Thursday, 31 December 2020

The Mammoth Book of Dracula - Stephen Jones (ed)


Another collection of Dracula-related material, this time all modern continuation stories with the added plus of a long except from Stoker's play version of his novel.  There are some crackers here - I especially liked the stories by F Paul Wilson, Brian Stableford and Roberta Lannes - and only two I couldn't see the point of (I continue to miss the appeal of Thomas Ligotti and I find no real merit in the concluding poem by Jo Fletcher).  What is really effective is that Jones has managed to provide an over-arching narrative line from the human lifetime of the Count to the eve of the new Millennium (the book was originally published in 1997).  I always find an introduction to the writers and their other work useful.  Good fun.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

The Snow Tiger - Desmond Bagley

 Another two-for-one by Bagley.  The Snow Tiger, from 1975, is a disaster thriller of the type so popular at the time.  Ian Ballard returns to the mining town in New Zealand which he left as a child.  Back then he was the only child of a schoolteacher widowed in the war.  He returns as the grandson of the patriarch of the family mining firm to take charge of the mine on his mother's land which has just struck gold.  He instantly runs up against the Peterson family, who effectively drove him out of town twenty-five years earlier when Ian was wrongly blamed for the accidental death of one of the Peterson twins.  Crazy Charlie, the surviving twin, is still after Ian's blood, which is awkward, given that Ian has fallen for Liz Peterson.

Then the avalanche happens.  The town is destroyed.  Dozens of people die. including the eldest Peterson brother.  A Committee of Inquiry is set up to find out who, if anyone, is to blame for the disaster.  Local opinion is divided.  Most blame Ian and the mine.  A handful blame the Petersons, who own the land adjacent.  Luckily for Ian, the world expert on avalanches is his friend Mike McGill, who warned the town of the danger before it happened.

Bagley uses flashbacks sparked by evidence given at the inquiry to tell the story.  In anyone else's hands this could have been a disaster in itself, but Bagley is a master who can even make the molecular structure of snow on the ground exciting.  The flaw in the book, however, is that our protagonist Ian Ballard isn't really the driving force - indeed, he is in hospital when the denouement happens.  The driver of the story is actually McGill, a far more interesting character anyway.  Apart from that, The Snow Tiger is a cracker.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Field of Blood - Denise Mina


Field of Blood is the first in the Paddy Meehan series.  Paddy is really Patricia but is known as Paddy because of the real Glasgow hardman who was a famous victim of injustice in the 1960s and 70s.  Mina tells us in the afterword that her mother arranged for her to meet him when she was starting out as a journalist.

It is 1981 and the female Paddy is also starting out as a journalist, albeit she is currently just on the copyboy bench.  Colleagues start to take notice when Baby Brian is found on the rail tracks and Paddy's fiance's cousin is arrested for his murder.  The cousin and his accomplice are both boys themselves.  The echoes of Jamie Bulger are obvious.

Paddy starts to investigate and soon forms the impression that an adult was also involved, and that adult controlled the kids.  At this point - slightly late for my liking - the story really takes off.  Paddy is put in real jeopardy before the end.  Everything is credible and logical.  My only reservations are there was slightly too much time spent on Paddy's Catholic background - although, her escape from convention is a key part of her character development - and the Meehan material was not really worth the trouble.  Perhaps Mina takes it further in subsequent novels in the series.

I am already a big fan of Mina.  I consider this not to be her best novel, largely because in other books she has set a higher standard.  It is still a cracking good read.

Monday, 21 December 2020

Southwark Fair - Samuel Adamson

 Samuel Adamson is an Australian playwright who has been living and working in London since the early Nineties.  Southwark Fair was produced at the National Theatre in 2006 with Rory Kinnear in the lead.  It is a London slice-of-life comedy, very much of its time.  That time was when being gay or from Eastern Europe was the biggest thing hip young Londoners had to worry about.  Things have changed so much in the last decade that Southwark Fair is now a period piece every bit as historical as The Importance of Being Earnest or The Way of the World.  Like them, it offers a snapshot of happier, better times.  Producers should consider reviving it if theatres ever reopen.  It is genuinely funny, with interesting characters and a clever structure which goes through scenes we have already seen from the other point of view (which could be off-putting were it not so brilliantly done).  I am neither gay nor from overseas and have never lived in London, or wanted to.  Yet I genuinely enjoyed reading Southwark Fair and would happily pay money to see it onstage.

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories - Robert Aickman (ed)


Inevitably in a collection like this, there are going to be old friends.  For me, these included Sheridan Le Fanu's 'Squire Toby's Will' and William Hope Hodgson's 'The Voice in the Night'.  A personal favourite, Robert Aickman's 'The Trains' was also here.  I had read D H Lawrence's 'The Rocking-Horse Winner' and Algernon Blackwood's 'The Wendigo', both so long ago that I had no real memory of them.  Both were better than expected, true classics of the genre, though neither was about ghosts.  The revelation among the others was, for me, Walter de la Mare's 'Seaton's Aunt'.  De la Mare has cropped up a lot in my research recently but indirectly, and I had not realised how effective his creepy fiction can be.  'Seaton's Aunt', again not a ghost story, reminded me strongly of Kipling at his best.

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

The Tide Went Out - Charles Eric Maine


I have written before on this blog about the twisted road that led me to the speculative fiction of Charles Eric Maine (David McIlwain, 1921-81).  His writing career really only covered the Fifties and Sixties but he was at the top of his game from the outset and for a time was up there with John Wyndham, John Christopher and the young J G Ballard.  Like them, he tended towards the eco-disaster, which is what The Tide Went Out is.

It is 1958 (Maine is always contemporaneous) and US A-Bomb tests have gone too far.  A sub-ocean blast has cracked the Earth's crust and all the water is seeping away.  Philip Wade is seconded from the science weekly he edits and placed at the secret governmental hub in London's Kingsway (I suspect at the former General Electric building where the BBC started out) to produce sanitised news for the Press.  Officially the world's combined efforts and trying to pump water back from the core.  In reality, there is nothing they can do and ninety percent or more of the population is going to die very soon.  Wade's family, and the families of other personnel chosen to survive, have been taken to polar camps where there is still plenty of ice.

Maine paints a vivid portrait of London at the time as society slowly begins to crumble.  Barricades go up and the army comes in to protect the elite from the masses, and soon the soldiers go rogue too, but with all the weaponry they can want.

Maine explores the key questions we are currently asking about the COVID pandemic.  Why have we so crazily damaged the only world we have?  Who chooses the elite?  Can we trust anything the government tells us?

Another well-selected reprint from the British Library.