Friday, 20 March 2015

Starman's Quest

Robert Silverberg and I have had a fairly scatological association for the best part of four decades. My childhood in the 70s and early 80s was full of little encounters when I'd bump into him in small shops with the odd revolving book rack or amongst the slim volumes brought home from jumble sales. Some of the slim volumes would get read or filed for a rainy day (the rainy day being anything from six weeks to thirty plus years down the line). His output in the latter half of the 80s received more organised attention from me as his name became a library sci-fi staple.
Starman's Quest was written in the 1950s when he was nineteen during his junior year at Columbia. It was his second book and as he admits in his preface he's written better since. The imagination is all there but plotting and story progression certainly have their fair share of problems. The Starman's Quest is the unlikely ambition of a young spacer (a Starman) to solve the drawbacks of interstellar space travel at near the speed of light. Time dilation and relativity are hard science that's fuelled the imaginations of speculative sci-fi writers like Silverberg for most of the last century. Shoving the problems with the plot mechanics aside Silverberg's actual narrative is quite fun and thoughtful. The dismay of our young protagonist being separated from his twin by first space and later age is very well done as is his deep culture shock when he jumps ship and tries to find his brother on the harsh consumerism driven overcrowded Earth. A talking sentient rat accompanies him but Silverberg doesn't really need an extra voice in the narrative so ends up almost completely forgetting he's there. Flawed but enjoyable and far beyond what a nineteen year old should be able to accomplish - just like our young Starman.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Pronto

With the first five seasons of 'Justified' currently available on demand to Sky subscribers I was tempted into watching this show from the start. I soon got hooked and became curious about the original books featuring sharp shooting US Marshall Raylan Givens by Elmore Leonard. Being a beast with a very methodical nature I grabbed me a copy of book 1 and got started, 'Pronto' isn't really a book about Raylan though. He starts out as a supporting character in what turns out to be a character piece. The main player of the piece is a Miami Beach bookie called Harry Arno who becomes a pawn in an attempt by the police to bring charges to bear on a local mob boss. Arno soon has a price on his head and decides to escape to Italy and a little place he'd long planned to retire to. The story is a simple one no mistake. There's a lot rumination over nostalgia and the difference between folks perceived self and reality and man does Harry have a thing for Ezra Pound. The author writes some great dialogue. Raylan makes the book though.
He's a slightly different character than his screen version with a slightly different back story but essentially they occupy the same space both being sharp shooters, masters of the psychological edge that all gunmen need to stay in the game and of course there's the hat. His role as a US Marshall also makes a refreshing change from all the detectives mooching about detecting things. His job normally involves guarding folk. dealing with fugitives and escorting prisoners.  Timothy Olyphant really makes the character his own in the tv series, exuding quirky old school charm that hides just how lethal he is. Some scenes and dialogue made it onto the screen in the first episode and a less globe trotting version of Harry's story can be found in episode 4 "Long in the Tooth" which includes the back roads confrontation between Raylan and two mob gunmen.
Usually my idea of a box set binge is one episode a week because I like to savour the good stuff but I actually watched two episodes last week. I know... the shame.
Anyhow I'll be getting all the books and the short stories but I think I'll pass on the hat.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Ghosts and Vampires

Oh I so wish this had been the audio collection I'd chosen for my Christmas listening this year. instead of the woeful "Dark Holidays."
"Classic Tales of Ghosts and Vampires," is a quality collection that gets off to a cracking start with "The Upper Berth," by F. Marion Crawford. It's not the first time I've tried to cross the pond in cabin 105 but it remains a creepy voyage nonetheless.
Guy de Maupassant's "Was it a Dream," isn't quite a horror story, being more another of Maupassant's journeys into the darker corners of the human psyche. There is some pretty creepy graveside imagery though.
It's over thirty years since I first took the hard drop in Ambrose Bierce's American Civil War chiller "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."  I recognise it straight away. Sometimes a story just stays with you.... forever.










Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline

The penultimate book in the series tones it down a bit, cutting back on the swinging from the roof fittings and other Errol Flynn style shenanigans. Instead Enola relies on her usual considerable talent for disguise, sketch making, cryptology and of course her endless supply of pluck.
In her hunt to recover her kidnapped landlady she is forced to consult Florence Nightingale, which, teachers take note, means the Crimean War is a part of the story. This series is fun for kids and if the spark of interest in history is fanned then so much the better. Barring casting Florence as a spy the author respects the historical accuracy of the historical figure.
One of the better additions to the series.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Christmas with Longmire

This collection contains four short stories that drop in on Walt during or leading up to the Christmas holidays. Don't expect cosy scenes of fireside cheer though. The first story kicks off with Walt being mistaken for both a tramp and Jesus. It's set not long after his wife's death and he's caught up in grief and depression. He's at work in his dressing gown, smells something bad and there are foreign objects in his beard.  But he still has his dry wit and the hint that things can get better. The other stories are further along in Walt's timeline. The stories here use that peculiar quality of Christmas that focuses and gathers memories of family in our minds. For some of a certain age it can be a difficult time of the year. What we have lost comes to the fore of our minds. But these short Longmire stories aren't ultimately sad. There is hope, dignity, warmth and humour to soften the poignancy.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Dark Holidays

Sadly this ghostly anthology opens with R.H.Benson's The Traveller, standing like Charon demanding payment before the journey begins, as it does in so many such collections. Benson's prophetic works such as 'Lord of the World' may have secured his place in literary regard, but his ghost story only succeeds in being a right bore.
"The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall" by John Kendrick Bangs is not in the least bit scary. As amusing as your mood allows (in my case - not very). If overly prim and chatty is your kind of ghost then you might crack a smile but Bangs is no Oscar Wilde.
Poe's "The Oval Portrait" is a short but powerful piece exploring what the love of art over life might cost. The spark that was fanned into Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray can be found here. There is little sign of a ghost though.
Mark Twain delivers the required spook though in his simply titled "A Ghost Story" along with a few chills and chuckles. 
 "The Wolf" by Guy de Maupassant is not a ghost story, neither is it a werewolf story. It's a spare little tale about obsession end insanity. It's included here for one reason: It gets another short story master's name onto the book cover. 
Washington Irving's "German Student" at least manages to squeeze a ghostly encounter into the brief eight pages but has more to say about the morals of men than supernatural chills.
"The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs is a true horror classic, much adapted, imitated or referenced. Be careful what you wish for the saying goes. I wish for a ghost story with genuine chills and of a length enough to engage me. So far this is the first to hit the marks in this collection.
Next up is William Hope Hodgson's 48 page "From the Tideless Sea". Nearly two hours of the narrator's bass rumble with giant sea creatures prowling the vast Sargasso and no damn ghosts. By about the hour mark I'm firmly rooting for the giant Octopuses. 'For pete/s sake eat him already.'
Beyond their place in superstition and mythology  the cats from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Back Cat" have no certain supernatural role to play. A masterful horror story nonetheless with insanity and alcoholism being the true haunters of the mind. Perfectly constructed and paced it's a dark tale of terror that is hard to beat.
If linguistics were an Olympic sport then I'm sure "Madam Crowl's Ghost" by J.S. Le Fanu would be a good test. It's an atmospheric tale but read out loud it's a challenge. Le Fanu is merciless with his transcription of regional dialect. One perhaps better read than listened to. 
"The Canterville Ghost" by Oscar Wilde doesn't really need another recommendation from me. Love it.
With the inclusion of "Doctor Heidegger's Experiment" by Nathaniel Hawthorne I do begin to despair. It's most definitely not a ghost story. It's not even a horror story. The only possible reason for its inclusion is to place another literary name on the cover. 
"The Old Nurse's Story" by Elizabeth Gaskell is a superbly written ghostly story which is a step above. Much imitated. 
Two stories from Dickens begin with "The Black Veil," Though it is a fine piece of writing it has no ghost and isn't even a horror story though it has a dark moodiness and its theme has a macabre impact. "The Signalman," is as good a ghost story as you will hear.. 
The last story is Arthur Conan Doyle's "Selecting a Ghost" which is very funny and the narrator does a good job of delivering the text in a suitably humorous manner. 
This proved to be as poorly assembled an anthology as I've come across. Many of the stories are either too long, too short or in the case of at least six of the tales have no ghost at all. Most of the stories that do hit the mark are ones that have been over exposed in anthologies already. Maybe I'm being a bit picky but I feel a bit like Mr Doyle's man at the conclusion of "Selecting a ghost."

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Booktaker

Very pleasing freebie audio download featuring Bill Pronzini's Nameless detective. It runs for about 90 minutes and is ably narrated by Nick Sullivan who really nails Nameless's personality. Being a short story the character introduces himself more thoroughly than he does in his full length appearances. I'm sure many people discover great series by a chance encounters with stories like this. He compares himself to actor Richard Boone, which was probably a more useful comparison when this story first saw print in the early 80s. He admits to being a bit of a slob. 'To hell with health clubs and to hell with my belly.' he says... or words to that effect.
For fans of the series the continuity places Booktaker a short time after Hoodwink. Nameless is in the happy period of his relationship with Kerry Wade, some time before Scattershot blew all the happiness to the wind. The story revolves around some mystery thefts at a store dealing in rare books. Nameless is hired by the baffled owner to discover the thief. It's just great to be in the company of one of my favourite private eyes doing everything that he loves best; solving puzzling crimes, reading his beloved pulp mags, eating, drinking cold beer and snuggling with Kerry in front of a roaring fire.