Saturday, 29 January 2011

Blood Maidens

I'd pretty much given up on there ever being anymore James Asher vampire books by Barbara Hambly. It's 15 years since Traveling With the Dead was published. In recent years much of her output has been dominated with her Benjamin January books. Blood Maidens picks up the story in 1911. War is waiting for a spark to start the firestorm. Former secret service agent James Asher is manipulated/recruited again by the ancient Spanish vampire Don Simon Ysidro. Asher and Ysidro travel across Europe tracking down a missing female vampire and follow rumours of experimentation on vampires and unexplained spontaneous combustion. Drawn into the mystery and danger is Asher's studious wife Lydia. The combination of Hambly's meticulous historical research, intricate plotting, three vibrant characters and Hambly's talent for making the night seem perilous makes for a great vampire story. Along the way she explores the psychology of vampires in depth which underpins the richness of the characters and the choices they make. This is a true vampire novel, full of darkness, and peril which is refreshing considering how neutered by the whole teen romance brigade the vampire has become today. The vampires here are as they should be; inhuman, hypnotic seducers, lethal, merciless, manipulative and contemptuous of humanity. I hope Hambly writes some more.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Never the Bride

My previous encounters with Paul Magrs have been limited to his Doctor Who fiction, none of which quite tickled my Doctor Who sensibilities, being for the most part too strange and off centre. He did create a great character though in Iris Wildthyme, who would go on to be so ably voiced by Katy Manning in the audio stories made by Big Finish. I would have been reluctant to try any more of his work if I hadn't been tempted by the promise of a book set in Whitby that was endorsed by Susan Hill, being respectively a favourite holiday destination of mine and a thoroughly respected author by me. Never the Bride follows the episodic adventure of Whitby B&B landlady Brenda and her friend Effie as they encounter a series of mysterious strange events whilst attempting to hide their own considerable strangeness from the world.
This was a lot better than most of his Doctor Who work. It's quite light, still somewhat surreal and a nice place for Magrs to pour his Gothic fancies inspired by the writings of Shelley, Wells, Stoker etc not to mention their filmic incarnations à la Universal & Hammer. It's the bizarre mix of the strange and prosaic which gives the book something different. I'm still not sold on Magrs prose but he does have lots of good ideas and they seem a lot more at home in this setting. I think it just passes the mark enough for me to think about trying the next book in the series.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Somme Stations

The Somme Stations is Andrew Martin's seventh book featuring Jim Stringer. The series usually follows Stringer's investigations as a Detective at the York office of the North Eastern Railway Police. This one though takes place during the First World War. It begins after most of the events in the book have concluded with Jim's wife writing letters to a friend as he recovers from injuries sustained during his time in France and with a murder charge hanging over him. How we got to this point is recounted in first person by Jim himself, beginning with his enlistment and followed by his war service, the tone being very like an extended letter home or a personal memoir. It's colourfully written with language authentic to the time and location, though thankfully it doesn't try to annotate the local accents. I'm a northern lad myself, of the red rose variety rather than the white, but even so books that insist on putting accent onto the page do become tedious fast unless the writer is something of a genius. The writer here keeps it simple. He builds the ensemble characters/suspects competently, choosing to focus on their little quirks and eccentricities to quickly establish the who's who. It's well done and something a bit different. Stringer retains no police rank in this book and gives a suspect's point of view to the investigation which takes a while to get started and then simmers quietly in the background as Stringer's regiment is trained, goes to France, including that fateful day, July 1st on the Somme, and later establishing a network of light railways, ferrying ammunition to artillery emplacements. Even without the mystery element to the story, the fictional war memoir is very well researched, amusing, poignant and authentic sounding. Add to that the author's obvious love for all things relating to steam locomotion and you have an unusual addition to the crime fiction genre.
The Somme Stations will be published in the UK on the 3rd of March 2011.

Monday, 24 January 2011

The Quick and the Dead

I know it's a grim picture. I've mentioned our sparrowhawks many time on this blog, so it is with some sadness that we discovered the dead body of this young juvenile. He's obviously dived full force into one of our front windows in quest of another song bird for his lunch. He or others like him have done the same thing many times before but always in the past they've dusted themselves off after waiting for their eyes to clear of spinning stars and flown off to nurse a headache and bide their time for another foray. I'm not going to join the little birds at their celebration party because it is sad and even though I know they kill lots of little birds I also know they are part of the natural order and have been for thousands of years. The reason most of our little birds are so quick, agile and acrobatic is because they are the sons and daughters of the quickest, most agile and acrobatic of their neighbours. It's all evolution.

Saturday, 22 January 2011


Heartstone is the fifth of C.J. Sansom's Tudor mysteries featuring the hunchback lawyer Shardlake. In previous books he'd been tasked with dangerous mysteries with political ramifications by two of the most powerful men in Tudor England - the doomed Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer. In this book he primarily sets out to do a favour for the Queen (Catherine Parr) by looking into a legal matter connected to one of the Queen's old servants. Along the way he resolves to look into another mystery involving a character introduced in the last book involving the woman's commitment to an insane asylum (Bedlam). Add to that yet another mystery connected to his new house steward. All three seem to present no danger to himself but Shardlake soon discovers that things aren't what they seem. The book proclaims on the cover 'Shardlake goes to war', the backdrop to the story being the threatened invasion by the French in 1545 after the King's foolish attempts to invade France. I used to have a bit of a thing for the Mary Rose, having been involved with a school project regarding it and watching the raising of the ship on tv in the early 80s. I used to have dreams about being a soldier on that ship when it went down. The scenes aboard the Mary Rose are very striking, haunting and sad. Sansom does a good job of portraying the futility of war without being too preachy or trite. I worried a little early on that the writer seemed to be dwelling on too many characters who had little or no connection to Shardlake's mysteries but his reason for doing so pays off in the end.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Blue Meanie

It's always a bit odd having a bird look directly at you. You wonder what they are thinking about. This one looks like it has 'got the hump' with us. Debbie thinks he looks fierce - mean even. Maybe he wants to know why we haven't done anything about that sparrowhawk who keeps trying to brain himself against our windows. The sparrowhawk dived into our front window last week. He'd already gifted us a sparrowhawk print on our back patio windows last year.

Monday, 3 January 2011


Got a copy of the Kick-Ass graphic novel for Christmas. I love this book. Ok I've already read it back on its original comic run beginning in 2008 but it's great to have all the issues collected together. Now if you watched the movie first (which I also adore), well I'm sorry to tell you that you made a big mistake. Reading the comic book after the movie means you are going to encounter all the 'feel good' changes that the movie introduced first and then get them taken away by the book. You aren't going to like it. That's why those changes were added - to make you 'feel good'. You'll also have all the explosive power of all the splash page issue endings completely defused by having watched them all at once in the movie. So if you just got hold of the DVD and you missed the movie, do yourself a favour and file it until you've read the 8 issues in this collection. They didn't outsell Spider-man for nothing. I think you'll find you love both comic and movie better if you do it this way.
Sometimes everything just comes together to make something special. Mark Millar's script is funny, dark and shocking. John Romita, Jr's art is just perfect. It's strange to say that because I'm not usually a fan of his work. His style has certainly evolved over the years from his early imitation of his dad's work to today's distinctive style. And he does have a distinctive style - you never have to check the credits to recognise his work. His big strength has always been the way he gets the action across rather than on the prettiness of his line work but it's clear something about his style just suits this book. Also the colouring from Dean White should not be underestimated. My copy has a lot of bonus material featuring Hit Girl which show some comparisons of JR Junior's covers inked and then coloured that really emphasise how good Dean White's colours are.
Volume 2 is now underway. It's still very cool though the wait between issue one and two has been a bit torturous.