Monday, 12 December 2011


The Snatch is a very early Bill Pronzini novel and the very first of his long running Nameless Detective series. And it's a very decent beginning. Pronzini may have been just starting out on his longer form career but he'd already gone some way to developing his skills through his short stories. Don't be fooled by the pedestrian seeming set up to the plot, what looks like a routine kidnapping and ransom soon manages to throw a few curve balls. It's all cleanly written and constructed, playing to its pulp noir influences, the most commendable aspect being the character development of our unconventional hero. He's a very engaging character, a devotee to the pulps himself which engenders a neat homage within homage dynamic that blurs the boundaries between Pronzini himself and his nameless protagonist. Within the first few pages, Nameless has already compared someone to Doc Savage and greater props to the author for allowing an image of Lester Leith, Erle Stanley Gardener's crafty pulp creation, to jolt Nameless from a blue funk onto a hotter trail. Nameless's obsession with the pulps is a major aspect of the series, in this first book it highlights the cracks in his already crumbling and damaged relationship with his current girlfriend. Her judgement being," I want a man. Not a stubborn and self-deluding adolescent trying to live the life of a fictional hero." This isn't just fan fiction though, Pronzini just happens to be a very fine storyteller, mastering the art of hard-boiled dialogue and first person stream of consciousness that wouldn't sit uncomfortably next to the 30's pulp maestros both he and Nameless idolises.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Jacinto's Remnant

Jacinto's Remnant is the second book in the Gears of War series following on directly after the events portrayed in Gears of War 2 the popular Xbox 360 game. The humans of Sera have destroyed their last major stronghold Jacinto in a desperate attempt to flood the underground lair of the Locust. The survivors flee in search of a new refuge, hoping that the monsters from below have been all but wiped out. The book documents the Gears and the civilians of Jacinto scouting for a new island home - an old CoG Naval Base at Vectes. Like the first book it periodically looks back at an earlier historic moment in the conflict. This time it shines a light onto the dark days when Prescott authorises Hammer Strikes to obliterate all but one human enclave on the planet of Sera. The CoG government has come to the conclusion that they are doomed - unless they do the unthinkable. It still seems unthinkable to me, even knowing that saving a few is better than saving none, to press a button and wipe out 99% of your own people seems like the sort of scenario that sits more comfortably among the back story of a computer game, but in a book it has to pass closer scrutiny and even though I love Gears I tend to think ordered societies would be much more likely to go down fighting rather than resort , even in desperation, to such tactics. Mores and attitudes are very much to the fore within these books, with many of the characters, particularly Hoffman and Mataki, struggling to shift perspectives when society shifts to and from a war footing and to and from fighting a completely different and unfathomable monstrous species to fighting their own, sometimes hardly less monstrous and unfathomable.
I get the feeling Traviss really has a soft spot for Hoffman and that some of the careless characterisation from the game doesn't sit well with her. Hoffman's decision to leave Fenix, a decorated war hero, to die in an abandoned prison, overrun with Locust, being the standout bump in the road. Following on from Gears 2 the book also has to deal with the aftermath of Dom Santiago finding his long lost wife and the terrible choice he had to make. It's perhaps the key note emotional event from the sometimes quite thin plotting that the game achieved and Karen Traviss does well in painting a more detailed account of the consequences to Dom and those around him.
For a book standing squarely in the military sci-fi genre there's a severe shortage of actual action, no large Aspho Fields style battles, just some fairly routine skirmishes. It wasn't a problem for me, I enjoyed the post apocalyptic scenario focusing on rebooting society from a bare remnant. Despite the lack of action there's still plenty of drama, spot on characterisation, a sort of cosiness that come from spending time with well loved and time worn Gears and mystery lurking in the dark and the deeps.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Gears of War - Aspho Fields

Karen Traviss does a great job of bringing some Gears of War goodness to those of us who like to relax our trigger fingers once in a while. Traviss admits herself that she's worked on a lot of stuff in her day, tie-ins and the like and that not all of the varied franchises and projects have been particularly worthy. But Gears is different. She thinks it's special. I'm inclined to agree. Working on something you really love rather than it just being the latest meal ticket has really brought out the best in the writer, both in these books and her hands on work with the latest Gears game.
This one tells the untold Story of the battle for Aspho Fields. A battle we've heard about in the game that takes place several years before Emergence Day when the humans of Sera are still locked in a world war over Imulsion that has lasted the best part of a century. At this time they are unaware that another race called the Locust are biding their time beneath their feet, waiting for a good time to pop out and call 'Time' on human Seran history. The Cogs have discovered that the other power block are developing a weapon of mass destruction called The Hammer of Dawn at a research base at Aspho Point. Now at this stage Gears fans will most likely be grumbling that a Gears book without Locust is not something they signed up for. Traviss cleverly frames the pre-Emergence Day sequences with a story set between games 1 and 2, just after the deployment of the Light Mass Bomb. The Cogs are consolidating as best they can and are cautiously hopeful that the worst of the Locust threat has been dealt with. A face from the past in the form of a veteran female Gear called Bernie brings the past back to the surface. Dom Santiago wants to know the full story of the death of his brother Carlos at Aspho Fields. Marcus and Bernie were the only witnesses and neither are keen to talk about it. During an escort mission all the main characters get a chance to reflect and more of the story of the friendship of the brothers and Marcus gets revealed along with a lot of other stuff involving the feud between Hoffman and Fenix. These books can't tell the big story - that is for the games to tell, instead they tell the other stories that the games don't have time or the opportunity to tell. It's very well written with a great feel for the characters. All the dialogue just feels right, so much so that you can't help hearing the voice acted tones from the game; Fenix's tortured gravel, Cole's booming bonhomie, Baird's verbal sniping, Dom's quiet dignity, Hoffman's caricatured parade ground bark. And Traviss's new female characters fit in fine. The military attitudes are very believable. It's infantry soldiering with thoughtful introspection in a world that has become so desperate that the values of humanity are having to be sacrificed. Sure it still knows it's an actioner filled with chunky guys, chunky guns and chunky aliens... getting chunked, but it doesn't mean it has to be empty between the ears.
Even though fans of the game will get the most from this book I'm convinced that folks who enjoy gritty military sci-fi will still enjoy themselves. That was violent, reckless... and necessary! Well done.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Harry remembered

Debbie is holding a special giveaway competition to commemorate the memory of our special friend Harry today. See her blog for details Shagrat's Attic.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Arctic Ghost Story

Michelle Paver's Dark Matter is a chillingly accomplished ghost story that takes place in the dark isolation of a snowbound base-camp of a small but ambitious scientific expedition, as the long dark night of an Arctic Winter sets in. The year is 1937. Unbeknown to the youthful group, their new home already has a black history and a reputation that makes the hardened seamen and trappers of the region reluctant to even speak of it.
Paver's love of the Arctic, first hand knowledge and experience of the region shine through the narrative. When A.C.Doyle wrote classic's like The Captain Of The Polestar, his experiences on Arctic Whalers' fueled the authentic tone and similarly Algernon Blackwood's tales of isolation and fear drew on his extensive trekking through the various wild places. There is an art to writing a good ghost story and one of the absolutes is in the appearance of authenticity. If the reader can't forget that the story is a fiction then the story loses its power. Paver certainly succeeds in that regard. Jack is well realised character, that I had no problem investing my interest in along with his horrific travails.
The narrative is in the form of a journal by the expedition's newest member and here again Paver excels in the form, using a journal's natural economy to provide ambiguity when needed but also to ride closely the mental battle taking place as our faithful scribe Jack details the occurrences. I've read other similar types of story that have been ridiculously large tomes, supposedly the diary of a few weeks stretched out to 700 page monstrosities, as if the narrator could possibly do the work that a professional author would have to chain themselves to the desk to achieve. There is a sort of infectious anxiety that slowly builds as the days slowly advance and the ill-fated expedition goes from one set back to the next. The ambiguity I mentioned has nothing to do with questions of whether the haunting is real or imagined - take it from me - the place is Haunted as Hell, no rather I ascribe it to the visual descriptions of the more visceral episodes. The scenes are painted with as few strokes as possible, so that in true classic style the reader has room to draw on their own nightmare imagery.
You could easily read Dark Matter in one sitting, though I spread it out over four. This is the sort of book you don't see too often these days, indeed you might be fooled into thinking it was written contemporaneously. Recommended.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Chasing chickens

"Mummy look... look, the chickens are chasing me," the little girl shrieked hopefully.
The chickens, doing nothing that even remotely resembled pursuing small female humans, pondered instead the likelihood that feeding time would be sooner rather than later.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The God of the Hive

The God of the Hive follows on directly from events in The Language of Bees and is the 10th book to feature Mary Russell. Mary and Sherlock are separated again and on the run. At first assessment you think of Reichenbach, and there are certainly deliberate similarities but the suspense gets left behind too often. Laurie R. King chooses instead to tell a more character driven story, examining Russell's new relationship with the recently discovered granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes. It's easy to forget that the whole business began as a search for the girl's missing mother. King has covered similar ground to this in her Kate Martinelli detective series.
The die hard Sherlockian in me can't read the start of a chapter beginning with the words 'Chief Inspector Lestrade' without at least a slight twitch of my arm muscles (perhaps to punch the air) even if this Lestrade is a younger chip off the original block. A lengthy interlude in the wild woods of northern England takes up a large section of the book, including the introduction of a new character called Goodman. A man with a tortured history of war damaged psychosis, King fancies as an embodiment of the English folklore legend of The Green Man and a similar revisit to another of King's character experiments - see the Martinelli book To Play the Fool. It's this particular Holy Fool who is partly responsible for a funeral so bizarre it might not have looked out of place on an episode of The Prisoner.
The writing is as good as ever but with the plot, thin though it is, sidelined so often the experience isn't quite as compelling as usual. When the plot does finally emerge from the London fog with so few pages remaining I was beginning to think we were going to end as the last book ended with another 'TO BE CONTINUED'. Thankfully that doesn't happen and we are treated belatedly to a proper Reichenbach style finale in the shadow of Big Ben.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Hungry sheep

I hope this sheep knows what it is doing, stripping the foliage from the low branches. Not everything they fancy is actually good for them and some things can be downright poisonous. I'm no expert on the subject but unfortunately, neither are the sheep. I suppose he should be ok as they've lived and grazed here for a long time.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Victorian Ghost Stories

Excellent selection of 35 ghost stories from the Victorian age, chronologically compiled here dating from 1852-1908. The stories included have been selected as much for aspects of innovation or for the part they played in influencing stylistic developments within the genre than their actual quality. Though there are some great ghost stories here and barring three or four stories are generally of very good quality.
Along with the stories are a comprehensive list of all ghost story collections published during the half century of years following 1840, full source details for the 35 stories and an introduction by editor Michael Cox.
Highlights for me include:
The Old Nurse's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell. It's probably the best written ghost story here with superb characterisation, lush prose and as a ghost story endlessly imitated even today.
An Account Of Some Strange Disturbances In Aungier Street by J.S.Le Fanu. One of his best and the veteran of countless anthologies.
The Open Door by Charlotte Riddell. Not particularly scary but a well written example of its type and introducing a rare detective element.
The Captain of the Pole-star by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Eery arctic tale coloured by Doyle's own experience of life on a steam-whaler.
The Kit-bag by Algernon Blackwood. Only Blackwood could imbue such an innocent inanimate object with such a deep sense of malevolent dread.
The only ones I'd have left out would be:
An Eddy On The Floor by Bernard Capes which although suitably macabre is also a shade too long compared to the other entries and probably the least accessible due to its convoluted syntax.
Miss Jeromette And The Clergyman
- a very weak effort by Wilkie Collins.
The Tomb of Sarah by F.G.Loring - Nice story but very much a vampire tale.
Reading these in order shows how the genre developed. It's a genre that in the Victorian era was very much designed to be read aloud at the fireside after dinner and ever associated with mid winter and Christmas. It goes through phases of doomed love triangles, vengeful victims, tragic victims of accident defeating mortality to see their loved ones a final time, portentous warnings, cursed objects and places, spiritualism, tragic reenactments etc.
There will probably never be a definitive collection of ghost stories. The editor could easily have selected 35 alternate stories and still pleased this reader as much. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Little Manfred

In the Imperial War Museum there is a wooden Dachshund. It was carved by a German prisoner of war in the 1940s. This is its story. Well almost. It's a story that captures the spirit of the true story though.
In the summer of 1966, just after England's famous footballing victory against the Germans in the World Cup Final, a young girl, her brother and their dog encounter two men on the beach. One has a story to tell about the girl's mother from when she also was a little girl during the second World War. It's a story about friendship and kindness, both heart warming and tragic that begins with two German friends going to war on the fated German battleship Bismarck. Michael Morpurgo tells a moving and nostalgic story, deeply shadowed by the conflict of nations but brightened by the hope and peaceful humanity of ordinary people. He's aided by Michael Foreman's beautiful sketches, brought to bright summer life by water colour. I'd say this would be ideal for the 8-10 reading age group but really I don't see why this can't be enjoyed by ages of any number. It certainly would be a great starting point for summer projects, perhaps investigating the untold stories of parents from when they were children. As the cover states, "The past is all around us."
There is also an afterword about the history touched on in the story and a short chapter about Michael Foreman's memories of that World Cup... and another dog, this time named Pickles, who saved the day.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Blue tits abound

Camera Critters
It's been a bumper year for blue tits this year round my way. Fledge after fledge all spring and still going today are bumbling about in the nearby trees. This one is taking in the sunshine and showing its still obvious fledgling gape.

Acts of Nature

This is the 5th book featuring Max Freeman. An ex Philadelphia cop who has retired to a remote cabin in the Florida Everglades. Over the last 4 books Max has been getting his life back together after a fateful night when he shot a 12 year old kid at a convenience store hold-up and was badly injured himself. No longer on the force, he spends his days in solitude at his cabin or occasionally doing investigative work for his best friend Billy Manchester.
In this one Max is taking some time out to try to rescue his relationship with local cop Sherry Richards by spending some quality alone time with her out at his cabin. Unfortunately there's a storm coming. A Hurricane rips through the Glades, badly injuring one of the pair. Throw in a gang of opportunistic house-breaking Gladesmen, a couple of ex-military hired guns and an ornery alligator named Wally and you know this is going to all end in blood. By this time I've realised that this one has gone off track. No slow burning mystery with Max grinding away at the rough edges this time. Now I don't mind long running series breaking the formula, but this one just had set-up written all over it. Jonathon King writes great confrontation scenes it has to be said and Max v. the Gladesmen is as sparky as you would expect. I'm not keen on the split point of view though, establishing all the different characters so thoroughly could be described as padding. Contrary to the cover blurb, nobody is being stalked by persons unknown, as everyone's motivations are comprehensively explored with no stalking being part of the agenda. Ok, I can't speak for Wally. The plot is what it is: people coming together in the wrong place at the wrong time - a storm of consequences, you might say. It all being said, King's writing is good, going down like the first cold beer on a hot afternoon and I always enjoy Max's company. King's description of the Glades is, as ever, very good, mindful of the environmental issues and the conflicting forces of the natural world and the nature of mankind. It's just a shame the plot was so thin, considering how much the events in this one are going to impact on the series.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Cleopatra: A life

In 2000 Stacy Schiff won a Pulitzer for her biography of Vera Nabokov, wife of Author Vladimir Nabokov. In this biography she casts her researching skills a little further back in time and tries to pierce the glare and glamour of mythology, push past the propaganda and traverse the abyss of 2000 years of history in search of Cleopatra VII. At hand she has a wealth of sources that might be as daunting as searching for truth buried by two millennia of hyperbole and obscurement. On ancient historians Schiff comments, "They are by modern standards polemicists, apologists, moralists, fabulists, recyclers, cut-and-pasters, hacks."
She sets out as her mission plan, in dealing with so many biased, unsafe testimonies and incomplete evidence, most of which written centuries after the event or destroyed by the censor of the victorious or the ravages of time and environment, to not add to the confusion with her own opinions and supposition but rather, as she puts it, to coral the probabilities. Considering that according to Schiff, Cleopatra VII, "Effectively ceases to exist without a Roman in the room." it is no surprise that this account pretty much begins with the young queen rolling out of that famous travelling sack at the feet of Caesar. History doesn't do childhoods apparently. In many ways the author seems to suggest that Cleopatra and Egypt at that time were synonymous, and in the absence of a clear account of the woman, a detailed portrait of Alexandria and Egyptian society would have to suffice, initially at least. It's with a note of indignation that Schiff bemoans that in an age of accomplished, realistic portraiture there is not a single authoritative bust of Cleopatra. The Romans general opinion of both the woman and her country was:
"A shame to lose,
a risk to conquer,
a headache to govern."
Portraiture aside there is some time spent in supposing why Cicero, that prolific Roman speaker and writer, (Schiff quotes him endlessly in the first half of the book) says so little of Cleopatra during her time in Rome. The second half of the book is dominated by Cleopatra's first meeting with Mark Antony. If there are an almost infinite number of things we don't know for sure about Cleopatra, one thing we do know is that the woman could throw one hell of a party. The lush dinners she held in Tarsus, primarily to court Antony were unimaginably opulent, though Plutarch, our primary source for these overblown nosh-ups, seems to have had a good attempt. So what is the truth behind one of histories most famous and notorious love affairs, Cleopatra and Mark Antony? Was it love? And to what degree? Or was it purely an association based on political and military machinations? Schiff presents the evidence but leaves the question unanswered. Ultimately it is a question that is unanswerable beyond mere opinion or preference. Too much time has passed. Too much Roman propaganda disseminated. Too many myths have accrued. And as history becomes entertainment, from Shakespeare to Elizabeth Taylor, the truth, even were it known, never draws the greatest crowd.
And so to perhaps one of the greatest death-bed scenes of history, though again as an end-game of such notoriety the truth is obscured by the grand stage. After Mark Antony's bloody demise the negotiations between Cleopatra and Octavian and her eventual end, as represented by history, are differentiated by Schiff by mise-en-scene; Plutarch is writing for Puccini; Dio for Wagner. "'The truth of the matter,' Plutarch announces, to centuries of deaf ears,'No one knows.'" Schiff declares that Octavian created the myth of the snake, a bit of propaganda that stuck to the event so indelibly it could never be separated, even in the face of so much contradictory evidence.
The book as a whole is a work of questions unanswered. But they are fascinating unanswered questions. Schiff does the hard and boring part for the reader in collating and presenting the clues, opinions, document and context, advising where necessary of bias, agenda or obscurement and if she doesn't explode all the popular myths, she at least points a spotlight at their unlikelihood.
This review was from an Advance Reading Copy

Common beauty

The closer you get to our insect life the more beautiful they are. This Dragonfly - a Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) is one of the most common dragonflies in the uk, but up close it is a wonder of intricacy.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

War Horse

I was drawn to this book after seeing the life-sized horse puppets in the theatrical version of War Horse. Former UK Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo usually has an entire shelf dedicated to him in most British book shops and this one, written nearly 30 years ago is one I can recommend to both children and adults alike. It tells the story of Joey, a half-thoroughbred red bay bought by a drunken farmer to spite another and beloved of the farmer's son. The events of 1913 shatters the pair's brief happiness as Joey is sold into a war of wire, mud and carnage. His first new owner is Captain Nicholls who takes Joey as his cavalry mount. He also meets his loyalest equine friend, a shining black stallion called Topthorn. It's all told from Joey's point of view as he tries to survive the unfathomable conflict and regain the company of his farmboy. Along the way he'll find kindness where he can find it, endure crippling work and health sapping conditions. Although Joey is often in the thick of the chaos the book never dwells closely on the bloody results beyond detailing the casualties and the effects of their loss. It's a quick read, engaging ,moving and a great excuse to get some history into young reader's minds.

Friday, 24 June 2011


Writing a review for the 11th book of a beloved series, nearly two decades in the reading is probably not the most useful thing I could be doing with my time. If you've got to book 10 I doubt you are going to need much prodding from me to pick this one up. But I love this series too much not to want to just tuck the book away and move on without getting a few words about it out of my system. The politics is thick in this one. There's always quite a bit but this one seemed to have more than usual. I'm not much of a political animal so I'm glad Bren, our trusty paidhi, is on hand to keep track of the situation. Like the previous book, instead of the single Bren point of view we also get to see the world from the perspective of the precocious Atevi lordling Cajeiri. He's having a spot of bother with his new bodyguards who are showing no signs of forming manchi with him, that unquantifiable (at least on human terms) Atevi instinct that causes members of their race to form attachments. To their cost humans have confused manchi with the Human understanding of love or friendship, neither of which have any Atevi equivalent. Inter-species linguistic confusions caused the Atevi-Human war not long after the Humans first arrived. Peaceful co-existence was deemed too unstable and prone to further misunderstanding and the human survivors were ceded an island kingdom and a permanent separation from Atevi interaction. With one exception. Bren Cameron. He is the paidhi. A diplomat charged with interpreting all Human-Atevi contact. Things have moved on quite a lot since those early days and Bren is now paidhi-aiji. He's basically gone native, and become so valued by the Atevi high-muck-a-muck's he's been granted his own lordship, land and the loyalty of his own Atevi aishid (currently four Atevi bodyguards). Great characters, thorough world building, Cherryh's brilliant style of prose and restricted point of views make for fascinating and beguiling sci-fi. If you haven't tried a Foreigner book yet, do yourself a favour and go hunt out book one.


Every time we come to the Tranquil Otter lodges we encounter a fair sized badelynge of Mallards. One of them, a female, has become a bit notorious. She's not shy. Mallards can easily live into a third decade if they can avoid getting nabbed by the local predators so we are pretty sure it is the same duck. She doesn't mix with the other ducks very well, is very loud, is prone to rushing about and doing all sorts of crazy stuff. We've taken to calling her Henrietta. I often read on the decking with nothing on my feet and Henrietta has been known to try to make off with my big toe. Debbie and Henrietta seem to get on quite well.
Here's my dad encountering her about six or seven years ago. He only went out for a smoke.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Circle ducks

These little balls of fluff can't be long out of the egg. They are sticking together like they are magnetic. I hope they keep safe. Fingers crossed. They'll need it too. This was the view when I pointed my camera to the ground. Tilt the camera back and look up into the sky and it won't be long before the silhouetted deadly shapes of a pair of buzzards can be seen circling patiently.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Observations

The heroine, and faithful scribe, of this tale is one Bessy Buckley, or so she introduces herself. She's a young Irish girl, running away from a mother who has ruthlessly exploited her from an early age. She arrives at a ramshackle mansion, somewhere near Edinburgh, where she is taken on as a housemaid by the mistress of the house, Arabella Reid. The 'missus' as she calls her soon has young Bessy confused and bewildered by a succession of seemingly random and mostly pointless requests. And every night she must write an account of the day's events along with her inner thoughts. Despite all this Bessy develops a fierce loyalty for her mistress and then she finds out, by the chance discovery of Arabella's in-progress book 'The Observations', what the object of her devotions is really up to and tellingly what her opinions of Bessy are.
What happens next is best left for the story to tell, but it is a fascinating read that weaves Bessy's dark past, the mysterious fate of her predecessor, Arabella's paragon of all house maids, Nora, and Arabella's own secrets into a startlingly engaging narrative mystery. Bessy is a wonderful character, who colours her tale with the most vivid and sometimes lurid slang and colloquialisms. I'm often put off by such inclusions, though in this case they are pretty much essential to the style and don't distract at all. Though being a native of northern England, where many of the expressions are still in common use or fondly remembered from use by my Grandparents, I could be more immune from irritation than the average reader. Bessy is also not averse to casting ridicule on the people she recounts by exaggerating or over annotating their speech patterns and accents. The more she despises them the more extreme the exaggeration. I think it's no accident that Hector, the sex obsessed Highlander, gets the brunt of it.
The Observations is an excellent début novel. I've read the latest book by Jane Harris, 'Gillespie and I', which appeared some 5 years after 'The Observations' - so if you enjoyed this book I'd recommend you look it up with all due dispatch.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Favoured places and favourite faces

I got back to one of my favourite holiday places this Summer - The Tranquil Otter lodges in Cumbria. This year was different though. It was a great favourite of Harry the Labrador. He adored chasing around the lawn, taking in the sounds, the sights and of course the smells. He was a true aqua-dog but this was one lake that was too wild and too inhabited by a myriad of birds and creatures for dipping his body into the water. Swimming would have been dangerous for both Harry and the wildlife. That didn't stop him setting sail in the little boat a few times though in years past. For me this place has many bright memories and Harry was one of the shinier ones. He's no longer with us anymore but he still walks happily through our minds.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Gillespie and I

I've never been the quickest of readers but this vibrantly written novel, weighing in at 500 plus pages, so engrossed me I devoured it in just 4 days. It seemed so innocent at first, beguiling me with its engagingly described cast of characters.
In 1933 Miss Harriet Baxter sits in her Bloomsbury apartment, tending to her caged finches and writing her memoir of the times she spent with Ned Gillespie over 4 decades earlier, an up and coming young artist, her dear friend, she dubs him, her soul mate even.
At once we are informed that her friend Gillespie and his young family are ill-fated, that the tale will end in tragedy, a tragedy so deep that the young man will destroy his life's work and take his own life. The first half of the book follows Harriet, then a thirty something spinster, as she relocates from London to Glasgow after the death of her Aunt, a woman who had brought her up after the death of her mother. In 1888 Glasgow hosts the first International Exhibition and Harriet decides to rent rooms nearby to take in the spectacle. A chance encounter, amusingly recounted through Harriet's memoir, brings her into the orbit of the Gillespie family, her timely extraction of half a set of dentures from the back of an old lady's throat, who turns out to be Ned's mother, is the first step on the road to what lies ahead. Over several months Harriet becomes almost part of the household, finding opportunity after opportunity to ingratiate herself among them.
Just as we start to get comfortable with the happy set up, Harriet reminds us that there are dark times ahead - a trial even, though what crime is looming and who is to stand accused is left unsaid. Although leisurely, the narrative at no stage bored me. Despite its length I was always either entertained or intrigued. I was fascinated by the complicated family dynamic, the Victorian detail, the depiction of Glasgow and its characters both fictional and historical, and of course, Harriet's colourful and often acerbic observations. It's fairly apparent that Harriet at times does resort to being manipulative, she's prone to bias and there's something quite off-kilter in some of her references to her stepfather and Ned, her so-called soul mate, but I still found myself liking her. The second half of the novel deals with the break down of the Gillespie family and the trial. I hold my hands up and admit I was completely wrong footed by how things progressed. I'll not say any more as I'd be risking straying into spoiler space. Suffice it to say that the conclusion doesn't disappoint.
I would heartily recommend this book as a great summer read, perfect for that sunny afternoon in the garden, though I must warn you that you may not notice the sun on your face, or the pleasant bird song in the trees, or the bees in the Buddleia - not if you sink as deep into Harriet Baxter's world as I did.
This review was from an Advance Reading Copy.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Man Whom the Trees Loved

David Bittacy and his wife have been happily married for decades. Mr Bittacy has another love though. He loves nature. More specifically he loves trees. So when he discovers an artist who paints portraits of trees in a way that captures their individuality... their personality even, he decides to invite the artist to stay at his home. The two men are kindred spirits, both believing that trees have souls... that God is in the trees. Over a long night gazing at the trees that encroach his garden, with the deep wood close by, the two men venture to put into words a philosophical understanding of nature that frightens and disturbs Mrs Bittacy. Their words cause her to catch a glimpse of wild, potent, sentient impressions of the life that is a forest. It jars her deep religious convictions to the core.
Algernon Blackwood is brilliantly adept at this sort of psychological dance, playing the known world and its belief systems off against the limits of human knowledge and understanding. Blackwood's beautifully rich descriptions of nature, and his deft maintenance of disquiet are excellent. There are few writers, short of Mary Shelley in full Godwinian flow, who could keep that disquiet going while exploring a philosophical idea for over 70 pages and still retain the interest of the reader.These trees are on the hill where my house is built.

Friday, 29 April 2011

My Swordhand is Singing

Marcus Sedgewick takes us to a cold lonely place in the 17th Century in this YA style short horror novel. The dead haunt the snow covered forests of Transylvania. An isolated village hides from the dark and what lurks at the shadows edge, painting their windows with tar and and trusting that evil will not cross their defences. Sedgewick draws on the vampire folklore of the region to deliver a horror story that predates the more romanticised trappings of the last century. A woodcutter and his son live a solitary life on the edges of the dark woods, barely tolerated by the nearby village and running from a bloody past. It's all very well set up by Sedgewick, maintaining a quiet menace by the alchemy of dark woods mixed with snowy isolation. The characterisation though is pretty insipid. The cast are the smooth edged archetypes of fairy tales. It made it hard for this reader to make any sort of connection with them. The vampires are quietly chilling though, devious in their imitation of the people they once were and jealously hateful of the living. They're more recognisably zombie to modern readers or even Deadite to film goers.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard

This third outing of Alan Bradley's irrepressible Flavia De Luce gets the series back up to top form. Flavia saves the life of an old Gypsy fortune-teller who has been beaten and left for dead. Ok our young heroine had almost managed to burn her to a crisp the previous evening but the less said about such details the better. Flavia sets out to track down the assailant, trampling over several crime scenes in the process, bamboozling the local constabulary and driving her family to new levels of embarrassment. Flavia can't resist the siren call of an unsolved serious misdemeanor, so when a body is found hung on an ornamental fountain in the grounds of Buckshaw Flavia is ecstatic. Never mind justice - think of the opportunities to prove her cleverness to that lovely man Inspector Hewitt. Perhaps he'll even invite her to tea.
The second book stepped over the line a few times with the added absurdities of the world of the puppet show. The fun, tongue in cheek adventures of Flavia combined with the exaggerated staginess of puppeteering didn't quite complement each other. This one is much more to my liking. We also get the introduction of a new character called Porcelain Lee who is a great inclusion, mainly because of her ability to bamboozle the bamboozler. She also gets a wonderful scene homaging perhaps Du Maurier's Rebecca, as she appears on the staircase dressed as Flavia's late mother Harriet. It's the ability to bring off that sort of a poignant vibe counterpointing the cheeky adventures of our precocious investigator that sets these books aside from a lot of its competitors. Bravo to Mr Bradley. And please sir, can we have some more.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Nest builders

Hope everybody is enjoying the extended Easter weekend. No rest for the birdies though. Stuff to do, nests to line, it's all about to kick off.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Barbecue Easter

It doesn't seem that long since the kids were making the best of the snow in our street. I swear the year turns faster every year. And now we get our first bit of warm weather and some fool has just coined the phrase ' Barbecue Easter'. Guess this is the last we'll see of the sun this year. You can tell Spring is here though as this blackbird completely ignores the food we put out, choosing instead to pull out a strand of my sister's red hair. Nest building underway.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Wendigo

A Dr. Cathcart and his nephew Simpson go hunting for moose in the Canadian wilderness, accompanied by two Canadian guides and a native American cook.
On the surface this classic horror story by Algernon Blackwood revisits the sort of set-up that worked so well in The Willows. There are other similarities but they feel quite different; the other worldly eeriness of the Willows is quite different than the overall tone in The Wendigo. The first half of The Wendigo is very powerful, with the characters having their differing world views challenged by the perilous vastness of the natural world. The focus at this stage is more on Simpson as he sets out with Defago, one of the guides, to explore 50 Island Water in search of those elusive moose. These are the most powerful scenes as he contemplates the wild space about him and Defago starts to be broken down by his own superstitious knowledge. Blackwood characterises Simpson as being a 'student of divinity' counterpointing Cathcart's rationalistic adherence to science and the bulwarks of civilisation. Blackwood also describes one of the guides as being 'nearest primitive conditions' by which I believe he means that he (Hank) is the most in-tune with nature. It's a challenging and atmospheric read that pitches human instinct against rationalism, superstition against science and the awe of nature against the human social constructs of civilisation. The weakest part of the story is The Wendigo itself or more accurately Blackwood's choice to focus so strongly on one of the more absurd elements of the legend. I'm talking about the flaming feet. It's still a great story full of Blackwood's beautiful contemplative descriptive prose. It's not quite in the same weird horror league as The Willows but then again, what is.

Monday, 18 April 2011

87th Precinct

An early 87th Precinct story. This one promises rather more noir than it actually delivers. Its opening pages are the hook that tries its darndest to stop you putting the book back onto the spindle and choosing some other more tempting paperback. And even though it's many decades since this one saw anything other than thrift sale piles or charity shop boxes, I can appreciate why McBain lays it on so thick at the start. The city sounded like such a dark and shadow infested place on those pages... and cold, man it's cold.
'The citizens grinned into the wind, but the wind was not in a smiling mood.'
After that it gets down to business, the shadows are swept aside and the cold only nips at the narrative infrequently as McBain gets down to populating his police procedural with interesting characters. That is the real strength of these books - just well thought out and realised characters, which doesn't stint with even the minor cast.
I've heard all the comparisons to Dragnet but I'd be pulling the wool over your eyes if I agreed with them as I've barely seen more than an episode of that old series. So I'll stick with what I do know, throw my cards down on the table and say it most put me in mind of 'On Dangerous Ground' a classic noir film from the 50s starring Robert Ryan, which in turn was an adaptation of an old noir pulp by Gerald Butler. The early scenes set in the city do sing 87th Precinct at me. And I could draw a little parallel with Carella's romance with his deaf-mute wife Teddy to Robert Ryan's character falling for Ida Lupino's blind girl. I think it's true that screen writers and novelists were feeding on each other voraciously in the 40s and 50s, several of the 87th Precinct novels made it to the big screen itself, as well as a short half-life tv series which is largely forgotten.
This one is a strong entry in the series. It's strongest in the heat of the character dialogue, which is very naturalist. If you saw them acted out you would assume the actors were improvising or in some reality show sequence. It's weakest when McBain starts constructing his torturous ironic word-plays.
There's also a historic element for modern readers to enjoy, because even though though the stories take place in an imaginary city it can't hide being a city made up of amalgams of New York in the 50s. It's probably a more faithful representative of police procedures than a lot of today's detective fiction can claim, and McBain isn't shy of relating the technical minutiae of 50s forensics.
I'd recommend this series to anybody who liked the first 20 minutes of 'On Dangerous Ground' and fans of Dragnet or Hill Street Blues, though it's a bit tricky trying to dig these things up cheaply over half a century since they first gave us a twirl on those paperback spindles.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Spring is Found

Camera Critters

My dog discovered Spring,
Though it wasn't hard to find.
It's carried on the air,
The song of feathered kind.
Soon the blossom,
The hungry nests,
Life rioting all around.
It cannot hide
This tide of life.
My dog barks,"Spring is found."
Michael Finn

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Seance

The Seance by John Harwood is set in the 1880s and is the story of Constance Langton. She becomes involved in spiritualism in an effort to lift her mother from the crippling grief of losing a child. Constance, due to the lack of regard and love from her parents has always had the nagging feeling that there is some mystery about her heritage, believing herself to be a foundling. Through diaries and journals and the aid of a world weary solicitor called Mr Montague she discovers a frightening legacy linking her to a crumbling deserted manor, Wraxford Hall, with a dark and murderous history. It's a brilliantly written homage to the Victorian mysteries and ghost stories of such classic authors as Wilkie Collins, Dickens, A.C. Doyle and M.R. James etc. It's full of styles, motifs, little references, names etc that will be familiar to fans of this area of literature. My personal favourite segments are those featuring the testimony of John Montague; with such a name it shouldn't surprise anybody to discover the style during these segments is an almost perfect homage to the ghost stories of Montague Rhodes James. It's a style I've seen attempted many times (I've tried it myself), but Harwood nails it flawlessly, bringing to mind stories like Count Magnus, The Mezzotint, Lost Hearts and others. If the book had been able to maintain its creepy, portentous atmosphere throughout I'd have given it 5 stars but the last third, as it attempts to resolve the various strands of mystery, does become a little more pedestrian in style. It's still one of the best book I've read this year so far.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011


Cairo begins with a hashish smuggler called Ashraf sitting at his mother's grave as he relates to her how his day went.
"So today I hit one of those stoned camels with my truck."
He tells her the Bedouin have fields of marijuana out in Sinai. The camels graze on the stuff. He tells her about the Israeli border guards who nearly catch him smuggling hash hidden inside bulbs of Smelly Beet. He tells her not to worry, that's just life in the City Victorious. It's a deft and assured way to start the story off, introduce a major character and set the tone. The other pieces of the mosaic follow on soon after: A female Israeli special forces soldier, injured and rescued ironically by the very Bedouin that Ashraf curses for not securing their camels; in the sky above is a passenger jet with two Americans on board, one of Lebanese extraction called Shaheed with an idea to live up to his name, the other a naive girl trying to broaden her Orange County boundaries; dating Ashraf's sister is a journalist/activist who amusingly knows more about Peter Parker and Spiders Man (that wasn't a typo) than some Americans; and Shams who lives in a hookah.
The cover blurb cites the book as belonging to a genre called magical realist, which I've never heard of before but suits the book. Primarily it's a book set in a Cairo, before the people's revolution, but not an overtly fictionalised Cairo or one seen filtered through western preconceptions. Sure it's full of magic and mysticism with a plot about a magician gangster trying to recover a powerful artifact guarded by a Jinn but it's all authentic Egyptian mythology and the writer G. Willow Wilson, though American, is heavily committed to Cairo and its people, having lived there for many years to this day and formerly a regular contributor to the now defunct Cairo Magazine. I loved all the idiomatic Arabic expressions, though I suspect in respect to the colourful cursing, the translation into our woefully inadequate English doesn't quite do it justice.
The art is excellent too. Turkish artist M.K. Perker delivers some extremely expressive and detailed shaded black and white pencils, bringing the characters and locations to life.
It all ends a little too soon and if the concluding tone is one of hope and perhaps wishful thinking, in the land of the Jinn anything is possible.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Dead of Winter

Imagine if Le Fanu had tried to write for a YA market and he might have produced something like The Dead of Winter. I'm sure Chris Priestley would cite him as one of his primary influences, along with others like Elizabeth Gaskell. Her 'The Old Nurse's Story' springs to mind quite strongly. The book, more a novella, is artfully written, perfectly invoking the Victorian setting that uses as much Gothic imagery and motifs as it can possibly pack into the page count. Michael Vyner is a young orphan, who becomes the ward of a rich man whose life was saved by the boy's late father. Reluctantly he agrees to spend Christmas at his sprawling mansion. What is it about ghost stories and Christmas? I blame Dickens - no, I blame the Victorians. Now I have to read every ghost story with the nagging compulsion that I should have saved it for Christmas. This one is told in the first person (what other form would suffice?) by the adult version of the boy, writing an account of that fateful Christmas. The mystery is too slight though for a book of this length. The atmosphere is well maintained but there is not really enough complexity to the plot to make the conclusion anything other than expected.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Faceless Killers

I really enjoyed the BBC adaptations of the Wallander books. People tell me I should try the Swedish-language series but to be honest if I'm going to have to cope with the subtitles I might as well go the whole hog and read the books by Henning Mankell. So here we go. Start at the beginning is my mantra, even if this first story is still relatively fresh in my memory from 14 months ago. Faceless Killers kicks off with a prologue cunningly disguised as Chapter One (I say that because I hate prologues with a vengeance so fierce that I wouldn't put any devious trick beyond their nefariousness). I needn't have bothered as it turned out to be the best piece of writing in the book; a stark, poignant prelude detailing the discovery of the murder scene before we join our main protagonist for the duration.
The rest of the book stays tight to following Wallander around as he doggedly directs the investigation while trying to scrape the remains of his private life into something he can cling onto, skimming his internal monologue where required. The book works well as both a police procedural and as a character study, coloured (if that's the right word) by the cold bleakness of the Swedish winter. If there are problems with the book I'd have to point at the long list of poorly drawn supporting characters, starkly one dimensional against
the richness of Wallander's character. The less Wallander cares about a character the less you get to know about them. Some are barely characterised at all; one detective's only distinction is a liking for horse racing. The translation from Swedish to English pokes you in the eye a few times with some slightly off context dialogue, but it's not too bad. Maybe I've read too much Chinese to English manga for it to bother me.
Kurt Wallander is the acting chief of police in the small Swedish town of Ystad. His marriage has been devoured by his dedication to his job, his daughter avoids him, his father is slipping into senility and what friends he once had have faded away. He works long hours, eats badly, drinks too much and is dogged by bad luck.
For those who want a bit of extra seasoning to spice their reading tastes there's a social commentary going on throughout, most notably examining immigration and the way society compares to people's conception of the past. I'm glad Mankell chose to use real Swedish locations and didn't just create an imaginary town. I always prefer to read about real places. It's refreshing to see the world from a different perspective than the usual American or British standpoint.
I'll definitely continue with the series, even though I've already encountered many of their tv incarnations.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

French Detective the third

Loose-limbed by David Barrie sees Captain Franck Guerin of the Brigade Criminelle invite us once again to sit in on his latest investigation. The Paris Opera Ballet is preparing for the premiere of a bold new Ballet based on the Greek myth of Diana and Acteon. Franck is called in when the female lead dancer is found strangled in her apartment. Like me he knows next to nothing about the world of Ballet so he has to learn fast at a time that he has to cope with absorbing all the mass of information that the first days of an investigation throws up (interviews, crime scenes, forensics, etc). It's a formula readers of the first two books will be familiar with - one that works very well I hasten to add. I'm still enjoying Franck's company and I was happy to meet a few of the recurring characters from the series again, especially Sylvie and Sonia, though there is no shortage of strong female characters in the books.
It's hard to comment on the main aspect of the book, the murder mystery itself, without giving too much away. I really hate spoilers, so I'll just say that I almost put it all together before Franck did and leave it at that. I was impressed with David Barrie's attention to detail and thorough researching of the different aspects of the story. There's nothing worse than lazy researching or sketchiness to ruin the verisimilitude. The Parisian locations are as beautifully described as ever, not least the Opera de Paris itself, with all its myriad internal locations, its architecture and history. Although it's the focal location of the book the story doesn't spend all its time there. It acts more as a central hub for the story and we still get to visit the cafes, restaurants, parks, hotels etc that surround it as well as some more further afield. The author points out things of interest, often using his characters to do it, which helps to colour the narrative without it straying into pedantry. Loved the stuff about Dumas - it really has been too long since I last engaged with those musketeers.
A very good detective story, with engaging characters, an interesting puzzle of a plot, well executed from a hidden gem of an author who seems to be hitting his stride. Recommended.
Loose-limbed will be published in the UK on the 18th of March 2011.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Madam Crowl's Ghost

In judging the quality of this collection of ghost stories by Sheridan Le Fanu I think it's worth mentioning that this particular collection was compiled by M.R. James to bring together all of Le Fanu's anonymously published supernatural short stories. It's not a collection of his best work, far from it. Le Fanu's writings throw up all sorts of obstacles for the more ordered reader wishing to read all of his back catalogue. Many of these stories appeared uncredited in Le Fanu's own Dublin University Magazine or Dickens' famous periodical All the Year Round. James' included notes are invaluable to anybody embarking on a Le Fanu reading list. Though Le Fanu's penchant for publishing his stories, ideas and characters many times, often revised in small ways, completely rewritten, or subsumed into other works, tests even James' extensive study of his works. These stories are often set in the author's native Ireland or in the North of England, some very close to where I live in Lancashire. The English setting, mostly in his later works was an attempt to appeal to the larger English market. Exploiting the English market was probably one of the factors resulting in some of the revised publications.
Le Fanu is rightly acknowledged as one of history's finest writers in the genre of the ghost story. Though none of his very best are included here. His stories are often characterised by a slow build up of atmosphere through the use of highly evocative language, with the supernatural elements often included sketchily or by implication. It's a formula that he made himself master of, though this collection does highlight some of his shortcomings. His syntax sometimes becomes meandering. His habit of transcribing regional dialects directly into the dialogue does add local flavour but more often renders the text almost indecipherable. Sometimes his story structure is undermined by the inclusion of little extras tagged onto the endings. There is still much to be admired. My favourite story from this collection is 'An Account Of Some Strange Disturbances In Aungier Street'. Very creepy. though even this does sport some of those extras I mentioned or as Le Fanu would have it some 'valuable collateral particulars'.

Stories included are:

Madam Crowl's Ghost
Squire Toby's Will
Dickon the Devil
The Child that Went with the Fairies
The White Cat of Drumgunnoil
An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street
Ghost Stories of Chapelizod
Wicked Captain Walshawe of Wauling
Sir Dominick's Bargain
Ultor de Lacy: A Legend of Cappercullen
The Vision of Tom Chuff
Stories of Lough Guir

Friday, 4 March 2011

A Kind Man

I read my first Susan Hill book back in the dim, misty past of my college days. Nestled in my English Lit reading list amongst Thomas Hardy, T.S.Eliot, G.B.Shaw, Grahame Greene etc was I'm the King of the Castle by Susan Hill. To an 18 year old who was more used to reading wall to wall epic fantasy and sci-fi I found Hill's writing the most accessible, though I admit it wasn't until a much later reread that I really appreciated the sheer depth and truth of her writing. Although A kind Man doesn't hit the heights of her earlier works it is as ever a very emotive read. This short book initially seems to be a somewhat prosaic story, set in a northern mill town during a hard depression, about the life paths of two sisters and the petty resentments that follow. One sister, Mirriam, marries a selfish and inconsiderate man, the other, Eve, marries the titular kind man, Tommy Carr, as selfless and giving a man as it 's possible to know. Mirriam can't stop having children, all boys, and Eve struggles to conceive at all. Eventually she has a single girl. From early on in the narrative, Hill generates a sense of anxiety, which is very subtly felt at first, but as the story advances and tragedy strikes, this anxiety slowly increases. What happens next is totally unexpected and far from prosaic. It's Hill's skill in engendering empathy from the reader for her characters that draws the reader in, making you worry for them and pre-empt their decisions. Essentially the book is a parable about love and kindness in a world that seems to be forgetting their value in a self made hell of drudgery and selfishness.