29 February 2012

Life in a Lancashire Matrons' Town

Hardcover, 258 pages
Published 1901 (originally 1880)
Acquired January 2012

Read February 2012
A Fair Barbarian
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

If you've never read Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, you should. It's about an English town "in possession of the Amazons"-- everyone1 in the town is a woman. The women in the town are forced to confront the impending modern world in the form of railroads, a bank scare, men, and even foreigners. It's charming, gentle satire. Gaskell's at her best (except for all of her other novels). If you don't have time to read it (it's not even long, though), then go watch the BBC miniseries, which isn't very like it in terms of plot, but seems to get the characters right. (I haven't finished it yet.)

If you have read Cranford, then A Fair Barbarian is essentially the unauthorized sequel, where an American comes to Cranford. "Slowbridge" is a town of ladies who are socially complacent and find their world turned upside down when an American girl (the daughter of a diamond miner) comes to town and starts dressing attractively and speaking her mind, which of course shocks everyone. Several characters are clearly standins for Gaskell's. I haven't liked Burnett's other adult novels, but I was pleasantly entertained by this, which manages to be funny and never outstays its welcome. It's not as deeply characterized or emotionally powerful as Cranford is at its best moments, but if you like Cranford, this slip of a sequel should provide an hour's diversion at least.

1. This being a Victorian novel, "everyone" is more like "everyone who's anyone"; it indicates people of a certain social class, of course.

28 February 2012

Life in a Lancashire Mill Town

Hardcover, 374 pages
Published 1886 (originally 1879)
Acquired January 2012

Read February 2012
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Haworth's never engages. It's not that it doesn't have any likeable characters (they're in short supply, but many a novel has got by without any), it's that it lacks any interesting characters. There's a mill owner who worked his way up from being a hand and dotes on his mother, there's an American whose father spent his life working on an unspecified invention who feels compelled to finish the work, there's a comedy poor old lady, there's some other people too, I guess. The interesting character is Miss Ffrench, daughter of the mill owner's partner, who has been raised to do what is economical, even in choosing a spouse (or rather, her father choosing her a spouse), but seems to feel some moral conflict-- it's hard to tell. She does something nice for someone at one point, but it doesn't stick. It's also hard to tell who the hero actually gets together with, but because it's so hard to care, I didn't try to find out very much.

27 February 2012

Life in a Lancashire Mining Town

Hardcover, 340 pages
Published 1914 (originally 1877)
Acquired and read January 2012
That Lass o' Lowrie's
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Right now I'm in a seminar that's reading the fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Not Burnett's children's literature, but her mostly-forgotten and never-reprinted adult fiction. Doing this obviously makes it completely impossible to not draw comparisons between the two writers. And so far, these comparisons are always to Burnett's disadvantage.

The problem is that, quite simply, Gaskell's ability to render character is leaps and bounds above Burnett's. This can be mostly clearly seen by comparing Gaskell's attempts to depict the Lancashire poor in her first novel, Mary Barton, to Burnett's attempts to do the same in her first novel, That Lass o' Lowrie's. The poor characters in Mary Barton are, well, characters. They're people with problems and conditions that have shaped them in certain ways, understandable even when those ways are negatives, but they're not eternal victims; they act to help one another or themselves or no one at all, depending. Of all the characters in Lass, only one is poor, and that character falls into the typical Victorian trap of being recognized by every other character as not of her own class. Joan Lowrie, the lass of the title, is virtuous, religious, and selfless, whereas every other poor character in the novel is irrational, dirty, and faceless (with two exceptions).

One of those exceptions is Joan's father, and once again I draw comparison to Mary Barton. Both novels' title characters attempt to murder (or do murder) an upper-class character connected with the town's industry. Mary's father does this because he's seen so many of his fellow laborers' lives ruined by suffering, negotiations with the mill-owners have broken down, and he can't take it all anymore. Joan's father, on the other hand, does this because... well... he's poor and drunk, and that's what poor people do, you know? Can't trust a poor person, unless their nature is that of someone from the upper classes.

The bizarre part of all this is that Elizabeth Gaskell was comfortably middle class (at least) her whole life, whereas Frances Hodgson Burnett spent much of her childhood in poverty. To read That Lass o' Lowrie's, though, you'd think that poor people were something Burnett had only encountered by reading Oliver Twist.

26 February 2012

Audio Catchup: The Scarifyers: The Magic Circle

written by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris
directed by Simon Barnard
released November 2011

David Warner as Harry Crow
Terry Molloy as Professor Dunning
The Scarifyers: The Magic Circle

Since 2007, Nicholas “Brigadier” Courtney and Terry “Davros” Molloy have played Inspector Lionheart and Professor Dunning in the ongoing Scarifyers series of audio dramas. After the unfortunate death of Nicholas Courtney, it was thankfully decided to not end The Scarifyers, but to continue the series with a new lead: David Warner as Harry “Thumper” Crow, Lionheart’s old sergeant. The Magic Circle is the story tasked with making that transition.

Lionheart has suddenly gone missing, leaving poor Professor Dunning in all kinds of (literally) sticky situations without backup. Concerned, his investigations leads him to Harry Crow, and then on the trail of any number of magical acts. Meanwhile, an old woman named Iris Binns has begun chasing down these magical acts for her own reasons…

Audio Catchup: Doctor Who: The Curse of Davros

written by Jonathan Morris
directed by Nicholas Briggs
released January 2012

Colin Baker as the Doctor
Lisa Greenwood as Flip Jackson
Terry Molloy as Davros
Doctor Who #156: The Curse of Davros

Jonathan Morris’s Doctor Who audio The Curse of Davros introduces a new companion, but an old character, bringing back Lisa Greenwood as Flip Jackson, who previously appeared in the overcrowded The Crimes of Thomas Brewster. I actually heard the announcement that Flip would be returning before I heard Crimes, and on finally listening to the story, I was baffled; I don’t think I’d’ve noticed her at all if it hadn’t been for that announcement. But here she is back (alongside her boyfriend Jared) when an escape pod carrying the Doctor crashes in London, and she’s the only one who notices.

What follows is a story that’s hard to discuss, because it has a central premise that would be partially ruined by giving it away. I managed to intuit it even by reading a non-spoiler discussion, so I’ll try to be super-vague. In general terms, however, the Doctor is on the run from the Daleks in 2012, trying to get back to 1815, where Davros is allying with Napoleon to change the course of the Battle of Waterloo. The Doctor, Flip, and Jared must dodge the Daleks, the police, the French, and the Duke of Wellington if they want to keep history on course. It feels a little bit too small scale for Davros and the Daleks, coming off a lot like the Master’s plan in The King’s Demons.

24 February 2012

Legacy's End Week, Day Five

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2012 (contents: 2010-11)
Acquired January 2012
Read February 2012
Star Wars: Legacy, Volume Eleven: War

Story: John Ostrander and Jan Duursema
Script: John Ostrander
Pencils: Jan Duursema
Inks: Dan Parsons
Colors: Brad Anderson
Lettering: Michael Heisler

The final volume of Legacy sees Cade Skywalker speeding to a confrontation with a revived Darth Krayt, on which the fate of the galaxy rests-- of course.  Cade finally chooses his side... again, in what feels like a slight relapse given the events of Monsters.  At the same time, Nyna Calixte makes her move, the Sith attack the Jedi's Hidden Temple, Roan Fel invades Coruscant, and more.  It's decent, even exciting sometimes, but is somehow less than the sum of its parts; flipping back through it to write this review, I am struggling to find things to say about it.  It brings Legacy to a nice conclusion, but that is all it does, perhaps because it ultimately had too much it had to try to do.  It was okay, but I wanted it to be better than it was, given what it was about.

I will say that 1) the Antares Draco plotline was still lame and 2) I really appreciated the return appearance by Joker Squad.  Joker Squad is a Sith Imperial stormtrooper squad that was the focus of a story in Shards, the second Legacy collection, and though they've never been a focus again, I always appreciate their brief reappearances when stormtroopers bear down on our heroes; it personalizes the bad guys in a small but effective way.

On the whole, I enjoyed Legacy more than I didn't, but it definitely peaked with its first few volumes; Broken, Shards, and Alliance are still the best.  Cade Skywalker was never quite interesting enough, and I always felt like the best parts of the story were happening where he was not.  The first volume clicked perfectly, but after that, Cade's storyline span its wheels a lot while we got tantalizing glimpses of the wider universe.  Broken remains my favorite for having revealed a world full of possibilities while also telling a good story, in a way the series never quite managed again.  I don't think the best overall story that could have been told in this world was told, though the one that was got was usually decent, sometimes good, and occasionally great.

23 February 2012

Legacy's End Week, Day Four

Comic trade paperback, 96 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 2010)
Acquired December 2011
Read February 2012
Star Wars: Legacy, Volume Ten: Extremes

Story: John Ostrander and Jan Duursema
Script: John Ostrander
Pencils: Jan Duursema
Inks: Dan Parsons
Colors: Brad Anderson
Lettering: Michael Heisler

As this volume opens, the Galactic Alliance Remnant finally engages openly with the Sith Empire on a massive scale, swooping in to the save the Mon Calamari from genocide.  As always, Gar Stazi is awesome, running into what he knows is a trap and still managing to win.  Well, sort off-- even that many ships can evacuate only a scant fraction of the total population of Dac.  But it's great space battle action nonetheless.

After that, Extremes struggles to insert Cade Skywalker and his buddies into the ongoing plotline about the war between the Sith Empire and the rest of the galaxy.  Cade, who since his rejection of the Dark Side has been exclusively pursuing bounties on Sith, ends up protecting Gar Stazi from an assassination attempt.  The story is a rushed attempt to tie up Legacy (the series was originally cancelled with this volume) and not altogether interesting.  It has its moments, but it's small-scale, so thankfully this wasn't the actual end of Legacy.  The large-scale political plotline and the small-scale Cade one just can't be wedded successfully as attempted here.  (Though it was highly amusing to see Delilah Blue flirting with Stazi.)

There's also a plotline about Antares Draco rescuing Princess Marasiah from the Sith.  This would be more interesting if 1) we'd ever seen or even heard of Draco's old master who turned evil before it was dramatically revealed he was not dead or 2) we didn't know from Broken was Marasiah is a kickass warrior who doesn't need rescuing, thank you very much.

But it's not the end, as the final moments reveal... the galaxy has more troubles to come...

22 February 2012

Legacy's End Week, Day Three

Comic trade paperback, 120 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 2009-10)
Acquired December 2011
Read January 2012
Star Wars: Legacy, Volume Nine: Monster

Story: John Ostrander and Jan Duursema
Script: John Ostrander
Pencils: Jan Duursema and Dave Ross
Inks: Dan Parsons
Colors: Brad Anderson and Jesus Aburto 
Lettering: Michael Heisler

This is probably the best post-Vector collection of Legacy.  Following a bounty, Cade Skywalker and friends head to Wayland-- the planet where everything went wrong for him as a boy.  It was on Wayland that the Sith first sabotaged the Ossus Project, the beginning of the ruin of young Cade's life.  This time around, things don't go any better.  Cade's lover, Delilah Blue, is captured by a rogue Sith who wants to know if Cade can heal her of a poison she plans to unleash.  If Cade's immense Dark Side healing powers can't save her, no one can.  The result of this is the best Cade-nearly-turns-to-the-Dark-Side yet, as instead of just seeing the rage that Cade is always fighting to contain, we also finally see the love he can't bring himself to admit.

Elsewhere in the galaxy, events are coming to a head, as Roan Fel's rebel Empire seeks an Alliance with the Jedi, who are at last emerging from hiding with the death of Darth Krayt.  This is all good stuff, too-- it's nice to see the Jedi finally doing something, not to mention Nyna Calixte finally revealing where she stands-- but I have two niggling problems.  The first is that Princess Marasiah Fel, one of my favorite characters in the first volume of Legacy, finally returns here... and does absolutely nothing.  I almost didn't notice she was in it. Lame.  Second, Azlyn Rae reappears, after having been put in a Vader-esque support suit during the events of Storms... in a new suit that's barely noticeably different from her Imperial Knight armor.  So what was the point of all that, then?  Lame.

There's also another Gar-Stazi-is-the-Biggest-Badass-in-Outer-Space side story in this volume, too.  All is well.

21 February 2012

Legacy's End Week, Day Two

Comic trade paperback, 120 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 2009)
Acquired April 2010
Read January 2012
Star Wars: Legacy, Volume Eight: Tatooine

Story: John Ostrander and Jan Duursema
Script: John Ostrander
Pencils: Jan Duursema and Kajo Baldisimo
Inks: Dan Parsons
Colors: Brad Anderson and Jesus Aburto 
Letters: Michael Heisler

Most of this volume of Legacy consists of the story "Tatooine," a complicated story of conflicting agendas in the way that Legacy does best.  Cade Skywalker and company are on Tatooine to sell goods they've pirated off Imperial shipments, only things are getting a little hot.  Meanwhile, Moff Nyna Calixte has sent her daughter Gunn Yage to investigate the same problem... but Calixte has come in disguise as Imperial agent Morrigan Corde... and Corde is Skywalker's mother.  There's also a criminal mastermind and some bounty hunters and a corrupt Imperial moff to deal with, too.  It sometimes gets a little confusing, as you might imagine.

The best part of Tatooine is that we finally get a story that is interested in Delilah Blue.  Blue is Cade's Zeltron engineer-- like all Zeltron women, she's sexy and sexual, but beyond the fact that she turns Cade's hydrospanner (in every sense of the word), we don't really know much about her.  In Tatooine, Blue pretends to be an Imperial missionary to make some money, and we gain a sense as to what life she used to live and what motivates her to be with Cade.  It's a little late in the game, but it's much-needed at this point.

Much of the story pairs Cade with Yage, and in true Star Wars tradition, they seem to be attracted to one another because they don't know they're brother and sister.  Which is fun in its own way, I suppose.  It's also nice to see Cade experiencing some of his family history by running around the old Lars farm.  So it's certainly a fun and worthwhile story, but at a certain point seems to wear out its welcome; there's only so much quadruple-crossing you can read before you get bored.  For me, it was when they all went into space to talk to the crimelord or something.  I was done, but the story wasn't.  Still, there were a couple promising revelations at the end.

There's also a side story at the end, "Rogue's End," focusing on a Mandalorian member of the Alliance's Rogue Squadron, who we've seen a couple times in the series previously.  It's all right-- I wasn't super-invested in this guy to begin with, and this story doesn't really make me a big fan, though it's interesting enough.

20 February 2012

Legacy's End Week, Day One

Once I heard that Star Wars: Legacy was coming to an end, I began stockpiling the trade paperback collections so that I might read them all at once.  This took longer than I thought, because having been cancelled and concluded, Legacy received a temporary reprieve in the form of the miniseries War.  But this past month, the last volume finally came out, I bought it, and so the end of Legacy began...

Comic trade paperback, 122 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2009)
Acquired April 2010
Read January 2012
Star Wars: Legacy, Volume Seven: Storms

Story: John Ostrander and Jan Duursema
Script: John Ostrander
Pencils: Jan Duursema and Omar Francia
Inks: Dan Parsons and Omar Francia
Colors: Brad Anderson
Letters: Michael Heisler

At the end of the previous volume of Legacy, Vector, Darth Krayt, the Sith Emperor, was killed.  Storms picks up right from that, with Cade Skywalker and his band of fellow adventurers (i.e., pirates and bounty hunters) trying to make it to safety so that the dying Imperial Knight Azlyn Rae can be healed.  What follows hits the notes that Legacy has hit many times over at this point, unfortunately; a galaxy free of Krayt has not changed Cade Skywalker's outlook one jot.  He's angry and purposeless and lashing out at those who know him, yadda yadda yadda.  We do see him go the farthest he's ever gone in his attempts to hold on to someone's life, further even than with Marasiah Fel in Broken; he uses the Dark Side to keep Azlyn alive, but with a terrible cost that will make for some interesting dynamics should they ever be reunited.

As always, it seems as though the most interesting parts of the world Ostrander and Duursema dreamed up are the ones sideways from the main story.  Storms features two side stories.  The first, "Fight Another Day," focuses on the Sith Empire's ongoing attempts to exterminate the Mon Calamari for their betrayal of the Sith; this time they are opposed by a lone Imperial Knight in a decent little story that shows the Imperial Knights at their best.

The second, "Renegade," focuses on the man who is surely Legacy's best character and true hero, Gar Stazi, admiral of the Galactic Alliance Remnant.  Holding fast to the Alliance when even the Jedi have abandoned it, Stazi demonstrates his mettle here in a cool story where the GA takes the first steps in its fledgling alliance with the Imperial rebels against the Sith.  Its characterization of some of the Imperials is a little simplistic, I think, but on the whole, it is a solid story, the best in this volume.

16 February 2012

It's Hard to Topple Governments When the Doctor's Not Around

Hardcover, 202 pages
Published 2003
Acquired December 2011
Read February 2012
Professor Bernice Summerfield III: Life During Wartime
edited by Paul Cornell

At the end of the previous Bernice Summerfield story, the audio drama The Poison Seas, Bernice received a message from Irving Braxiatel, telling her to come home to the Braxiatel Collection. Life During Wartime picks up almost immediately thereafter, with Bernice coming home to find the Collection occupied by the Fifth Axis, the Space Racists she'd thought defeated in The Glass Prison. Life During Wartime features little archaeology and little space adventure, instead telling the story of the months of the Fifth Axis occupation.

The first thing in Life During Wartime, as in most Bernice Summerfield books, is a little descriptive piece called "The Braxiatel Collection," explaining the series setup. This little piece explains succinctly everything that is wrong with the setup. There are potted backstories for Benny, Irving, Jason, and Adrian, which is fine, but it reads like it comes out of the series bible, and hence explains all of the jokes: we are told that Joseph the Porter is over-literal (but on purpose), what Collection administrator Ms Jones means when she puts on her glasses, how gardener Mister Crofton reacts to forgetting the "Mister," and that the public relations officer never actually turns up in stories (oh, the hilarity). Why do we need all these characters? Bernice Summerfield wants to be Indiana Jones in Space, but Indiana Jones just has Marcus Brody to report back to, not Brody and a lover and a rival and a department secretary and a janitor and a press officer. Why do you need such a large, uninteresting supporting cast? Even the one story largely set on the collection, The Squire's Crystal, didn't make a lot of use of them as I recall.

Life During Wartime doesn't mean that the unwieldy setup has been worthwhile all along, but it is used to maximum effect here. We just don't see what Bernice has to deal with (she feels compelled to play along with the Fifth Axis because she doesn't know where her son is), but how Irving Braxiatel deals with being surprised for the first time ever, how Jason Kane immediately gives in and defects to the Axis, how Adrian suffers as a worker, that Bev Tarrant can be something other than a thief, why Ms Jones fell in love with an Axis policeman, and what happened to Mister Crofton during the Dalek War. The range of characters has a range of reactions to the occupation, some trying to stop it at any cost, while the Axis itself tries to convince them that nothing has changed.

Suffice it to say that I liked this book a lot. It's technically an anthology, but it reads like a novel. Especially the early stories lead one right into the next. Paul Cornell keeps the book nearly seamless; with 22 stories in 200 pages, each story is around ten pages long, and thus no one voice is in play too long. The many-voice thing works, though; it feels like one author adopting a range of styles and approaches to convey one idea: the difficulty of maintaining your courage in a life during wartime. Some are just moments, with Bernice talking to Irving, or Mister Crofton remembering his past. Quite amazingly, not a single one is bad. Not a single one. The worst I could describe one as is "average," and even that is pushing it. If I just talked about the good ones, I'd be here far too long, but here are some favorites:

"The Birthday Party" by Simon Guerrier, where Bernice must help celebrate the life of a member of the resistance without offending Marshal Anson, otherwise many lives will be lost.

"Five Dimensional Thinking" by Nick Wallace, where Irving Braxiatel convinces himself that only a Time Lord could have beaten him, and that that Time Lord must be himself.

"Meanwhile, in a Small Room, a Small Boy..." by Robert Shearman, where Peter must try to occupy himself while his mother Bernice is gone... and he does so through self-destructive blame.

"Drinking with the Enemy" by Jonathan Blum, where Bernice, having sold out and resumed her relationship with Jason, now an Axis officer, has dinner with Ms Jones and her new boyfriend, an Axis stalwart. Curfew comes, no one can go home, they drink too much, and they all learn entirely too much about one another. The best story in the book, showing how someone can be a fundamentally good person and a fundamentally awful person at the same time.

"The Peter Principle" by Kate Orman, where Bernice finally figures out where she stands.

There's something intrinsically Bernice-ish about occupation stories; when I think of classic Benny stories, the usual suspects are Beyond the Sun and Just War, and there's also The Dying Days and "Kill the Mouse!" I think it's because for the most part, Bernice is a pretty Doctor-like character, swanning into sci-fi situations and solving problems through action/adventure and some good dialogue. But occupations play out differently for Bernice than the Doctor. I can't imagine the Doctor living for weeks or months under a dictatorship, unable to do anything but keep himself alive, but what else can Bernice do? It's an intrinsically (and exclusively) human problem, and hence what makes Bernice her own character, her own person, and very real. She's never cruel or cowardly, but when you can't swan into the occupation headquarters and destroy the government with five words, that's something it's very hard to keep up, making her a whole lot braver.

10 February 2012

Personally, I Think Anyone Who Can Follow Directions Can Cook

Trade paperback, 412 pages
Published 2010
Acquired December 2010
Read February 2012
Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food
by Jeff Potter

My wife and I received this as a Christmas present from her brother not long after we got married.  Though it's got recipes in it, it's not just a cookbook; indeed, there are more pages without recipes, than with.  Basically, it approaches cooking skill as not a series of recipes, but a series of principles that you can master, aimed at an audience of the "geeky" sort, who is interested in strange facts, background theories, and doing things differently.

It's a nice idea, and the book is filled with the kind of factoids that you'll irritate your wife by reading aloud to her, about how flavors work, and what the difference between baking soda and powder is, and what are the six different kinds of cooks, and so on.  I didn't always know who the book was aimed at, though. The first chapter treats the reader as someone scared of the very concept of cooking, with a lot of moments I found kinda condescending ("no, scared geek, you really can use a cooking implement that's not a microwave!").  But the later chapters get increasingly complicated; the sort of person who might find the first chapter useful is going to be intimidated by the last chapter's extolling of the virtues of sous vide cooking.  And sometimes parts of it were boring (I learned more about baking than I ever would have cared to), but that's probably down to individual taste.

As for the recipes, I've only made one so far, the white bean and garlic soup (p. 133).  It was good, but I found that Potter's technique of including the ingredients in the middle of the recipe caused me to overlook important facts about them on first readthrough.  It came out way thicker than I would have liked, but that may have been my own fault and was alleviated by adding more veggie broth in any case.  I did really like how the recipe has you toast some French bread in oil and then blend it in; the soup had a really interesting flavor.  There's also a recipe for making your own ginger lemon soda (p. 229), which my wife and I are planning on trying this week.

The best part of the book were the interviews with other cooking geeks that Potter conducted: famous chefs, Twitter recipe writers, a man who cooked a pizza in his oven on cleaning mode, the coiner of "molecular gastronomy" and more.  Each one was fascinating; Potter asked good questions and got great answers.

09 February 2012

Audio Catchup: The Minister of Chance

written and directed by Dan Freeman
released February 2011

Jenny Agutter as Professor Cantha
Lauren Crace as Kitty
Paul McGann as Durian
The Minister of Chance, Prologue: The Pointed Hand

I’m a big fan of Death Comes to Time, the 2001-02 webcast that recast Doctor Who as a sprawling, interplanetary, operatic epic along the lines of Babylon 5, Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings. But even so, I was mighty sceptical when it was announced that Radio Static was bringing back the Minister of Chance, the Time Lord played by Stephen Fry in that series, in a new audio (or “radiophonic,” as they like to say) spin-off written by Dan Freeman.

The Pointed Hand is the free prologue to The Minister of Chance, a quick nine-minute story that’s largely one long scene featuring a few characters, though a few others put in brief appearances. A rocket from the nation of Seswan lands on Tanto, bringing Ambassador Durian, played by Paul McGann. Most of the prologue is the negotiation between Durian and the King of Tanto, where Durian attempts to gain permission to place military base on Tanto. McGann is as good as he always is, and plays nicely against what I expected of him after 11 years of listening to him in Doctor Who.

( Read more... )

written and directed by Dan Freeman
released March 2011

Julian Wadham as the Minister
Jenny Agutter as Professor Cantha
Lauren Crace as Kitty
Sylvester McCoy as the Witch Prime
Paul McGann as Durian
Paul Darrow as Lord Rathen
The Minister of Chance, Episode 1: The Broken World

The Broken World is the first full episode of The Minister of Chance, and our first opportunity to hear Julian Wadham play this new incarnation of the Time Lord, taking over from Stephen Fry, who played the previous incarnation in Doctor Who: Death Comes to Time. It’s written and directed by Dan Freeman, who also wrote and directed Death Comes to Time, and that production’s lush sound design and music is also back here. I always loved how Death Comes to Time used classical music (that scene were the Doctor confronts the Minister is simply gorgeous), and that flair is back here.

What particularly struck me was how like Death Comes to Time the setup for The Minister of Chance is. We’ve gone one nation occupying another, with head of state of the occupying nation itself feeling threatened by the actions of the member of their government doing the occupying. A Time Lord has come to the occupied nation, but not to help per se, but because something is “wrong” with the universe, and so he can’t spend much time helping out. But this is early days — The Broken World is only 35 minutes long — and there enough intriguing parts to the setup that I don’t think it’ll be a problem. The occupying nation of Seswan is democratic, and trumpets this fact loudly, but they are also anti-science, and ruled by a “Witch Prime”. The occupied nation of Tanto, on the other hand, is ruled by a king who ascended to the throne by killing his predecessor, but has an accomplished university. Also interesting are the hints about how the Minister travels between worlds.

( Read more... )

written and directed by Dan Freeman
released May 2011

Julian Wadham as the Minister
Jenny Agutter as Professor Cantha
Gethin Anthony as Sutu
Lauren Crace as Kitty
Sylvester McCoy as the Witch Prime
Paul McGann as Durian
Paul Darrow as Lord Rathen
Peter Guinness as the Horseman
The Minister of Chance, Episode 2: The Forest Shakes

My sense that The Minister of Chance was hitting several familiar story beats from Death Comes to Time was only heightened by its second full episode, The Forest Shakes. In this episode, the pacifist Professor Cantha ends up in a Sesian prison, and much of the discussion she has mirrors what Saint Valentine says to Nessican. In addition, Cantha’s comments to the Minister about his loneliness sound similar to what Senator Sala said to him, and Governor Durian’s return to Seswan is a lot like General Tannis’s return to Alpha Canis, and there’s a prison break here, though its connection to the Death Comes to Time prison break is admittedly small.

But though it’s distracting, it’s not overwhelming. The exploration of how pacifism can be a form of strength actually goes further here than in Death Comes to Time, and I quite liked the scenes where Cantha talks to her well-meaning guard. And given Julian Wadham’s much gruffer incarnation of the Minister of Chance, the loneliness angle will probably play out differently as well.

( Read more... )

08 February 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: Lucifer, Part IX: The Wolf Beneath the Tree

Comic trade paperback, 159 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 2004)
Borrowed from the library
Read February 2012
Lucifer: The Wolf Beneath the Tree

Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, P. Craig Russell, Ted Naifeh
Colorists: Daniel Vozzo, Lovern Kindizierski
Letterers: Jared K. Fletcher, Ken Lopez

The feature of this volume is obviously "Lilith."  Just like its mother series, the 50th issue of Lucifer is an extra-long flashback story gorgeously drawn by the legendary artist of Killraven, P. Craig Russell.  It looks great, of course, better than most of the art we see in Lucifer, but I was a little disappointed in the story.  It tells the story of the construction of the Silver City (thus firmly establishing that Lucifer is not set in the same continuity as Murder Mysteries) and the rebellions of Lucifer.  But with an absent God and a lot of bickering, it all feels so... petty.  It's not as interesting as I think the beginning of Lucifer's rebellion should have been, nor as high-minded.  I did really like seeing young Mazikeen, though!

There's also a short side story called "Neutral Ground," where demons from Hell and from the Disapora meet for negotiations being held within a man's soul-- poor him.  This one was fun, in a black comedy sort of way.

Most of the volume consists of "The Wolf Beneath the Tree" itself, where Fenris of Norse mythology decides to take advantage of God's continuing absence to do... well, something devastating.  I think he wants to destroy the universe, though I'm not sure why.  Like the fight between Lucifer and the comedy Titans in the previous volume, it feels like a sidetrack, a failure to capitalize on the potential of a universe without God.  And then it doesn't end so much as stop.  
There's a cameo by Delirium of the Endless, but the best part of the story is definitely the frustrating conversation between Destiny of the Endless, Lucifer, Michael, and Elaine Belloc, where we learn that even Lucifer can lose his cool with sufficient provocation.

07 February 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: Lucifer, Part VIII: Exodus

Comic trade paperback, 165 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 2003-04)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2012
Lucifer: Exodus

Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly
Colorist: Daniel Vozzo
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

This volume is has two distinct halves.  The first, "Brothers in Arms," features two pretty dopey Greek gods discovering that Yahweh has departed our universe, and attempting to take his place at the center of creation.  When I had anticipated that the departure of God in Mansions of Silence would lead to some stories, I had thought they would be more interesting than this.  They're a little too comic to take seriously as a threat (though admittedly they have their moments), and the battle becomes a little too arbitrary-magic-rules at time. (They create a duplicate of Lucifer... somehow... which will kill him when he touches it... for some reason... and yet when he fights it, he survives... some way.)

The story does succeed in part, though, by being focalized through the perspective of the waitress who worked in Lucifer's bar before it was converted into a temple, fighting alongside Mazikeen against some demons.  It turns out that she fell in love with Mazikeen, and Carey wrings a lot out of her confusion at the strange happenings in her life since then.  And the climax, with her and Mazikeen in the Silver City, is one of the best moments in the series so far. (Though could Mazikeen wear an outfit any less like armor?) I also like Lucifer being forced to defend the Silver City.  So it has its moments, even if I was overall disappointed in it.

The second half of Exodus is two interlocked stories: "Stitchglass Slide" and "Wire, Briar, Limber Lock."  In these stories, Lucifer decides that all immortals must be evicted from his new universe, and Elaine Belloc, half-angel and guardian of everything beside hedgehogs, assembles a task force to take care of the problem.  I liked this one a lot, but like many of the best Lucifer stories, Lucifer's not in it a whole lot. (The same problem that afflicted Gaiman's Sandman, I suppose.) Carey creates a really interesting demon for them to fight, one who weaves physical objects out of emotional responses, and forms a touching relationship with a young boy from Earth who stumbles through one of the portals into Lucifer's universe.  It's nice to see Elaine taking charge, but in her own way distinct from Lucifer.  I liked these stories a lot.

06 February 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: Lucifer, Part VII: Mansions of the Silence

Comic trade paperback, 142 pages
Published 2004 (contents: 2003)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2012
Lucifer: Mansions of the Silence

Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, Dean Ormston, David Hahn
Colorist: Daniel Vozzo

After the somewhat disappointing Inferno, Lucifer is back on form.  Lucifer himself is largely shunted to the side in this volume, as he assembles a crew for the Viking ship made of toenails he acquired last volume.  This ship will be journeying into the Mansions of the Silence, an area on the fringes of reality, where the soul of Elaine Belloc ended up after her death in The Divine Comedy.

I was doubly pleased by this setup: I really like Elaine, and her death was a big gut-punch, so her return would be welcome. (In some comics, I'd feel peeved that a death was being undone like this, but given all the crossing between Earth, Hell, the Silver City, and various other afterlives, death never had a whole lot of meaning in this series to begin with.) The other great part of this setup is the crew of the ship, basically every side character we've seen in Lucifer so far: Mazikeen, Lucifer's former consort and War Leader of the Lilim-in-Exile; Cal, who I'd actually forgotten about, but is Elaine's older brother and also half-angel; Jill Presto, the oft-scantily-clad invincible cabaret dancer/pop musician carrying the child of the Basanos; Bergelmir, half-brother of Loki and lover of Jill; David Easterman, a ghost who is one of many people who is not Elaine's father; Gaudium, the universe's most incompetent fallen cherub; and Spera, his long-suffering sister.  Lucifer himself cannot go because his presence is so large that it was destroy the Mansions of the Silence.

As you might imagine, the journey of this motley crew never ceases to entertain.  There's a lot of tension and conflict there, but when it comes down to it, they make an odd sort of team, even if one or two of them end up more dead than they were before.  The only part I didn't really like is that when they get in over their heads, Lucifer just shows up and solves all their problems, a return to the dull plotting of the earlier volumes.

While they journey, though, Lucifer isn't just sitting around relaxing; he and Michael have accessed the Mind of God through a backdoor created by Mazikeen's ex-husband. (To say that these books get complicated and weird sometimes would be an understatement.) What they discover there is another one of the series' shocking, clever, and fascinating revelations.

The volume wraps up with a one-part story where Elaine and her friend Mona, returned to life, discover that our universe isn't exactly what they'd hoped.  It's nicely illustrated by David Hahn, who also did some fill-ins on Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane back in the day.  It's also quite funny, though there's a great dramatic bit where Elaine confronts the demon who's taken her father's form.

04 February 2012

Audio Catchup: Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Poison Seas

I suppose that when I posted my reviews of the first two releases of Season 4 of Bernice Summerfield, I should have waited, since this one was yet to come, and I won't be reviewing the finale for Unreality, as I've previously listened to it out of sequence. (I have a policy of reviewing audios for USF only if it's the first time I've heard them.)

Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Poison Seas (#4.3)

written by David Bailey
directed by Edward Salt
released September 2003 

Lisa Bowerman as Bernice Summerfield 
Miles Richardson as Irving Braxiatel

My ongoing journey through Bernice Summerfield‘s “monster season” brings me to Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Poison Seas, which brings back the Sea Devils, who appeared in Doctor Who in 1972’s The Sea Devils (well, duh) and 1984’s Warriors of the Deep. In an interesting twist on the usual storyline, instead of confronting latecomer humans on Earth, the Sea Devils (here described by the political correct “Earth Reptile” name) are themselves latecomers on the human colony world Chosan, previously seen in author David Bailey’s The Secret of Cassandra. (Hardly the most auspicious beginning, as that story was among the Benny series’ worst.)

Though it’s a noble idea, The Poison Seas is pretty much an utter failure. Foremost among these is that the Sea Devils are nearly unintelligible, the usually reliable David Darlington committing a rare lapse in sound design. You can figure out what they’re saying enough to follow the plot, but I couldn’t tell any of the Sea Devil characters apart beyond that some were male and others female, and because they all speak in a whisper, all the scenes they feature in lack any kind of dramatic energy. Things only get worse when the Sea Devil computer speaks up, as it seems to have an additional electronic effect designed to make it even less intelligible. Come back Ice Warriors, all is forgiven; the Sea Devils are surely the Doctor Who monster least suitable to audio.

03 February 2012

Victorian Controversies, 1885-88: Colonization

Trade paperback, 300 pages
Published 1999 (contents: 1885-88)
Acquired July 2011
Read November 2011
The Man who would be King and Other Stories
by Rudyard Kipling

The best story in this volume is of course the title story, "The Man who would be King."  A long time ago, I saw and loved the film version with its incomparable cast, and the story is every bit as good as the film had lead me to anticipate.  Like much of Rudyard Kipling, it's able to gently poke fun at the follies of imperialism, which maybe isn't the reaction we postmoderns want, but it's enjoyable all the same.  Carnehan and Dravot are two men who've been let down by imperialism-- they went and conquered India, and what did it get them?-- and so they decide to run it for themselves, with the consequences you might anticipate.  The way the narrative jumps between distant and personal, sometimes disintegrating, is particularly effective. (It helps to imagine Michael Caine reading it.)

Other than Kim, this was my first encounter with Kipling.  His body of short fiction is apparently massive; this book brings together just seventeen pieces.  (Disappointingly, none of his science fiction is represented.)  As in any body of work, some worked for me and some did not.  It's a varied body of work; aside from taking place in India, the stories here have very little in common.  There are comedies and tragedies, tales of British soldiers and first-person narratives of Indian natives.

One tale of a British soldier, "The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes" might not be science fiction, but it uses tropes that turn up in many a science fiction tale, with a traveler trapped in a land seemingly outside of time. (I am personally thinking of the Star Trek cartoon "The Time Trap" and a Silver Age Green Arrow comic, but I am sure there are better examples.)  It was definitely one of the stronger tales here.  I didn't always get along with the tales of the British upper crust hanging out in India; skimming back over stories like "A Wayside Comedy" or "The Education of Otis Yeere," I realize that I barely remember what happened.  I really wanted to like "With the Main Guard," which is narrated by Three Soldiers alternatingly, but though the narrative device was interesting, the story itself was so-so.  On the other hand, "Only a Subaltern" was more fun that I expected going in.

From the Indian perspective, we also get strong stories in "Gemini," a black comedy about a man and his twin brother who disenfranchises him in every way possible, "At Twenty-Two," about a group of mine workers, and "In Flood Time," about a bridge keeper, among others.  These stories work in a large part because they immerse the reader in a society that's (probably) not his own; I've read several articles that say Kipling's significance to science fiction is not the science fiction he actually wrote, but rather his worldbuilding techniques, and reading stories like this, I can see that.  The techniques that Kipling's uses are ones that any contemporary reader of sf takes for granted.  They're often even told from the first person, an immersive move that makes for difficult yet rewarding reading.

The tales that explicitly deal with the intersections between the two worlds are also fascinating.  Kipling isn't really for or against colonization, as far as I can tell from reading these stories.  It's simply something that's happened, and he deals with its effects.  Sometimes these are funny (I love the story of the misguided missionaries in "The Judgment of Dungara") but of course there's a decent amount of tragedy running around too.  More usually, a story is both ("On the City Wall," for example.)

Other than the title story, the real standout was "Baa Baa, Black Sheep," a semiautobiographical tale of Kipling's own deprived childhood, separated from his parents and raised by a mentally and verbally abusive aunt.  You're completely immersed in the point-of-view of the boy, and it's harrowing and depressing, but oh so very good.  Poor kid.

It is, oddly enough, possible to read vast swathes of Victorian literature and never realize that Britain has an empire.  You might get the odd mention or subplot, but with just a prologue and epilogue set in India, The Moonstone is already an outlier.  It's odd to think that at the same time Kipling was writing these stories, Thomas Hardy is waxing rhapsodic about the English countryside in Wessex Tales.  For that different perspective on the Victorian world alone, Kipling is worthwhile, but thankfully he has a depth of insight, too.

Also: he's funny.  Best joke is when someone starts to get all philosophical, and someone else cuts her off by saying, essentially, "That's enough, George Eliot."

02 February 2012

Audio Catchup: Journey Into Space: The Red Planet

written and produced by Charles Chilton
broadcast 1954-55
released July 2011

Andrew Faulds as Jet
Guy Kingsley Poynter as Doc
Bruce Beeby as Mitch
David Kossof as Lemmy
Journey Into Space: The Red Planet

“Orders must be obeyed without question at all times.”

Until my editor asked me if I was interested in reviewing it, I had never heard of Journey into Space. But looking it up revealed that it was a BBC radio drama from 1953-58 about a group of people on, well, a journey into space. Well, I like vintage science fiction, and I do need something to listen to while I do the dishes, and so I said yes, and soon a copy of the second Journey into Space storyline, The Red Planet, had fallen into my hands. It actually let me do quite a number of dishes, with 20 half-hour episodes stretched across ten CDs.

The Red Planet was written by Charles Chilton, and was broadcast 1954-55. It was a followup to the first Journey into Space story (Journey to the Moon, erased and later rerecorded as Operation Luna, which admittedly I haven’t heard), which had been hugely popular, and The Red Planet itself was also quite popular; Episode 19 was the last time a radio show in Britain achieved a higher audience share than its television opponent. In Journey to the Moon/Operation Luna, a crew of astronauts lands on the moon for the first time, while in The Red Planet these same astronauts set off on a mission to Mars.

Victorian Controversies, 1879-90: Modernization

Mass market paperback, 250 pages
Published 1979 (contents: 1879-90)
Acquired December 2007
Read September 2011
Wessex Tales: That Is to Say, The Three Strangers, A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four, The Melancholy Hussar, The Withered Arm, Fellow-townsmen, Interlopers at the Knap, The Distracted Preacher
by Thomas Hardy

"The Three Strangers"
Dang, this story is good.  I've read it three times, now, I think, and every time is just as good as the last.  A late-night celebration in a rural village is perfectly evoked, and then it's upset by a succession of visiting strangers.  It could be a ghost story, so perfect is the atmosphere... but it's not.  I'm loathe to say anything else about it, because that would dampen the impact I think.  (Well, maybe not if I can love it three times through.  Go and read it anyway; I'm sure it's free somewhere on-line.)

"A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four"
This is a little folktale that Hardy recounts about Napoleon, except that apparently he invented it.  Nice enough, but it didn't leave much of an impact. 

"The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion"
A Wessex woman falls in love with a York Hussar stationed in her village.  It's Thomas Hardy, so everything goes horribly wrong.  Again, this didn't impact me much.

"The Withered Arm"
Ah, this is more like it.  A touch of fantasy drives this story of a jilted lover, a witch, and a new wife.  Haunting, you know, and all the good things a bit of the supernatural should do.  Did Hardy write more supernatural stuff?  I don't really know, but I think he'd be good at it; he's morbid enough in the real world.

This story is like being punched in the face repeatedly by tragedy and miscommunication.  As always, Hardy makes you like it.  The ending just twists the knife more.

"Interlopers at the Knap"
One of the weaker stories in the volume, though I can't put my finger on why.

"The Distracted Preacher"
I liked this one a lot.  If it wasn't for "The Three Strangers," this would be the standout in the book; thankfully, it ends on a high note anyway.  It's probably the funniest story here (the poor preacher does not know how to deal with his rum-running lover), though of course nothing can stay good for long in Wessex.  Hardy's deft hand with characterization makes the tragedy work.  I am always depressed for having read Thomas Hardy, but happy for having been depressed.

01 February 2012

Reading Roundup Wrapup: January 2012

Pick of the month: Psychohistorical Crisis by Donald Kingsbury.  It was the first book I read in January, and it just did not get better from there.  I would say that Kingsbury out-Asimovs Asimov, except that he does something Asimov never dreamed of.  This deserves to be more widely read. (I do wonder how well it would stand alone, though.)  The other standouts for me this month were the two Legion of Super-Heroes deluxe editions, Mary Barton, and almost any given volume of Lucifer.

1. Psychohistorical Crisis by Donald Kingsbury
2. Lucifer: The Divine Comedy by Mike Carey
3. The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution by Elisabeth A. Lloyd
4. Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead by Bert V. Royal
5. Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga: The Deluxe Edition by Paul Levitz
6. Legion of Super-Heroes: The Curse: The Deluxe Edition by Paul Levitz with Keith Giffen
7. Lucifer: Inferno by Mike Carey
8. Lucifer: Mansions of the Silence by Mike Carey
9. Doctor Who: Short Trips #18: Time Signature edited by Simon Guerrier
10. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
11. The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition by Oscar Wilde, edited by Nicholas Frankel
12. Star Wars: Legacy, Volume Seven: Storms by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema
13. That Lass o' Lowrie's by Frances Hodgson Burnett
14. Lucifer: Exodus by Mike Carey
15. Star Wars: Legacy, Volume Eight: Tatooine by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema
16. Star Wars: Legacy, Volume Nine: Monster by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema

This is the most I've read in a month since October 2010.  Of course, some nine comics has to help. (Actually, those Legion deluxe editions didn't go fast at all!)

All books acquired:
1. Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, illustrated by Arthur Rackham
2. That Lass o' Lowrie's by Frances Hodgson Burnett
3. Haworth's by Frances Hodgson Burnett
4. A Fair Barbarian by Frances Hodgson Burnett
5. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
6. Cousin Phillis and Other Stories by Elizabeth Gaskell
7. Watchmen by Alan Moore
8. Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O'Malley
9. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World by Bryan Lee O'Malley
10. Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness by Bryan Lee O'Malley
11. Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together by Bryan Lee O'Malley
12. Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe by Bryan Lee O'Malley
13. Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O'Malley
14. The Smartest Kid on Earth, Jimmy Corrigan: An Improvisatory Romance, Pictographically Configured by Chris Ware
15. The Walking Dead: Compendium One by Robert Kirkman
16. We3: The Deluxe Edition by Grant Morrison
17. Fun Home: A Family History Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
18. The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner
19. Black Jack, Volume 1 by Osamu Tezuka
20. American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar and More American Splendor: The Life and Time of Harvey Pekar by Harvey Pekar
21. One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry
22. The Obverse Quarterly, Book Three: The Diamond Lens and Other Stories by Fitz-James O'Brien
23. William Shakespeare's Richard III by Ian McKellen & Richard Loncraine
24. The Doctor Who Programme Guide, Volume 2 by Jean-Marc Lofficier
25. The Annotated Sandman: The Sandman #1-20 by Neil Gaiman, edited by Leslie S. Klinger
26. Star Wars: Legacy, Volume Eleven: War by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema
27. Doctor Who: The Wonderful Book 1965 by Paul Smith
28. Professor Bernice Summerfield #6: The Big Hunt by Lance Parkin
29. Professor Bernice Summerfield IV: A Life Worth Living edited by Simon Guerrier
30. Professor Bernice Summerfield V: A Life in Pieces by Dave Stone, Paul Sutton, and Joseph Lidster
31. Profressor Bernice Summerfield #7: The Tree of Life by Mark Michalowski

Holy hannah!  This is the biggest intake since I started rationing my intake!! It's going to take me months to read enough to work off this book debt!!!  I have some excuses/rationalizations: #2-21 were for classes, #22 was a preorder, #24 was a free gift from the owner of my local comic book store, #27 will literally never be available ever again, and #28-31 were on a very good sale.

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 370

This is actually down, since many of those books, as they were for school, did not go on the list.

Victorian Controversies, 1848: Industrialization

My "Victorian Controversies" seminar is over, but there's still books to read, both ones from that class that I never got around to, as well as ones from my next Victorian class...

Trade paperback, 649 pages
Published 2008 (originally 1848)
Acquired August 2009
Previously read September 2009 

Reread January 2012
Mary Barton
by Elizabeth Gaskell

On rereading Mary Barton, I was struck by its similarities to some of Dickens's work, especially Oliver Twist and Hard Times.  Like both of those novels, Mary Barton seeks to dramatize the lives of the poor so that the middle-class reader will have some sympathy-- sympathy seemingly being the key to solving this social problem.  But for all that Dickens is Dickens, Gaskell's work in this regard is clearly superior.  Dickens's characters are typically caricatures, either negative or positive.  It's impossible to feel any sympathy for Oliver because he's obnoxiously virtuous and completely devoid of personality.  I can't even remember the names of any of the characters in Hard Times.  But Gaskell draws a number of sharp portraits here in the factory town of Victorian Manchester, on both sides of the class divide.  We spend the most time with John and Mary Barton, of course, but everyone is developed, and they are developed in ways that show how they respond to their social circumstances.  Mary Barton is unarguably a "social problem" novel, but it works without that framework: it's also a novel about a group of people responding to, well, hard times.

Related to this is that I think the novel's plot is more firmly integrated into its project than in Dickens's works.  Oliver Twist is ostensibly about the perils of being poor, but there's rather a lot of faffing about with inheritance or something.  Mary Barton might take a turn about halfway through to be about a murder, but Gaskell makes this a natural extension of the first half of the novel's depiction of poverty.  It helps, too, that Mary's journey to the docks and beyond is completely gripping, Gaskell ably exploiting the way that a girl of Mary's background would be vulnerable in such circumstances.  Her emotional journey is also very neat, as she moves from unable to speak her feelings to making the kind of intimate communications that marriage requires, with the court case forcing her into the open for once-- and for the best.

Lastly, I was struck this time through by how many people die in this book.  Especially in the first half, it feels like a never-ending stream.  Despite this, Gaskell somehow manages to keep the book from descending into Thomas Hardyism.  Thankfully.  I mean, I like Thomas Hardy, but I don't need that all the time.

(I was interested to note on reading the preface, that Professor Recchio mentions a stage version of Mary Barton written by Rona Munro, who of course previously penned the last-ever Doctor Who serial, Survival.  It's nice to know that there are people out there who have exactly the overlapping interests that I do.)