January 2023 Book Roundup

In any given month, there’s a lot of stuff I read or watch that I don’t feel the need to review in full. So, in lieu of reviews, I’ve decided to do little monthly recaps of what I’ve read, complete with smaller, mini-reviews of each title. So, without further adieu, here’s a look back at the month of January.

Doctor Who: Legends of Camelot by Jaqueline Rayner
(3/5 wands)

For what it is, “Legends of Camelot” is fun enough. It’s basically just Ten and Donna bantering their way through various King Arthur legends. But if that’s your thing, then there’s plenty of fun to have here. I only wish the plot held up as well as the banter. At its heart, this is just a very simple Quest storyline with a third-act twist that’s woefully under-explored.

By nature, the book features tons of time jumps, skipping from one set piece to the next. And while that makes for a quick, fast-paced read, it doesn’t make for a particularly engaging one. Only Ten and Donna feel like fully-rounded characters, and even they barely go on any character journeys here. As for the rest of the cast, if you’re unfamiliar with the basics of the King Arthur legend, I feel like this’ll probably fall flat for you. Similarly, if you’re unfamiliar with the Seventh Doctor serial, “Battlefield,” I’m not sure how much you’ll like this book either as it’s basically a sequel to that book.

Still, “Legends of Camelot” is a fun enough read. It’s light, breezy, and action-packed. I wish it explored its ideas better, and it definitely pales in comparison to the other Penguin crossover book that was released in 2021, “The Wonderful Doctor of Oz”. But if you’re craving a quick Ten/Donna fix in preparation for the 60th anniversary specials, you could do a lot worse than this.

Doctor Who: The Celestial Toymaker by Gerry Davis and Alison Bingeman
(3/5 wands)

For a story called “The Celestial Toymaker,” the titular Toymaker doesn’t get a lot of page time or exploration. Still, it’s easy to see how this villain has gained such popularity among Doctor Who fans. And it’s a shame this story remains his only appearance in the tv show.

It’s hard to judge the book as an adaptation considering the serial it’s adapting is largely missing. So, on its own, it’s a fine book. Nothing particularly memorable as a story or as a Doctor Who adventure. The Doctor is largely sidelined and a lot of the Toymaker’s games don’t work as well on the page as they (presumably) did on screen. But if you’re desperate to experience this story in some way, you could do a lot worse than this. It’s a very quick read, and it’s more fun than not. Plus, Dodo and Steven get a lot to do, even if it’s kind of repetitive.

Not my favorite Target novelization by a long shot, but it’s enjoyable enough.

They Set the Fire by Daniel Kraus
(4.5/5 wands)

Overall, I absolutely adored They Set the Fire from start to finish. It’s every bit as good as the previous two books in The Teddies Saga, if not better. It’s a fast-paced adventure, filled with enough twists, turns, and emotional gut punches to make even the most adult stories quiver in fear. While it’s scarier than the previous entries, it never feels gratuitous or ventures into anything that’s too frightening. And above all else, They Set the Fire is a rip-roaringly fun time. It’s an immensely satisfying read that’s sure to stick with you long after you finish it. Whether you’re a young reader or just a reader who’s young at heart, They Set the Fire is a must-read in every sense of the phrase.

Full review here.

Doctor Who: The Nightmare Fair by Graham Williams and John Ainsworth
(3/5 wands)

“The Nightmare Fair” is a bit of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, it makes much better use of the Celestial Toymaker than his first serial did. But on the flip side, the plot just doesn’t work at all on audio. It’s easy to see how this story might’ve been quite excellent on TV – although its slow pacing combined with the budgetary restraints of the 1980s probably would’ve hindered it quite a bit. But as an audio drama, it’s just kind of strange. The first half is very slow, with the Sixth Doctor and Perri spending a lot of time exploring the theme park. And the story waits way too long to reunite the Doctor and the Toymaker. But once that reunion happens, things pick up quite a bit. It’s just a shame that an audio drama with a video game as its central threat just doesn’t work all that well.

While we do get to learn a lot more about the Celestial Toymaker’s backstory, “The Nightmare Fair” doesn’t really do anything with the character. He’s a lot less conniving and devious this time around. In fact, we don’t really get to witness any of the elements that made the character enjoyable here. Removed from his Toyroom, he feels less unique. Here, he’s largely reduced to a pretty standard evil mastermind. And his ultimate plan, to murder a bunch of people with a video game (or something along those lines), never really comes together. That said, I enjoyed revisiting the Celestial Toymaker here, and I remain convinced there’s a lot of potential in this character – as evidenced here by his origins inching him closer toward the realm of Unknowable Horror. I just wish the story had leaned further into that sense of unknowable horror instead of retreading familiar Evil Genius territory.

All that being said, “The Nightmare Fair” is enjoyable enough. If nothing else, it’s a fun “what if” scenario, exploring a previously unfilmed “Doctor Who” story. On its own, it’s not particularly memorable, nor does it live up to the promise of its premise. But it’s a fairly fun ride, all things considered.

A Big Hand for the Doctor by Eoin Colfer
(3.5/5 wands)

A part of Doctor Who‘s fiftieth-anniversary short story series. fun little “Doctor Who” adventure. There are hints of “Peter Pan” scattered throughout the story, and it’s always a delight when Doctor Who flirts with other literary works. Colfer’s prose here is good – very fluid and whimsical. His First Doctor doesn’t really feel much like Hartnell’s Doctor, but Colfer still captures that essence of the character. The story’s a bit too short to really delve into any of its ideas, either. But it’s still an enjoyable romp. Overall, there’s a lot of fun to be had here, even ten years after its original publication, and it’s well worth revisiting.

How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix
(4.5/5 wands)

On the whole, How to Sell a Haunted House is an immensely satisfying, wholly surprising read from start to finish. While it starts off very slowly, perhaps too slowly, if you can get past the first half of the story, you’re in for a total thrill ride. It may take a while for the spooky stuff to start happening, but once it arrives, it never stops. And all of that slower, deliberate exposition is needed to set up those character arcs, all of which are immensely satisfying and form the emotional core of the book. At its heart, two stories are happening simultaneously – a traditional haunted house story and a more introspective exploration of how grief mixes with trauma. Neither story works without the other, and the combination of both makes for an immensely enjoyable read.

Full review here.

Doctor Who: Time War 5: Cass
(4 out of 5 wands)

At the end of the day, “Doctor Who: Cass” offers endless amounts of fun. In fact, this is the most fun the Time War range has felt in quite a while. The Eighth Doctor and Alex make quite a pairing, even if the set doesn’t do as much as you might hope with the idea of the Doctor’s long-lost great-grandson suddenly being a part of his life again. And it’s such a joy getting to spend a lot more time with Emma Campbell-Jones’ Cass, given how little time she got in “Night of the Doctor.” At its heart, “Doctor Who: Cass” is a deeply enjoyable romp through time and space, featuring a trilogy of mind-bending, timey-wimey adventures. And the way the final story sets up the next box set is absolutely brilliant.

If you’re looking for a good “Doctor Who” fix in these quiet months leading up to the 60th anniversary, then “Doctor Who: Cass” might just scratch that itch.

Full review here.

The Diary of River Song: Friend of the Family
(5 out of 5 wands)

This is an absolutely gorgeous listen. There’s simply no other way to describe it. It’s the kind of story that’s so good it makes you wonder why they haven’t been doing stories like this the whole time. It’s like River was made for this story. A multi-generational mystery exploring the depths of love, loss, familial drama, and hope in the face of all of that. It’s funny, it’s adventurous, it’s touching, and it’s heartbreaking. One of the behind-the-scenes interviews suggests this story’s like “This is Us” with time travel, and that’s an incredibly accurate statement.

Plot-wise, it’s very timey-wimey – but not in a gimmicky way. Instead, this is the kind of time travel story where every weird thing has a purpose, and each twist and turn builds on what’s come before and all comes together in an enormously satisfying way. You’ll definitely need to pay attention as you listen, otherwise, you could pretty easily get lost. But I promise it’s worth putting in the extra effort.

It’s also the kind of time travel story that’s very character driven. It’s not time travel for the sake of time travel. Rather, it’s a character journey. River’s at first, naturally. But as the story goes on, and the focus widens, you realize the story is about much more than River just trying to figure out what’s going on. That being said, River goes on such an interesting journey here. I don’t wanna delve into any spoilers, but I’d say this does as much for River’s character as “The Ruby’s Curse” did. And Alex Kingston has simply never been better than she is here – particularly in the set’s final episode.

On the whole, “Friend of the Family” is an absolutely must-listen – even if you’re not a fan of “The Diary of a River Song”. It’s so unlike anything else this series has done, and that’s what makes it so existing. It’s a great River Song story, a great “Doctor Who” story, an immensely impressive sci-fi story, and a genuinely moving piece of fiction in general. This is Big Finish at their very best.

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