Saturday, 12 December 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Larson delivers a detailed and well researched retelling of the last voyage and sinking of the Lusitania. The ship, its crew and passengers are brought to life again against the backdrop of a world at war. Also of note are his recounts of life aboard the U-20. One star is deducted as Larson obsesses over the state of mind of American President Woodrow Wilson following the death of his wife and subsequent courting of her successor. Wilson's relevance to the story could easily have been summed up in a couple of paragraphs but instead Larson punctuates the book with frequent chapters devoted to the man, including reams of private correspondence and recitations of love letters etc. He declares, as if there is some notable significance that they had 'a chicken salad for their late supper.' And the pay off to all this, following the eventual sinking of the Lusitania is that Wilson pens a snippy note to the Germans. I realise that Larson is using Wilson as a sort of embodiment of America but he really did take it too far.
The actual sinking of the great ship and the recounting of those that were lost and those that survived is well done and respectful of the tragedy.

Friday, 6 November 2015

When Marnie Was There

I really miss being able to pass little gems like this one onto my mum. She would have adored Anna and Marnie. Anna is a young orphan girl who by her own judgement is both friendless and unloved. Her foster parents send her to live with an elderly couple in Norfolk in a cottage by the sea. She roams the beach and the marshes all day long, becoming fascinated by a large property called Marsh House and the ethereal little girl spied having her hair brushed in an upstairs window. The prose evokes the wild and natural world around her, sometimes dreamlike and otherworldly. I've visited the area myself and the place does have a sort of otherness to it, though that could be the sheer flatness of the land in contrast to the rolling hills and moors of my Lancashire home. Is Marnie real? Is she a ghost? The mystery of Marnie tugs at your wonderings throughout though the book is much more than a quaint little mystery. It looks at friendship, loneliness, feelings of being forever on the outside and all the insecurities of childhood magnified by the emotional and psychological effects of orphanhood.
I'm glad I managed to read this before watching Studio Ghibli's animé adaptation that caused such a splash last year.
The original line illustrations by Peggy Fortnum are simple but perfectly in keeping with the book. My edition included an afterword by the author's daughter.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Invisible Man from Salem

It took me a while to get started on this one. The cover on my copy is the one with the black marker zebra stripes scoring out the author and the title on the out-sized cover. It's not a look that begs to be picked up. Junker turns out to be a bit of a train wreck, suspended from the force for a police op gone wrong and dragging a small mountain of emotional baggage around with him. Nordic noir does throw up some really miserable human beings and Junker seems to be a fine specimen of the type. Wallander is almost cheery by comparison. A murder occurs close to home, which Junker bluffs his way into an early look at. He finds an item on the body that links with a friendship from his youth. While the official investigation treads water Junker relives his past which reads, in length, like a coming of age narrative.
Carlsson writes well and his dialogue seems to survive the translation from the Swedish to English without having that stilted edge that you sometimes get in translated work. Themes touch on deal with dysfunctional families, bullying, responsibility, guilt, spiral violence, friendship, social invisibility and crime. Plenty to be going on with anyway. More Junker novels are on the way.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Ten Plus One

The city is plagued with a sniper delivering a .308 slug to the heads of a disparate bunch of victims. Carella and Meyer don't want to deal with a sniper; a perp who can kill from the shadows with almost supernatural precision and impunity. This one is a strongish entry to the series that is only slightly let down by the wrap-up. McBain creates some wonderfully vivid support characters populating the list of possible targets/suspects, not least the gag writer so mentally scarred by a wartime service as a sniper he can never laugh at a joke even though he's a master at constructing them. Although the psychology of being a sniper is glanced at I felt the true heart of the story belonged to how lives can be so indelibly ruined by events that happen during the wildness of youth. There are also two interrogations, one by a neighbouring precinct and another by Carella and Meyer that stand out, both for being brutal, one on a physical level and the other one a psychological one. The disregard the bulls have for a reformed criminal is both sad and shocking but also in keeping with the era and the job. Carella and Meyer's interrogation is purely psychological but no less brutal considering they employ every double teaming trick in the book to try to crack a clearly mentally damaged suspect. Although there is a clear distinction between good cops and bad cops in the story it's a bit of a shock to see Carella and Meyer come up with a gut evaluation that is completely at odds with my own but I guess that's mainly because I'm not on the job.
There's a couple of amusing scenes with Bert Kling and one of the victim's relatives. Is that going somewhere? Who can tell? That's part of the fun of the 87th.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

All You Need is Kill

Keiji Kiriya is a young recruit in the United Defence Force. He's cannon fodder in a war against a merciless alien race of invaders. Over-matched and lacking combat experience he takes fatal damage and dies. And then he wakes two days earlier with full memory of his death.  
Hiroshi Sakurazaka's military sci-fi novel is translated from Japanese here. And it translates pretty well. I don't know if its big screen transformation (Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt) is as smooth because I haven't seen the movie yet but I'll definitely take a look now.
I had a fun time reading this one. You'd think a sci-f story about a soldier endlessly reliving a couple of days that ends in a big battle would get boring after a few spin-cycles. These sorts of stories with a groundhog day angle can be tricky. Hiroshi Sakurazaka keeps things fresh though, never forcing us to relive things in a repetitive way but skilfully follows our hero's attempts to break free of his situation. Although you'd expect the narrative to be chock full of bomb's and bullets the battle is sketched over with more focus on Keiji's personal development and his relationship with the only other looper Rita Vrataski, the Full Metal Bitch being the order of the day. It's a shame that Keiji and Rita are the only fully developed characters in the book though.

Friday, 19 June 2015

The Monogram Murders

I'm still a bit scarred from reading Anthony Horowitz's authorised but horrifically inept treatment of Sherlock Holmes in House of Silk. Would a similar exercise be any better with Sophie Hannah resurrecting Poirot? My mum adored Sophie Hannah so I was optimistic. I noticed a real rash of one star reviews that were pretty merciless in their hatred of this book. But I was still in Sophie's corner. It seemed they were unhappy that Christie's famous economy of writing was not something Sophie embraced. But Sophie can write it her way - it doesn't have to be a full on pastiche. You can evoke a character without the need to ape another writer's style. And the first scene/chapter when Poirot originally meets Jenny in the coffee shop is fine. It's amusing, intriguing and Poirot lives again. And then Scotland Yard in the shape of Catchpool turns up and it all goes to hell. Well to be fair it isn't Catchpool who heralds literary Armageddon it's the murder itself. The rest of the book is Poirot and the sceptical Scotland Yard man endlessly assembling their thoughts about the crime. It's incredibly over written. Hannah creates such a vast forest of deduction and explanation that getting lost and confused amongst the foliage is inevitable. She doesn't give any of the characters beyond Poirot any life so we inevitably don't really care who dies, why they die or whodunnit.I wonder whether a better fit would have been Sophie Hannah writing Holmes and Horowitz writing Poirot.
I listened to the audio for this one. Julian Rhind-Tutt is a big asset to the production and I love his David Suchet Poirot impersonation.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Code Three

Rick Raphael only wrote a handful of stories, mainly in the 60s. His speciality was writing about ordinary people doing a professional job coping with futuristic problems. In one of his other stories 'The Thirst Quenchers' his heroes are hydrologists working to conserve water for an overpopulated country. Code Three speculates what kind of job traffic cops will have to do to keep the super speed highways of the future safe. The story takes a ride with a three person team on a routine three week patrol aboard their state of the art cruiser. With vehicles routinely travelling at speeds four or five times the speeds of today the story goes into detail on how they deal with the consequences of accidents and law breaking. There's no world shattering crisis, just everyday problems on the highways dealt with by highly trained professional... oh and throw in a bit of almost romance that might or might not set off your cheese detectors dependant on your mood. A Hugo nomination had the bad fortune of having to compete with one of Poul Anderson's seven winners 'No Truce with Kings'.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Girl on a Train

I listened to the audiobook for this one. The narrative follows the inner voices of three women, Rachel (alcoholic with a life in ruins), Megan (soon to be missing presumed dead) and Anna (proud owner of Rachel's ex-spouse). Each one gets a different narrator which really helps keep them separate in your mind and they do a great job immersing themselves in the roles. India Fisher doesn't really have a lot to do as Anna and sounds a little more disconnected than the other two. The male characters are understandably two dimensional in comparison to the female trio as they are realised entirely by the women's view of them rather than their own inner perspective.
The murder mystery that binds the three women is always secondary to the psychological themes; how people make presumptive judgements on other people's lives which are usually quite wrong and how we lie and construct masking personae to fool ourselves as much as others. A bit like the title of the book really. 'The Woman on the Train,' just doesn't sound as cool does it. But if there's a moral in here somewhere, 'never judge a book by its cover,' is as good as any.

Thursday, 14 May 2015


The tenth Nameless book starts out with our hero in a fair bit of financial difficulty himself. With no licence he has no income.His office is gone and worst of all he's had to fall back on his only way of making enough cash to feed himself, namely selling off some of his precious pulp collection starting with some of his less loved editions. But things are about to change. Ex-cop best friend Eberhardt has had a hand in getting Nameless' licence restored but not without asking for something in return. He wants to go into partnership. But Nameless is a lone-wolf.
His first case back involves tracking down a hobo (bindestiff) rider of the tracks. The trail leads to a town called Oroville in Butte County. It helps the book to be set in a real location, the local colour and history add a bit flavour to a fairly lifeless plot. The location moves on to the wine soaked Sonoma County, which Nameless cites as his ideal retirement location, though to my mind I doubt he'll ever have funds enough to finance such an end even if he was the retiring kind.
Not the strongest title in the series. Pronzini's plotting suffers from having to be played out by a small group of fairly two dimensional supporting characters.

Monday, 4 May 2015

The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye

Warning - this book contains a scene with cat-flinging.
Cat peril aside this was a pretty good sign off for the series. The six book series comes to an end. Although Enola will never push Flavia off her cosy perch there was plenty to enjoy following the young seeker of the lost. The books are short, cosy, amusing and lightly educational for young readers. Springer doesn't shy from disturbing the cosiness with darker edges from time to time and neither does she let Sherlock upstage Enola at any stage. Fans of Holmes would probably be sceptical about how easily he's outmanoeuvred or bested by his younger sister but I think it helps give the books an identity other than just another Sherlock Holmes pastiche. You could say that Enola is telling the story her way as maybe Flavia de Luce would have done but if you have read the series you'd know that Enola just isn't wired up that way.
All good things come to an end, Springer is on record saying that the series is definitely done, so so long and thanks for all the fun..

Friday, 24 April 2015

Woman in the Dark

 Claustrophobic ex-convict Brazil is on parole for a man slaughter sentence and is hoping never to go back behind bars again. All he has to do is stay out of trouble in his quiet cabin in the woods. Then a beautiful woman with a broken shoe stumbles through his door.
This was one of the last shorter stories that Hammett published before he walked away from crime writing. It's not his greatest bit of writing but still well worth a look. To be honest I much prefer the 1934 film version with Ralph Bellamy and Fay Wray in the lead roles.
 It's pretty faithful to Hammett's story though it does smooth off the rough edges, notably Hammett's insistence on having characters with accents and lisps all fully annotated. The romantic element is more developed and there's also a bit of humour along the way mainly from Roscoe Ates. And you get to see Fay Wray's ankles.. so no contest really.
An introduction by Robert B.Parker comments on Hammett's style and suggests the reasons for the story's level of romance.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The World Inside

Oh I bet this one has been a firecracker at many a book club meeting.The World Inside began life as a short story (chapter one) in 1970. But it proved to be such a fertile idea that a year later five more stories were added to expand and more fully explore the world inside Urban Monad 116. Each story is from the point of view of a different character though they all interlink with each other to give a wider view of life in Silverberg's vertical monoliths; a narrative microcosm I suppose. The Urbmons are huge sky-scraping towers housing over 800,000 people. Society is rigorously regulated and procreation is celebrated and venerated. People are controlled by limitless sex, fear of being fed down the garbage chute, sex, religion, indoctrination, drugs and sex. Over population is another issue that has been visited often by Science Fiction writers; Harry Harrison's "Make Room! Make Room!" (the basis for the movie "Soylent Green") springs readily to mind as does tv episodes like Star Trek's "Mark of Gideon". Silverberg chooses to delve deep into the psychological effects of living with high population density and the social mores and laws; the inside of people's heads being another "World inside". Although it's not always an easy or pleasant reading experience there is much here to think about. Most of the main characters highlight the flaws and cracks of the society by getting as close to their psychological make up as it is possible to get. Though in terms of insight into the state of humanity with its propensity with enslaving itself with desire and triviality, comparisons to Orwell's 1984 or especially with Huxley's Brave New World is apposite and probably where the concept of "slavery of absolute freedom" comes from. Comparisons with today's society with its Twitter, unlimited porn, on demand tv....etc are frighteningly easy. The range of ideas is pretty rich. I was particularly fascinated by how comparative ethics was taken to extremes of separation via first a human visitor from Venus and later a 24th century historian examining the 20th century through its films and literature. And here I sit passing judgement on literature from a previous century that speculates on a century yet to come.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Like Love

The book begins with suicide. Carella tries to prevent one and Cotton Hawes gets an apparent love pact suicide that just doesn't ring true. This one isn't one of the stronger titles in the series. McBain opens up with his now familiar turning of the seasons line - this time Spring gets characterised as a rather lively lady. It's a line he's used before. McBain doesn't really explore the theme of suicide either. He doesn't seem interested. Finding the absence of suicide is all that matters and Mcbain is mostly interested in the crime just like his detectives. Hawes has been absent from the series for a few titles which made me think he'd been written out but I think the real explanation might be due to McBain going through a period of publishing some of his previously abandoned or delayed material. It's a side effect of being such a prolific writer.
McBain through Carella rather pooh-poohs the importance of first discovering motive to solve a crime. I don't know whether he believed that or whether it was just the frustration with the difficulties of maintaining mystery in a story when clear motives are detectable.
Mayer and Parker lend a hand when needed as does Bert Kling. Kling has not moved on from the loss of his girl. He's being eaten up by the tragic event. Hawes has settled down more and seems happy with his long time relationship. Gone are the days of him falling in love every thirty pages.
Although the mystery isn't the best it does show the precinct at work  due to the investigation stalling so early resulting in other business getting priority.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Case of the Hail Mary Celeste.

Jack Wenlock is a Railway Gosling. Imprinted at birth with the image of a railway locomotive as their mothers a young group of detectives are nurtured during the era of the great wars. Years later with all his Gosling compatriots either missing, mad, dead or, worst of all, in possession of a blotted copybook Jack is all that is left of the experimental group. He's counting out the days that remain of his entire world; the Great Western Railway, which is soon to be privatised. His last case begins as a young woman with a Veronica Lake hairstyle walks into his office.
Malcolm Pryce distils a sometimes dream-like surreal England from a multitude of influences spanning the gamut of popular culture and the mythical golden haze of nostalgia. It's awash with imagery, language and attitude drawn from the Boys Own magazines, Pathe film reels,  radio adventure serials like Dick Barton, a wash of films often with railway settings; Brief Encounter, The Lady Vanishes, King Kong and adaptations of Agatha Christie like the 4.50 from Paddington.
Jack Wenlock is an engaging mix of almost child-like naivety and steely resolve. He looks at the world through that Boys Own filter of fair play, Englishness and manliness, good chaps giving bounders a bloody nose, venerating his beloved railway the GWR with such love and devotion that getting him talking about it in public risks a 'When Harry Met Sally' moment of embarrassing decibels. Oh and he carries a lump of Formica in his jacket pocket - oh the wonders of modern technology.
Chapters are preceded by extracts from Vol. 7 of the Railway Goslings Annual 1931 featuring Railway Gosling Cadbury Holt in search of the missing nuns plus the answers to reader's questions.
Pryce writes well, delighting in the language and the skewed view of the world presented by Jack in an era full of propaganda and exaggerated recollection. The book is fun, funny, sad, poignant, nostalgic and romantic. Noir with knobs on.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Starman's Quest

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

Thursday, 12 February 2015


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

Monday, 2 February 2015

Ghosts and Vampires

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

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline

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

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Christmas with Longmire

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

Friday, 2 January 2015

Dark Holidays

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