Friday, 17 December 2010

Slow Storm

Although Danica Novgorodoff's Slow Storm is a good 170+ pages in length the sparsity of the written narrative makes this book a short one sitting read. It's sort of a character piece about a Mexican illegal immigrant, Rafi, and Ursa, a somewhat unloved female firefighter who spends most of her working hours fighting a sometimes vindictive sibling rivalry with her brother and fending off the unwanted advances of another of her workmates. Their brief connection occurs at a time of emotional crisis when Ursa is at breaking point and Rafi is caught in the fallout. It sort of works with some quite poignant scenes though the best thing about the book is the quality of the artwork. The character linework can look a bit too simplistic but taken as a whole it does succeed in both telling the story and painting the emotional landscape. The literal landscapes of Kentucky and its sky and weather painted in startling watercolour washes are superb. Combining storms and weather with mental turmoil is a much used device but the art is good enough to break through any possible triteness. Although on the surface very little is happening there is a lot going on below the surface. Relationships, family, religion, homesickness, dreams, resentment, guilt, wonder, love, hope, freedom - the list goes on. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

American Vampire

Remember when vampires were still scary? Perhaps you don't. I should break out my copy of Salem's Lot to remind myself that these bloodsuckers used to be more than just pale possible boyfriends in the latest teen/vamp/rom. Stephen King is one half of the writing talent on duty for this tale of mostly very bad vampires in the wild west of the late 1800s and the movie making era of the 1920s. King's introduction to the book has a lot more to say about the current state of vampire fiction and he doesn't mince words. This is also the first time King has written for comics. I know many of his stories have have been adapted for the genre but always by usually established comic book writers. This time he does it himself, which means basically writing the dialogue (no problem there) and, in place of the narrative, describing the contents and layout of the panels so the artist knows what to draw. He does a pretty good job barring a little muddiness in the way the supporting cast find their places in the opening part of the story. This book holds the origin story of our hero Skinner Sweet as told by King. Maybe I shouldn't have used the word hero as this guy was a very bad man even before he became the first American vampire. Sweet is a good creation, a vampire who revels in his new powers, whose love interest doesn't get beyond a craving for blood and candy. He's brash, violent, cunning and relentless. Alongside King's story in each issue is a later story set in Los Angeles about an aspiring young actress doing extras work for silent movies, who runs afoul of a nest of old European vampires who have an unstable truce with the powerful new vamp on the block, Skinner Sweet. This story is ably written by series creator Scott Snyder. Rafael Albuquerque does the artistic honours brilliantly in both arcs which helps the stories stand together. Under both stories is a suggestion of a subtext about America and its emerging place amongst the old world order. The book features the first 5 issues and also includes an afterword by Scott Snyder, variant covers by various artists, samples of script instructions by King and Snyder and early concept art. Altogether a nice piece of work.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Nobody

Canadian writer/artist Jeff Lemire brings H.G. Wells' classic psychological sci-fi tale The Invisible Man forward in time a hundred years to 1994 in three acts. Lemire's spare narrative and simple black and white artwork (sorry black, white & icy blue tint) are well suited to the subtle storytelling of The Nobody. The original novella put forward several philosophical theories about what would happen to a man freed of the moral constraints of society by the escape route of invisibility. J.R.R. Tolkien was also fascinated by such ideas and used them in his stories about a magical ring that could make the wearer invisible. Lemire's take on the story is somewhat more subtle, drawing on small town paranoia, as did Wells, of the mysterious stranger and the irony of an invisible man who is quite the largest and most visible event to visit the place, but adding little alternative perspectives with protagonist and satellite characters , most notably Vickie, vying for their visibility in society. The way familiarity makes people or things fade from our attention is another of the clever observations subtly suggested, usually with hardly any scripted direction beyond the panels of artwork. There's plenty of space in the telling of the story for the reader to expand their own thought on the subject. Just goes to show that you don't need to fill the page with words to tell an intelligent and subtly poignant tale.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Dunnocks on the Run

If in a hundred years in the deep of winter there are still robins & dunnocks still in England, I'm sure there will be somebody looking into their gardens and feeling sorry for the poor harried dunnock, bravely scurrying about on the hard ground and the frozen twig from that most autocratic garden bird - the robin.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Forever War

I've just reacquainted myself with Joe Haldeman's anti-war sci-fi classic The Forever War. First published in 1974 the book tells the story of William Mandella, one of the first conscripted troops to be trained and thrown at an alien race the expansionist human race has encountered unimaginable distances from Earth. After his first tour of duty, lasting two years, Mandella returns to Earth to a home that has advanced by a decade due to the relativistic nature of long distance space travel. The alienation and disconnection with the world he returns to echoes Haldeman's own experiences of returning home from his tours in Viet Nam. As more time passes, Mandella becomes more divorced from the human race as a whole, compounding the meaningless of conflict to preserve a race he no longer identifies with. It's all cleverly written, leading the reader to consider the nature of war and man's relation to it. He explodes the glorification of war and all its cliches one by one, bringing the act of war down to something mechanical with its human components as mere specialised cogs in the machine. The book won the Nebula, Hugo & Locus awards which is no mean feat considering the hot bed of sci-fi talent operating when The Forever War first appeared. Ridley Scott is said to be interested in bringing the book to the big screen.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

In between

I'm in one of those in between periods of the year. I'm not finishing anything worth writing about, nor am I starting anything. This part of the year sometimes gets me that way. The autumn has mostly wrapped up barring the last of the migrations and the winter keeps poking at me saying, "I'm coming, just you wait." Recently it poked so hard it whipped up a storm powerful enough to blow the dome off the top of one of our local landmarks - Darwen Tower - perched up on the heights of the Darwen Moors. My trips out have been like the snowbound mouse from last Christmas, nipping out into the cold to search for a crumb of sustenance and then darting back into the warmth to my cozy nest. I know I should look up more, or scrub the condensation off the windows and let the world give me something, some inspiration or spark, but it's only when I'm sat here thinking of something to write, to prove I'm still here, that I realise that I didn't.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Apocalypse Suite

Ah, the autumn. The wonderful colours, the spectacle of migrating birds, the.... damn it's so dark... and so wet.... and windy... and I'm coughing again... and my nose is running again... and is this a cold... please don't be flu... or octopus flu... or whatever the hell is coming next. Anyway - the autumn... isn't it great? It's out there and I'm in here reading my comics again. This time it's Gerard Way's comic book debut with the remarkable first collection of The Umbrella Academy written when he was still on the road with My Chemical Romance deep in a world Black Parade tour. Well before he rose to fame as part of a successful rock band Gerard began writing and drawing comics. It would be easy to dismiss this book before reading it, thinking that the only reason it succeeded was on the back of MCR's popularity but a lot harder to maintain such an opinion after you finish the first issue. No mean feat considering the first issue is titled The Day the Eiffel Tower Went Berserk, which you might think is some kind of oblique metaphor but no .... the Eiffel Tower does really go berserk, striding about Paris shooting laser beams with only a bunch of weird kids calling themselves the Umbrella Academy the only thing standing in its way. After such an incredible first issue come the remaining 5 issues, mainly featuring the adult incarnation of the Academy after their break-up. It's completely bonkers, full of wit and creativity but still very grounded with strong characters and an off kilter plot. Gabriel Ba's off-centre art brings to mind Hellboy artist Mike Mignola but with a rougher edge that suits the narrative perfectly. The wonderful James Jean covers are all here too. The collection is completed with some pre-launch publicity shorts and some early character and concept art which features Gerard Way's original drawings. He's actually a very good comic book artist in his own right but obviously he wouldn't have been able to find the time to be front man of MCR and do more than script the series.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Lion & the Spider

It's the late 1970s. I'd spent the decade absorbing Marvel's back catalogue of reprints, learning to read along the way from the day my aunt handed the four year old me my first Spider-man issue. Okay - four year old me got my dad to do the reading initially but you get the idea. I reread those early Lee/Ditko & the Lee/Kirby (back-up strip was The Mighty Thor) stories time and time again. Not too long after - 1976 to be exact - I fell in love with Marvel UK's new hero: Captain Britain was born.
Unfortunately, most of the other kids were more impressed with The Beano, TV Comic, Look-in or all those war comics. Captain Britain was dead. After 39 weekly issues Marvel UK's British experiment was laid to rest. The UK just wasn't in tune with America's love of the super-hero comic genre. At this time Marvel had got used to canceling comics after the shine had worn off the launch glitz. These titles usually ended with just a small loyal following which the publishers would try to tempt over to another title by merging the defunct title with one of the more viable titles. In this case Captain Britain's loyal die-hards would have to start collecting Marvel's flagship unsinkable British reprint title: Super Spider-man. The 11 year old me was a big fan of both. This archive volume begins with those post cancellation stories.The Captain Britain series was already deeply flawed even before the merger. It inhabited a Britain that only existed in the lampoon influenced American psyche. The first installment is pretty eye-watering as the writer tries to fit every perceived Brit cliche and mannerism into that first 5 page segment. I'm guessing there were some editorial memos on the fly following this as they did attempt to tone it down a bit in following installments. Two arcs of fairly lacklustre story-telling followed, getting wackier by the week, which seemed to have more in common with vintage titles like Batman from a decade or two earlier. The entirety of Claremont's Captain Britain/Spider-man Team-Up with the original splash pages (included here) would complete the phase-out for our hero. This team-up is quite decent, even considering it features Marvel's 'filler' villain - Arcade.
Captain Britain was dead. Or was he? In 1978 the new Hulk Weekly, designed to cash-in on the popular tv-series but without the use of Marvel's Hulk back catalogue, was looking for British produced back-up titles. One of these was the Steve Parkhouse written Black Knight series that would feature a mysterious stranger who would turn out to be an amnesiac Brian Braddock. The brief was to write a Tolkienesque quest, while drawing on British mythology. It would be packed with mythical creatures and magic, most notably the diminutive feral looking elves commanded by master archer Moondog. At this stage there is no sign of Jackdaw (Captain Britain's future fated side-kick) though I guess we should assume he is one of Moondog's troop. Paul Neary would provide the startling and distinctive black and white art, ably assisted in inks by John Stokes. Sometimes something astounding just comes together by people coming together at just the right moment in time. It was destiny I suppose. For the first time since his launch Captain Britain gained an identity that wasn't just an amalgam of successful American comic book characters. The first 29 installments are included here for the first time in over 30 years. It's a shame the series has been split up with the concluding parts kicking off the next volume. Early concept art closes the book as well as some memos from Stan Lee and bizarrely Neil Tennant (the then Marvel UK London editor of latterly Pet Shop Boys fame).
For British comic book nostalgists this book is a dream and for those who know Captain Britain's history they'll know this was to be the stepping stone that would bring our hero under the triumphant pen of the master himself - Alan Moore. The Best was yet to come.
Captain Britain was alive.

Friday, 22 October 2010

On the hills

Camera Critters

I've seen a ghost that strides the line
where earth and sky reside.
I've heard the gentle heart
That yearns for places wide.
I've felt the breath that mists the air
With clouds that mark your course.
No whip or line should damp your pride,
Trammel your soul with force.
Michael Finn

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Started Early, Took My Dog

I'd fully intended to take this book on holiday with me but for one reason or another I'd not managed to get hold of a copy in time. Fortunately, as readers of my blog might already have read, there was a copy on the shelf in the living area of my holiday let, perhaps left behind by a recent visitor. I suppose I was fated to spend my holidays with Kate Atkinson no matter what I did. Fate and synchronicity aren't strangers to Kate's writing either, not least this fourth outing for retired private detective Jackson Brodie. It's another deliciously enjoyable read from this ever dependable author. This one seems even more personal to me than ever. How does she do that? It's like she writes books just for me. Dipping back to the 70s, that golden time of my childhood, here the dark era of the serial killer infested Yorkshire, and back to the now and the consequences of decisions made over three decades later, Kate weaving a web of complexity with characters and plot-lines that slowly converge. My favourite poet, Emily Dickinson, gets more than just the title; she crops up throughout both quoted and thematically. Even Jackson seems to be tracking me north to Whitby, dogging my tracks to my holiday escape. And driving home, south through Yorkshire I'm almost keeping an eye out for a Saab in the rear view mirror, a light-up Virgin Mary blinking on the dashboard and further behind dogging him - that silver Avensis. Maybe he's hampered by the detours too. We pass Byland Abbey, clearly visible from the road. Surely that should hold him up for a while. Jackson loves his abbeys. Sadness, regret, fatalism - they're all still here but tempered by humour and lastly by hope. It's probably fitting that Emily Dickinson gets the last word.

'Hope' is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I've heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of Me.
Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Collected Ghost Stories

I often take Montague on holiday with me. He doesn't take up much room and he doesn't eat all the Baby Bells. I'm talking about Montague Rhodes James - my favourite writer of ghost stories. This time Montague is telling me the stories that didn't get printed in his four haunting anthologies. I prefer the individual publications to the doorstop collection here. It's pretty evident why these six stories didn't make it into the original publications.
  1. The Uncommon Prayer-Book
  2. A Neighbour's Landmark
  3. Rats
  4. The Experiment
  5. The Malice of Inanimate Objects
  6. A Vignette
They are a little rough around the edges, lacking the gloss of a story that an author has done tinkering with. There are still chilling moments to be had but there are no classics present unfortunately. Also included are several excerpts from prefaces by James that were published in his collections and other ghost story anthologies. They are very honest descriptions and opinions on the writing process and the qualities James valued in the creation of stories of this genre. He also talks about that drawer that all writers possess that houses the unfinished writings, or unused ideas. It's all invaluable stuff for writers interested in developing a style that might be influenced by James and others of his degree of adeptness.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Sir Nigel Gresley

On our last full day in North Yorkshire we visited Grosmont which along with the steam railway station is also the location of the North Eastern Locomotive Preservation Group and their engine shed. We were lucky to see the Sir Nigel Gresley, a restored Gresley A4 Pacific, named after its designer. It's the same type of train as the Mallard, the holder of the official world speed record for steam locomotives at 125.88 mph. To get round the back of the engine shed you have to make your way through a long tunnel.On the way back to the station one of the other locomotives steamed past us.
We watched more trains steaming in and out of the station until it started raining and we made our way back to Palmers over the North Yorkshire Moors.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Return to places well known

We also revisited our old stomping ground at Sandsend. Harry loves the beach here; the smell of the sea always perks him up. He's been coming here since he was a pup. Debbie thinks the smells trigger memories for him. The ritual of chips and fish from the Magpie in Whitby serves just as well to perk up the human members of our party.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Runswick legends

North Yorkshire is alive with folklore, myths and legends but Palmers didn't seem at all spooky, considering its age, remote location and nights blacker than the raven wings of midnight (ta Mr Poe). I tried my usual best to embrace the night side, taking along another collection of ghost stories by M. R. James to read at the witching hour; a helpful barn owl providing the blood curdling screams of lost souls somewhere beyond the garden walls, but it was no use. Some places just don't cooperate. The rumble of night flying planes and stray headlights on the windows remained stubbornly unsupernatural.
We took Harry out to Runswick Bay which has its fair share of its own folklore. The village here, having been a fishing village for well over half a millennium, has lots of fishing related superstition. It's been written that children used to light fires on the cliff during stormy weather, dancing and singing to influence the wind:
“Souther Wind, souther,
And Blow father home to mother.”
Did they really sacrifice cats when the fisherman returned home safe? Were fisherman really so superstitious they'd stay at home if they saw a woman before casting off... or heard talk of pigs? Apparently so.
There are stories of a hob (a goblin) who used to live in the caves at the southern end of the bay. This hob was supposedly a benevolent creature who could cure coughs. When the whooping cough struck their children, mothers would take them to the caves and cry out:
“Hob – hole Hob!
My bairn’s getten’t kink-cough:
Tak’t off! Tak’t off!"
I probably should have taken Debbie out there to see if he could help her with her cough. I wonder what his rates are like? Other stories tell of smugglers who would employ an owl to call out a warning as he perched on the inn sign. Smuggling did happen here as the caves were a useful place to hide out or store the goods.
In 1664 the entire village slid into the sea, the only building remaining was the house that belonged to the man whose wake occupied the villagers during the disaster. I can well believe how it could have happened too as the bay is so steep it seems to try to tip you all the way to the brine.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Port Mulgrave: Palmers

We returned to North Yorkshire again this autumn, not to Sandsend this time but to Port Mulgrave, a few miles up the coast in the parish of Hinderwell. The building we rented is part of a collection of buildings called Rosedale Cottages. Many of the buildings in the area were erected to serve the miners working to extract iron ore. One is converted from an old stable block and another was the old servant's quarters but the building we moved into was built in 1857 for the then mine and port owner Sir Charles Palmer. It's set in a half acre of grounds and was recently restored five years ago.
The first thing we noticed as we drove though Sandsend and then on to Palmers was how the trees had already shed their leaves in the wind from the North Sea. It seemed like we had moved the calendar along a month during the three hour drive north.
Harry led the charge into our new home for the week, his nails tip-tapping on the wood floors. I selected the room with the lowest bed and tried the bedside lamps. One wasn't working and the other blew its bulb when I flicked the switch. Intending to read my books in the dead of night I retrieved another lamp from one of the other bedrooms. I'd meant to bring the new Kate Atkinson book, Started Early, Took My Dog, but for one reason or another had not managed to get a copy. Fortunately a previous visitor had left a copy in the bookcase in the main living area. I pounced on that with some relish and relocated it next to my transient lamp. What a great stroke of luck to start the holiday with.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Parkers Arms

One of my most favourite parts of Lancashire is the Forest of Bowland. It's an area filled with high fells and sweeping views over large valleys and woodland. If you've been there you'll know that it is well deserving of its AONB designation (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).
I keep thinking every week that this is going to be the last bit of sunshine warm enough to sit out without coats before the chill winds of winter force us to wrap up in layers and layers. So when the sun was still hanging on for one day more I was quick to get somewhere nice to enjoy it. This week it was at a tiny village in Bowland called Newton. It has a fabulous friendly pub called The Parkers Arms, with top quality nosh and plenty of places to sit out and enjoy the scenery. They've won all sorts of awards which are as well deserved as Bowland is of its AONB status. We had a very tasty lunch, though I managed to drop my change on the floor again which had the bar guy nearly on hands and knees trying to retrieve it for me - turned out it was only 20p.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Dockland refections

The somewhat murky waters of Preston Docks.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Hound of the Baskervilles

The key to producing a good adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles in any media is for the producers to understand that perhaps the most important character in the story is not Sherlock Holmes, or Doctor Watson; it's the moor and the atmosphere it generates in all its aspects, whether it be the shadow filled night or the stark brightness of the day. Ian Edginton's adaptation of the famous story into the medium of graphic novel is very faithful to the Conan Doyle original, but without the bulk of Doctor Watson's emotive text the realization of the moor falls to the artistic talents of the artist I.N.J. Culbard. Edginton makes the most of the early scenes in London, understandably as this is the part of the story, barring the conclusion, that features Holmes the most. Culbard's style uses what on the surface look quite simple caricatures but somehow he brings them alive with expressiveness. Each character is quite distinctive.He is also very creative in the use of available light. If Edginton relishes some of the more famous lines, Culbard who has a century of imagery from all the other mediums to draw inspiration from, doesn't disappoint.
"Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound."
It's a very commendable and collectible effort. Edginton and Culbard work well together and readers who enjoyed their other work such as A study in Scarlet previously reviewed on Badelynge here, should have a pleasant time with this book. Also included are a teaser for A Study in Scarlet and early character and cover designs for those interested in the creative process.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010


Harry has bounced back from his recent health problems quite well. He still limps and he's had to get used to shorter walks, but he's happy. Recently he's become a little more vocal. I don't mean he barks. Harry rarely barks. If he catches anybody getting out of vans filled with bottles who audaciously try to appropriate the empty bottles from our step... then he might have a go. Or if strange blokes bearing ladders and buckets start dabbing our windows with damp cloths... well then surely he's allowed a few vocal outbursts. No, I mean he makes more grumbly noises than he used to, usually because he wants stuff clearing from his next settling point, or if folk insist on eating buttered toast without offering it up to him entirely. Or if you stop scratching his ears too early... if there is such a thing.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

White Rabbit

Wild white rabbits are quite rare I believe. I suppose this one, visiting our local cemetery, is an albino. He doesn't blend in very well does he. I suppose this accounts for their rarity. Perhaps last winter, being so cold and snow filled, might have contributed to this buns survival chances for once.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Hidden treasures

Stained glass windows in the village of Brindle that I visited a few weeks ago in a previous post, depicting the possible burying of the great Cuerdale treasure, following what might have been the battle of Brunanburh. That sounds like a lot of suppositions but much of the details of medieval history rely on joining scattered facts together with a network of ifs and buts.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Season's end

I keep hearing a certain word. An innocent sounding word. A quiet little adjective that trips off the tongue too easily. That word is autumnal. I don't have anything against autumn, it's a splendid time of the year, but with every spectacular autumn you have to know that winter is just around the corner and unlike the other three seasons just seems to last forever. I like spring and summer too much and this year's offering of new life and sunshine has skipped past in the blink of an eye. The familiar sights of summer are fading away again. The gatekeepers are gone and the last of the small whites are drinking their last sips. The day feels autumnal.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Eagle & Child

A few miles outside Blackpool is a village called Weeton. It's an old village. So old it was mentioned in the Domesday Book, though back then it was known as Widetun, which derived from the Old English means willow settlement. If you were to visit the place now you would see that some fine willows grow there still. The rather unusual name of the village's pub The Eagle & Child is taken from the crest of a former local land owner Lord Derby. The pub itself is one of the oldest public house in Lancashire, dating back to 1585. It's got a lot of history. Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have stayed here and there are many stories of ghosts and strange happening, though quite a few of these were created over the years to add to the old place's mystique to drum up trade. Tales of ghosts are always popular and I must admit that I too was drawn to the place purely by its supernatural reputation. I'm not saying I believe in ghosts, though I'm always open minded about such things, but I'm more interested by how history generates folklore and mythology. And of course, I love a good ghost story. The story that has gained the most notoriety is that of Bleeding Ears Murph, a highwayman who can be heard muttering to himself in the quiet of the night. I visited the place in daylight so I didn't get a chance to find out what the unfortunate fellow mutters about but I did get a chance to sample the pub's excellent cuisine.

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Ship Inn

With the prospect of a long cold winter to match last year, I've been trying to make the most of every brief appearance of our mostly absent summer sun. This week we ventured further westward along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, fetching up at the Ship Inn near Haskayne, somewhere well off the beaten path - in this case just off the Maghull Southport Road.
I sat for a while watching a coot eyeing up the canal boats as if he were searching for the best words to introduce himself. Some patrolling ducks came along. One duck peeled off and jumped up onto the bank and a coot followed him. The two strolled along together, uncommonly friendly, like the oddest couple promenading proudly together. At one point they managed to get the wrong side of a fence separating them from the water. They marched up and down that fence at least three times, searching for the way back, turning back on themselves just before the gap each time.
"It's this way, dear," they quacked.
"No I'm sure it's the other way."
"No dear, I distinctly remember..."
"No, no, I remember this daisy..."
"There are daisies all over."
At last they found the gap and the duck went back to the other ducks and the coot went back to eyeing up his canal boat. It never would have worked.
We had a drink and lunch while we watched the canal boats emerging from under Ship Bridge #22. Although the location was pretty much ideal, with shady trees, the soothing atmosphere of a place by the water and picnic tables right up to the canal bank, I can't really recommend the food. It was pretty basic. But the ducks, the coot, the sunshine, the shady trees and the quiet water more than made up for it.