Saturday, 28 June 2014

A Bitter Field - Jack Ludlow

The third and final part of the "Roads to War" trilogy, I found A Bitter Field the weakest of the three.  It's as if Ludlow has decided three is it for Cal Jardine and kind of lost interest.  It's a shame because for me the setting - the Sudetenland on the very eve of Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia - is by far the most interesting of the trilogy. Nevertheless there are thrilling points (albeit the most thrilling - smuggling guns out of France - is the first third of the book), amusing points (Cal acting as interpreter), and a compelling sense of authenticity.  One thing's for sure - you can rely on Ludlow's research.  Enjoyable but not great.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder - James de Mille

A real oddity, this.  Published posthumously in 1888, it follows the well-known fantasy trope made abundantly clear in the title, blending The Lost World with Gulliver's Travels.  The manuscript author gets lost in Antarctica and penetrates through to a semi-tropical land where dinosaurs co-exist with the Kosekin people who are incredibly kind and welcoming but who regard death as the best thing in life.

As an adventure yarn, there's not enough adventure.  There are nowhere near enough dinosaurs and those we do get - pterosaurs excepted - are simply not described well enough to be properly threatening.  So once we get established in the new world we have nothing to detain us but the unusual habits of the Kosekin and a rather tedious, formulaic romance.

The publishers (or re-publishers in this case) try to make the case for it being a satire of mid-Victorian mores, but it's not.  It's the oldest trope of all in satire, the world turned upside down.  Aristophanes did it better more than two thousand years earlier.  Again, once the premise is established - we love death/you love life, divorce is the best thing about marriage etc. - we have nowhere else to go.

For me, the part I really enjoyed was the framing device, usually the part we skip in these things (I particularly remember the tedium of the device in William Hope Hudgson's otherwise thrilling From the Tideless Sea).  Here we have an inbred toff on his yacht with a doctor, a writer of fiction and a linguist.  The chinless wonder is genuinely amusing, the writer dismisses the manuscript as a fake, and the two scholars get deep into debate of what and where the things described might be.  I can't help thinking these are the bits the academic De Mille enjoyed most too.  The very best, the last - we have to go back to the yacht, it's a requirement of the form, but instead of a wearisome epilogue, De Mille simply gives us:
Here Featherstone stopped, yawned and laid down the manuscript.
"That's enough for today," said he.  "I'm tired and can't read any more.  It's time for supper." 

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury

I don't know that I've ever read Ray Bradbury before - certainly not a full length work.  So this fascinated me.  Of course the evil carnival coming to town is nowadays a standard, even hackneyed, trope of American fantasy fiction, but I suspect Bradbury was first in the field, albeit with just a nod to Tod Browning's movie Freaks.  The writing itself is startling, so textured, gnarled, yet impactful.  I liked very much the role of Dad, much older than the usual dad, maybe an echo of Clark Kent's foster father.  I liked that he thought it through, based his plan on research in the library where he works - then discovered the true answer by accident.  The boys themselves, Will and Jim, were wholly convincing and well differentiated.  Stephen King tends to distinguish his boys by contrasting types but Will and Jim are cut from the same cloth but subtly different, hence Jim's fascination with what might be called the Magic Roundabout, which Will shuns.  Something Wicked is, quite simply, a masterpiece in its field.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Fanny & Stella, The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England - Neil McKenna

April 1870, Ernest and Fred, or maybe Stella and Fanny, are attracting the boys' attention at the rather dodgy Strand Theatre.  Stella nips to the ladies.  They leave - and are promptly lifted by the police for the horrid crime of dressing as women.

Only ... crossdressing isn't a crime.  So the police have to build a case for buggery, which is, in Victorian times, very much a crime with penalties ranging up to long prison sentences with hard labour, which are to all intents and purposes death sentences because very few survive.  The next problem is, how do you prove giving or receiving anal intercourse?  The greatest medical brains of London are brought to bear.  Ernest and Fred are examined in minute, excruciating detail.  And, inevitably - to coin a phrase - they can't prove bugger all.

So, given the press hysteria (and the fact that Stella is apparently married to an MP who also happens to be the son and brother of dukes), the authorities end up with some ridiculous charge along the lines of outraging public decency.  In a West End theatre?  Then as now, come off it!

The fiasco drags on for a full year.  The showcase trial is held in Westminster Hall, the Lord Chief Justice presiding, the Attorney General leading for the prosecution.

Neil McKenna writes beautifully, sensitively.  The amount of research for this ostensible thin tale was clearly enormous.  Fascinating insight.  Great empathy.  A story brilliantly told.

Friday, 13 June 2014

The Hanging Shed - Gordon Ferris

I said I didn't need to read it because I'd read the follow-up which gives the plot away.  But I read it anyway and whilst I did already know some of the plot, there was enough extra storyline to reel me in.

It's 1946, Brodie has spent the months since being demobbed in London, doing a spot of casual freelance journalism.  But he's called to Glasgow by old school pal Hugh Donovan who has got a bit of a problem.  He's been found guilty of murdering a little boy and is due to hang in a couple of weeks.

Donovan used to be the best looking lad in his age group.  Not now - trapped in a burning cockpit, he's a monster now, hooked on painkillers.  Brodie hasn't seen him since they were in late teens.  They stopped being best pals when Donovan took Brodie's girlfriend.  It's her son Donovan is said to have killed.

It's more Richard Hannay than Inspector Rebus but it moves along and has moments of reflection.  On balance I think the key element of the storyline, the whys and wherefores of the boy's death which I obviously won't reveal here, is too easy.  It's in all the papers and it's the first idea every new crime writers reaches for.  Which means you kind of expect it from every new crime writer.

I liked Bitter Water better, and I'll certainly read the other two Brodie novels, Pilgrim Soul and Gallowglass.  What I really like the sound of though is Ferris's other series, about a private eye with amnesia.  Why the hell he chose to call him McRae is beyond me.  Stuart MacBride has that one covered.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Flesh House - Stuart MacBride

Flesh House, from 2008, is the fourth of the Logan McRae novels, perhaps the most compelling series in contemporary Tartan Noir.  It shares all the regular tropes - horrors from the past, injustice righted, revenge - and features all the regular favourite characters.  It's the novel where MacBride really gets into his stride but you also get the sense that he's developing habits and the occasional shorthand approach to characterisation.  The premise here is great - the serial killer known as the Flesher has returned to butchery after twenty years; so has the man found guilty of the earlier crimes, now freed on bail.  DCI Insch, his blood pressure always about to blow, was on the original investigation.  So was the easy-going Chief Constable of the West Midlands, who pops up to Aberdeen to lend a friendly hand.  Other officers on the case are being targeted.  Who by?  Why?

The weak point for me were the scenes inside the Flesher's holding cell.  MacBride is exploring Stockholm Syndrome here, and there is a key plot point involved, but there were too many visits to the scene and for me it just got tedious.  I started skipping them and it affected my understanding of the plot not at all. I didn't figure out whodunnit, but the twist was too convoluted for me to care too much.  I always feel you need to know your villain - to a much greater extent than we know this villain - in order to get the real visceral shock.  I mean, that's the point of noir, isn't it - the horror of which seemingly hyper-normal human beings are capable of?

 As ever, a good, fun read - but not the best of the series so far as I was concerned.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut

I know, I know, everyone else on the planet has read this 20th century classic before me, but at least I made it in the end.  The story is well known.  Hopeless loser Billy Pilgrim gets captured by the Germans in the dying days of World War II and survives the bombing of Dresden (the British equivalent of the US bombing of Hiroshima) in February 1945 because he and his work gang happened to be in Slaughterhouse Number Five.  Thus far, Billy is Vonnegut himself, however the we begin with the author and his return to Dresden twenty-five years later, and from time to time the author intrudes by pointing out that it was he, the author, who said that to Billy just now.  So we know from early on that this book is going to be different.

Billy, we are told, at the beginning of Chapter Two, "has come unstuck in time."  This is because he has been abducted by Tralfamadorians, the inverted sink plunger people, who see time as a whole not as a sequence.  So some of the time Billy is on display, naked, in a Tralfamadorian zoo, with the naked porn star, Montana Wildhack, the Tralfamadorians kidnapped for him, and then the next moment he is in Dresden, or the Veteran's Hospital, or in his optometrist office, or in 1976 (nine years after the book was published) when he is a celebrated public speaker on alien abductions about to murdered, as he has always known he will be, by the guy he met on the prisoner of war train back in 1944.

The book's inventiveness never flags.  On one level it is comic, satirical, but Vonnegut never loses track of the central point, the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians and prisoners of war in Dresden.  Throughout the book people keep dying, each passing marked with the dispassionate phrase, "So it goes."  So when he comes to telling us that 135,000 people died in Dresden in a single night "So it goes" knocks the stuffing out of us.

A book to cherish.  I loved it.

The Third Plantagenet - John Ashdown-Hill

John Ashdown-Hill was the genealogist-historian who tracked down people descended from Richard III's female relatives though not, of course, from Richard himself.  This meant the DNA in the skeleton dug up in the car park of Leicester Social Services could be matched, confirming the remains of the crooked-back man killed in battle, always said in the historical records to have been buried where he was found, was indeed the missing king.

The dig was funded by the Ricardians, of whom Ashdown-Hill is one, who were appalled when the 'Tudor propaganda' deformity was there before their very eyes.  The implication, of course, is that everything else Thomas More said about Richard might also be true, in particular that he murdered his nephews, the Princes in the Tower - just like every contemporary chronicler, including those who wrote before 1485, said he did.

The Ricardians, quite openly, have an agenda - to restore the king's reputation.  This can lead them into odd yet fascinating digressions, which is what interested me about Ashdown-Hill's latest book.  His thesis is that the Duke of Clarence, the surviving brother between Edward IV and Richard, was not the scheming, self-promoting, untrustworthy blot on the landscape who screams out at us from the pages of history (and I'm talking here to real history; that recorded at the time).  Thus, for Ashdown-Hill every Plantagenet male other than Clarence and Richard was illegitimate and excluded from the crown.  I'm no fan of the British royal family and their endless progeny but I know for a fact some of them were married - I've seen them marry on the telly.

His other problem is that Clarence has left very few traces behind him (though, to be fair, he has an awful lot of actual direct descendants thanks to his daughter Margaret Countess of Salisbury).  Even his bones seem to have vanished from his tomb.  Thus everything has to be reconstructed or hypothesized.  The result is great fun in every sense.  Ashdown-Hill provokes argument, which is what books should do from time to time.  I don't agree with some of his theories (frankly, I don't agree with any of them) but I am confident that what he identifies as facts are indeed reliable.  I enjoyed it, and there are plenty of other modern histories of the period I can't say the same about.