Since the beginning of 2010 or so, I've decided to finally get back into Professor Bernice Summerfield, many years after I listened to the first two seasons of the audio dramas and read the early novels. I've been listening to an audio every now and then, but it occurred to me that I should be intermixing the books that go with them. (Bernice has a complicated storyline that constantly switches between prose and audio.) A Life of Surprises actually came out during Season 3, and now I'm on Season 4, so I've jumped back to fill in this gap:
edited by Paul Cornell
Hardcover, 166 pages. Published 2002. Acquired and read December 2011.
A Life of Surprises was published ten years after Benny debuted in Paul Cornell's Love and War, and the book claims to celebrate the full extent of her life, though for obvious reasons none of the stories feature her traveling with the Doctor, and most are set during her time working for the Braxiatel Collection. It's a very nice anthology, with a lot of stories that tend to the more "literary" end of things, in terms of prose style and experimentation, which isn't a thing there's usually a lot of room for in tie-in fiction. The looser nature of Bernice Summerfield works to its advantage here, I think-- there's no "franchise" or anything for it to be bound to, and so the authors are free to take the quite-varied tone of Bernice stories and spread their wings.
Most notable along these lines was "Kill the Mouse!" by the not-published-enough Daniel O'Mahony. I mean, I don't fully get what happened or why, but it's an excellent look at Bernice under pressure, and it's dark without feeling overly so. Paul Ebbs's "Something Broken" is similar, but less effective, maybe because Bernice is rarely so directly political as she is here. (I mean, I know she hates cruelty, but I feel that Beyond the Sun handled this more aptly.) "Cuckoo" by Stephen Fewell was also a favorite; unlike many stories, it's set at a defintive point in the chronology (soon after Benny gives birth in The Glass Prison) and deals with the issue of Bernice's motherhood in a deeper way that we've seen in the audio series up until this point.
There are also weird or funny stories, such as "Alien Planets and You" by Dave Stone, which is written like an article about travel, with endnotes that explain what specifically happened to Benny. (For some reason, though, the endnotes are in a dark gray box, making them nearly illegible.) "The Collection" by Peter Anghelides is a strange time-travel adventure, but it works more than it doesn't, mostly thanks to the humor (though there's one bit that seems somewhat forced). Steve Lyons's "Taken by the Muses" has a race of alien robots who must rhyme, and is worth it entirely for that joke. "Time's Team" by David McIntee is also a fun romp, but surely the most humorous story in the book is Nev Fountain's "Beedlemania," features the Knyy'ds, a race compelled to use any pointed object once unsheathed before it is sheathed again. Initially referring to swords, their honor code cause them to extend it to pens (they must write their mothers a letter) and more.
And then there's some continuity-pleasing ones (at least in theory), like Terrance Dicks's "A Mutual Friend," which takes a great premise (Bernice meets Sarah Jane) and manages to turn it into a complete non-event. Mark Stevens's "Setting Stone" sees Bernice encountering the aftereffects of an adventure she had with the Doctor, but it didn't really come together to me-- perhaps because it's forced to be vague by its very nature. "The Spartacus Syndrome" by Jonathan Morris is set during the old Virgin adventures, when Benny was based on Dellah, and is also disorienting but fun. Lance Parkin's "Paydirt" is a nice tribute to Bernice (and her contradictory nature), but the best of these stories was "Dear Friend" by Jim Sangster, a simple letter from Bernice to the Doctor thanking him for what he's done for her.
There are a few stories I didn't mention, but most of those are dull at worst, not bad. I have very mixed memories of Big Finish's previous Bernice Summerfield anthology, The Dead Men Diaries, but thankfully by this point, Big Finish had stopped pushing Bernice Summerfield as a series of sub-Indiana Jones adventures set in outer space, and let Benny return to the more literary and emotional tone of the Virgin stories. A good celebration for a worthy character.