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Viewing Blog: Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone, Most Recent at Top
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I'm an independent scholar (ie. not attached to a university) based in Oxford. I write and read every day - sometimes I read an entire book a day, sometimes I don't, but I rarely average less than 6 books a week. I did a degree in English and History in the late 90s as a mature student, but I've loved these subjects since my school days. I concentrated on studying First World War literature and history for most of my degree, until I wrote a paper on Harry Potter in my final semester. I've been writing about fantasy fiction (for children and for adults) ever since (although I haven't lost my interest in the First World War.) I also do a 'day job' which isn't very well paid, but does keep me in Oxford and therefore near to the Bodleian Library and is flexible enough to give me time to write.
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1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J K Rowling



So that's it then - the last book in the Harry Potter series has been published, devoured, demolished and discussed endlessly. If you're not all talked out already, please feel free to post here and share your likes and dislikes about the book, how you feel about the Epilogue (which seems to have divided fans) and what you feel worked or didn't work...

For my part, I enjoyed it and thought it was a reasonably satisfying conclusion to the series. I was glad that I was proved right about Harry not having it in him to kill Voldemort, and very glad that Neville, Ginny and Luna lived up to my expectations of playing significant roles (even if they didn't do so in the way I'd hoped).

I was intrigued by the two quotations that started the book, and I thought Rowling did a fairly good job of tying up the loose ends. Dumbledore's back-story was intriguing and interesting as was Snape's, although I think many of us had already guessed that he loved Lily.

Now it's over to you.

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2. Doctor Who Season 3 - "The Sound of Drums" / "The Last of the Time Lords"

That's it then. "Doctor Who" season 3 has finished airing and whilst the season overall was fantastic, the finale was a disappointment. Still, let us begin at the beginning. "Utopia" finished with the Doctor, Martha and Jack stranded at the end of the universe and without the TARDIS after Professor Yana recovered his Time Lord essence and became the Master then was forced to regenerate into John Simm's Master before stealing the TARDIS. Oh and if you're not familiar with Classic Doctor Who, then I should explain that The Master is even more of a renegade Time Lord than even the Doctor plus he's insane and very intent on wiping out humanity (and just about everything else, for that matter !).

Anyway, the Doctor uses his Sonic Screwdriver to fuse the co-ordinates on the TARDIS so that the Master can only travel between the end of the universe and the last place she had visited (Martha's London). He then repairs Jack's Vortex Manipulator and he, Jack and Martha use it to travel back to Martha's London where they discover that Harold Saxon (aka The Master) has just been elected Prime Minister. The trio repair to Martha's flat where they search the internet for information on Saxon before tuning into a TV broadcast in which the Master announcing he has some new alien friends, the Toclafane (causing the Doctor to demand "What?" in utter disbelief) before making a reference to medical students, that causes the Doctor to check the back of Martha's TV (where a "comedy" batch of dynamite is fixed). The three race out of the flat just in time to avoid being blown up (of course!), then Martha rings her mother where she and Martha's father are being guarded by Saxon's agents. Martha insists, against the Doctor's wishes, on going over to her mother's house, only to find Saxon's agents are waiting for them (cue stunt driving from Freema Agyeman to make their escape).

The Tenth Doctor gadget building again.

The three abandon Martha's car and the Doctor engages in a lengthy conversation in which he futilely tries to reason with the Master before they are forced to go on the run after spotting a TV broadcast which claims they are terrorists. They hide out in a warehouse where the Doctor explains, briefly, just who the Master is, before discovering that the Master has been using the worldwide Archangel phone network which he was responsible for having installed, to subliminally influence Britons into voting him into power at No. 10. The Doctor then does some technical jiggery-pokery and turns his, Martha's and Jack's TARDIS keys into perception filters that make the trio unnoticeable, rather than invisible, so long as they're quiet and stealthy. The trio set off for the airport where the US President has just arrived on AirForce One to join the Prime Minister in officially meeting the Toclafane. After some snippy dialogue between the PM and the President, a van arrives with Martha's parents and sister Tish aboard. The Master sends them off to the Valiant, the aircraft carrier on which the Toclafane meeting will take place. The Doctor, Jack and Martha use Jack's Vortex Manipulator to transport themselves aboard the Valiant (a la Star Trek).

Transporting aboard the Valiant.

Once aboard the Valiant, the trio find the TARDIS only to discover that the Master has bastardised the TARDIS and turned into a red-lit Paradox Machine and the Doctor has no idea for what he's planning to use it. The trio sneak into the conference room where the Doctor is hoping he can place his TARDIS key perception filter around the Master's neck so that everyone will see him for who he really is. Unfortunately, it doesn't work and the Master turns his Laser Screwdriver ("because who'd have a sonic one?") on the Doctor, having acquired the technology used by Professor Lazarus (way back in episode 6) and the Doctor's DNA (from his severed hand he took aboard the TARDIS before he regenerated) and ages him up by 100 years, leaving him at the Master's mercy. The Master also shoots Jack and the Doctor tells Martha to use Jack's Vortex Manipulator to escape from the Valiant as the Master uses the TARDIS Paradox Machine to open a rift through which millions of Toclafane come flooding in order to decimate the Earth's population (and he even explains he means kill one tenth of the population!).

The Tenth Doctor looking rather less sprightly and gorgeous than usual.

So off Martha goes, to save the world - we hope - though no one can guess how she might achieve that without the Doctor's help. "The Last of the Time Lords" opens one year later with the Master in full-on megalomaniac mode, singing along to the Scissor Sisters as he whizzes the Doctor around the conference room in a wheelchair. Martha meanwhile is returning to Britain, having spent the last year walking alone around the world, apparently collecting the separate components of a gun created by either UNIT (an old ally of the Doctor's with whom his third incarnation worked) or Torchwood in order to kill the Master. She goes to see an older woman professor to ask for her helping in finding out what the Toclafane are and discovers they're actually the people who were waiting to take the rocket to Utopia (in the episode of that name), who did get to Utopia and found it far from perfect and whom the Master has brought back to earth via the TARDIS (which you will remember can only travel between the end of the Universe and Martha's London). The Toclafane have come to destroy the population of Earth in one of those peculiar destroy your ancestors paradoxes (see The Grandfather Paradox for example).

Martha witnesses a TV broadcast from the Master in which he decides to age the Doctor to look like his real 900+ years (and at the same time suspends his ability to regenerate), leaving him looking like a cross between Yoda and Dobby the House Elf (at least the production team went for CGI not prosthetics for this bit), but Martha's not fazed because the Doctor's still alive. She sets off to go and collect the final part of the gun from an old UNIT base somewhere else in London. Hearing that Martha is back on Earth (the Professor reports this fact since she wants to find out if her son is still alive), the Master leaves the Valiant to pick up Martha and finds her at a house half-way to the UNIT base where she's gone, with her guide Tom, to spend the night before continuing on to the base the following day.

The Master takes Martha to the Valiant so that he can kill her in front of the Doctor, but she reveals that she hasn't been travelling the world to pick up the gun components, as she told Tom and the Professor; instead she's been telling as many people around the world as she can about the Doctor with the intention that everyone will think of the Doctor at a very specific time - just as the Master's about to launch his rockets to begin a war on the rest of the universe. During the preceding year the Doctor has been "tuning into" the physic network that the Master has deployed via the Archangel network so that when the time comes and everyone thinks of him, he will be restored to his usual youthful self - and apparently also gain some super powers (this is probably the most hokey aspect of this episode). He prevents the Master from using his Laser Screwdriver, then turns back time by a year and a day, to the moment when the US President has just been killed. He then tells the Master the one thing that he doesn't want to hear, that he forgives him. The Master tries to run away but Jack stops him; the Doctor says he will make the Master his responsibility and keep him aboard the TARDIS. Martha's mother threatens to shoot the Master, but the Doctor takes the gun from her; however Lucy Saxon picks it up and shoots him instead (no, it's not made clear why). Instead of regenerating, the Master chooses to die in the Doctor's arms so that he will "win" and thus ensuring that the Doctor really IS the last of the Time Lords after all (or is he - knowing Russell T Davies, I won't put money on that!). The Doctor burns the Master's body on a huge pyre then takes Jack back to Cardiff and his Torchwood team, before taking Martha to see her family. She then returns to the TARDIS to tell the Doctor that she's not going to be travelling with him because her family needs her. And yes, that does feel like a kick in the teeth to Martha's fans, especially when she tells the Doctor that she's been feeling like she's second best (because of his regular references to Rose), but now she knows she's not second best at all. The only good news is that RTD has promised that Martha will be back later in season 4, after a three episode stint at Torchwood. The episode ended with the Titanic (apparently the cruise-liner, but it's not clear) crashing into the side of the TARDIS and the Doctor shouting "What? WHAT?" (just as he did when Donna Noble turned up in the TARDIS at the end of last year's finale "Doomsday" - it's getting old, Davies, do you hear me ?!) This was a teaser for the Christmas Special, "The Voyage of the Damned", which will star diminutive pop songstress, Kylie Minogue.

The Tenth Doctor, waiting for his Companion to rejoin him.

Talking of Donna Noble, it's been announced that she will be the Doctor's full time Companion during season 4. Fans were largely shocked and many of us are hoping that RTD will have toned down Donna's rather aggravating character who shouted alomst incessantly and was actually pretty thick, to make her more believable Companion material.

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3. The Boy Who Lost His Face - Louis Sachar


Louis Sachar's The Boy Who Lost His Face is an intriguing book, that's mostly a look at peer pressure, but also considers friendship and responsibility.

David Ballinger is desperate to be part of the popular crowd to which his best friend since second grade, Scott Simpson, now belongs. He goes along with Scott, Roger and Randy when they decide to play a cruel stunt on an old lady, Mrs Bayfield. The boys have decided to steal her snake-headed walking stick, but they don't stop there; one tips her backwards in her chair, another pours lemonade in her face; they also trample her flowers and break a window with the lemonade jug. David stands and watches, but doesn't participate. Then, as he's about to leave, he makes a rude gesture at Mrs Bayfield who appears to put a curse on him.

Soon afterwards David starts to feel very guilty about what the boys have done. He soon comes to believe that the old lady is a witch and that the curse she put on him is affecting his life when things start to go wrong, such as when he breaks a window and nearly injures his baby sister with his baseball. Things get progressively worse - his adoring younger brother Ricky, suddenly hates him and he walks into his Spanish class with his fly undone. The last straw, though, comes when David's trousers fall down just as he's talking to the girl of his dreams about going on a date. Convinced that this can't just be bad luck, he rushes off to see Mrs Bayfield who tells him to bring back her walking stick. He thinks that she will remove the curse if he does so. But things don't turn out quite the way that David expects.

I thoroughly enjoy reading The Boy Who Lost His Face - I've actually lost count of how many times I've read it, but it's probably at least six. And even though I know what happens and how it ends, I still enjoy the suspense of Sachar's repetition of "Little did he know that one day his own face would be hanging on her wall." Somehow that remains spooky and slightly unnerving, even on re-reading. I love all of Sachar's books that I've read; his sense of humour and playfulness are always very apparent, and his themes are never conveyed in a heavy-handed manner. I was surprised to discover this morning, a reference to it being a frequently challenged book.

What do you think of this book, and in particular, what are your thoughts on the Epilogue ?

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4. Doctor Who Season 3 - "Utopia"

Only two more episodes of Doctor Who's third season remain - which is a scary thought (even if I am planning to watch all three seasons back to back during July and August!). What's even more scary is that there are rumours that this season's finale won't actually be final - that it'll end on a cliff-hanger that won't be resolved until the Christmas Special. Argh ! I don't want to think about the prospect of waiting 6 months for the resolution... In the meantime, last week's episode, "Utopia" saw the return of two Doctor Who characters, one from the classic era and one from the New era: The Master, the Doctor's arch-nemesis, and Capt. Jack Harkness, respectively. This episode is actually the first part in a three-part build up to the end of the season, so if you get the chance watch "Utopia", "The Sound of Drums" and "The Last of the Time Lords" back to back without a break !


Captain Jack Harkness, the Doctor and Martha Jones


My biggest complaint with this episode is that it's largely filler - it's a way of re-introducing Captain Jack, whom we haven't seen in "Doctor Who" since the end of season 1, and of introducing The Master to New Doctor Who. So for the first thirty minutes or so, not a lot happens. The episode opens with the Doctor and Martha landing the TARDIS on the time rift in Cardiff to refuel (something the Ninth Doctor did in season 1's "Boom Town). Captain Jack appears in the distance, running madly towards the TARDIS, shouting for the Doctor. The Doctor sees him on the view screen in the TARDIS, but ignores him and the TARDIS dematerialises - but with Jack clinging to the outside, which propels the TARDIS forward in time thousands of years, and in space, to the very edge of the universe, where the last remnants of humanity are still clinging to existence. Outside their compound exists a race of mutated humans who are vicious, savage and enjoy hunting down (and presumably eating) regular humans. The TARDIS lands and Martha asks the Doctor what's out there. He admits he doesn't know, and she asks him to repeat that since it's rare that he doesn't know where they are (or anything else!) After the Doctor suggests to Martha that they should really leave, the pair hurry outside where Martha spots Jack lying on the ground nearby, apparently dead. She dashes back inside the TARDIS whilst the Doctor says greets Jack less than enthusiastically. Just as Martha is telling the Doctor that Jack is dead, he springs back into life, scaring her silly, although she soon recovers when he flirtatiously introduces himself. Martha's a bit shocked when the Doctor reveals that he knows Jack and that he used to travel with the Doctor.

We then cut to Jack explaining to Martha what happened to him (something "Torchwood" viewers waited 13 weeks for in vain) - that he woke up alive on Satellite Five after being exterminated by the Daleks and he used his Vortex Manipulator (a watch-like device he wears on his wrist) to get back to Earth. He sarcastically notes that the Doctor's not "the only one who can time travel", prompting the Doctor to reply "Oh excuse me! That is not time travel. It's like I've got a sports car and you've got a space-hopper" and Martha to comment "Oh-ho! Boys and their toys!" Martha then asks the Doctor if he makes a habit of abandoning his Companions in odd places around the universe and Jack makes a snide comment about "Unless you're blonde", prompting Martha to say (of Rose) "Oh so she was blonde". This causes the Doctor to lose his temper with them both, pointing out that they're "at the end of the Universe. Eh? Right at the edge of knowledge itself and you're busy - BLOGGING!"

Moments later they spot a human being chased by a group of humanoids (the vicious futurekind as they've been dubbed) and the three go haring to the rescue, only to find themselves even more out-numbered than they'd realised, and their route back to the TARDIS cut off as well. The man whom they've attempted to rescue suggests they ruin for the silo and the four hare off with the futurekind in hot pursuit. Once inside, someone tells Professor Yana (Sir Derek Jacobi) via an intercom that four humans have arrived and one of them's a doctor. He gets excited and rushes down to meet the four. He rushes the Doctor back to his lab and starts talking about the technology he's been trying to use to send a rocket out to Utopia which humanity is desperate to reach. Unsurprisingly, the Doctor steps in, and despite knowing nothing of the technology, helps out and gets it working in no time.

Up until this point, not much has happened, except that Professor Yana reveals that all his life he's had a noise in his head - the sound of drums - which has been getting louder as if they're getting closer. Then one of the futurekind, who has at some point snuck inside the compound, causes some havoc, which means the power fails and the radiation in the room where the rocket couplings are being prepared for the take off, reaches critical - and there's no way of restoring the power or lowering the radiation levels quickly. So the Doctor volunteers indestructible Captain Jack (who, since Rose's actions in looking into the heart of the TARDIS, taking the power of the Vortex into herself and restoring Jack to life, cannot die), to enter the room below the rocket so that he can deal with the couplings. He and the Doctor then discuss Jack's situation (one on either side of a door) and their conversation is overheard by Martha, Professor Yana and his assistant Chanto (a blue alien who looks like a humanoid bug). Bits of the conversation start to echo through Yana's brain and then Martha discovers that he has a fob-watch which is very similar to the one the Doctor had in "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood", which the Doctor used to contain his Time Lord essence whilst he was a human. Yana explains that the watch doesn't work and can't be opened, explaining that he's had it all his life, ever since he was found as a naked child on the shores of the Silver Devastation. Martha realises the watch's significance and runs to tell the Doctor about it, but whilst she's gone Yana opens the watch, restoring his true self. And his true self is revealed to be The Master, the Doctor's greatest enemy.

But the episode doesn't end there. The Doctor, Jack and Martha race back to Yana's lab, but they're too late. The Master has attacked Chanto, intending to kill her, revealing that he's never really liked her (although that's really the Master, not the Professor speaking) and expressing anger that in the 17 years she's worked with him, she never thought to ask him about the watch, which he's barely paid attention to as it's had a perception filter on it - just as the Doctor's did. He picks up the Doctor's hand (which had been chopped off by the leader of the Sycorax way back in "The Christmas Invasion" (Tennant's first episode as the Doctor) which Jack had kept stored in a jar at Torchwood Three to act as a "Doctor detector") and takes it aboard the TARDIS. Just as the Master is preparing to leave, Chanto shoots him and the Doctor and co. arrive - having had to fight their way through two locked doors and race against the futurekind (whom the Master had allowed into the compound).

After Chanto shoots him, the Master is forced to regenerate (from Derek Jacobi into John Simm) and he has a quick conversation with the Doctor, tauting him from the safety of the TARDIS (which he's locked from the inside) before he disappears with the TARDIS, leaving the others trapped at the end of the Universe.

And leaving the viewer wondering how they will get back to Earth - and just what plans Harold Saxon (the Master) has for Earth when he's elected as Prime Minister...


Professor Yana and the Doctor

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5. Doctor Who Season 3 - "Blink"


Continuing the tradition established in season 2 of Doctor Who, this episode is what's known to fans as the "Doctor-Lite" episode - we see less of the Doctor and his Companion in this episode. This is a decision made by the production team after the BBC asked for a Christmas Special after season 1 did well, meaning that they were actually making and needing to budget for 14 episodes instead of the 13 originally planned and budgeted for by the production team. The episode is filmed at the same time as at least one other (in a process known to the production team as "double-banking") and in addition to allowing 14 episodes to be filmed in the same time as 13 were in season 1, it also gives the leads a slightly less exhausting schedule. Last year's "Doctor-Lite" episode was "Love and Monsters", which I largely liked, apart from the ending (which spoils the rest of the episode for me). Steve Moffat's "Blink", on the other hand, is marvellous - although I failed to find it at all scary, which has baffled most of my Whovian friends !

Sally Sparrow goes to visit a house named Wester Drumlins - a rather dilapidated building that's not been lived in many years. Whilst she's there, taking photos, she spots a bit of wallpaper hanging down with some writing behind, and pulls it loose to find a message from the Doctor, dated 1969, that warns her to beware of the "Weeping Angels" and telling her to "Duck now!" She does, just a piece of pottery is thrown at her head. She goes back to the house the following day with her friend Cathy Nightingale, mainly to prove that she's not imagining the message. Whilst she and Cathy are looking around, someone rings the doorbell and a young man gives Sally a letter, telling her that he'd been told he could find her in the house at exactly this time. She opens the letter but when she asks who told him, he answers that it was his grandmother, who died 20 years ago, and her maiden name was Cathy Nightingale. Assuming that the young man is playing a prank, she rushes upstairs to discover that Cathy has disappeared. Moments later we see her in Hull in 1920 talking to a young man. Cathy has been sent back in time by one of the Weeping Angel statues that lurk around the house.

It turns out that the statues are actually psychopathic hunters with a unique method of dispatching their prey: with a single touch, they push their victims decades into the past (the number of years appears to be completely random), leaving the victims to live out their lives a generation or more before they were even born. The Angels then feed on the "potential energy" of the lives their victims would have lived in the present. They have the ability to move with blinding speed in order to catch their victims and they also have a unique, completely perfect defence mechanism. Whilst any living being is looking at them, they are reduced to the literal stone statues they resemble, a state which the Doctor describes as Quantum Locked, which prevents them from being killed (since you cannot kill a stone). This is the reason for their appearance of weeping - the same rule applies to others of their species, meaning that if one looks upon another, they would both be forever locked in stone. By virtue of their defence mechanism, the Angels can't be seen moving.


According to the Doctor, the Weeping Angels are a very old species who have existed since the dawn of the universe, and he describes them as "creatures of the abstract". He also notes that they are the kindest of killers, as their method of "killing" their prey doesn't actually kill, it just dispatches them into the past. A quartet of the Weeping Angels have stranded the Doctor and Martha in 1969 without the TARDIS, which they have kept in order to feed from its potential energy. The Doctor uses DVD "Easter Eggs" (the hidden extras that appear on some DVDs) to communicate with Sally and guide her to send the TARDIS back to him and Martha.

Cathy's letter to Sally asks her to tell her brother Laurence, whom Sally had briefly met at Cathy’s house the night before, that his sister is safe and that she loves him. After she delivers this message, she sees the Doctor talking on a DVD and Laurence explains about the Easter Eggs which only appear on 17 completely unrelated DVDs, a list of which he gives to Sally. She then goes to the police and talks to DI Billy Shipton, who tells her that many people have vanished from around Wester Drumlins without explanation, some even leaving their cars with the engine still running. He shows her an old Police Public Call Box that was also found near the house before he too vanishes, finding himself back in 1969 where he meets the Doctor and Martha. Sally gets a phone call on her mobile from a hospital and meets Billy who is now an old man and dying. He tells Sally what he can of his conversation with the Doctor before he dies. Sally then goes to see Laurence, having realised that the 17 DVDs do have one thing in common - they're all the DVDs she owns.

She and Laurence go back to Wester Drumlins and watch one of the DVD Easter Eggs where she has a "conversation" with the Doctor - he has a transcript of their conversation on his auto-cue - Laurence has made a copy of the things the Doctor says in the Easter Egg, then records Sally's responses to the Doctor's remarks, creating a transcript of their conversation which the Doctor tells Sally he picked up in the future. She and Laurance manage to get the TARDIS back to the Doctor despite being attacked by four of the Weeping Angels.

A year later, she sees the Doctor and Martha getting out a taxi outside the shop that she and Laurence now run, and she gives him her file of information relating to the case, including a transcript of both sides of the Easter Egg conversation, thus setting in motion the whole thing again in a continuous paradox.


Steve Moffat comes up trumps with this story, just as he did with his season 1 two-parter "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" (two of my favourite episodes of season 1) and his season 2 episode "The Girl in the Fireplace" (one of my favourite season 1 episodes). The story is based on a short story he wrote for the 2006 Doctor Who annual, which the BBC have made available on their website.

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6. Doctor Who Season 3 - "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood"

David Tennant as the Edwardian John Smith

In Paul Cornell's fabulous two-parter "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood" (adapted from his very popular and critically acclaimed novel Human Nature), David Tennant's Tenth Doctor and his companion Martha Jones find themselves in 1913 England on the run from The Family Of Blood, a small group of aliens who exist in a green gaseous form until they possess human bodies. For their escape to work, the Doctor uses a Chameleon Arch to hide his Time Lord essence in a fob watch and becomes an ordinary human. He becomes a school teacher named John Smith and finds employment teaching history (appropriately enough for a person so familiar with all of history) at a private school.

Martha meanwhile finds work at the school as a maid and does her best to keep an eye on the Doctor (not easy, since he doesn't actually remember who she is) and waits for the time when the Family Of Blood will die as their life spans are short; she and the Doctor don't expect to be at the school for more than three months (when the story opens, it's November and they've been at the school for 2 months already). Once the Family dies, Martha will open the watch and the Doctor's Time Lord essence will be returned allowing him to become the Doctor once more. Unfortunately for Martha, an unusual boy named Tim Latimer (played brilliantly and beautifully by Thomas Sangster of Love Actually and Nanny McPhee fame) takes the watch from John Smith's mantle shelf when he's in Smith's office to collect a book, and opens it. He releases some of the Doctor's memories and allows the Family Of Blood (who've arrived in the area by this time and begun to inhabit various members of the surrounding community and one of the students, Jeremy Baines) to scent out the Time Lord essence contained in the watch.

Unfortunately, John Smith has begun a relationship with Matron Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes nee Stevenson), the school nurse, to whom John Smith shows his Journal of Impossible Things - a record of his dreams of his life as the Doctor, though he doesn't know that's what his dreams are about.


A page from The Journal of Impossible Things
showing all ten incarnations of the Doctor.
(Left hand page: Ten and Nine;
Right hand page, left to right, top to bottom:
Four, Three, Two, Seven, Eight, One, Six, Five)


The first episode ends with the four members of the Family arriving at the November 11 village dance to persuade John Smith to turn back into the Doctor as they want his Time Lord biodata to allow them to survive beyond their usual short lifespans. The cliff-hanger ending of the episode sees Baines insisting that John Smith turn back into the Doctor or choose between who will die - his friend (Martha) or his lover (Joan). Since John Smith isn't the Doctor, it's up to Martha to get them out of this impossible situation, which she does by executing a nifty move that allows her to claim the gun belonging to the Mother of the Family, and threatening to kill Baines. She then shouts at John to get everyone out before making a run for it herself when one of the Family's creepy scarecrow soldier turns up and snatches the gun from her. (One of the episode's funniest lines comes from Martha moments later, when she hurtles out of the village hall to find John and Joan standing outside still: "Don't just stand there, MOVE ! God you're rubbish as a human!")

The three of them get back to the school where John sets about sounding the alarm (ringing a handbell in this case) and telling the boys to arm themselves to fight against the Family. The Headmaster turns up and berates them without bothering to find out what's going on (pompous ass!), then agrees that the boys should be armed and, ignoring Martha's advice (since she's merely a servant), goes outside with another teacher to talk to Baines and the others (who've arrived by this point). The second teacher (a Red Shirt if ever there was one, since I can't recall his name !) is killed by Baines and the Head flees back into the school. The boys then set up a barricade in the courtyard, although Latimer runs off, still carrying the fob watch. He uses it to try to distract the Family once the Scarecrow soldiers have all been shot (though not killed, because you can't kill a scarecrow except, perhaps, by burning it).



John, Martha and Joan then flee the school and head for a cottage that belonged to the parents of the little girl (with the red balloon) whom the Family have taken over, and on the way there Martha insists that John has to return to being the Doctor because only he can save them from the Family. He gives a moving speech about wanting to remain John Smith:

"I am John Smith. That's all I want to be, John Smith, with his life and his job and his love. Why can't I be John Smith ? Isn't he a good man ? Why can't I stay ?"

Shortly after they arrive at the cottage, Tim Latimer turns up with the watch and explains that it's been "talking" to him (he can hear the voices from the Doctor's consciousness that are trapped inside it). He tells John that the watch wants him to become the Doctor again, but he doesn't know why he's been able to hear the voices. Whilst holding the watch John suddenly, briefly, lapses back into his Doctor persona to explain that Tim probably has a low-level telepathic ability that allows him to "hear" the memories stored in the watch. He looks in terror at Martha and asks if the Doctor always sounds like that and she says he does. John wants to know why Martha and Tim want him to return to being the Doctor and Tim Latimer tells him:

He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm and the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of Time and he can see the turn of the Universe. And he's wonderful.

A speech that I have to confess had me in tears. Finally Joan asks Tim and Martha to give her and John some time alone, and she allows him to talk himself into becoming the Doctor again, although not without them first sharing a brief vision of what John and Joan's life could be - marriage, children, dying of old age knowing his children and grandchildren are safe (and kudos to the make-up and prosthetics people for the fantastic ageing job they did on David for the sake of one brief scene).

Finally John goes to the Family's spaceship (they've been busy firing on the village whilst John, Martha, Joan and Tim have been talking at the cottage) and offers them the watch, which they accept, but it's a trick - John has already returned to being the Doctor (although he uses the equivalent of "olfactory ventriloquism" (don't ask !)) to disguise his Time Lord scent in order to fool them. He presses a host of buttons which set up a feedback loop in the fuel lines that blows up the ship, then he punishes the Family in various fairly cruel and harsh ways. He then heads back to the cottage to invite Joan to go with him and Martha, which she understandably refuses. He heads back to the TARDIS, where Martha's waiting for him, and Tim turns up to say goodbye. The Doctor gives him the watch, which is just a watch now, and then they say goodbye and disappear. We have a brief scene of Latimer and one of the other boys from the school during one of the many WW1 battles just avoiding being blown up by a shell, and then the episode closes with the Doctor and Martha attending an Armistice Day service which Tim, as an old man in a wheelchair, is also attending, still clutching the Doctor's watch.

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7. The Ruby in the Smoke - Philip Pullman


In Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke 16 year old Sally Lockhart lives in Victorian London. Her mother died during the Indian Mutiny when she was a baby and now her father, a shipping agent, has been drowned whilst out in the Far East. One morning she receives a cryptic note that warns her of danger but tells her that "Marchbanks will help", although she knows no one by that name. She decides to visit her father’s offices and asks Higgs, the company secretary, about the note. However, when she mentions "the Seven Blessings" to him (one of the things mentioned in the note), he has a heart attack and dies. Shortly afterwards she talks to Jim, the office boy, who had overheard Sally’s conversation with Higgs and he offers to help Sally find out why her father died.

Whilst Sally is thus engaged, Mrs Holland (a nasty old woman who runs a grim lodging house in Hangman's Wharf at Wapping) has intimidated a Major Marchbanks into leaving an immensely valuable ruby to her in his Will. Marchbanks writes to Sally warning her of danger but insisting also that he must see her. When she goes to see him in Kent, he is very scared because Mrs. Holland is also there. He gives Sally an old diary and sends her away but Mrs. Holland follows her; fortunately Sally is able to hide in the dark tent of a photographer, Frederick Garland, whom she had already met on the riverbank as she was heading to Major Marchbanks' home. As she's heading back to London on the train, Sally reads the diary Marchbanks gave her, but she falls asleep and when she wakes up, the diary has been stolen although a few loose sheets from have dropped, unseen, onto the floor. Mrs Holland, who had arranged for the theft of the diary, wants the loose pages and will stop at nothing to get them back. Besides, she has a grudge of her own against the Lockharts and she intends to get her revenge on Sally as the last surviving member of the family.

Simultaneously, Matthew Bedwell, a sailor who is struggling against his opium addiction, arrives at the docks and takes a lodging with Mrs Holland. She supplies him with opium because in his delirium he mentions fragments of his own story, which is concerned with Sally’s father and the sinking of his ship. In fact Lockhart had given Bedwell instructions to find Sally and give her a message. From what she can piece together from Bedwell’s ramblings, Mrs Holland realises that she has some very useful information with which to bribe Mr Lockhart’s business partner. In the meantime, Sally, with the help of Jim and Frederick Garland, must discover what is going on before something terrible happens to her.

Discussing the Sally Lockhart series of books, Philip Pullman says on his website

Historical thrillers, that's what these books are. Old-fashioned Victorian blood-and-thunder. Actually, I wrote each one with a genuine cliché of melodrama right at the heart of it, on purpose: the priceless jewel with a curse on it – the madman with a weapon that could destroy the world – the situation of being trapped in a cellar with the water rising – the little illiterate servant girl from the slums of London who becomes a princess ... And I set the stories up so that each of those stock situations, when they arose, would do so naturally and with the most convincing realism I could manage.

Some questions about the book that you might want to consider and discuss:

1. If you had read His Dark Materials before reading The Ruby in the Smoke, did this book meet your expectations or disappoint you ?

2. In the quotation from Philip Pullman above, he says he tried to make the central cliché form a natural and realistic part of the story. Do you think he succeeded in this ? Which elements of the story are most/least believable ?

3. Did you like this book enough to want to read the other three in the series ?

4. Have you seen the BBC TV adaptation starring Billie Piper as Sally Lockhart, and if so did you like it ? If you liked it, did you prefer it to the book ?

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8. Doctor Who Season 3 - "42"

IceD-T anyone?


Sorry - the bad pun is my way of relieving my feelings over this episode which seemed so promising and was so poor. Chris Chibnall, the man largely responsible for the much-maligned (by the fandom of the Whoniverse) Torchwood spin-off from Doctor Who (which stars John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness), wrote "42". It's set in real-time (like 24), but in 42 minutes rather than hours. I've never seen 24 but I know plenty of addicts so I was quite excited by the idea - and the set up seemed fairly interesting: the Doctor and Martha find themselves on a spaceship that's 42 minutes from crashing into a sun. What made the story so poor for me, was how it rehashed ideas from New Who's seasons 1 and 2, without doing them better, or very differently, or any more compellingly.

So, to begin at the beginning. The story starts with the Doctor fixing up Martha's phone so that she can now call anyone anywhere or anywhen (echoing Nine's fixing of Rose's phone in "The End of the World" but without the funny dialogue). The Doctor tells her it's a "frequent flyer's" privilege (OK, that did make me smile). Martha's about to test this out when the TARDIS picks up an emergency distress call, onto which the Doctor latches (and is it me, or is he using his feet to reach switches and buttons on the console rather more often this season?). They land with a bump, go outside and find it's boiling hot. Three members of the spaceship's crew - the Captain (played by guest star Michelle Collins), one older man and one younger man explain the situation, and then a young female crew member comes racing into view as the doors start slamming and locking behind her. The Doctor immediately suggests using the TARDIS as a "lifeboat" off the ship, but finds the room in which she's landed is incredibly hot (so hot, in fact, that the TARDIS' wooden exterior ought to have gone up in flames !) and she can't be accessed (echoing "The Impossible Planet" where the TARDIS is "lost" in an earthquake).

They then spend the rest of the episode trying to get the engines on the spaceship working again, trying to open the 29 doors between them and the front of the ship so they can "jump-start" the engines - which involves Martha and the young crew man Riley in a pub-quiz race against time - all the doors are deadlock sealed (so the Sonic Screwdriver can't be used to open them since, as we know from "School Reunion" the Sonic Screwdriver can't open deadlock seals) and each one is coded to a randomly generated question, the answer to which can only be entered once (which must be the most pointless, senseless security system ever invented!) Riley tells Martha that the crew got drunk one night and thought up the questions, figuring they'd be the only ones who could answer the questions, thereby ensuring the ship could never be hijacked - though looking at it, I had to wonder who would *want* to hijack such a junk heap! Of course, some members of the crew have changed since the questions were set, leaving the Doctor to supply the fourth number in a mathematical sequence of Happy Primes (which results in him lamenting dumbing down since no one, apparently, teaches recreational Mathematics any more). Interestingly, given the Tenth Doctor's credentials as a fan of 20th century popular Earth music (as established in Season 2's "Tooth and Claw" and "The Idiot's Lantern"), he couldn't answer the question about who had the most pre-download hits Elvis or The Beatles - which results in Martha making use of her new "Universal Roaming" on her phone, to ring her mum and ask her to find the answer online (and her conversation, where she pretends to be on Earth not half a universe away from home, echoes "The End of the World" again when Rose rang her mum from Platform One).

To complicate matters (as if they're not already complicated enough), the Captain's husband has been possessed by something mysterious (echoing season 2's "The Impossible Planet" / "The Satan Pit" two-parter in which Toby Zed is possessed) which causes him to kill two of his fellow crew members and "convert" a third to its cause (just as the possessed Toby kills Scootie Minestra and converts the Ood to the cause of the "Devil" in that two-parter). The Captain's husband goes after Martha and Riley, and they hide in an escape pod, which is then launched from the ship. The Doctor arrives too late to stop this, so shouts for a spacesuit so he can go through the airlock and activate the magnetic mechanism that's on the outside of the spaceship to pull the escape pod back. Martha has every faith in the Doctor rescuing her and Riley, but still makes a tearful phone call to her mum to tell her mum that she loves her, and ask her to tell her father, brother and sister that she loves them. We see a mysterious woman (much like last episode's mysterious man) apparently recording and/or trying to trace Martha's call on behalf of the mysterious Mr Saxon, but she's thwarted when Martha winds up the call after Mrs Jones starts asking if Martha's with "that man" (the Doctor).

The Doctor manages to re-engage the magnetic clamp to recall the escape pod but whilst he's standing in the airlock watching for it to return, he sees that the sun is alive (don't ask!) and is infected as the Captain's husband had been. Of course, not being a human, he's able to resist the infection longer and Martha arrives in time to help him to the medlab where he tells her to freeze him at -200 degrees for ten seconds (see picture above). The Doctor is panicking about the fact that the infection in him will get stronger the nearer the ship gets to the sun, but Martha assures him that she'll save him, just as he saved her. Of course, the Captain's infected husband notices the power surge in the medlab and cuts the power before the temperature can reach -200 and freeze the infection in the Doctor's body. So the Doctor sends Martha to the front of the ship to eject all the fuel the ship is carrying - the crew have been "mining" the sun as a cheap (and illegal) source of fuel, and the fuel is carrying living particles from the sun. Martha initially refuses to leave the Doctor but he insists. In the meantime, the Captain's gone to restore the power to the medlab but her husband stops her. She runs off and he follows, and she sacrifices herself to take him with her out of the airlock and into the sun (echoing Rose's actions in sacrificing Toby Zed to save herself, Zack and Danny on board the rocket that's flying away from the planet orbiting the black hole in "The Satan Pit").

Having ejected the fuel, the ship's engines are restored, the Doctor discovers the TARDIS is only marginally over-heated instead of reduced to cinders, and he and Martha go off, leaving Riley and Scannell (the only other surviving member of the seven-person crew) to await rescue. The episode closes with the Doctor giving Martha a key to the TARDIS on a chain (another frequent flyer privilege) and a quiet "Thank you."

The only thing that saved this episode from earning a 1 out of 5 rating is the lovely work done by the team at The Mill and the team headed up by Ed Thomas; the moments between Martha and the Doctor in the TARDIS; and the terror displayed by the Doctor when he knows he could become a monster instead of being the one who fights the monsters.

Fortunately the upcoming two-parter "Human Nature" / "Family of Blood" is written by Paul Cornell (an adaptation of his Seventh Doctor novel Human Nature) who was responsible for writing one of my favourite season 1 episodes, "Father's Day".

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9. The Tar Man - Linda Buckley-Archer

WOW !!


I finished reading Linda Buckley-Archer's The Tar Man in bed last night, losing sleep to finish it because the story had got so exciting I couldn't bear to put it aside. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series, Gideon the Cutpurse, when I read it last November (Review) so I had high hopes of this tale being as good as the first. My expectations were surpassed. The Tar Man is a totally compelling read.

The story is split between two main narrative strands. The Tar Man's experiences in 21st century London where he begins by causing havoc with an astonishing horse-riding stunt, and the experiences of Kate Dyer and Peter Schock's father in 18th century England and France. At the end of Gideon the Cutpurse, the Tar Man took Peter Schock's place and managed to travel to the 21st century, stranding Peter in the 18th century. He's taken under the wing of Gideon Seymour and his friends, and grows to maturity. When Kate and Peter's father try to use the anti-gravity machine to get back to 1763 to rescue Peter, they accidentally find themselves in 1792 instead, by which time Peter is now in his early 40s and the same age as his father. When he realises what's happened - that Kate and his father haven't aged and are looking for 12 year old Peter (only a few days have passed since Kate got back to the 21st century), he pretends to be Gideon's half-brother Joshua because he can't face the idea of telling his father who he is, knowing that his father has come for a 12 year old boy, not a grown man. So Peter travels to Derbyshire to tell Kate and his father that Peter Schock went to America twenty years ago and hasn't been heard from since (which is actually the fate that's befallen Joshua Seymour). The pair decide to return to the 21st century, but the anti-gravity machine won't work. They travel to London and visit Queen Charlotte (who had befriended both Kate and Peter during their visit to 1763, and remained friends with Peter after he was stranded) and Sir Joseph Banks, a distinguished scientist, in the hopes that Sir Joseph will be able to fix the machine. He cannot, so he recommends they visit the Marquis de Montfaron who has lately come from Revolutionary France and will, he believes, be able to assist them. Unfortunately de Montfaron is not in England, but still on his French estate, having refused to flee. So Kate, Mr Schock, Peter (in the guise of Joshua Seymour) and Hannah (Peter's housekeeper) set off to visit de Montfaron at his estate near Arras, braving the Revolutionists to do so.

Whilst this is going on, the Tar Man is settling into life in 21st century London - carrying out a series of daring thefts, spending money lavishly and trying to impress. He's aided by a young woman named Anjali whom he had saved from a gang of youths in the Underground, and his young apprentice, Tom, who had also travelled to the 21st century (during the events described in Gideon). When the Tar Man fails to blackmail his way into an exclusive London Club and Tom is killed trying to protect Anjali from the leader of the gang that had attacked her, he comes up with a new plan. He's going to steal one of the anti-gravity machines (there are now three in existence), travel back into time to his childhood and change his personal history to give him a better life.

Kate and Mr Schock succeed in finding de Montfaron and he is persuaded to return to London with them after his estate is plundered by the Revolutionists. He fixes the anti-gravity machine and they are able to return to the 21st century, taking de Montfaron with them. Whilst they've been trekking to France and back, Dr Dyer (Kate's father) has succeeded in travelling back in time to 1763 and locating 12 year old Peter Schock. And by this time, Kate and Mr Schock have discovered that "Joshua Seymour" is really the grown-up Peter Schock.

Having been reunited, the Schocks and the Dyers together with Anita Perretti (one of the NASA scientists who was working on a similar anti-gravity machine to the one that Dr Dyer was working on in Derbyshire), de Montfaron, and Inspector Wheeler (the policeman in charge of the hunt for the missing Kate and Peter) are having a celebratory lunch at the Dyers' farm, when the Tar Man arrives. He kidnaps Peter and Kate and steals the two anti-gravity machines, disappearing back to the 18th century with the intention of changing his own personal history.

This is a fairly complex plot and will require the reader to pay close attention to follow the various narrative strands in order not to get lost, but such attentiveness is amply rewarding by the gripping tale that unfolds. I was particularly intrigued by the conversations that the grown-up Peter has with both Hannah and Queen Charlotte with regard to what will happen if 12 year old Peter is found and returned to the 21st century. Will they have never known the grown up Peter? How will his disappearance from the 18th century timeline affect them and history. There are some interesting points raised here that will be familiar to anyone who's enjoyed a lot of time-travel narratives (as I have in various formats).

The Tar Man is out in September published by Simon and Schuster. My advanced copy was received (gratefully) from the author, Linda Buckley-Archer.

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10. Doctor Who Season 3 - The Lazarus Experiment


This story starts with the Doctor attempting to drop Martha back at home after her extended "one trip" with him, but a news flash about an experiment for which Martha's sister is handling the PR intrigues him, so although he pops off in the TARDIS, leaving Martha virtually in tears, he pops right back again saying "Sorry, did he say he was going to change what it means to be human?" Given the Doctor's love of humanity (why else does he hang around Earth so much with the whole of time and space as his playground), that was bound to catch his attention ! It seems that Professor Richard Lazarus (Mark Gatiss) has discovered a way to rejuvenate human beings, thereby making them virtually immortal but, as is usually the case with immortality, it comes at a terrible price. Meanwhile, a mysterious figure, representing the same Mr. Saxon who's funding the experiment, tells Martha's mother that her daughter's new best friend is very dangerous. For some reason that I couldn't fathom (even after watching the episode three times!), Mrs Jones believes the man who tells her this and gives the Doctor a slap; at least the last time he got slapped by a Companion's mother (Jackie Tyler in Season 1's "Aliens of London), she had the excuse of the Ninth Doctor having kept Rose away for 12 months rather than the 12 hours he'd thought they'd been gone. The Tenth Doctor actually brings Martha back after a mere 12 hours away (that encompassed 3 adventures: "The Shakespeare Code", "Gridlock" and Daleks in New York), but gets a slap anyway - which seems rather unfair. I can't understand Mrs Jones' hostility at all. It's not as if the Doctor looks dodgy - far from it, actually, since he's wearing his tux !

Anyway, Lazarus' experiment goes badly wrong, leaving his body to undergo a genetic mutation that turns him into a huge, ugly scorpion-esque creature that proceeds to drain people of life and rampage around the Lazarus Labs building. The Doctor thinks he's killed it by "reversing the polarity" (a nod to Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor) of the device that Lazarus had used to rejuvenate himself, whilst he and Martha are hiding in the device, the Lazarus-monster is outside but turns the machine on with them inside it. Alas, Lazarus isn't dead and he drains the two paramedics who were trying to take his body away, and then holes up in Southwark Cathedral, a place he knows well as he used to shelter there as a boy during the Blitz. He and the Doctor have a philosophical discussion about longevity (which they'd already discussed after Lazarus rejuvenated himself). The Doctor says that facing death is part of being human, but Lazarus contradicts him saying that "avoiding death, that's being human. It's our strongest impulse." So the Doctor tells Lazarus

A long life isn't always a better one. In the end you just get tired. Tired of the struggle. Tired of losing everyone that matters to you. Tired of watching everything turn to dust. If you live long enough, Lazarus, the only certainty is that you'll end up alone.

Some fans see this as yet another reference to Rose, but I don't think it's just that. It's a reference to the fact that the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords, he's lost his whole family and his entire race, in the last few years, not just Rose. And Gallifrey is gone - as he so eloquently told Martha at the end of "Gridlock". And I think the Tenth Doctor's very tired of the struggle - especially against the Daleks (in the Dalek 2-parter he comments of the Daleks "They always survive and I lose everything."), but also the struggle against everything else that keeps trying to destroy the universe/humanity.

I liked Martha in this episode - from her glee at over-riding the Lazarus Labs' security so that she get everyone out, the fact that she insists on going back for the Doctor when he's the last person left in the building (which is very reminiscent of Rose insisting on going back to Satellite Five for the Ninth Doctor in season 1 finale "The Parting of the Ways"), to her insistence on going with the Doctor after Lazarus escapes from the ambulance into the Cathedral (and this in spite of her mother's objections), and the fact that she actually refuses to go with the Doctor again for just one more trip, pointing out that he isn't being fair to her and accusing him of seeing her as just a passenger (which he denies she ever was). The way the Doctor gives in so easily to her objection proves that he still wants her along, but he had to give her the chance to go back home and see her family, and the chance to decide not to go on travelling with him.

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11. Incarceron

Catherine Fisher's Incarceron was kindly loaned to me by Lady_Shrapnell of So Many Books.

Incarceron is a prison - the only prison - of the future. Sealed away, it is a closed system which nothing can enter or leave. It's believed by those on the Outside to be a paradise, the ultimate in rehabilitation therapy. When all criminals and dissidents were sent to Incarceron a century and a half ago, along with seventy of the Sapienti (the scholars/scientists who designed it) they thought they were creating a paradise from a hell. However, the Sapienti plan didn't work and Incarceron has become a sealed world of savagery where dreams of Escape are the only crumbs of comfort anyone has. To make matters worse, the prison has taken on a life of its own and become sentient.

One young prisoner, Finn, is different to the other prisoners. He has visions which Gildas, the Sapient who belongs to the same tribe as Finn, believes will lead them out of Incarceron, although Finn believes they are memories of his life Outside Incarceron.

Outside is also a prison. Technology has been rejected in favour of an authoritarian and feudal regime (similar to our 17th century) which insists on everything being in Era, a peculiar regression to which the world moved following the Years of Rage (it's hinted that the world went through a major war, which in part led to the decision to build Incarceron and regress to the past. The royal court is a place of intrigue, plots and politics, but Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron is due to be married to the royal heir, an arranged marriage that was organised after the first heir died of a fall from his horse at a young age. Claudia's intended husband, Giles' step-brother, is a useless brute to whom she dreads being married.

However, both Finn and Claudia find a pair of identical crystal keys that allow them to communicate with one another and they set on a path that will make the worlds of Incarceron and Outside collide...

This was a fascinating book. It's a mixture of historical, Science Fiction and fantasy elements combined. The historical elements are those that relate to the Outside; the SF elements relate to Incarceron, which it turns out, is a vast prison that's been compressed into a tiny cube that hangs from the Warden's watch chain; and the fantasy elements are related to the sensibility that Fisher has adopted. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but the story feels like a fantasy tale but it's got strong SF elements in it.

Incarceron is not a stand-alone novel - Fisher is apparently working on a second book - which is just as well, because the ending of this one is rather abrupt - a cliff-hanger in fact. Claudia manages to use her father's Key to enter Incarceron and bring Finn Outside (she believes he's not really a cell-born prisoner, as others have suggested, but Giles, the royal heir to whom she was originally betrothed), but Finn's oath-brother Keiro and a slave girl named Attia (who had helped Finn and owes him her life) are still trapped inside Incarceron as the Key can only take one person Outside at a time.

I don't think this is Fisher's best book - I've enjoyed others (such as Corbenic) far more, but it is intriguing and thought-provoking.

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12. Doctor Who Season 3 - "Daleks In Manhattan", "Evolution of the Daleks"


This two-parter was written by "Doctor Who" scriptwriter, Helen Raynor (she's the first female writer of any "New Who" episodes), turning in her first ever "Doctor Who" scripts.

Daleks in Manhattan

The Doctor and Martha land in New York City in 1930, where people are disappearing from Hooverville, a miniature city where the homeless live in the middle of Central Park. The trail to find the missing people leads them into the sewers beneath Manhattan where they encounter a group of men who've been transformed into pig slaves – and the Doctor discovers that the Daleks, who have some sort of diabolical plan for the Empire State Building, are behind it all.

The Daleks of this story are the four remaining members of the Cult of Skaro (Skaro is the planet on which the Daleks originated). The Cult has been created to come up with imaginative ways of surviving (imaginative being the operative word here - Daleks generally don't have much use for imagination), and they are the only four survivors of the Battle of Canary Wharf that we saw in the season 2 two-part finale "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday" - the four escaped the Battle by using an "emergency temporal shift" - which lands them in New York in 1930. They've decided that the way to survive is to create Dalek-Human hybrids through genetic experimentation. One of the four Cult members, Sec, assimilates the man who's been helping them to prepare the Empire State Building for their project. He becomes a very weird looking man with a tentacled head and one eye (above left), and rather odd, misshapen hands.

Evolution of the Daleks

After Sec becomes the first Dalek-Human he's ready to implement his plan to create an army of Dalek-Humans to remake Earth into New Skaro. But the "human factor" has unexpected effects on Sec, leading him to alter his plans and enlist the Doctor's help as an ally, a move that makes his fellow Daleks uneasy (to the extent that two of them have a conversation in the sewer that leads to one of them looking over its "shoulder" - metaphorically since Daleks don't have shoudlers! - in a beautifully realised moment of Dalek paranoia that made me laugh out loud).

From Sec's slow development of something that approaches human compassion because of his human side, to the army of Dalek-Humans questioning their orders with a straightforward "Why?", this episode has some surprising moments that make it the stronger of the two. It's also surprising that Sec keeps a bloodthirsty Dalek from killing the Doctor – who at that point is actively shouting at the Dalek to kill him. David Tennant's increasingly multilayered performance as the Doctor is a joy to behold. The Doctor's horror and near-suicidal anger at the death of Solomon is astonishing, as is his confusion and dawning hope at Sec's gentle ascent into humanity. Martha gets some great moments in this episode, including a heartbreaking conversation with Tallulah over the times when, as the Doctor looks at her, she knows "he's just remembering" Rose. Freema Agyeman plays this moment with such anguish that it's enough to make me want Martha to have a lot more screen time than she's actually got so far this season.

My biggest disappointment with the second episode was when the single surviving Dalek (Caan) from the Cult of Skaro does another of those blinking "emergency temporal shifts" and disappears again - though I confess I was relieved that the Doctor didn't shout "Caaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnn" after him!

One of my favourite bits was the Doctor discussing the use of music "Music. You can dance to it, sing with it, fall in love to it" - at which point he stares into the eyestalk of one of the Daleks and it "blinks" (closes and then opens the "shutter" in its eyestalk) - which is a fabulous little moment.

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13. Lady Friday: Book Group Discussion


Garth Nix's Lady Friday is the fifth of the seven "Keys to the Kingdom" series. In it, Arthur, a 12 year old boy who's been chosen as the Rightful Heir of the Keys to Kingdom the first Creation of the female Architect, must find a way of claiming the fifth Key from Lady Friday. She sends Arthur, the Piper (one of the Architect's sons) and Superior Saturday (the female Trustee of the Architect's Will who appears to be the prime mover against Arthur), a message saying that she has abdicated her role and left her Key, a mirror-like device, in her Scriptorium in the Middle House, for which ever one of the three of them can find it and claim it first. Arthur then has to get himself to the Scriptorium to claim the Key, but he decides instead to find the fifth Part of the Will, reasoning that it will be likely to help him to free itself. All seven parts of the Will of the Architect are embodied in animal forms and each one represents one of the seven Heavenly Virtues, just as each Trustee embodies one of the seven Deadly Sins. Since each part of the Will is imprisoned somewhere by one of the Trustees, Arthur believes that freeing the fifth part of the Will should make him more likely to succeed in laying claim to the fifth Key.

Like the fourth book (Sir Thursday), Lady Friday is a rather darker book than were the first three (Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday and Drowned Wednesday). And not only is Arthur in danger. His friend from the Secondary Realms (as Earth and other planets outside the great House are known), Leaf, has been captured by Lady Friday, as has Leaf's Aunt Mango. She must try to remain alive and active so that she can rescue her Aunt from Lady Friday, who uses her Key to "taste" mortal experiences (she withdraws the memories of older people using the power of the Key and drinks the memories to give her experience of human emotions). Unfortunately having one's experiences drained leaves a mortal in a vegetative state from which there is no recovery (making it akin to Alzheimer's Disease).

Things I like about this book:

1 - Arthur's insistence to Dame Primus (who is a Denizen comprising the first four parts of the Will) that he loves his adopted family and that he doesn't want to be a fully-fledged immortal Denizen himself. Dame Primus is scornful of Arthur's expression of love - interestingly, since that is supposed to be the most important human emotion.

2 - The fact that Arthur is no longer refusing his role as the Heir - despite his desire not to become a Denizen. He retains the fourth of the Keys, following his encounter with Sir Thursday, and he isn't afraid to use it when necessary, even though he knows that its uses takes away his mortality. (An interesting philosophical comment on power and humanity.)

3 - The fact that Arthur is turning into a capable leader and that he isn't allowing Dame Primus to boss him around any longer. Since he is the Rightful Heir, she should only advise Arthur, not try to manipulate him (as she clearly does in the first two books). He starts thinking for himself and making his own decisions.

4 - I was fascinated by the Winged Servants of the Night and the role they play in the story, especially with regard to the fifth part of the Will. I like the way Nix leads the reader to believe that the fifth part of the Will is a terrifying dragon-like creature that eats people (well the Winged Servants at any rate), when in fact, it merely eats their clothes, and then the Servants stumble off in horrified embarrassment to find places elsewhere in the House (except for One Who Survived the Darkness).

So what do you think of the series and of this book in particular ? What worked for you, what didn't ? Did anyone read this book without having read the previous four titles in the series ?

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14. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Predictions


I popped into an actual bricks-and-mortar bookstore yesterday (I don't visit them often these days since I get dozens of free books to read and review through the mail, or else I empty the library of their books !) to get a book for someone, and I ended up having a conversation about what I think will happen in the final HP book - the bookseller had a poster up saying "How will it end?" My response of "In death, mayhem and tears" was met with a look of shock from the young bookseller. I then proceeded to make some detailed predictions - and I thought I'd post them here, for future reference - and to invite responses from anyone else who wants to join the Predictions "game" - or argue with me over my predictions (*grins*)

1 - Voldemort will be finally defeated, but Harry won't be responsible for killing him. Peter Pettigrew (Wormtail) probably will be involved in defeating Voldeort, thereby repaying his debt to Harry for saving his life in The Prisoner of Azkaban.)

2 - Harry, Ron and Hermione will all live. And Harry is NOT a Horcrux...

3 - Percy and Fred & George Weasley may all die, Percy after belatedly realising his parents were right about the Ministry of Magic and making a foolish sacrifice.

4 - Snape will die protecting/saving Harry, thereby proving Dumbledore's faith in him was not misguided.

5 - Draco will redeem himself or be rehabilitated, without necessarily joining the side of the Good.

6 - Aberforth Dumbledore, barman at the Hog's Head, will be discovered to have the missing Slytherin Locket that's one of the remaining Horcruxes. (Mundungus was caught by Harry with a lot of stuff from Sirius' house in Hogsmeade and he's known to frequent the Hog's Head pub in Hogsmeade.)

7 - Neville Longbottom may die.

I'm going to be reading Who Killed Albus Dumbledore? and What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7? in the next week or two, so I thought I'd get my predictions in before those books can influence me !

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15. Circle of Nightmares - Malcolm Rose


Malcolm Rose's Circle of Nightmares caught my eye in the library because of the title. It looked intriguing, so I borrowed it and found it lived up to its promise.

17 year old Jodie Hilliard's begun investigating the scientific research station at which her father works and she doesn't like what she's finding. Strange experiments are being conducted and the two scientists who previously held the job her father now has, both died in mysterious circumstances and in quick succession. At the heart of the mystery that surrounds the research station is an ancient stone circle which lies within the grounds of the lab. It's been the site of some bizarre local rituals for centuries now and whilst it's become the testing ground for the station's latest device (an incredibly powerful electronic weapon with the potential to stun or even kill people as well as animals), the locals are decidedly unhappy. They've reformed an old society, known as the Hell Fire Club, which outsiders are definitely not welcome to join. One outsider, who has been a resident of the village for a good many years, Ryan, knows all about the society (and much other local history) and he tells Jodie what he knows. She, in turn, shares the knowledge she's gleaned from her Internet researches, hacking and illicit eavesdropping on mobile phone conversations.

She decides to confront her father about her discoveries and although he, initially, is reluctant to listen to her concerns, having his own reasons for wanting the station's device to be tested and proved effective (Jodie's mother was killed by a terrorist bomb), he finally takes note and goes to confront his boss. Unfortunately, his boss is less than interested and Jodie's father is killed, as are three members of the Hell Fire Club who'd gone to the stone circle to cleanse it. Jodie's left an orphan and although her elderly maternal grandfather comes over from Australia, she realises that he's not up to becoming her guardian, having already lost his daughter. Since she's four months short of her 18th birthday, Ryan's parents agree that she can go and stay with them. but the Director of the research station knows that Jodie and Ryan were in the vicinity of the station when her father and the three members of the Hell Fire Club were killed in the weapon's test, so he sends his security men after them. A bomb is planted in Ryan's parents' house, but Jodie's wolfhound, Wolfie, wakes her up and alerts her to its presence. Ryan's dad, who knows about explosives from his work in a quarry, sends the teenagers and his wife outside whilst he attempts to defuse the bomb. Unfortunately he's killed and now Jodie is set on a major collision course with the Director of the Research Station. Can she and Ryan publicise what the Director and his staff are doing? Can they stop them from developing the weapon any further? The book has a nail-biting finale which, despite this being a spoiler review, I'm not going to reveal.

What really surprised me about this book is the fact that it was published in 1997. Its plot is so up-to-date, you'd be forgiven for thinking it came out last year.

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16. Doctor Who Season 3 - "Gridlock"

This week's episode is from the pen of chief writer, Russell T Davies, and it is, frankly, bonkers - but still good fun. The Doctor has relented a little on his decision to only take Martha on one trip in the TARDIS, and decides she can have one trip to the future and one to the past. With that in mind he takes them off to New Earth, although Martha is rather keen to see his home planet. He says he doesn't want to go home (liar!) although he does tell her a little bit about how it looked (whilst omitting to mention that Gallifrey is no longer there).

They arrive in New New York (giving David the chance to rattle off his "New, new, new (15 times) York" line again). It's raining which fails to impress Martha. The Doctor yanks the arrow (shot at him by one of the 16th century soldiers of the Queen in last week's episode) from the TARDIS door and discards it, before chiding her for moaning about the rain and insisting that seeing the city from down below is more interesting. Martha complains it looks like Earth on a Wednesday afternoon as the Doctor checks out a computer terminal to see exactly where they are. When he mentions that "we" saw the view he shows Martha on the screen "last time" (of the hospital from "New Earth"), Martha ask if he came here with Rose. He says yes and she comments on the fact he's taking Martha to the same planets to which he took Rose, and makes a snide comment about "rebound" (which I thought was rather unnecessary - given the Doctor's not in a relationship of any sort with Martha. He freely admits later on that he barely knows her because he's been too busy showing off to her - and that he'd lied to her).

The two of them walk down an alley and find themselves accosted by three dealers of mood patches. Then a pale young woman turns up, wanting some "Forget" as her parents have gone on the motorway, and she believes (rightly) that they'll never return. Before the Doctor can sort out why that might be, she's attached the patch to her neck and forgotten about her parents. She wanders off and then Martha is abducted at gunpoint by a man and a woman who are babbling about needing a third, whilst madly apologising to both Martha and the Doctor. The Doctor tries to persuade them to let Martha go, offering to help, but they're not interested. They bundle Martha away to their waiting "car", give her some "Sleep" and then drive off to the motorway, requesting access to the Fast Lane as they now have three adult passengers on board.

It turns out the motorway in the undercity of New New York is entirely enclosed and suffers from a traffic jam that makes even the M25 look like an easy Sunday drive. Some citizens have been stuck on it for over 20 years (that's definitely one of the more bonkers bits of the plot). The Doctor tries to go after Martha and is picked up as a hitch-hiker by Thomas Kincade Brannigan, a cat man (played magnificently by Ardal O'Harlon), and his wife (a regular human), who, along with their children (a group of impossibly cute kittens, whom even the non-cat-person Doctor can't resist petting). They explain the problems with the motorway to the Doctor, who contacts the New New York police, only to be put on hold. He tries to persuade Brannigan to take him down to the Fast Lane, so that he can go after Martha, since they now have three adult passengers, but Brannigan and Valerie both refuse to endanger their children. After a brief "Contemplation moment" (in which the traffic news system plays "The Old Rugged Cross"), the Doctor decides to take things into his own hands, and lets himself out of the bottom of Brannigan's car (after leaving his coat, given to him by Janis Joplin, with Brannigan), then drops in through the roof hatch of the car below. (Two of the best lines in the show are Valerie's response to the Doctor's action: "He's completely insane!" and Brannigan's response "That and a bit magnificent!")

Eventually the Doctor reaches the last car above the Fast Lane and does some jiggery-pokery with the wires in the car to clear away the exhaust fumes below so he can discover just what's down there that has eyes and makes weird noises. Turns out it's the Macra - a bunch of super-sized crabs that like to feed on gases, the dirtier, the better. They used to be the scourge of the galaxy but now they're just lurking about in the enclosed motorway (don't ask how they got down there), living off the gas and attacking cars in the Fast Lane (presumably for sport or out of a general antipathy towards humans and human/hybrids). Just as the Doctor's discussing this with the businessman car owner whose car he dropped into, someone else drops in (prompting the Doctor to claim he's invented a new sport) - the someone being a cat woman, formerly Novice Hame of the New Earth hospital where Cassandra (the "bitchy trampoline") managed to transplant her brain into both Rose and the Doctor - prompting some truly magnificent campness from David Tennant that was just the right side of outrageously silly. Hame's come to fetch the Doctor to meet an old friend - the Face of Boe (who had contacted the Doctor via his psychic paper, thus prompting him to visit New Earth with Rose in the first place).

Hame reveals that the Face of Boe is finally dying (he was supposedly dying in "New Earth", hence his desire to see the Doctor) and that the Senate of New New York are all dead after being killed by a virus that was part of the new "Bliss" patches. The people who are in the motorway are the only survivors. The Face of Boe kept them alive by wiring himself into the system but there isn't enough power to let them out of the motorway. Fortunately the Doctor is able to do some more jiggery-pokery and with some power from the Face of Boe, he's able to unlock the motorway and get everyone out. He tells Martha's kidnappers to bring her to the Senate building and introduces her to Boe, who's really dying now. Before he goes, however, he reveals his big secret - that the Doctor is not alone, although he is the last of his kind. Which leaves the Doctor confused and somewhat angry. However, he reclaims his coat from Brannigan and heads back to the TARDIS. Martha, however, wants some answers from him, and she picks up an old chair and sits down, refusing to go another step until the Doctor talks to her. They hear the people of the city singing "Abide With Me" and he finds another chair and sits down. He then reveals that he'd lied to her, and explains that Gallifrey was destroyed in the last great Time War, against the Daleks, and he begins to describe it to her, as the camera pans upwards away from them, and the hymn continues...

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17. Doctor Who Season 3 - "The Shakespeare Code"

Gareth Roberts, writer of this week's episode, has written a lot of "Doctor Who" fiction, but this is his first full-length episode - if you've going to start somewhere, start in the best place possible: with Shakespeare. OK, I admit it, I'm "mad about the Bard", and not everyone is, but this episode is fantastic. The Doctor, at the end of "Smith and Jones" offered Martha the chance to take a one-off trip in the TARDIS as thanks for saving his life after the Plasmavore nearly killed him, and so he can road-test his new Sonic Screwdriver (having fried the previous one in an attempt to stop the Plasmavore's Slab minion). So off they pop, in the TARDIS, and land (bumpily - causing Martha to ask the Doctor if he needs to take a test to fly it - yes, he says, but I failed it!) in 1599, not far from Shakespeare's newly built Globe Theatre, London. Martha's already asked how the TARDIS travels in time (she must be the first Companion to ask this - at least in a long while, if ever), then after they step out of the TARDIS, she worries about whether it's safe for them to move around. What happens if she steps on a butterfly (an allusion to Ray Bradbury's short story A Sound of Thunder), or kills her grandfather (known as the "grandfather paradox") - a question that seems to baffle the Doctor, but given the effects of Rose's intervention to save her father's life in "Father's Day", it's not an entirely foolish question! Then Martha worries she might be carried off as a slave, since she's "not exactly white", leading the Doctor to remark that he's "not exactly human" and to advise her to just walk around as if she owns the place, "it always works for me" he says.

Having established when and where they are, the Doctor invites "Miss Jones" to go to the theatre with him, and she replies that she'd love to - calling him "Mr Smith" (the pseudonym he'd used when he met Martha). I liked this as it's a reference back to Martha's insistence that the Doctor has to earn his title from her (the trainee doctor). I hope she continues to call him that at least for a little while longer. The two head off to the Globe to see Love's Labours Lost, which they seem to enjoy, although Martha's impatient to see the genius himself, Will Shakespeare, and starts shouting "Author! Author!" (she asks the Doctor if people shouted that then, but her cry has already been taken up by the audience, leading the Doctor to observe laconically "Well they do now.")

In the meantime, there's a beautiful young woman up in one of the galleries who's working a spell on Shakespeare via a voodoo-style puppet. She provokes him into announcing that the following night will see the premiere of his sequel to the play "Love's Labours Won". Which puzzles Martha and the Doctor, because no copies of it exist in Martha's time, although the Doctor acknowledges it's mentioned in contemporary lists of Shakespeare's plays. He decides they'd better investigate before he takes Martha back home, and they go to chat to Shakespeare, who's not interested in talking to the Doctor, but when he spots Martha's eager face peering around the Doctor's shoulder, is immediately entranced and invites them to join him.

The young woman from the gallery is now working as a serving girl at the inn ("The Elephant") where Martha and the Doctor have gone to see Shakespeare, and when the Master of Revels arrives, demanding to see a copy of the script of "Love's Labours Won" in order to approve of it, Shakespeare reveals he hasn't actually finished the play. Lynley insists that the play will not go ahead and tells Will that's he off to issue a banning order. The serving girl immediately pulls out her puppet and uses it to kill Lynley, causing him to drown (she fills his lungs with water). The Doctor realises that witchcraft is at work, and tries to work out how it's being worked. He and Martha are lying on a bed in the inn at this point - she's trying to flirt with him, but he totally ignores that, focusing on trying to work out what's going on. He says that Rose would have said exactly the right thing at this moment to make him realise what was staring him in the face (at that point, Martha!), and Martha's face falls. When he reminds her that he'll be taking her back home in the morning, she blows out the candle in annoyance. But they're not going to get a quiet night - the woman (Lilith) with the puppet is back and armed with a potion which she uses to influence Will so that he will write a "spell" into the end of the play, which will set Lilith and her "sisters" (a race of aliens called the Carrionites) free from their eternal imprisonment - the 14-sided Globe working to amplify the power of Will's words (Lilith's spell) to break them free.

What I loved about this episode:

- Shakespeare - Dean Lennox Kelley plays him as a Rock-star genius, which works very well (I've never found Shakespeare dull, anyway!);
- the many, many references to Shakespeare's plays (the Doctor keeps using phrases from Shakespeare's plays, which Will then says "I'll have that" (the Doctor refuses to let him "have" Dylan Thomas' line "Rage, rage, against the dying of the light" however);
- the fact that Shakespeare can't be fooled by the psychic paper (the implication being he's too much of a genius to fall for it);
- the various references to Harry Potter - including Martha saying at one point "It's all a bit Harry Potter", which prompts the Doctor to say that she'll love the seventh book and it made him cry;
- the Doctor referring to the film Back to the Future (my favourite film trilogy of all time) in order to explain to Martha that if the Carrionites' plot works, she will fade from history, as will the rest of humanity;
- Will flirting with Martha, calling her a "dark lady" (an allusion to the "Dark Lady" Sonnets) - and when the Doctor tries to hurry them both up saying "We can all have a good flirt later", Will asks "Is that a promise Doctor?" The Doctor sighs and says "57 academics just punched the air" - a meta-reference to scholarly debates about Shakespeare's sexuality;
- the fact that the Doctor never actually uses his brand new Sonic Screwdriver, despite the trip being made, in part, to road-test it (though he does pull a toothbrush from his inside jacket pocket when Martha comments she doesn't have one with her for their overnight stay in 1599);
- the FX and the wonderful scenery (the Globe theatre scenes were shot at the real Globe, the 16th century street scenes were shot in Coventry).

What didn't work so well:
- the Doctor's use of Dylan Thomas' line doesn't actually fit the death that had occurred - and though I love the poem, it's a bit naff, because it's just an excuse for the Doctor to tell Will "you can't have that";
- the Doctor's reference to Rose knowing the exact right thing to say to him when he's trying to work out what's going on (totally crass - I know he loved Rose and is missing her, but it's still crass!) and his "Oh I hate starting from scratch" comment when Martha asks what psychic paper is (he ought to be used to starting from scratch by now, the number of Companions he's had during 10 lifetimes!)
- the cackling of the three witches was so raucous at times that it got my nerves;
- the business of the Carrionites wanting to cross into our world and destroy humanity was a little too similar to the situation with the Gelth, in the Season 1 Dickens-centric episode, "The Unquiet Dead".

Overall, though, I loved this episode - it's gone straight into my Top Ten of New Who episodes (and may even oust my all-time-favourite from Season 2, Steve Moffatt's "The Girl in the Fireplace" - another historical story about a very clever person).

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18. A Hat Full of Sky: Book Group Discussion


Terry Pratchett's A Hat Full of Sky is my favourite of the "Tiffany Aching" series of Discworld novels for children. If anyone hasn't managed to read the first story in the series, The Wee Free Men, there's a review over on my main Blog. 11 year old Tiffany Aching, a young witch-in-training is about to begin her first apprenticeship to an older witch named Miss Level. Miss Level is rather unusual, even for a witch, in that she has two bodies that share one mind. Unfortunately, just before she leaves the Chalk (where she lives), Tiffany attracts the attention of a "hiver", a bodiless creature that likes to inhabit strong minds until the owners of those minds go mad and die. Despite the fact that she's no longer their Kelda (ie. Queen), several of the Nac Mac Feegle go after her, disguising themselves as a human by dressing up in stolen clothes (and a stolen beard) so that they can get the stagecoach up into the mountains. (Nac Mac Feegle are a Faerie race of mostly men who are 6 inches high and who love to fight, drink and steal. Female Nac Mac Feegles are very rare and they're commonly understood to get all the brains whilst the males get all the brawn.)

By the time the Nac Mac Feegle arrive, however, the hiver has already possessed Tiffany's mind and they find themselves forced to go after Tiffany (being otherworldly creatures, they're able to enter Tiffany's mind via her dreams) in order to help her to rescue herself. Tiffany manages to free her mind from the hiver, but it hangs around, wanting her power for itself and in the end she is forced to take it on and deal with it.

Things I love about this story:

1 - The remarkably mature way in which Tiffany deals with the hiver. Instead of trying to destroy it, she helps it to find peace, taking it into Death's Kingdom, giving it a name and telling it a story of how humans are made up of many aspects of their ancestors.

2 - Terry's comments about reading and writing being odd hobbies that aren't apparently much good for anything, although they do help to transmit history and experience to future generations.

3 - The reference, right at the beginning of the first chapter, to the secret fear that all witches have, of turning into their stereotype of a cackling, power-crazed old woman who cares nothing for anyone else.

4 - The way that Terry gives us philosophy with humour (in Chapter 11), making it non-didactic (Tiffany tells the hiver that humans know when not to listen to the monkey, which puzzles the hiver):

The old bit of our brains that wants to be head monkey, and attacks when its surprised. [...] It reacts. It doesn't think. Being human is knowing when not to be the monkey or the lizard or any of the other old echoes. But when you take people over, you silence the human part. You listen to the monkey. The monkey doesn't know what it needs, only what it wants.

5 - Tiffany's respect for Granny Weatherwax and her refusal to try to outdo Granny Weatherwax during the Witch Trials, and her understanding that Granny Weatherwax is tough on others because she's tough on herself.

So what did you think of A Hat Full Of Sky ? What worked for you, what didn't ? Did you like it enough to want to read the third book in the series (Wintersmith) ? Did anyone read this book without reading The Wee Free Men first ?

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19. Welcome to the Book Discussion Group


As mentioned on my main Blog, I'm going to be hosting a monthly book discussion here. The first book will be Susan Cooper's King of Shadows. King of Shadows is also available from Amazon.com.

If you're interested in participating and haven't already told me so via comments on Scholar's Blog, please let me know here. Comments are moderated on my Blogs (owing to Spammers), so you won't see your comments appearing immediately, but I check my email regularly for notification of comments being posted. Do bear in mind that I'm in the UK, so in a different time zone to most of you (but I don't sleep much so I'm here early in the morning my time, when it's still late evening in the US !)

Please note also that everyone is welcome to participate and that neither an English degree or a specialist knowledge in children's literature is necessary - just a love of children's books and of good conversations. Discussion of King Of Shadows will begin here on February 6.

Oh and if you're curious, I will be initiating a discussion of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in due course - I'll probably schedule it for the month after publication !

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20. Book Discussion Group Book List

These are the books I've chosen for us to discuss this year. I haven't created a specific schedule, although I will tell you that the March discussion book will be Penelope Lively's The House in Norham Gardens (and discussions will start on March 6).

The rest of the list is in purely alphabetical order:

John Gordon - The Giant Under the Snow

Garth Nix - Lady Friday (which is out in March, so it will be the book of the month in either April or May !)

Terry Pratchett - A Hat Full of Sky

Philip Pullman - The Ruby in the Smoke

J K Rowling - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (I'll probably schedule this a month after its publication - I'll let you know once the publication date is announced !)

Louis Sachar - The Boy Who Lost His Face

I shall also pick an Alan Garner novel - but I'm currently trying to decide which one (probably The Owl Service) and I'm thinking of including Charles Butler's The Fetch of Mardy Watt, but I haven't yet checked it's available in the US and I don't want to select a book that everyone is then forced to buy from the UK (much as I love this book !). Allowing for the fact that we are starting in February and that we will probably take a break during the summer since I know a lot of other people go away/are busy during the summer months, this is enough books for the whole of 2007.

Of course, this "project" may fail after a couple of months !

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21. King Of Shadows: Book Group Discussion


Welcome to the Scholar's Blog Book Discussion Group

And to its first discussion. This month, we're discussion Susan Cooper's timeslip tale, King of Shadows. The title refers to these lines of Shakespeare's:

"This is thy negligence. Still thou mistak'st,
Or else commit'st thy knaveries wilfully."
"Believe me, king of shadows, I mistook."

- Oberon and Puck, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act III Scene 3

And as you will know, if you've already read the book, the tale centres on two performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream, that are performed 400 years apart.

Here are some of the things I love about this book:

1 - The opening: "Tag." - just one word and yet my attention was snagged and I found myself rushing into the tale...

2 - Nat's introduction to Will Shakespeare:
"'Greet Master Shakespeare, boy.'
It was as if he'd said, 'Say hello to God.'"

If you're a big fan of Shakespeare (or any other author), you know exactly what Nat means by this comment.

3 - The way the time-travel element is handled, with Nat asleep, so the mystery of how it happens is preserved. You don't have to worry about the science, you can just enjoy the magic of the story.

4 - The use that Cooper makes of Shakespeare's own words, with the quotations both from the plays and the Sonnets. I've long known and loved

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.


and

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


the last two lines of the latter are ones that Nat mentions after Arby gives him a copy of the Complete Sonnets (chapter 19).

5 - The way the tale invites you to see or read A Midsummer Night's Dream for yourself. I hadn't seen it before reading this book, but I rented a DVD of Michael Hoffman's movie (with Stanley Tucci playing "Puck"). And I'm quite sure I got more out of the story, having read Cooper's book first.

So what do you like about this book ? What don't you like or what do you feel doesn't work ?

Oh and if anyone is interested, the carol that the Guy's Hospital nurse sings to 16th century Nathan Field in chapter 9, is the Coventry Carol, and you can find the words here and the music here.

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22. Lewis: Whom the Gods Would Destroy

Someone kindly loaned me a copy of the first episode of the new Lewis series "Whom The Gods Would Destroy", written by Morse regular Daniel Boyle. Starring Kevin Whately as the eponymous Lewis, and Laurence Fox as his sergeant, Hathaway, this episode focuses on a middle-aged Oxford graduate, an artist, who was found murdered near his houseboat. Lewis and Hathaway find themselves investigating a murder case that risks implicating some of Oxford's most esteemed social and academic figures, such as the potential candidate for the Vice Chancellor's job at the University of Oxford. Both the victim and the potential Vice Chancellor belonged to a small group of men known as "The Sons of the Twice Born", who are named after an epithet of Dionysus - relating to his birth. The group's activities are shrouded in Greek codes, quotes from Nietzsche and a Dionysian fondness for drugs. The title is part of a quotation from Euripides: "Those whom the gods would destroy, they first send mad."

This was a good episode - the writers have clearly developed Lewis from the man who was always a steadying influence on Morse into a man with a darker side and I was impressed with then writers and with Whately himself. Lewis is no longer Morse's moral centre, following his wife's death as a result of a hit and run accident three years earlier. Instead he gets angry - and I mean scarily angry - I actually thought he was going to punch Hathaway at one point when he was raging about a character who had been involved in a car accident when he was high on drugs; the character got himself a good lawyer and got off, and whilst he was left in a wheelchair, the other driver was killed outright. The character shows great contempt for Lewis and Hathaway when they visit to talk to him about the murder and it's after this that Lewis gets really angry. But his anger is understandable and I sympathised with him, which is very important. I think the series wouldn't work if they had made Lewis into an unsympathetic character. You might not condone his anger, but you understand it.

I must say I'm puzzled by accounts of negative reviews of this episode in the media - apparently one reviewer commented that "Lewis" aspired to mundanity, which made me wonder if they'd watched a different episode to this one !

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23. The House In Norham Gardens: Book Discussion


Welcome to the second Scholar's Blog Book Discussion Group.

I confess that I instantly fell in love with Penelope Lively's The House in Norham Gardens when I read first read it last August, from the moment that I read the first three verses of Thomas Hardy's poem, "Old Furniture" (below) quoted on the dedication page.

The edition I have (Jane Nissen, 2005) has an interesting introduction by Philip Pullman, which I wish I could quote in full for those who don't have it. He talks about there being an invisible character who haunts much of Penelope Lively's work - that character or presence is Time. He describes Lively as "the laureate of time" and notes that "there's more awareness of the presence of the past in her work, both for children and for adults, than in that of almost any other novelist." Pullman also discusses the extraordinary atmosphere of the novel, and it was that atmosphere as much as anything else that attracted me to this tale.

Old Furniture

I know not how it may be with others
Who sit amid relics of householdry
That date from the days of their mothers' mothers,
But well I know how it is with me
Continually.

I see the hands of the generations
That owned each shiny familiar thing
In play on its knobs and indentations,
And with its ancient fashioning
Still dallying:

Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler,
As in a mirror a candle-flame
Shows images of itself, each frailer
As it recedes, though the eye may frame
Its shape the same.


(The full poem is here.)

From the first page of the story, I was gripped - here are some of the things I loved about it:

1 - The houses there are quite normal. They are ordinary sizes and have ordinary chimneys and roofs and gardens with laburnum and flowering cherry. Park Town. As you go south they are growing. Getting higher and odder. By the time you get to Norham Gardens they have tottered over the edge into madness: these are not houses but flights of fancy. (p. 1)

2 - The lines The front door was not locked. Old ladies lose front door keys. (p. 2) - so practical and so typical of Clare's attitude to her elderly aunts.

3 - Clare's imaginary conversation with a person from outer space (also p. 2), which serves to explain to readers who aren't familiar with the style of British homes of earlier centuries, with their quaintly named rooms.

4 - Clare's meditation on whether or not houses should be razed once they are no longer useful, and the reference to the passing of the people who've lived in them. (p. 5)

5 - The exchange between Clare and her aunts in which they award each other grades such as "B double plus" and "Gamma plus" (p. 9). This exchange is full of their shared affection for each other, but it also demonstrates that the two old ladies are not witless.

6 - I like Lively's use of the diary entries (in chapter 6) and the way in which each chapter opens with an account of the lives of the tribe to whom the tamburan belonged.

7 - I thought it interesting that Lively used dreams to show the way in which the tamburan, and its link to the past, affects Clare.

For those of you without the Jane Nissen edition of Lively's book, the tamburan is illustrated on the cover photo (see above), behind the book title (below):


So what did you think of this book? What did you like? What did you feel didn't work? And would it encourage you to read more of Lively's children's fiction?

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24. Book Discussion Group Schedule

I forgot to mention this earlier, then decided it merited a separate post! I've finalised the reading schedule - more or less (I'm still not sure about the Charles Butler book), so here's the list in calendar order:

April 3, 2007: Terry Pratchett - A Hat Full of Sky (This is the second in the Tiffany Aching series, so you may want to read The Wee Free Men first.)

May 1, 2007: Garth Nix - Lady Friday

June 5, 2007 Philip Pullman - The Ruby in the Smoke

July 3, 2007: Louis Sachar - The Boy Who Lost His Face

August 7 (through September as well), 2007: J K Rowling - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

October 2, 2007: John Gordon - The Giant Under the Snow

November 6, 2007: Alan Garner - The Owl Service

December 4 (through January 2008 as well): Charles Butler - The Fetch of Mardy Watt

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25. Doctor Who Season 3 - "Smith and Jones"

In fairness to anyone who intends to watch Doctor Who's third season and hasn't seen "Smith and Jones" yet, for whatever reason, reviews of the episodes will be here on the Spoiler Zone.

Season Three of "Doctor Who" opened with the breath-taking "Smith and Jones", a rattling romp of a tale which introduced 23 year old medical student Martha Jones to the 900+ year old Time Lord. She didn't get a nice easy introduction to the Doctor's eccentricities like Rose Tyler did! Martha was on her way into work at the hospital when a strange man bumped into her (literally), removed his tie, said "Like so" and walked off, still carrying his tie. A short while later, doing the ward rounds with Mr B Stoker the consultant, she sees the Doctor sitting up in bed, complaining of feeling "Bleugh". She's instructed to check him over and comments on him running around outside earlier, which he flatly denies. Then she listens to his heart and discovers he has two ! She doesn’t comment, even when he winks cheekily at her. By lunchtime that day, there's a localised major thunderstorm going on over the hospital – and then the rain starts falling upwards, whilst the Doctor's roaming around the hospital in his pyjamas and blue dressing gown. Moments later the hospital appears to be struck by an earthquake, but when everyone finds their feet, they discover instead that the hospital has been transported up to the moon. One quick change of clothes later (here's the first appearance of his blue suit), the Doctor's commending Martha's intelligence (whilst getting impatient with her fellow student who insists they can't be breathing on the moon when they obviously are !) and inviting her to come outside onto the veranda with him to see what's what. He warns her "We might die" and she promptly answers "We might not!" in a slightly don't-be-so-negative tone, which earns a "Good" from him. It's quite clear that the Doctor's testing Martha, measuring her potential as a Companion – and it's quite clear that she's up to the job as she not only continues to make intelligent comments, but also re-focuses his attention when he starts nattering on about the hospital having a shop (shades of "New Earth", the season 2 opening episode), and she's more concerned with the Space-Rhino-police force (the Judoon) that's turned up at the hospital and were apparently responsible for the hospital's forced removal to the Moon (they have no jurisdiction over the Earth under Galactic Law, but the Moon is neutral). Martha doesn't quite believe the Doctor is an alien (despite the two hearts), but goes along with him since he seems to have at least some idea of what's going on.

There's some brilliant FX work in this episode (loved the Judoon spaceships) from the Mill and excellent Prosthetics work from Neill Gorton and his team on the Judoon Captain (played by the chief "monster" actor, Paul Kasey). There's a scene where the Doctor uses an X-Ray machine (on which he's turned up the setting to a lethal level) to kill one of the henchmen of the female villain (a Plasmavore, who's an internal shapeshifter) – and when the X-Ray machine goes off, you can see the Doctor's skeleton through his clothes - a brilliant detail ! Then the Doctor has to get rid of the excess radiation he's absorbed – and he forces it all into his left shoe, which results in him doing an odd hopping "dance" (I'd love to know how many takes it took !)

With the Plasmavore defeated and the Judoon on their merry way again, the hospital gets transported back to Earth and Martha goes off to her brother Leo's 21st birthday party, where a full scale family row ensues (her dad has a much younger girlfriend, having left his wife, which is causing a good deal of acrimony between her parents), and who should turn up, leaning on the corner of a building, giving Martha a speculative look, but the Doctor? She follows him and finds him standing in an alley, leaning against the TARDIS. He more or less seduces her into taking a trip with him – disappearing off in the TARDIS momentarily to prove that he can travel in Time (he comes back clutching his tie, so that opening moment makes sense now!) And she agrees – then proceeds to tease him about kissing her ("a genetic transfer", he insists), the fact that he travelled across the universe to ask her on a "date" and his tight suit ("Stop it!" he says, completely alarmed). He insists he prefers travelling alone, but he occasionally has guests, the last of whom was named Rose, but Martha's not replacing her. "I never said I was," she retorts. But you can tell, watching them, that she's smitten with him (despite her assertion that she only goes for humans).

This was a corking opening episode - fans agree it's the best season opener we've had so far, and a fun introduction to Martha Jones. I already love the character (who shares some similar charadteristics to the Companion I've created in my own Who fan fiction). Next week's episode is "The Shakespeare Code" and sees Martha making her first trip in the TARDIS, to 1599 when Will Shakespeare was at the height of his powers.

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