a somewhat clichéd but basically endearing tough cop who has to work out the mystery and also what the Doctor and Sam are doing; I wasn’t totally convinced by the political set-up, or by the handling of the climaxes of either half of the book. But if you like Doctor Who and you like werewolf stories you’ll probably like this one.

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April Books 12) Impossible Things, by Connie Willis

Connie Willis has won more Hugo awards for fiction than any other writer (and more Nebulas than anyone except Ursula Le Guin), and I’m not entirely sure why. Her best stories have a decent combination of humour and nostalgic mourning; her worst are sentimental glurge. This particular collection includes two of her four joint Hugo/Nebula winning stories – “The Last of the Winnebagos” and “Even The Queen”, both of which are decent enough; I found some of the others pretty incomprehensible (especially the last in the collection, “At The Rialto”) or shallow. Some of them are OK (best being “Jack”, a story of a vampire during the Blitz), and the collection probably represents Willis at the peak of her powers – for good or ill.

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April Books 11) Unauthorised Departure, by Maureen O’Brien

Maureen O'Brien is known to discerning Who fans as Vicki, the first ever 'new' companion to join Doctor Who after the series began. She is also the author of a series of seven detective novels about London policeman John Bright, which started in 1989 with Close Up On Death and finished (for now) in 2004 with Every Step You Take. This is the sixth in the series, and takes Bright and his girlfriend Jude to the French Jura to get away from the stress of his most recent case. The lover of the owner of their hotel is gruesomely murdered, Bright himself becomes a suspect in the eyes of the local police, and Jude is faced with even worse problems. I thought this was exceptionally good. We really get into the heads of the two main characters, negotiating a new and fairly brittle relationship against the background of his job and the French holiday which is intended to bring them together but does not have that effect. There is a major plot twist about two-thirds of the way through which I really did not see coming. O'Brien's writing is as gripping as Ian Rankin's, and sexier. I shall start looking out for the other books in the series.

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