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Review: The Yellow Birds

I don’t read much war literature, but something about The Yellow Birds grabbed me.

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Maybe it’s the book’s intriguing title or its captivatingly simple cover. Perhaps it was because it won The Guardian’s First Book Award, and the first four pages are filled with praise from Homeland’s Damian Lewis, Man Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel, and BBC Radio 2’s Simon Mayo, as well as being named one of the Books of the Year by publications like New York Times, Scotsman and Evening Standard.

Likely, it was because it answers one simple question about Iraq: What was it like over there?

Kevin Powers, a former machine gunner for the US Army, delivers an affecting, haunting and beautifully-realised novel that deserves all the accolades it’s received.

The Yellow Birds somehow manages to describe the indescribable with layered, rhythmic prose and minimalist-but-effective dialogue. The plot is pleasingly simple yet focussed as one soldier makes a promise he can’t possibly keep to a fellow soldier’s mother: “I promise I’ll bring him home to you.”Powers masterfully uses this inevitability to play with the reader with a refreshingly non-linear narrative that gives insight into the life of Private John Bartle; not just during the war, but also after he comes home – if you can call it that.

The book cleverly cements the idea that fighting in Iraq, and that question, is just the beginning – and, paradoxically, the end. We’ve, perhaps, become desensitised somewhat to the endless war, and to the fact that a human life is transformed entirely when he or she becomes a soldier. I was horrified over many of the book’s details as it trod the line between fiction and fact. It’s visceral and choking, but always honest and thought-provoking.

The way Powers questions what is right and what is wrong resonates long after you turn the final page.

But when Bartle comes home, essentially an empty shell, it’s just as surprising. What do soldiers do once the war has passed them by? How do they feel as we celebrate their homecomings after they’ve left their friends behind, broken and dead? And what happens once we forget about them?

Of course, this all sounds deeply depressing, but Powers balances out the terror, the chaos and the numbness with blindingly beautiful writing; his varying sentence structure, poetic language, and emotive descriptions. The examination of relationships from-the-heart. It all contrasts so wonderfully with the raw and vivid circumstances, the rough and crude dialogue.

The Yellow Birds rounds off satisfactorily, as if you’re leaving a friend in his new-found calmness. It’s powerful and heart-breaking. It would take a stone heart to weather the journey without at least a tear in the eye.

The concluding reading group questions are a bit jarring – but then, I’ve never been in a reading group. Maybe they act as an ideal ‘Starter for Ten.’ The interview with Kevin is a worthy addition, however, as the author admits: “the cliché, in my case, was true: I thought that the army would ‘make me a man’.”

It’s a very personal book but one with speaks harsh truths about humanity during wartime, and Powers’  concluding passage, in which he briefly mulls over his own writing experience, underlines the novel’s importance: forever a reminder.

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Posted by on December 29, 2013 in Books

 

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Interview: Bristol Science Fiction Writer, Tim Maughan

I arrive at the Watershed, armed with a notepad full of questions for local science fiction writer, Tim Maughan. His work – principally the short story collection, Paintwork, but also Limited Edition, written for New Scientist’s Arc magazine and shortlisted for a British Science Fiction Association award – is a glimpse into a possible future, mixing the concerns of today with the technology of tomorrow.

Tim Maughan

His writing is inspired by some of the sci-fi greats, including Neuromancer’s William Gibson, Fahrenheit-451 writer, Ray Bradbury, and J. G. Ballard, most famous for Crash. A copy of Ballard’s High-Rise waits for me at home.

I’ve prepared some less-probing questions, ready to ease Tim into the interview; everyday trivia that’s never going to make it into the final article, but nonetheless breaks the ice and allows us both to get to know each other. Standard stuff. But when we sit down on the balcony overlooking Bristol Harbour, I realise I don’t need that notepad. Tim’s enthusiasm is there from the get-go, and we’re discussing the merits of those classic science fiction authors straight away.

I quickly put the Dictaphone on and, an hour-and-a-half or so later, realise that this interview is something special: certainly the most extensive I’ve ever had the pleasure of conducting.
I touch upon Paintwork’s main character, 3Cube, whose art – graffiti utilising QR Codes – pulls Bristolians of tomorrow back to a more innocent time. I tell Tim I felt somewhat nostalgic at this prospect – but was this his intention?

“I guess nostalgia’s applicable,” he replies, mulling it over. “I think the idea there was that 3Cube’s artwork is maybe too optimistic or naive. He’s told that by one of the other characters in the story. I was really trying to write about authenticity in that story and about wanting to define what authenticity was. There was a review – it was on Good Reads, I think – of someone who really hated that story; they accused me of being a hipster, that I was saying it was only authentic if it wasn’t digital and it was analogue… and that wasn’t it at all. I was suggesting some people feel like that but I wasn’t trying to say that that’s how I felt at all.”

Paintwork 1

This brings me onto an idea that fascinates me: that once your writing is read by other people, it’s no longer yours. Everybody puts their own stamp on it; everyone brings something to it. No text is created in a vacuum – and no text is read in one either.

“It’s something that, as writer, you have zero control over,” Tim concedes. “You don’t. And I’ve seen really positive reviews of my stuff where people have come away with things that I didn’t think were in the story, as well as negative reviews. There was a really good review of Limited Edition a few months ago… I was kind of pleased actually because [the reviewer] came away thinking at times he was rooting for the characters and then he had to shake himself and realise that he shouldn’t be! And I like that. I like that he felt like that. You should be rooting for the characters, but at the same time, you shouldn’t. But it’s not their fault that they’re like that – and that’s the situation they’re in… So you have no control over that and I also like to deliberately be very ambiguous, especially about moral issues and issues like authenticity.”

Limited Edition tells the story of the Bristol riots from a looter’s viewpoint. It also raises an important question about if main characters have to be likeable – and even about whether the reader can be won over. I’m reading Neil Cross’ Burial at the moment, which examines an accidental murder. You disagree with what Nathan, the central protagonist, has done, but due to Cross’ sterling narrative, you root for him regardless. It’s an odd situation to be in. Similarly, I was disgusted at the riots a few years ago, believing that peaceful protest is the way forward. But listening to Tim talk so passionately about consumerism and expectations, and reading his short story, I can now sympathise with Limited Edition’s main character.

Art by Robert Carter

Art by Robert Carter

“I think if readers aren’t coming up with their own takes on my stuff, then I’m probably not being ambiguous enough. And it’s tough in science fiction, because I found a lot of readers and some critics don’t like ambiguity. They’re not interested in it. They want everything to be framed ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ They want heroes,” he explains. “There was a review a few months ago of Paintwork and one of the reviewers wasn’t happy with how I portrayed Paul in Havana Augmented as a hero. And I didn’t know that I had. I hadn’t set out to portray him as a hero. They were unhappy with the ending; he goes into this re-education camp, he’s treated well… But what about all the other people in the camp? It was a fair point, but I didn’t think that I was saying he should’ve been treated well. He was treated well in the camp because he was seen as this national hero – was that right? Have his actions damaged Cuba? But I don’t want to ram points home to people; I want people to come away with their own opinions. That’s fine.”

He argues that this definite line between hero and villain is linked to comic book culture, but says that he’s got used to dealing with what readers bring to his own writing. “It’s always interesting to me to hear what people think about your own stuff [but] I had to come to terms with it a bit,” Tim says, and recalls his main concern initially: “Does this mean I’m not getting my point across or does it mean that I can’t get my point across without ramming it home to people? And I don’t ever want to ram anything home to anyone. I sometimes joke about it with a friend of mine; sometimes, it feels like you can only be ambiguous if you spell out that you’re being ambiguous! I write the stuff, chuck it out there, people like it, don’t like it, have their own opinions on it – I have to learn to live with that. And that’s fine; I’m quite happy with that.”

Paintwork 2

Still, this ambiguity can be an issue when it comes to offending others.

“I got some probably fair criticism for not including female characters enough in my stories, but part of what I was trying to write about was male pride, and the role of young men in urban society; how they struggle with having significance and standing out and making their mark on things,” he says. “It goes back to this idea of showing who you are in a society where consumerism is more important than self-expression.”

The fact is, readers will always bring themselves to a text – and that’s not really a bad thing. “If people are talking about it, then it’s worked,” he concludes.

You can read my full three-part interview with Tim over at Guide2Bristol. In Part One, we discuss his sci-fi influences, most notably Ballard, while in Part Two, we talk about what it means to be Cyberpunk and how celebrity culture has affected his work. And, in Part Three, we conclude by mulling over the relevance of 1980s ideals, if the landscape of Paintwork is the future he wants to live in, and what’s next for Tim.

And you can read Limited Edition here and watch the short film based on Paintwork here.

(Thanks to Tim Maughan and Guide2Bristol’s Rudy Millard.)

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2013 in Books, Interview, Published work

 

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Celebrate, Regenerate Out Now – And it’s Free!

I’ve contributed to the new unofficial Doctor Who book, celebrating the show’s 50th anniversary, Celebrate, Regenerate.

Celebrate Regenerate

The book is made by fans for fans, and highlights every single episode of in-canon Who from An Unearthly Child to this year’s The Name of the Doctor – plus a few extras, including Curse of the Fatal Death, The Sarah Jane Adventures’ The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith and Death of the Doctor and Time Crash, which saw the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) meet the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison). It also includes interviews with director, Joe Ahearne (Dalek; Father’s Day), 1960s companions, Anneke Wills (Polly Wright) and The Girl Who Waited writer, Tom MacRae.

My contribution is to The Power of Three (2012), though it also encapsulates every Steven Moffat-penned Who script up until then, and I’m very pleased to say that editor, Lewis Christian, has published my article in full! He says:

“This project, for me, sums up how awesome fandom can be when it comes together. We’re only a tiny percentage of Doctor Who‘s *entire fandom* but I think this makes its mark on the history of the show, and I think it’s a wonderful addition to the countless other celebrations going on – if I may say so myself. And, of course, this would not be possible without you guys. Yes I put it together, but you all *made* the thing, so a big collective pat on the back! (Or, if you can’t reach, just give yourself a big thumbs up.)”

The book costs £8.99 (black and white interior, but with a full-colour cover), including a £1 donation to Children in Need… Or you can read it for free over at the official website. A full-colour copy is also available, but it costs an astounding £45.20, due to self-publishing printing costs.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2013 in Books, Published work, Television

 

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Tim Maughan’s Paintwork Film

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to catch up with local science-fiction writer, Tim Maughan, for Guide2Bristol.

Tim’s the author of a short story collection, Paintwork, which has recently been turned into a brief film, as well as the critically-acclaimed Limited Edition.

Tim is a really nice guy and I thoroughly enjoyed the two-hour chat we had at Bristol’s Watershed. Expect to see the finished article soon on Guide2Bristol.

Meanwhile, you can check out Bristol Evening Post’s interview with the man himself here, or visit his official blog here.

I wholeheartedly recommend picking up Paintwork, described by many as ‘cyberpunk,’ envisioning a disturbing future – that lurks just around the corner. Whether it’s cyberpunk or not is pure conjecture, of course, but it’s a bold, thought-provoking and clever science-fiction collection that honours the work of greats like William Gibson (Necromancer) and J.G. Ballard (Crash).

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2013 in Books

 

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Re: Absorption (No, This Is Not an Advertisement for Diapers, Paper Towels, or Tampons)

Truly interesting look at the way we believe in what we read.

Re: Absorption (No, This Is Not an Advertisement for Diapers, Paper Towels, or Tampons).

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2013 in Books, Uncategorized

 

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100th Post: Reflecting on Nearly 3 Years

It’s really surprising to see that I started this blog nearly three years ago. And to find that this is my 100th post. Have I really had that many interesting things to say?! Excuse the self-indulgence here, then, as I look back at what’s changed since my very first blog post on 30th April 2010. (In no particular order…)

1. I’m now a freelance writer.
2. I’ve interviewed Matt Smith. (I know; I haven’t said anything about this massive event on this blog yet. But stay tuned!)

Matt and Moffat

3. I launched the Make Mine A Marvel Omnibus site in October 2010.
4. I had my first article printed in Real Travel magazine.
5. I work for the Doctor Who site, Kasterborous.
6. Amy and Rory left the TARDIS last year. (Don’t press me on the matter; I’m still a bit teary.)
7. I have an FdA in Professional Writing. (You can read more about that course here.)
8. Spooks has finished. (Thank God for DVDs!)
9. I’ve started my first novel.
10. I’ve written for the Weston College Higher Education Prospectus.
11. I did the web copy for Lovarzi’s Fourth Doctor Scarf for both their own website and Amazon.

doctor-who-scarf-4

12. As well as doing the official press release!
13. I’ve started my first children’s book.
14. The Amazing Spider-Man reached #700.
15. I’ve worked for Kasterborous’ sister site, CultBritannia (and you can read my first article here.)
16. I’ve learnt how to add videos to my blog!
17. I wrote The British Comedy Guide’s 10th anniversary celebratory article of The Office.
18. I’ve started a few scripts…
19. … And am searching for an agent.

Armstrong and Miller Guide2Bristol review

Armstrong and Miller Guide2Bristol review

20. I reviewed the Armstrong and Miller Tour for Bristol247
21. … And for Guide2Bristol.
22. The latter of which has been quoted on the official A&M website!
23. I copy-edit regularly for Kasterborous.
24. I reviewed the Day of the Daleks: Special Edition DVD for Kasterborous in two parts (here and here).
25. Then reviewed it for ItchyBristol here.
26. I’ve ran two blog advents across December 2011 and 2012.
27. I’ve worked on four Doctor Who ReKapped articles (learn more about that here), with another one in the works.

A Town Called Mercy 3

28. Clara Oswin Oswald has joined the TARDIS (sort of).
29. Neil Armstrong has passed away.
30. And so has Sir Patrick Moore.
31. The Killers have released a new album, Battle Born (and you can read a review of their single, Runaways here).
32. Avengers Assemble! has been released.
33. My review of the Doctor Who graphic novel, The Dalek Project went online here.
34. I’ve contributed two features to the upcoming Kasterborous Magazine (stay tuned for that).
35. Ray Bradbury has died.

The Illustrated Man

36. I’ve joined Twitter!
37. I’ve reviewed the last episode of Sherlock, The Reichenbach Fall, for Cult Britannia.
38. I have worked in a shop, Giggs, during the Christmas 2011 period – a shop which has since gone bust! (Nothing to do with me, I might add.)
39. I’ve read countless books – and you can see my top 10 reads of 2012 here.
40. Two episodes of 1960s Doctor Who have been found!
41. I reviewed Mission to the Unknown for Kasterborous’ Doctor Who@50.
42. The Gunfighters too! (And that’s certainly not the last of my involvement in the project.)
43. I created the Introducing: Doctor Who series for Kasterborous.

The Gunfighters 4

44. Doctor Who Confidential has been axed. (And was voted the best show ever on BBC3. Typical.)
45. I previewed Forbidden Planet’s Doctor Who Fun Day for ItchyBristol.
46. And in a short piece for The Mercury.
47. And finally for Bristol 247.
48. … For whom I also reviewed it.
49. The price of a 1st class stamp has increased to 60p.
50. I reviewed Lovarzi’s Fourth Doctor Scarf.
51. I write a regular column, Bristol Comics Corner, for Guide2Bristol.
52. Death in Paradise debuted on BBCOne.
53. Tuition fees increased, with a cap at £9,000.
54. … Something which I argued against in this Bristol247 article.
55. Brandon Flowers released his first solo album, Flamingo, and I reviewed it here.
56. I was thanked for my article about Jack Vettriano’s Bristol exhibition.

Vettriano on the Bristol247 homepage

Vettriano on the Bristol247 homepage

57. I previewed the Slapstick Festival in 2011.
58. I created my own website, using Moonfruit…
59. Then deleted it, as I wasn’t happy with the inability to update.
60. The Dandy ceased publication. (Read my article on that here.)
61. I’ve submitted an article to the Doctor Who book, Celebrate, Regenerate.
62. The Doctor Who Experience opened in London –
63. – Then moved to Cardiff.

JLC dress and Dalek

64. I reviewed Mack the Life, Lee Mack’s autobiography, for The British Comedy Guide.
65. I interviewed comic writer and artist, Jerry Holliday.
66. The Ice Warriors have been confirmed to return in the second half of Doctor Who, Series 7.
67. The world didn’t end on 21st December 2012. (Always a good thing, I find.)
68. The Bristol Comic Expo returned to Brunel’s Old Station.
69. I previewed the 2012 Expo here.
70. And reviewed it here.
71. The James Bond film franchise hit the big 5-0.
72. My former tutor, Marc Leverton, who’s a freelance writer, has written a guest blog post about his experience of publishers.

How To - Journalism

73. A review of his book, How to work as a Freelance Journalist, can be read here.
74. Steven Moffat has left Twitter. (Again, nothing to do with me!)
75. I’ve seen Steven Moffat at the Doctor Who Experience!
76. Sherlock burst onto television in July 2010.
77. I’ve helped Kasterborous begin their 50th anniversary celebrations with monthly Introduction articles.
78. January’s was Frontier in Space.
79. And this month’s is Vengeance on Varos.

Frontier 3

80. Tying into this, my editor called a second Frontier in Space piece I wrote one of the best articles the site has ever published. A massive compliment. You can read The World Behind: Frontier in Space here.
81. I reviewed Lee Mack’s Going Out live tour for Guide2Bristol
82. … And Bristol247!
83. I’ve visited the National History Museum for the first time.
84. Colin Baker appeared on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!
85. My article, Room with a View?, was the most-viewed article on Kasterborous in 2012!
86. I’ve begun work on a number of non-fiction books – but researching is a long task!
87. I reminisced on the anniversary of Matt Smith’s debut as the Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy and Arthur Darvill as Rory here.
88. And celebrated Matt’s Doctor here.

The 11th Doctor

89. I’ve started a short story collection.
90. My jewellery article, With This (Time) Ring…, was surprisingly popular, making the Kasterborous top 10 list of the most-viewed articles of 2012.
91. I looked at the top 10 guest stars in the Tenth Doctor era here and here.
92. I’ve started reading the Sherlock Holmes novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
93. T4 On The Beach (held in my hometown) has been cancelled.

David Tennant

94. I’m working on a particularly-exciting documentary idea – though it’s only in development in my head at the minute!
95. I’ve seen Peter Kay live at Manchester’s M.E.N. Arena.
96. Parts of Doctor Who: The Snowmen were filmed in Bristol, as were bits of Night Terrors.
97. I previewed tours by Micky Flanagan, Ed Byrne and Stewart Francis for my local newspaper, The Weston and Worle Mercury.

Micky Flanagan Mercury preview

Micky Flanagan Mercury preview

98. I’ve seen the asteroid, 2012 DA14!
99. I’ve added a new section to my blog: Testimonials.
100. I’ve written 100 posts!

But don’t go anywhere. This is just the start.

Thanks for sticking with me this long.

 
 

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Top 10 books I read in 2012

I read a lot of books, a lot of graphic novels, a lot of comics. It’s my craft; it’s what I love.

What I read, obviously, influences what I write (and vice versa), and so pinpointing the ten best books I read last year helps me focus on what I like in a story. It seems variety is the key! So, in no particular order…

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Cast of Sherlock

The massively-successful Sherlock TV series on BBC1, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, spurred me on to discover the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – and I’m so glad it did! A Study in Scarlet was a revelation, and I eagerly picked up The Sign of Four. I now have all the Sherlock books, and so I began 2012 by reading the third book in the series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It’s the first of the short story compilations, and once again, Doyle’s wonderfully easy but genius style made it an absolute pleasure to spend time with Holmes and Watson. This year, I’ll endeavour to read the next three books, ready for Sherlock returning to screen.

Fahrenheit 451

I picked this up on a whim, but it started my love of Ray Bradbury’s writing. It’s such a cliche (a phrase which, ironically, has also become cliche!) but Fahrenheit 451 really spoke to me. The level of thought that had gone into the novel, the amount of love and passion, came through instantly. It’s a book about a world without books. It’s a terrifying thought, but you completely buy into it. It’s still as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1953, if not more so.

Crooked House

Gemma Arterton is set to star in the film adaptation of Crooked House

Gemma Arterton is set to star in the film adaptation of Crooked House

Agatha Christie, whom I’ve been a fan of for quite some time now, is brilliant. I love her work, and The Agatha Christie Book Collection is a perfect way to fuel my imagination and fascination. Crooked House is so ingenious, it blew me away. Nothing is quite how you expect. (Although my Mum figured out who the murderer is, I hadn’t got a clue!) It’s a surprisingly disturbing novel, and the end is really shocking. It’s the definition of a ‘whodunit.’

Fatherland

Fatherland

What if the Nazis had won?

Once the notion was planted in my head, I couldn’t escape from it. I needed to pick up this book by Robert Harris. It’s so simple – why hasn’t every novelist done it before?! Maybe because they couldn’t beat the quality of Fatherland. In its anniversary year, I couldn’t put this down – even if, with German insignia on the front, it made me look like a Nazi sympathiser!

The Girl on the Landing

I’d read Paul Torday’s previous novels (his first, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, being his most famous) but this altogether different. It’s more disturbing than those that preceded it, and leaves a lot to the imagination – but that just makes it more unsettling.

The lead character is a normal, boring bloke – until he sees the titular girl on the landing, who may or may not be real. Things soon spiral out of control and you soon can’t put the book down.
Though The Irresistible Inheritance of Wiberforce is my favourite of Torday’s books, The Girl on the Landing is up there with the best.

Mack The Life

Lee Mack is, by far, my favourite comedian, and his autobiography is hilarious. In fact, it’s the first autobiography I’ve ever read in its entirety; I’ve tried others, sure, but they’ve never gripped me as much as this one.

For all my thoughts on this revealing book, take a look at my review for The British Comedy Guide.

Casino Royale

Casino Royale

Spurred on by the exceptional Skyfall (and watching Daniel Craig’s previous outings as the famous MI6 agent), I was surprised at the debut of James Bond in Casino Royale. It was everything Bond encompasses, but it was also sensitive and heartfelt. The main action was over midway through the novel, but Casino Royale is about Bond falling in love: a brave step to start out an action/thriller series. Live and Let Die waits for me on the bookshelf.

The Ghost

I nabbed The Ghost, another book by Robert Harris, when it was on offer at Waterstones for just £2.99, and I’m massively glad I did!

The Ghost

Harris’ style is pacy and pleasing, intriguing but warm. The interaction between characters is just as important as the mystery behind the new PM, Adam Lang. It really got me into the conspiratorial mindset for my script, A Writer’s Retreat, and was a thoroughly entertaining novel.

The Illustrated Man

Ray Bradbury came up with the clever idea of bookending a collection of short stories with an intensely unsettling tale of the Illustrated Man, whose tattoos come alive and tell the chilling and thought-provoking tales.

It’s especially interesting to see Bradbury’s exploration and obsession with this idea as just last week, I finished reading Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s also interesting to note how Bradbury’s writing style changes – and yet stays the same, or, at the very least, recognisably Bradbury. Perhaps this is because his fairytale-esque tinged with horror tone comes through in whatever he writes?

Doctor Who: The Silent Stars Go By

Ice Lord

The final novel I read in 2012 was this considerable narrative by Dan Abnett, which sees Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond, and Arthur Darvill’s Rory Williams come up against one of the Doctor’s most-notable enemies, the Ice Warriors.

It was a real pleasure to read, with great characterisation, a well-thought-out plot, a big twist or two, and a wonderfully creepy-yet-beautiful backdrop. While the ending wasn’t perfect, the novel, as a whole, is a gem – and a must-read for Doctor Who fans!

 
 

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