Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Four Christmas Books: Doctor Who Annual and Storybook, Beedle and a Tangerine In Your Stocking

It’s two days ’til Christmas and you’re in a panic over those presents you’ve not yet bought. So, in a last-minute attempt to help, I’ve been reading four thrilling books for this festive season: The Doctor Who Storybook 2009; Doctor Who – The Official Annual 2009; J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard; and The Tangerine Book, The Lib Dem Voice 2008 Annual (some mistake, surely). All of them are worth a read, though the least impressive is “The Official Doctor Who Annual”, which will neither take long nor be very satisfying. And all the others lack puzzle pages.

Doctor Who – The Official Annual 2009 and…

When I was a boy, The Doctor Who Annual was a regular Christmas fixture. I loved them, though they tended to be a bit bonkers and have very little to do with the TV series, either in the bizarre, abbreviated stories or in the pictures, which varied wildly in quality but usually had in common that they’d paid only for the Doctor’s image and so the other series regulars would look nothing like the way they were meant to. These days the rights of the old ones have reverted to the BBC, so they’ve started including them in pdf form on some of the DVDs: you can find The Dr Who Annual 1977 on The Hand of Fear, and I recently re-read it as a control sample to this year’s two competing new Annuals. It was the first I was ever given as a child, and while the stories are, I have to face it, terrible, the brilliantly surreal artwork still grabs me, especially on the dark, intense, absurd comic strips. But the fascination doesn’t just come in goggling at the art or wondering how the writers got paid, but in puzzling out the brainteasers – old Annuals tended to have off-the-shelf but incomprehensible things with matches that you were either really proud of finally working out or looked at the answers and tried it on other people to make sure they couldn’t get it either, though this one’s less copyable optical illusions – and reading the masses of educational articles about then-modern-day rocketry and the occasional feature on Greek mythology. Thinking Doctor Who was a mix of outer space and ancient myths seemed a slightly odd mix at the time, but it managed to anticipate the approach taken on screen by script editor Anthony Read by about a year…

So how do this year’s Annuals match up? And why are there two of them? Well, the Annual made a comeback in 2005 with the return of the TV series, with that summer seeing publication of The Doctor Who Annual 2006 from Panini, publishers of Doctor Who Magazine. It was fun and much in the style of the old Annuals, with thrilling adventures in time and space both in comic strip and text form joined by puzzles and informative features (including an outrageously fannish extrapolation of the canon from one Russell T Davies), though – unlike the way they used to work – this one had lots of pictures from the proper series and was largely accurate, which was forgivable if not quite in the spirit of the thing. This clearly sold so well that the following year the BBC decided to produce the Annual themselves, while raking in more cash by still licensing Panini to produce their Annual-format Storybook. I remain prejudiced against the BBC’s in-house Annuals for splashing the word “Official” about, as if Panini’s was some unofficial knock-off instead of something from which the BBC were getting a great deal of money. Reading the two for 2009, just as in 2008 and 2007, the BBC version will remain the season’s top seller, but it’s not a patch on the one put together with more thought and effort.

Take a glance at The Official Annual. Pictures of the Doctor and the Red Christmas Dalek slapped on it in shiny silver and pink – it looks more like the wrapping paper than a present. You immediately notice that there’s far more from the TV series than there was in 1977: it looks almost like an official publicity pack, full of photos and summaries of the stories. But there’s far less in the way of imagination, with a comparatively tiny amount of artwork and much larger type. I miss the factual features shoehorned in with little relevance to the TV series, though I suspect most kids won’t, and it really could do with a more challenging brainteaser than a maze with bees seeded through it to show you the way. So, my initial feeling was that it was talking down to kids to a far greater extent than the old Annuals.

Being an assiduous reviewer, though, I settled down to read it properly rather than just flick through and sniff at it, and I have to admit it drew me in. This year’s Annual has upped the fiction content rather than just the publicity pack-style slapdashery, and it’s all the better for it. There are even a couple of text stories, with Most Beautiful Music quite sober and reflective, and very Whoish. I can’t say I care for the artwork on them – and very simplified style that I can just about put up with on the comic strips – but at least there is some. The three comic strips, too, are all rather fun, and this year I’ve not read Doctor Who Adventures comic frequently enough to tell if they’re reprints again, so I’ll charitably assume not. The artwork style rather works for The Time Sickness, becoming stylised rather than merely simple, while Death Disco has an entertaining script and a great solution from Donna. The Greatest Mall in the Universe, though… Well, aside from being the weakest story, there used to be a time-honoured Doctor Who traditional of the ‘doubles’ story, in which the Doctor or his companion would land somewhere and either just bump into someone who looked exactly like them or their evil enemies would build a killer identical robot. And, of course, there would frequently be hilarious shots of the actor and their stunt double together as two versions that no-one on screen could tell apart but which viewers could see looked nothing like each other. Nowadays there are just biological metacrisises, which frankly do nothing for me, and parallel-Earth Mickeys, which are a bit too sensible for a good old-fashioned bonkers ‘doubles’ story, and each used far better camera trickery and CGI face-replacement to ensure no embarrassing ‘identical’ characters that are far taller or shorter, have completely different wigs or, on rare occasions, turn blatantly different faces full-on to camera. The only thing that made up for the lack of fun was that both actors got their shirts off, really. But, though if you want to see Catherine Tate topless you’ll have to go to the West End, The Official Annual 2009 has, at last, a return to the utterly bonkers and random ‘doubles’ story and, as a special bonus, though the two ‘Donnas’ look like each other, the artist’s exceptionally bland, waiflike, apparently teenage depiction of the character has the satisfying crapness that neither double looks anything like Donna.

Though the games and puzzles are exceptionally unchallenging – the blank page encouraging you to draw a picture of yourself with a sonic screwdriver is breathtaking – I very much enjoyed the six-page mini-Sarah Jane Adventures Annual nestling within, and the tips on making an Ood T-shirt were tempting. Some of the fact file bits are quite jolly, as are the old Doctor Who Weekly-inspired Know Your Enemy pages (the Adipose is so cute… Same with the Partners In Crime ‘poster’ page) and, particularly, the Intergalactic Guide To Planets and Places, which is at times slyly amusing if you know the stories. If you don’t know the stories, there are in-depth descriptions of what happened in about half of this year’s TV adventures, with the last three interlinked episodes slightly confusingly given backwards. The feature that made me laugh aloud and get Richard to play a guessing game, though, was the Alien A-Z, which has a number of characters that aren’t actually aliens, and is forced to use some unexpected letters (you wouldn’t expect to find the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe under E for “Editor-in-Chief”) and then in the second half of the alphabet dive into the original series for inspiration. Any A-Z for kids today that omits Cybermen and includes Quarks gets my vote, even if Mr Bowdler wrote the entry on the Ood. So, not bad, but something lacking: for undemanding children.

The Doctor Who Storybook 2009

The Doctor Who Storybook 2009 has had far more care and creativity poured into it, and is all new material, though I feel the absence of articles on extinct pantheons, speculation on the future of airships and suggestions on what to do with matches all the more keenly for how enjoyable the rest of it is. Rather than variety of content, it boasts variety of contributors, with seven text stories and one comic strip, each written by a different author and each lavishly illustrated by a different artist – yes, there’s only one ordinary photo in the whole thing. Although slightly slimmer than the Annual, this has far more in it, too, with a much smaller type size that’s actually much easier to read than the Annual’s: not only is the text broken up by huge illustrations, but it’s in two columns, which is far easier on the eye than one big splodge.

After a rather fine cover painting of the Doctor and, er, a Donna with glowing teeth, you’ll see a flippant ‘letter from the Doctor’ in the style of the old Doctor Who Weekly, with new lead writer Steven Moffat appropriately taking over from Russell T Davies. You’ll be astounded to know that, in an innovative turn from his usual writing style, it’s all disjointed timey-wimey self-referentialism, but quite amusing. Similarly, Paul Magrs’ Hello, Children, Everywhere strikes out in the bold new direction of pastiching others’ fiction (this time the hot new up-to-the-minute targets of Enid Blyton and Walt Disney) – points added for Aunty Winnie’s appearance, but docked for the saccharine ending. I rather enjoyed both the James Moran’s story Grand Theft Planet! and the artwork by Daryl Joyce, which perfectly captures a grinning David Tennant. Mark Gatiss’ Cold interweaves The Ice Warriors and The War of the Worlds, with very striking art from Ben Willsher that repays several looks. Jonathan Morris’ comic strip The Immortal Emperor is all right rather than his best, but I enjoyed the art; Rob Davis clearly grew up admiring Ian Gibson’s work on 2000AD, and I liked the Count Scarlioni-esque prefiguring of the monster through his dress.

Possibly the best of the tales is Bing Bong, from the familiar pens of Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman (who also edits the Storybook), with crossovers to Sarah Jane and a central conceit that will have fuming commuters nodding in agreement. Daniel McDaid’s scrappy illustrations aren’t technically the best, but he has great energy, particularly for a great moment at the TARDIS console. The appropriately-named Keith Temple warmed me immensely with the old-Annual-feel Island of the Sirens, in which the Doctor (“Skinnyman”) and Donna (“Red”) mix and indeed flirt with Greek heroes, accompanied by strikingly stylised art from Adrian Salmon, probably the most gorgeous use of colour in the book. Nicholas Pegg’s story proves that inside a Dalek is an old softy, though (despite the book’s least interesting pictures) as it features a boy called Alex who loves history, I have a soft spot for it too. Finally, there’s Gary Russell’s The Puplet, another endearing story of children but with a deft mix of fairy-tale innocence, real world worries and humour (the sweepstake made me smile), illustrated by Andy Walker’s rather fine David Tennants. A collection to recommend, then – none of the stories quite made me go “Wow!” but, beautifully crafted, I really felt I’d got my money’s worth.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard

The smallest of today’s books, and the only one that’s no sort of annual, is J.K. Rowling’s book of Harry Potter-world fairy tales, The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Though it’s pocket-sized, I suspect it’s had a massive weight of expectations put upon it. I’m sure many will be disappointed that this isn’t another brick of the adventures of Harry and friends, nor even vignettes from their lives (notwithstanding text notes from Albus Dumbledore). I’m not disappointed at all – I’ve always loved fairy stories, and these match up rather well, despite one of them putting a Bruce Springsteen song in my head. My bookshelves have several books of fairy tales I loved when a child or an adult or both: Irish ones; Arthur Rackham ones; Aesop’s Fables; gay ones; Grimm ones… Anything but Hans Very Much Too Christian Anderson, and I get the feeling Ms Rowling has similar tastes. And, of course, some of it goes to charity.

This little book has endearingly hand-inked illustrations and features five stories, all Fifteenth-Century tales from a world where magic is real, with an introduction setting out just what sort of differences that would made to the tales themselves from our own fairy stories. One, The Tale of the Three Brothers, will be familiar to readers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (and, to an extent, Chaucer), so I’m not sure I’d have placed it as the finale; the others, though, manage an air of familiarity that makes them fit in with older fairy tales (and, in one case, conjure up a feeling of The Wizard of Oz, with its message that the point of the quest is the quest).

The opening story, The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, probably isn’t the best of them on its own, but captures most deftly the feel not only of a fairy tale that you’ve read before in the distant past, but of one from the non-Muggle world. It also boasts the most enjoyable of Dumbledore’s notes (I always hear Mr Stephen Fry reading them), ranging in thoroughly postmodern fashion across how people change fairy tales to make them more socially conservative or simply Bowdlerise them to the point where they become nauseating. It also boasts one of the book’s two most memorable images, the Hopping Pot itself, and I enjoyed the slipper. Despite all that, there’s something about it that didn’t entirely endear itself to me – perhaps because the moral of social responsibility comes at the price of an overprescriptive father-figure who’s something of a git. Gosh, you don’t think the author gives money to Gordon Brown, do you?

The Fountain of Fair Fortune is probably the most predictable of the stories, but might well be one of the most popular; with its team of four friends, witch and Muggle, all helping each other out on a miniature quest, it’s the one that most resembles the shape of a Harry Potter book (if about 2 kilos lighter). Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump wins the prize for strongly resembling a particularly famous fairy tale (one of the much better ones from an author that doesn’t do a lot for me), and for having the name most likely to have been coined by Monty Python. The Tale of the Three Brothers is also familiar from many sources, not least Harry Potter itself, but is nonetheless satisfying – it has the dark feel of several people coming to grief before good wins out over greed and glory. My favourite, though, has to be The Warlock’s Hairy Heart, which goes into definite Grimm territory and uses a variation on one of my favourite creepy magical elements, used in many mythologies and fantasy books and being in a different form a key part of the later Harry Potter books, too. I’m trying not to spoil this, but adults will find an irresistible message from both the text and the illustration that if you try to deny your heart, you’ll only be governed by your testicles.

Posted by Picasa The lovely Alex Foster reads…

The Tangerine Book – The Lib Dem Voice 2008 Annual

For the last of today’s books, I should declare that I know several of the authors rather well, and indeed that I have a tiny snippet in there myself. It’s an anthology of the best articles published on the collaborative website Liberal Democrat Voice throughout 2008 – well, technically from December 2007 to November 2008. If you read the site, you’ll have seen approximately 723 plugs for it already this month, but don’t let that put you off.

I’m glad, however, that it’s not been called an anthology, or an almanac, or any such improving title. “Annual” sounds much more fun, and in places it’s definitely fun to read, though if you give it to your kids to read as a reward for delivering their thousandth festive FOCUS leaflet they may feel very slightly disgruntled. A bar chart, a ripped-off Bird of Liberty (set in slightly the wrong place) and a – sorry, Will – rather inadequate drawing of a bus are no substitute for the Policy Unit Puzzle Pages, Join-The-Dots Lembit Öpik, Lynne Featherstone’s Cryptic Crossword, Colour-Me-In Nick Clegg pin-up and Make Your Own Vince Cable that I hope to see in next year’s edition. To say nothing of it being paperback and only half the size of any self-respecting annual, despite having the highest page count of today’s recommendations, and – most damningly – not having got the idea of an annual, which is that it should have next year’s date on it so as not to sound out of date a week after it’s been given as a present. The two Doctor Who Annuals above, published in the Summer, full of exciting stories with poor Donna, who’s shockingly now had her brain fried and won’t be travelling with the Doctor next year? “2009,” both of them.

Still, despite suggesting a little more work to get the annual format spot-on, I’m not going to start picking out posts that should have been there but aren’t. The Tangerine Book (pretty cover, by the way) has, I make it, 153 pages with 79 articles by 34 contributors, though writers on the Lib Dem Voice team crop up for a very high percentage of the content; turn to the Index and you’ll see that, for example, Stephen Tall’s entry is much longer than anyone else’s. That’s a fair amount to read through at Christmas, particularly without pictures, but still I’m told only about 4% of just over 2,000 articles made the cut. Goodness. I can’t think of any particular favourites I missed, though I have to admit there are at least a handful which really don’t seem to justify inclusion (thin month, was it?). Interestingly, the two most-represented months – twice the page count of any of the others – are July and September, suggesting a flurry of high-quality and guest articles. That’ll be, oh, Lib Dem Conference, and… Would it be cynical to suggest, the start of the blog awards season?

There’s much to recommend here, and a very wide range of topics – tips for campaigning, criticism of other parties, criticism of our own party, philosophy, policy debate, coverage of debates, awards results (though not, oddly, for the Blogger of the Year; I didn’t win, readers, so perhaps it’s just as well I don’t get a mention in the index for the shortlist), election entrails, the odd piece or speech from an MP, addresses from aspirants to party office, and quite a bit from well outside the Liberal Democrats and Britain. You can order it cheaply at £2.11 an e-Book, and though that’s the only way to get this one of the books for Christmas (as opposed to rushing into the queues tomorrow for the others), I have to say, what’s the point in that? A pdf’s not all that much different to just reading the original blog pieces, and they have added value. No, what you want is the published paperback for the New Year, £5.99 from Lulu (plus postage, but if you buy a second copy or any of their other books, the postage is fixed at one total). And it’s a different and more relaxing experience to sit back and turn the pages when you like. For people who’d not normally look at a computer, it might draw them in; for people looking for snippets of politics on their commute; and, for people like me if there are such things, the ability to read articles at one remove without feeling the rising need to compose and post an angry comment online. Though each has a url supplied, I’ve managed to resist the temptation, though I’ve tried a couple to see if they worked (they did).

It’s difficult to pick out a favourite from such variety, though I remember enjoying Will Howells’ Something For the Weekend: The Wheels On the Bus Go Round and Round at the time, and did so again in printed form (despite the absence of some of the more animated content). Stephen Tall’s liveblog of the Make It Happen debate was one of the most interesting reads; I’m an only moderately active blogger, and many of the articles featured here reminded me of articles I’d meant to write, but never quite got round to it. This time, I blogged the same debate in more detail but over a few more hours, and so could compare Stephen’s views (much less partisan than mine, but slipping through on occasion and in agreement, for example, on Tim Farron), odd mistakes (Simon Hughes being chair of the Federal Policy Committee – heaven help us!) and splendid turns of phrase (“The Hall simultaneously orgasms”). The first article, Stephen’s “Now’s your chance, Nick,” impressively challenges then new Leader Nick Clegg, and provides a few of the choicer entries in the extensive Index, which for once repays some reading: it provides much of the additional value to the tome, through leading or silly but always justified categories such as “BBC – poor election coverage,” “Clegg, Nick – springy hair,” (all right, that’s just one of nineteen for him), “dreary archipelago,” “curtain-twitching busybody,” “freakish oddities” and “Hughes, Simon – punctuality”. And you can look up “Malta” for yourself.

We get Tavish Scott’s pitch for Scottish Leader and Ros Scott’s for Federal President; I have to admit, though I can see the value of printing what the winner said they’d do, I’d have liked to measure it against their opponents, too, to give a better perspective on why the results were as they were (with a Scott already in Scotland, incidentally, do you think our new President was accidentally allocated the wrong name? Should she actually be Ros Lochall-Activiste?). Kirsty Williams’ victory in Wales came too late for inclusion, so expect that next year. Fortunately, there are selected and annotated excerpts from two of Nick Clegg’s more interesting speeches, as the only contribution appearing under his name in The Tangerine Book is surely one of the least interesting and most vacuous things he’s ever written – a clarion call to support the Bones Commission as the answer to all the party’s problems, without a single word as to why it might be so (just like Simon Radford’s piece on vouchers, which similarly advocates a panacea without any indication of why, how or where it would work). Chris Bones’ detailed follow-up piece from two months later should be much better, but spends too much of its time ticking people off for asking impertinent questions before they were ready, and telling us that the only possible way forward for the party is to swallow his recommendations whole, because we spend too much time discussing things. I can’t help feeling that this wasn’t the best-managed announcement in the world.

In case you missed the Blogger of the Year Awards, dear reader, the splendid Alix Mortimer was the very well-deserved winner from those shortlisted, and she contributes several excellent articles: you might want to turn to her entertaining and informative Diary of a Conference Virgin, which has a fascinating snippet from a focus group as well as gossip (and there’s more in that series online), or her sober and extremely practical After Baby P: what can be done? Richard Huzzey and Hywel Morgan show what being a Liberal site means in mounting strong defences of the rights of, respectively, Icelanders and BNP members. The lovely Alex Foster reminds us just how thoroughtly crap Labour is on gay rights when nobody’s looking and they’ve not been forced into equal opportunities by the courts; Sal Brinton gives the details of a Tory candidate’s appalling criminal hate campaign; and Mark Pack burrows away to discover all sorts of QI-style factlets, if QI were a Lib Dem broadcast, usually with tongue ever-so-slightly in cheek. Oh, and I get a couple of paragraphs in amongst a selection of summer reading; that Stephen Tall runs off with that entry, too, as he’s the only one who thought to include a tantalising quotation from his books. Hey! I usually do that in my reviews, and I’ve forgotten to here. Oh, well, too late now. I want to get this published by four in the vain hope that it’ll influence you rushing out to the shops.

A qualified hit, then. What, putting aside my Annualish predilections for a moment, could be done to improve it? Well, undoubtedly the biggest failing is the absence of any of the comments; it wouldn’t be terribly readable to produce great screeds of them, but it would be nice to have a taster, particularly when some pertinently shoot down the articles published. The next one could do with a few fewer articles by the editorial team, and more by women (and yes, the answer to that is to write for them. Whoops, I was asked again the other week and…). There’s also something much less forgiving about certain types of mistake in print on your shelf, rather than feeling more ephemeral on your screen. Typos, misused apostrophes, punctuation moving onto the line after a sentence (particularly annoying in a heading – stand up, Hashtag taxonomies: the last word in Tweeting
) and, in a couple of the less-well-written articles, repeated words or phrases evidently not there for effect but suggesting a clumsy vocabulary… A little polish from a copy-editor would be much kinder. I’d also slip in a blank line above and below the large quotation passages, to make the pages look less cramped.

My simplest suggestion, though, for The Lib Dem Voice Annual 2010 (as next year’s publication should be subtitled), would be for it to end with a single December entry – “10 Key Lib Dem Questions for 2010”. This one started with questions for 2008, salutary to re-read at the end of the year, but has none for 2009. And while looking back at what we got wrong is always entertaining / depressing, wouldn’t it focus minds more to look forward, too?

Christmas Eve Update: Millennium Dome, Elephant offers a Christmas present to Lib Dem Voice in the form of a Puzzle Page, ready for insertion to late editions of The Tangerine Book. Can YOU help the plucky pachyderm escape the tortured complexity that is the maze of Conservative policy? Uncannily, it looks exactly like it could fit into The Dr Who Annual 1977, too.

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That photo of Alex isn't big enough.
Well, I asked for a centrefold...
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