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.