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Gone Girl

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Without a doubt, one of the best novels I’ve read this year! Flynn has crafted a masterpiece of narrative voice that had me hooked from the start. Nick and Amy are incredibly distinct characters, fully realized right out of the gate, as are supporting characters like Go and Desi. GONE GIRL may be filled with twists and turns, but I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of humor in the novel, as well. This is a book to savor and bask in, an instant classic of voice, structure, and careful, nuanced prose. I won’t soon forget it. Gillian Flynn has rocketed herself to the top of my list of authors I definitely need to read more of.

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Doctor Who: The New Doctor Will See You Now

Doctor Who returns to the small screen this weekend with Peter Capaldi taking over the role of the ever-regenerating Time Lord. The introduction of a new Doctor is always an exciting time, fraught with possibility. Routinely, fans are excited but also a little nervous. We can’t wait to see this Doctor, and yet we also bite our nails and wonder if we will like him. Advance word is that Capaldi is great in the role. I’m eager to see for myself, but I’ll be in Boston this weekend and will miss the season 8 premiere Saturday night. Which means I’m going to have to pretty much avoid all social media until I get a chance to see it unsullied by spoilers and other people’s opinions.

In honor of the 12th Doctor’s imminent arrival, I’ve decided to rank all the “new Doctor” episodes of the show, from both the classic and the modern eras. I won’t be counting “The Day of the Doctor” among them, by the way. Though it is technically a new Doctor episode with the introduction of the War Doctor, it’s neither treated nor structured as a new Doctor episode, and so, in my opinion, cannot be judged in the same way. Got it? Okay, now on to the list, from best to…um, worst seems like an understatement — the new Doctor episodes!

1. The Ninth Doctor — “Rose” Not just an excellent episode in its own right, but a spectacular introduction to the Doctor himself. With Christopher Eccleston’s masterfully delivered line, “I’m the Doctor. Run for your life,” we knew we were in for something special, and you didn’t have to be a lifelong Whovian to feel it. The first season of the modern Who does a great job of taking its time doling out information about who and what the Doctor is, but that first episode is breathlessly paced. It’s not perfect — there’s no such thing as perfect — but even Mickey’s ridiculous, cartoonish battle with the Auton trash bin can’t ruin it. Remarkably, this isn’t the first new Doctor episode to feature the Autons, either, as you’ll see.

2. The Eleventh Doctor — “The Eleventh Hour” You might be surprised to see me putting this one in second place, since longtime readers know I was not a fan of the Eleventh Doctor era. I felt the program really went downhill during those three seasons, but I also happen to think “The Eleventh Hour” is a great episode. It’s a very good introduction to the show for new viewers while still retaining the feel of the previous seasons despite the lack of any recurring characters. Matt Smith hasn’t started spinning in circles and flapping his arms yet, or mooning over his companion’s short skirts. There’s a lot of proto-Moffat stupidity to be seen in hindsight — the whole stupid, sexist Kissogram thing; characters who are set up as important but never appear again (that other young man in Amy’s life, for example); the whole “Silence will fall” plot line that still doesn’t make any sense even though we’ve now seen it through to its conclusion — but for roughly an hour, the episode kept me glued to the screen. That scene at the climax where the Doctor reprimands the Atraxi and tells them this planet is protected (“Hello, I’m the Doctor. Basically…run.”) is one of the best Doctor Who scenes of all time. This episode is filled with so much potential, none of which, in my opinion, came to fruition.

3. The Fourth Doctor — “Robot” The first Doctor Who serial I ever saw, and I was hooked from the start. The plot is okay. It’s basically a leftover Third Doctor and U.N.I.T. story about a killer robot and a secret society bent on world domination. The robot itself is pretty stupid, especially when it talks, reciting incredibly hammy lines in an inappropriately Shakespearean-trained-actor voice. But as the new Doctor, Tom Baker owns the screen from minute one. From the moment he tells Harry Sullivan, U.N.I.T. physician and soon-to-be companion, “Well, of course I’m being childish! There’s no point being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes,” I never looked back.

4. The Third Doctor — “Spearhead from Space” A crackling adventure with tons of action, humor, and alien-invasion goodness, featuring the very first appearance of both the Autons and Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor. Nearly flawless. I would rank it higher up if it weren’t for some downright terrible dialogue between U.N.I.T. scientist Liz Shaw and the Brigadier, scratchy film quality, and the awful electronic farting music that would plague most of the serials during the Third Doctor era. But the story is a lot of fun, the Autons are a great new enemy, and Jon Pertwee is no less than a revelation in the role — the Doctor remade as a man of action. Venusian aikido, indeed!

5. The Eighth Doctor — The TV Movie In 1996, the world met the Eighth Doctor, played marvelously by Paul McGann, in a TV movie that ran on the Fox network. It also has the distinction of being the only Doctor Who episode to feature the regeneration of the previous Doctor and the complete introductory adventure of the next one. The plot is a little silly, and the reason for the Doctor’s regeneration — he gets shot by gang members right as he steps out of the TARDIS, then “dies” on the operating table because his internal organs are different from a human’s — really needed to be more science-fictional and less disturbingly realistic. There are also some newly introduced plot developments that left fans scratching their heads: The Eye of Harmony is inside the TARDIS instead of on Gallifrey, where we last saw it in 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin”? The Doctor is half-human on his mother’s side, like Spock?  What the…? But it’s a romp from start to finish, and is our first introduction to the idea of a romantic Doctor. When he kisses Grace at the end, fandom went insane. Most of the reaction was negative — the Doctor had never done anything like that before, and some felt it reduced Grace from equal companion to love interest — but the kissing never stopped after that. In fact, incidents only increased!

6. The First Doctor — “An Unearthly Child” The very first episode of Doctor Who, and for fans one of the most important twenty-five minutes in television history. So you might wonder why I didn’t rank it higher. Well, to be honest, I find it rather dull. As the Doctor, William Hartnell only appears in the last ten minutes of the episode, and all the Doctor does is mock and dismiss school teachers Ian and Barbara, who have come to a junkyard looking for their unusual student Susan, who happens to be the Doctor’s granddaughter. The Doctor is a straight-up asshole to them, and when they force their way into the TARDIS, he essentially kidnaps them against their will. The episode is hard to watch — literally at times, as the camera operator often doesn’t seem to know where to point it — but it’s hardly the worst of the bunch.

7. The Fifth Doctor — “Castrovalva” Before the new Who began, Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor was my second favorite after Tom Baker’s Fourth. However, he wasn’t off to a great start. “Castrovalva” isn’t a bad episode per se, but it’s hamstrung by its reliance on the audience having seen the last two serials of the previous season: “The Keeper of Traken” and “Logopolis.” First-time viewers choosing to start with this new Doctor would likely have no idea what is happening for the majority of “Castrovalva’s” first episode. Add on top of that a ludicrously complicated plot by the Master, and companion Tegan Jovanka acting especially shrewish, and you have a story that’s not all that enjoyable. The best part is when the Doctor, still confused from his regeneration, gets lost in the corridors of the TARDIS and cycles through the personalities of all the Doctors who came before him. He also symbolically unravels the Fourth Doctor’s famous scarf along the corridors the way Theseus used a string so he wouldn’t get lost in the labyrinth, which is both sad and perfect.

8. The Tenth Doctor — “The Christmas Invasion” David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor is my new second favorite after Tom Baker, but the problem with his first full episode is that he’s barely in it. He only shows up at the very end, and while his scenes are great — like Tom Baker, he owned the role instantly — there isn’t nearly enough screen time involved. Instead, we have to suffer through forty minutes of Rose and Mickey dodging ridiculous robot Santas while the Doctor lies comatose in bed. The whole thing about being able to regrow his severed hand because he’s still technically regenerating is pretty out there, too. An inauspicious debut for one of the best Doctors ever.

9. The Second Doctor — “The Power of the Daleks” The very first “new Doctor” serial ever, and thus one of the most important moments in the program’s history. Unfortunately, very few people have seen it because it no longer exists. In the 1960s and ’70s, the BBC destroyed a bunch of their old tapes to make room for new ones in their limited storage facilities, and among those destroyed tapes were many, many episodes of Doctor Who from the First and Second Doctor era. So I’ve never seen “The Power of the Daleks.” I have seen some of the animated reconstructions online, though, which use the surviving audio from the episodes, but from what I saw it’s not actually very good. Companions Ben and Polly are uninteresting, the Doctor refers to his old self in the third person (“The Doctor was a great collector, wasn’t he?”), he decides to read his diary to get himself up to speed (I can think of nothing more narratively boring than that), and spends most of the time wearing an even stupider hat than the Eleventh Doctor’s fez. No thanks.

10. The Sixth Doctor — “The Twin Dilemma” Utterly unwatchable. Not only is the script terrible, it turns Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor into a paranoid schizophrenic who tries to strangle his companion Peri to death. His personality stabilizes as the story goes on, but I don’t recall him ever actually apologizing to Peri for trying to kill her (and there’s no way I’m watching this garbage again to refresh my memory). Now, it would be one thing if there were repercussions for what the Doctor did that played out over the following stories, but there aren’t any. The whole thing is dropped immediately at the end of “The Twin Dilemma.” The story isn’t just nonsense, it’s unintentionally horrifying. A terrible first impression that the Sixth Doctor never fully recovered from in fans’ eyes.

11. The Seventh Doctor — “Time and the Rani” Even worse than “The Twin Dilemma,” if you can believe it. The script is beyond terrible, the villain’s plan makes no sense (steal the brains of geniuses from throughout space and time and turn them all into one giant brain!), and Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor doesn’t see a piece of scenery he doesn’t try to eat. Let’s not even talk about his companion Mel, who is nothing but a screechy parody of a 1980s exercise bunny. McCoy recovered from his terrible debut in a way that Colin Baker never really did, and indeed the Seventh Doctor went on to have some excellent stories, especially in his final two seasons. But as an introduction, “Time and the Rani” is a disaster.

And there you have it, my ranking of the “new Doctor” episodes! What do you think? Would you rank them differently? Did I malign one of your favorite episodes, or rank one higher than you think it deserves? Sound off in the comments and let me know!

The Scariest Part: Laurence Klavan Talks About THE FAMILY UNIT AND OTHER FANTASIES


Welcome to this week’s installment of The Scariest Part, a recurring feature in which authors, comic book writers, filmmakers, and game creators tell us what scares them in their latest works of horror, dark fantasy, dark science fiction, and suspense. (If you’d like to be featured on The Scariest Part, check out the guidelines here.)

My guest is Laurence Klavan, whose latest is book is the short story collection The Family Unit and Other Fantasies. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The Family Unit and Other Fantasies is the debut collection of acclaimed Edgar Award-winning author Laurence Klavan. A superb group of darkly comic, deeply compassionate, largely fantastical stories set in our jittery, polarized, increasingly impersonal age. Whether it’s the tale of a corporation that buys a man’s family; two supposed survivors of a super-storm who are given shelter by a gullible couple; an erotic adventure set during an urban terrorist alert; or a nightmare in which a man sees his neighbourhood developed and disappearing at a truly alarming speed, these stories are by turn funny and frightening, odd and arousing, uncanny and unnerving.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Laurence Klavan:

The collection came about because of fear. Most of the stories were inspired by my dread, anxiety, and unease after 9/11.

In November of 2001, my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Susan Kim, and I rented an apartment ninety miles north of New York City. We intended to use it as a kind of bomb shelter where we would flee on weekends. It was in a ragged little ranch-house building complex that resembled a nursing home. We barely decorated it, bought just a table, a futon that doubled as a bed and couch, and silverware and cups; it was like the apartments that terrorists inhabit while hiding in sleeper cells. One time, we brought Susan’s cats with us, and they were so terrified by all the empty space that they hid in closets or under the futon cover, looking like three cancerous lumps (all have since died).

All day and night, the old woman in the next apartment watched The Sound of Music and smoked cigarettes; second-hand smoke seeped through the thin walls and coated our clothing and hair and was impossible to get out. Animals — raccoons, skunks — haunted the backyard, baying, foraging for food, and leaving their own bad smells behind. Soon after we signed the lease, the handyman was fired for selling meth and, upon leaving, abandoned the cats he had owned, which joined the other tormented, keening strays behind the house. One night, I sat on the futon and, in the morning, found a gray paté-like substance splattered on the wall behind it: I had inadvertently crushed to death and smeared a mouse there.

While we were gone, phone messages would be left for the same local boy, telling him where and when his Boy Scout meetings were, messages which he apparently never got (or had gotten years before, when he was still alive; that’s what it felt like). One day, when we walked in, we found that the pipes had burst during the week and scalding hot water had sprayed onto the futon where we would have been sleeping; it had bent and melted the candles we left there and curdled the pages of books open on the floor. The next time, a hive of bees hidden beneath our windowsill outside had been jostled loose, and the place was filled with dying bees which had gotten in and couldn’t find their way out. We cleaned up as many as possible but still awoke with bites all over us and more dying bees everywhere.

We ended up feeling unsafe in the place, as if we had brought the danger with us or, wherever we went, we would always find another threat, and so we moved out.

This was where some of the stories came from, exaggerated only slightly, that was the scariest part.

Laurence Klavan: Website / Facebook / Goodreads

The Family Unit and Other Fantasies: Amazon / ChiZine Publications

Laurence Klavan wrote the novels The Cutting Room and The Shooting Script, published by Ballantine Books. His novel Mrs. White, co-written under a pseudonym, won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels City of Spies and Brain Camp, co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan, and their Young Adult fiction series, Wasteland, is currently being published by Harper Collins (the second installment, Wanderers, was published in April; the third, Guardians, debuts in 2015). He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics to Bed and Sofa, the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theatre in London. His one-act, “The Summer Sublet,” produced in the EST Marathon in New York, was published in Applause Books’ Best American Short Plays 2000-2001. His web site is

Four Years

Today marks four years since I stopped smoking!

It was without a doubt one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, but so worth it. At this point, enough time has passed that I don’t miss cigarettes anymore, not even when I see my few remaining smoking friends light up. That used to be a trigger for cravings, but over time it got less and less. Now I’m a totally insufferable ex-smoker. When I see people smoking, I shake my head and wonder how that ever could have been me. I see smokers toss their butts like litter on the street and I sneer, but then I remember I used to do the exact same thing. I ponder why smokers would do this to themselves, since the awful health repercussions are known to everyone now, but then I remember that it’s a drug addiction. Nicotine is a drug that hooks you instantly, and it makes you crazy if you don’t keep putting it into your system after that. I should know. I was addicted for twenty years. Frankly, I’m lucky it didn’t kill me the way it killed my father, grandmother, and at least one of my grandfathers.

Anyway, if you’re looking for the secret to stopping smoking and staying stopped, it is simply this: You cannot have another cigarette again. Not ever. Not even a puff. Because once you do, the nicotine has got you and the addiction starts all over again. That’s why they say there’s no such thing as “just one.” That’s also why I refuse to even smoke the occasional cigar. I know if I ever have nicotine again, all my hard work will be for nothing. And I don’t want to go back to being beholden to a drug habit. It shapes your day and routines and thought patterns in ridiculous ways you don’t even realize until you stop.

So that’s it. The big secret. Once you stop smoking, you have to actually stop smoking. No bumming smokes. No puffs off other people’s cigarettes. No “I only smoke when I’m out with friends.” Nothing. No more. Only then can you break the addiction for good.

In other news, today is also the 11th anniversary of the biggest blackout in North American history. It struck the entire eastern seaboard, including New York City. I still remember having to walk all the way downtown from the New York Public Library on 42nd Street to the Brooklyn Bridge, then over the bridge and to my apartment through pitch-black Brooklyn streets. Our borough president, Marty Markowitz, was waiting on the other side of the bridge with a megaphone, welcoming us back home. Marcy and G Italiano were visiting from Canada at the time, and we used the little flashlight on Marcy’s keychain to make our way through the darkness. When we got back to my place, we lit candles and drank cocktails. It’s funny how time works. No way does feel like eleven years have passed, and yet so much has happened since then.