Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. After the reading.

MissPeregrineMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children fulfilled the expectations built up by Gloria’s recommendation.

I started reading it on Friday evening after work and finished it mid-Sunday afternoon. I now have to wait who knows how long for Gloria to finish reading the second book of the series.

big fishAt the beginning of the book I couldn’t help think of the Tim Burton film, Big Fish, the story of a boy turned man who had grown to realise that the stories his father had told him throughout his life were at best exaggerated and more likely complete fantasies. The father’s continued insistence of the truth of his tall tales caused a rift in the relationship.

Miss Peregrine’s starts with the relationship between the Jacob and his grandfather Abe, and like the father in Big Fish, Abe seems to be a teller of tall tales with amazing stories of his early life.

As he enters his teens, Jacob begins to doubt the stories of the “peculiar children” that Abe grew up with in an idyllic house “protected by a wise old bird”; a refuge and safe haven from the monsters he’d escaped from in Europe.

Jacob begins to understand that Abe’s stories about his past are covering dark, very real experiences of a Jewish boy escaping from the Nazis and their east European death camps. But when Jacob himself seems to come face to face with one of his grandfather’s monsters, that understanding, as well as the safe but boring life planned out for him suddenly collapses. Plagued by nightmares he is referred to a psychiatrist to try to bring rationality back to his life.

As part of his road to recovery, he is taken to a small island off the coast of Wales, the location of Abe’s childhood refuge, to find the truth behind the fantasies, and hopefully restore his own sense of reality.

PeregrineThroughout, the book is illustrated with slightly weird historical photos that play a part in Jacob’s discovery of the truth, not only about his grandfather’s past, but also about his own life.

The author used genuine historical photos as inspiration for the book’s characters, especially the “peculiar children” of the title. In a short interview at the end of the book he tells us how he’d wondered who the people in the photos were “- but the photos were old and anonymous and there was no way to know. So I thought: If I can’t know the real stories, I’ll make them up.”

He cleverly spins these imaginative biographies into a compelling, intriguing story with elements of history, fantasy, horror and adventure that are grounded in a familiar, everyday world. He takes us beyond the edge of the familiar and recognisable and shines light onto things overlooked and ignored; those things we push away to maintain the security we find in predictable rationality.

After starting this book I found that the memories it stirred of a Tim Burton film had a degree of spookiness (insert brief excerpt of Twilight Zone theme). The cover of the book announces it is “SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE”, what it doesn’t say is that Tim Burton is behind that project.

That doesn’t surprise me.


Beyond the TV Whoniverse

 At the end of my previous post I noted an apparent discrepancy related to the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who. While 2013 may have marked 50 years since the broadcast of the first Doctor Who episode, it is clear that there was a significant period of those 50 years when no new episodes of Doctor Who were being made for TV.

I think most people (myself included) gave little thought to the show during that period, assuming that like so many other once popular shows, this one had also been committed to history and occasional re-runs.

But not all people are “most people”, and there were enough who weren’t ready to allow the Doctor to fade away. Disappointed fans of the show did what they could to keep their connection to Doctor Who going. There were avenues beyond TV through which stories could be created and enjoyed. Some of those avenues were already being explored and exploited during the show’s successful years, with novelizations of TV stories and audio productions. (I recall reading Doctor Who and the Zarbi during my teens and recognising it as being based on an episode I’d seen as a child, which I later found was The Web Planet from the show’s second season.)

DWMThere was also the continuing popularity of Doctor Who Magazine (DWM), which started in 1979 and is still being published today. After the cancellation of the TV show, the magazine provided an outlet of new Doctor Who stories through comic strips.

Other publishers gained the rights to release novels of new Doctor Who stories. Both the comics and novels continued from where the TV show left off. Through these the seventh doctor, (played by Sylvester McCoy on TV) was given new life and adventures for several more years until an attempted reviving of the TV show introduced the next regeneration of the Doctor.

In a made-for-TV movie that failed to generate enough interest to commission a continuing series, Sylvester McCoy handed over the role to the 8th Doctor played by Paul McGann, and while a new TV series didn’t eventuate, McGann’s Doctor was kept alive in DWM’s ongoing comic strips, along with new companions to share his journeys.

As well as the authorised stories in various media, creative fans produced their own Doctor Who tales including the “Audio Visuals” a series of audio dramas made in the 1980s and 90s starting even before the TV show was cancelled. Although the Audio Visuals were unlicensed and technically illegal, the fans involved were never challenged by the BBC, who held the copyright, and many of them have since worked on authorised Doctor Who productions.

Big FinishSome of those involved with the Audio Visuals went on to work with Big Finish, a company that started with audio stories adapted from the New Adventures range of books published by Virgin. Initially denied the opportunity to record Doctor Who related stories, Big Finish started with adaptations of a series of Who spin-off books.

Virgin New Adventures had introduced Bernice Summerfield as a new companion for the Doctor and later gave her a series of her own. Big Finish obtained the rights to adapt the Summerfield books and the quality of the resulting recordings helped to convince the BBC to issue the Doctor Who rights.

Big Finish has now released well over 200 Doctor Who stories, most of which feature original actors from the TV show and TV movie, including Doctors played by Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann; and several original companions.

As well as this link to the past, Big Finish also has links to the new Doctor Who series. Big Finish director, writer and actor Nick Briggs has been the voice of the Daleks, Cybermen and several other aliens from 2005 through to the present.


So while the Doctor had a 15 year screen absence, he never really went away, making last year’s half century celebrations fully justified

The Many Faces of Doctor Who: (Introduction)

 Those familiar with Doctor Who will know that over the 50 years of the series’ history, there have been many different actors playing the lead role since the show was first screened in 1963. The first change was needed because of the ill health of William Hartnell the original Doctor.

Other shows have maintained popular characters by changes to cast members, giving no explanation for that character’s change of appearance, expecting the audience to follow along until the new actor becomes the accepted face of that character. But Doctor Who producers came up with a logical reason for the change that could be re-used when necessary in the future.

The Doctor is a member of an alien race that can extend life through “regeneration”. When exposed to life ending conditions, his body can be renewed, taking on a different physical appearance, a different personality and different dress sense.

A roboman from The Dalek's Invasion of Earth

A roboman from The Dalek’s Invasion of Earth

I first saw Doctor Who in England when it was originally broadcast by the BBC. I was only 5 at the time so my memories of the early episodes are minimal and seem to come from only two stories (The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Web Planet).

I also recall a few of the later episodes featuring the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, but again, being so young, the memories are vague. It was after Jon Pertwee took over the role (3rd Doctor) that my recollection improves, probably because I saw regular repeats of episodes after I moved to Australia as well as new episodes with Tom Baker (4th Doctor) and Peter Davison ( 5th Doctor) in the title role. I must have stopped watching some time during the tenure of the 6th Doctor, Colin Baker, because I remember least about his stories, and I know I saw nothing at all of Sylvester McCoy’s brief time as the 7th Doctor..

During McCoy’s time as the Doctor, the show was axed in 1989.

I gave very little thought to Doctor Who after I stopped watching it on TV sometime in the mid-1980s, and was no longer interested enough to watch a 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann (as the 8th Doctor). Likewise when a new series started in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston I wasn’t tempted to watch it.

Things changed at the end of 2012 when I saw that year’s Doctor Who Christmas special. I’m not sure why that particular episode sparked my interest enough to start buying the newer Doctor Who series on DVD, but it helped that they were being sold with large discounts early in the new year.

Throughout 2013 I built up my collection and watched all episodes of the new series featuring three new Doctors. I was able to catch up in time for the 50th anniversary episode shown in November.

Those with mathematically attuned minds might be wondering how a show that ran for 26 years before being cancelled and then renewed almost two decades later and then running for another 8 years making a total of 34, would be entitled to a 50th anniversary. But there is more to the story than a TV show.

More of that story to follow…

Stephen King: 11/22/63

Stephen KingTwo days ago I finished reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. The story involves time travel, major world events and the consequences of using the former to change the outcome of the latter. It is a BIG book (not only in length more than 700 pages) but also in ideas, combining real history with an imaginative reworking of that history: what would be the outcome if JFK’s assassination could be prevented?

Time travel stories are one of my great fictional loves, weaving different times together so that actions of a protagonist visiting the past can have repercussions in his/her own time, leaving hints of evidence of their journey to the earlier period.

Usually the premise will be that events can’t be changed, at least significantly. There is the clichéd paradox of a time traveller killing his own father before he’s met the mother, thereby preventing the birth of the time traveller who clearly is no longer around to travel to the past to kill the father…

With King’s story the traveller, Jake Epping, visits the past intending to change history by preventing the killing of President Kennedy in Dallas on 22nd November 1963. For me that intention was perhaps the story’s weakness. I couldn’t see Epping having enough personal investment in any potential outcome that he wouldn’t leave well-enough alone. He wasn’t even born when Kennedy died, and his “mission” was more the obsession of an acquaintance than anything more personal.

That acquaintance was Al, the owner of a Diner, and the original discoverer of a “rabbit hole” leading to 1958. Al had personally tried to avert the Kennedy killing, but became too ill to remain in the past to fulfil his goal. Knowing he had so little life remaining, Al passes on to Epping the secret of the “rabbit hole” and his desire to save Kennedy.

Epping makes some exploratory visits to 1958, returning to see how his actions may have changed his own present. No matter how long he spent in the past, when he returned only a few minutes of that present had passed. Any subsequent visit back in time “reset” history and cancelled out the effects of what he’d done on previous trips so if anything drastic had been changed he could reverse it.

And maybe this “resetting” option gave some motivation for him taking up Al’s President-saving mission. If things were disrupted too significantly he could always reset the past and return history to its previous Kennedyless course.

While the attempt to save Kennedy is the major plot point, the heart of the novel is found in the years between Epping’s arrival in 1958 and the events of November 1963. How does a man make a life for himself when he needs to survive for 5 years in a time not his own? How does he do this and retain focus on his end goal? And how will the relationships he makes be affected? It is the strength of this heart that pushed aside the problem I had with the “saving Kennedy” aspect of the story.

I’ve probably written more plot synopsis than usual. I don’t like to give too much away, not wanting to spoil the experience of potential readers of a book I’m “reviewing”, but there’s a lot more to get out of this book than the above introduction touches, and I’ve probably not given away much that wouldn’t be revealed in a book blurb.

King can be an exceptional story teller, and he’s near the top of his game with this book. It was a much more enjoyable and interesting reading experience than the Brian Aldiss book I’d recently battled through. King creates engaging characters to carry the reader through a long journey. Characters we care about and characters that can be feared or loathed. He also creates a convincing late 50s early 60s world, describing its highs (real food, stylish cars, community life) and lows (racial prejudice, segregation and fear of the bomb). There are also some parallels that presumably reflect some of King’s present day concerns, such as the political climate in Kennedy’s time having similarities to today. The strong anti-Obama sentiment expressed by extremes on the political/religious right, is a clear example. (I’ve seen it reported that Obama has had more death threats made against him than any previous American president.)

Returning to the writing itself, I’ll repeat what I’ve written in a review of an earlier King book, that one of King’s major weaknesses as an author is his devotion to random statements of extreme crudity. They crop up now and again in his books, usually with no purpose other than their shock factor and sometimes in situations that seem not to fit the character making the statement. Maybe this habit is one of the downsides of King’s success: protection from the kind of editing that in my opinion could only strengthen his work.


See something I wrote earlier about King and his work: