July 6th, 2013


June Books 16) Afspraak in Nieuwpoort, by Ivan Petrus Adriaenssens

I had very high hopes for this graphic novel about the first world war; it won both the 2012 Prix Saint-Michel for best Dutch-language comic (in Belgium), and the 2011 Stripschapsjaarprijs (for the Netherlands and Flanders) in the Dutch-language literary category (that's literary as opposed to action and yoof which are also Stripschapsjaarprijs categories). It has been translated into English as The Nieuport Gathering (which isn't a great translation - "afspraak" is closer to "appointment" in meaning, and "appointment" is closer to what actually happens in the book), with the author's name shortened to Ivan Petrus.

The story is a gritty documentary-style recreation of the war zone around Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast, just after the sluice gates on the Yser were opened to halt the German advance in 1914. Three soldiers, one English, one Belgian and one French, meet by the blasted defences on 1 November and agree to meet up there every ten years into the future. Another English soldier later hears the story from his fellow-countryman and decides that he too will try to keep the appointment. The framing narrative is set sixty years later in 1974, as the fourth soldier, his grand-daughter and her Belgian boyfriend track down what happened to the other three. The historical detail is meticulous - the three main characters were all in fact real people, Raoul Snoeck of the Belgian publishing family, the poet T.E. Hulme, and a moderately famous French marine commando, Jean-Marie Le Blic; and the landscapes both of devastating wartime and of more peaceful years afterwards are beautifully detailed, the war scenes normally in a muddy monochrome, the modern points a bit more tinted.

But I am afraid I was rather disappointed. I find it significant that the publicity around the book tends to emphasise the fact that it is based on historical facts rather than that it might be a good story in itself. While the landscapes are great, the people often rather less so; the frame I'm using above shows De Blic (of whom no actual photograph survives) leading a raid, and I find the humans in it poorly drawn and unrealistically posed; surely, even in 1914, commandos would creep rather than charge into such a mission? It is as if the concept of taking cover had never been invented! I also felt that the stories told, while of course moving tales of gallantry and tragic waste of life, didn't actually take us much further than the war stories of The Victor comic of my childhood. There is little reflection on why these four soldiers ended up in the war, and none at all about the Germans. I actually found the postscript, detailing Adriaenssens' research into the period, more engaging than the rest of the book.

Afspraak in Nieuwpoort isn't actually bad, but with the coming centenary, we'll be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing and I hope some of it is better.

June Books 17) Hunter's Moon, by Paul Finch

He said he was a doctor. And he certainly looked like one, with his dickie-bow, patched tweed jacket and ridiculous, unmanageable hair. But a doctor? Here? And where was here?

I'm sorry to start the day with two petulant reviews, and I promise the next will be more positive. This is the last of the Eleven/Rory/Amy novels, and probably one you can skip; there are lots of quite good elements - some very well realised aliens and cyborgs, and a slap at the easy target of reality television; I think Finch also captures Smith's Doctor rather well. But the basic scenario, of people being kidnapped to become prey in a grand hunt, is pretty cliched by now, having been done slightly better in The Five Doctors and much better in a Tenth Doctor novel, The Doctor Trap; of course all of these are rooted in The Most Dangerous Game. I did not think that the horror of the situation was adequately reflected in the prose; I also thought the main non-Tardis crew sub-plot, the redemption of a failed London copper's relationship with his family through his heroism, was handled too superficially. In general this felt like an book with adult themes being written for younger readers, and there was a failure to connect style with substance.

There were other minor implausibilities which pushed my own buttons, such as an Albanian character (who disappears as soon as he is mentioned) called Miklos; just possible if he was named after a Hungarian friend or relative, but Mëhill is the usual Albanian translation of Michael, and even that is not very common.

It is a rare lapse in quality of the New Series Adventures, which after a dodgy start in the Eleventh Doctor era became generally much better than this. It was released at the time of broadcast of The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon, at the same time as altariel's much better The Way Through the Woods and James Goss's superb Dead of Winter), both of which I strongly recommend instead.

June Books 18) Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

We walked through town. Sylvie fixed her gaze six inches above eye level, but in fact no one stared, though many people glanced at us, and then glanced a second time. At the drugstore we passed Lucille and her friends, though Sylvie seemed not to notice. Lucille was dressed like all the others in a sweatshirt and sneakers and rolled-up jeans, and she looked after us, her hands stuck in her hip pockets.
This had been recommended to me here and here, so thanks to punktortoise, bibliofile and altariel, though of course it also pops up on various Lists Of Great Books. It's a rather subversive feminist novel about a household who dare to be different in a small Idaho town; The narrator's eccentric aunt becomes her adoptive mother, and they determinedly find their own way outside the social norms. There is a very memorable lake. Much is told with few words.

June Books 19) Something Borrowed, by Richelle Mead

A clatter of metal was the sole warning I had before a hole in the ceiling suddenly opened, and the Doctor came tumbling down to the floor, landing in an ungraceful heap of rainbow plaid. Nonetheless, he rose to his feet with all the dignity of an Olympic gymnast who’d just landed a perfect somersault.
The Puffin series of successive Doctor novellas continues with this June release by urban fantasy writer Richelle Mead featuring the Sixth Doctor. Unusually, she tells the story in the first person from Peri's viewpoint; there are only a handful of Who books that use the direct voice of the Doctors or companions - I can think of Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure With The Daleks, Doctor Who and the Romans, Bunker Soldiers, Ghost Ship, Eye of Heaven, and The Last Dodo, and there's also a very good short story from Peri's point of view in one of the Big Finish collections. Indeed most of the above list are decent enough, and at least two are among the best Who novels (with one crashing dud that I will let you discover for yourselves), so it is surprising that writers don't do it more often. (I am not counting books where the story is told in the first person by a non-regular character, and of course many of the audio plays use that approach, often very successfully.)

Anyway, this is short but sweet: Peri is a great character to write for anyway, I suspect, and the setting is a futuristic world where they do Las Vegas-style weddings, with the Doctor and Peri getting involved in a planned nupotial where it turns out that one of the prospective spouses is an old acquaintance. Not quite the best of this sequence, but far from the worst.