Category Archives: review

Big Finish Review: Mistfall

Doctor Who: Mistfall

One of the things that keeps me from embracing the Big Finish range more than I do is that it seems too determined to maintain the sensibility of the classic Doctor Who serials from which it springs. No where is that more evident than in Andrew Smith’s latest offering to the range, Mistfall.

A sequel to Smith’s own Full Circle, the story finds the fifth Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa and Turlough heading back to Alzarius, just in time for Mistfall to happen again. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing, mind you, except that Alzarius is in a separate universe and the story spends a good bit of the first episode negotiating the TARDIS and our heroes back into e-space. Once we get there, we head to Alazarius where the Marshmen are rising from the swamps and people are trapped on the planet. There’s also a nefarious agenda involving the Marshmen thrown in for good measure.

Smith incorporates some aspects from his novelization of Full Circle here, but I just couldn’t quite get past the feeling that we’d been here before that pervades the first two installments. Things pick up a bit in the third part when the story begins to go in different directions, leading to a hurried fourth installment that tries to wrap up things a bit too quickly and neatly for my liking. The pacing for this one is entirely off and the story as a whole suffers for it.

And, of course, this being the current state of the main range for Big Finish, this one has to be the start of a trilogy of stories. Again, we’ve had a trilogy of stories in e-space and they were fairly successful the first time around. I can’t help but get the feeling of “here we go again” from the inevitable cliffanger to end the story, but dammit, if they don’t make it just intriguing enough that I want to come back and see how it all unfolds.

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Review: Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire

Taming the Beast

In many ways Emily Maguire’s Taming the Beast feels like a companion novel to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. But instead of getting inside the head of a charming liar like Humbert, Maguire examines how an illicit romance between a teacher and student can impact the lives of just about every one involved.

At the age of fourteen, Sarah Chalke is seduced by her English teacher. At first it’s their love of words and literature that brings them together, but one afternoon things become heated and the two begin an illicit (and illegal) romance, including lots of after school encounters. Sarah keeps the affair a secret from everyone but her best friend, Jaime, who is secretly in love with Sarah. Things end with Mr. Carr’s takes a new job at a different school and decides to try and work things out with his wife, who has become aware of the affair.

The emotional and psychological impact of the affair follows Sarah for her entire life, influencing every relationship and decision she has after that. Despite having an interest and drive to further her education, Sarah is estranged from her conservative family and forced to make it on her own in the world, taking on a string of short-term lovers, none of whom satisfy her needs in quite the same way Mr. Carr did. Sarah even strings Jaime along over the years, including during Jaime’s engagement, marriage and becoming a father. In many ways, Jaime sees himself as the only thing keeping Sarah from going off the deep end and maybe he can save her if he simply loves her enough.

Then one day, Mr. Carr wanders back into Sarah’s life and things go from bad to worse. Controlling and manipulative, Carr wants to dictate to Sarah all aspects of her life.

Taming the Beast is a book full of fascinating characters, none of them extremely likable. Each character is blinded by self-destructive tendencies and an ability to justify their behavior to themselves as “doing the right thing.” In many ways, this is a novel about addictions and self-delusion. It makes for a fascinating read for the first half of the book, but once Mr. Carr shows back up things take a left turn and the novel never quite recovers. It makes a bunch of likably unlikable characters completely unlikeable and I found myself becoming frustrated with the bad choices everyone was making. Maybe that’s what Maguire is going for in the novel. I’m not one who feels that every book should have a “happy ending.” But it still feels like this one just misses the mark when it comes to sticking the landing.

And yet, I can’t help but want to pick up another novel by Maguire to see what she’s going to do next.   I’m not sure what exactly this says about his book or me.

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Review: Trigger Warnings by Neil Gaiman

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

What can you say about a collection of stories that includes everything from the disturbingly sublime to a tie-in story featuring the Matt Smith Doctor to poetry?

If it’s a collection from Neil Gaiman, you just say thank you and enjoy reading it.

In his introduction Gaiman notes that certain books these days comes with warnings about things that may be disturbing to certain readers. However, he notes that once you get beyond a certain age that good writing shouldn’t have to come with these “trigger warnings” but instead that readers should expect them. He then offers a wide variety of stories, including ones with a tie to previous novels and other universes and a lot of original material. And while not all of these stories triggered a response with me, there were some that connected with me more than other. Of course, the Doctor Who story to help celebrate the show’s fiftieth anniversary was a hit with this fan, if only to (once again) see Gaiman’s love of the long running show come through yet again.

Another hit was “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” in which Gaiman channels his inner Bradbury.

In the introduction, Gaiman admits that were it not for his reputation and name, many wouldn’t pick up a collection of short stories all by one author or see it as anything more than a vanity project. It’s kind of a shame to admit he may be more right than he knows — especially when you see just how good at the short story he can be. Like Bradbury, Gaiman works well in long and short form.

And while this may not be his best collection, it’s still got enough good and great stories to make it worth your reading time.

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Review: Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Funny Girl

All Barbara wants to do is grow up and be the next Lucille Ball. Fascinated by the world of comedy, she heads to London to pursue fame, fortune and a career in comedy. At first, she struggles to find acting work and toils away at her day job. Then one day, she goes to an audition, ends up charming the producers and helps to co-create a hit British sit-com about a couple of complete opposites who attract and get married.

Changing her name to Sophie Straw (ironically, her character on the show is named Barbara), she becomes the next big thing in comedy in the UK.

If you think I’m giving away too much, I can tell you that most of what I’ve described above happens in the first third of Nick Hornby’s latest novel Funny Girl. In the past, Hornby has created worlds with flawed male protagonists who struggle with women and the people who love them. With Funny Girl he goes outside his usual comfort zone and ends up with a fascinating character portrait.

Don’t get too worried — there are still lots of flawed people here who make all kinds of mistakes. But instead of having a male who needs to grow up a bit, Hornby offers a look inside the world of British comedy during a certain era. Funny Girl is easy to get swept up in and there were times I found myself wishing that the fictional show Hornby details actually existed for us to see (though in all likelihood, the BBC would have destroyed the master tapes of it…no, I’m not bitter that we’re still missing close to a 100 episodes of Doctor Who from this era…why do you ask?).

A fast, funny novel from Hornby and one that shows a new side and range to this author.

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Review: A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison

A Small Indiscretion

Annie Black seems to have the perfect life — a wonderful husband and three children. But when her oldest son is involved in a car wreck, secrets from Annie’s past rear their ugly head, threatening to destroy the life she’s built.

Told as a letter written from Annie to her comatose son A Small Indiscretion chronicles Annie’s life then and now and the mistakes she made along the way. At nineteen, Annie impulsively decides to head to Europe to find herself. What she finds instead is a job, working for an older, married man named Malcolm. A large part of her job involves going to the pub each evening with Malcolm and hearing about his wife and their unusual marriage — seems that the wife is having an affair with an artist named Patrick. Before long, Annie is drawn into this world and finds herself sleeping with Patrick all while fending off Malcolm’s growing advances.

Twenty years later, Annie has created a seemingly perfect life. Married to a doctor and running her own business, Annie seems to have it all. Until it all comes crashing down on her when an old face from the past emerges and her secrets begin to come to light.

I’ll give A Small Indiscretion credit for coming up with an interesting little twist that I didn’t necessarily see coming (I thought I’d figured out exactly what the titular indiscretion was long before Annie is ready or willing to reveal it to us) but that is nicely set-up and paid off during the course of the novel. The letter writing style is nicely done, allowing us to see inside some of Annie’s thought processes but only giving us as much or as little as she’s willing or able to give at the time.

And yet I couldn’t help but come away from the novel feeling a bit disappointed overall. The first and final thirds of the book are utterly riveting as we get to know Annie, her family and the situation. It’s in the middle third that I felt like things were treading water a bit, with Annie dropping hint after hint things but not offering anything more to her son and readers. I found myself growing frustrated with the middle section of the book wishing that Annie would tell us something that we didn’t already know already. Maybe that’s the point or what Jan Ellison is trying to have readers feel in this section.

Overall, the novel is a good one. I’ve seen the marketing materials compare it to The Girl on the Train which I think is a bit unfair to both books. This one is uniquely different and doesn’t have quite the same central, driving mystery Train does.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this book as part of the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: The Bone Tree by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree

Greg Iles triumphant return to the small town of Natchez continues in the middle installment of a new trilogy, The Bone Tree. Thankfully, Tree doesn’t suffer from middle installment syndrome with characters doing a lot of treading water as we slowly set up things for the final race to the finish line.

Iles spends the first third of the book allowing his characters to reflect on the events of Natchez Burning and slowly moving pieces into place for novel’s final acts. But once the revelations start coming, Iles piles them on fast and furiously, making the novel’s final six hundred or so pages fly by and leaving you curious to see what will happen next.

Mayor Penn Cage continues to juggle multiple crises — from his father being on the run from the police and wanted in connection with the death of state trooper to his fiancee not filing him fully on what she knows about the cases unfolding to his own agenda to try and exonerate his father all while uncovering the truths that have long been buried (both literally and figuratively) surrounding racial relations in his own small town, our country and just how that could tie into bigger conspiracy theories (including the shooting of JFK, RFK and MLK). The longer page count of the novel allows time for some of these events to sink in and to impact Cage (and a multitude of other characters) decisions. Seeing the forces aligned against Cage and the other various forces working with him is fascinating and while we may not necessarily root for the various opponents stacked up against Cage, Iles at least allows us to understand their motivations.

And while it’s not quite as fast paced as the first installment in this trilogy, it’s still every bit as page turning and compelling. Once I hit the mid-way point of the novel, it was next to impossible to put down and I was once again left wanting more when the final page was turned.

At this point, I’m not sure how Iles will wrap things up in the next book, but I know that I’ll eagerly be waiting for it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this book as part of the Amazon Vine Program.

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Review: Not A Drill by Lee Child

Not a Drill (Short Story)

Hitchhiking his way across the country, Reacher ends up in Maine near the Canadian border. Picked up by tourists from Canada, Reacher shares a ride and a meal with them (in a diner, because where else would Jack Reacher have a meal?!?), he parts ways with them. Only to find a few hours later that the trails are closed and the military police are out in force.

Reacher is drawn into the mystery of what happened to the hikers and what the military police are so intent on hiding from the world at large.

As far as Reacher stories go, this one is a perfectly entertaining enough one. Honestly, it felt a lot more complete and enjoyable that the last longer Reacher novel in the series. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and it tells an effective little mystery.

One of the better Reacher novellas that Lee Child has published in the last few years.

I listened to this one as an audio book, read by Dick Hill.  It runs ninety minutes and it never felt like there was any dead period where my interest waned.   I’m grateful my local library allowed me to download this as part of their digital audio collection.

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