Friday, 4 October 2013

The Flip Side - Cody Quijano-Schell (Big Finish, 2013)

Right then, an admission.  No, not the one about knowing and having worked with the author, a man I have a great deal of time and fondness for.  Anyone reading this is likely already to know that, and also to know that I'm a big mouthed idiot a fair amount of the time and would not hesitate to say something negative about anyone's work, if I didn't like it.

No, my admission is this - I have only seen one episode of the TV series Dark Shadows.  I know, I know.  I claim to love old telly, and am happiest wittering on about 70s sitcoms and 30s movies, Larry Grayson and Lon Chaney, Paula Wilcox and Louise Brooks, but I'm not what you'd call a major fan of old American telly.   The references are lost on me, the laughter tracks are irritating and it's all too brightly lit.

So I came to 'The Flip Side' almost a DS virgin.  True, I'd seen that one episode, though all it was missing was Joey from Friends, playing Dr Drake Ramory in a 'Days of Our Lives' style.  And I listened to Mark Passmore's (also very enjoyable) preceding DS audio too.  But that's it.

And you know what, dear reader, I loved it.

It helps that the story is self-contained and spooky, obviously, and so no previous knowledge was required.  And obviously - like Mark's earlier audio - it helped no end that it was well written and directed, and moved along at a good pace.  But it was the little things I liked most, the teasing suggestions of the thousands of episodes before this - the Leviathans, a planet covered in sand, parallel times and a jukebox which has played the same handful of songs for decades.  It was evocative without crushing the listener under the weight of continuity, a skilfully rendered tapestry in the background against which an intriguing mystery takes place.

Recommended, even if your experience of Dark Shadows is 20 minutes of two charcaters standing talking in a cemetery...

You can buy it here.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Storyteller - A Found Book

You know how it is.  You're supposed to be writing but all you're actually doing is discussing the lost episodes of Dr Who on some mailing list.  Or you're meant to be researching something important but you're actually playing a game on Facebook or tweeting some terribly amusing play on words.  Prevarication destroys so many good intentions.

But sometimes something good arises from the lackadaisical ashes.

Earlier this year, Nick Campbell posted an image on Facebook of the 'Also Available' page from the back of a book he'd just picked up in a second hand bookshop.  Announcing grandly 'A Full list of Unicorn Books is available on request', it showed a baker's dozen book titles, a couple familiar but most unknown.  Like the spidery handwriting of a handwritten Victorian dedication ('To Margaret, in celebration of the Armistice, November 1918, with affection, Aunt Veronica'), there's something other-worldly and mysterious about books of which you've never heard.  Who were the 'Strangers from the Sea'?  What happened to the Halric, the seal?  Who or what was on the Hanging Tree?

Amongst my friends that sort of thing acts like a strong magnetic pull, and before long there were a group of us talking away on Nick's Facebook page, hovering round the image, laughing at Cav Scott's suggestion that these were the missing titles to stories which didn't exist yet, and which we should write.  That seemed a very Obverse idea, and as it happened Ian Potter and I had been pondering something for a while which, it also seemed to me, this might fit nicely.

In September 2012, Matt Kimpton died due to complications arising from his life-long Cystic Fibrosis (I won't say 'lost his fight' because, even just reading Matt's posts on Facebook during his final stay in hospital, it was obvious that any fight or battle had long since been won by Matt).  Matt was a lovely, enormously funny person and a ferociously talented writer.  If Obverse were to cease to be tomorrow, it would be my major source of pride that we published more fiction by Matt Kimpton than anyone else (pride mixed with anger that this should have been allowed to be the case - that level of talent should have had a far bigger audience).

Anyway, Ian and I wanted to do something in honour of Matt and this - a found book of sorts, a form of outsider art even, created from the detritus of other people's work - felt like something he might appreciate.  Mark Manley was kind enough to create a cover painting using a copy of Matt's husband Tom's favourite picture of him, and Cody Quijano-Schell turned that painting into a book cover.  And lots of excellent writers and friends chose a story title each and wrote a story with it.

And I hope Matt would like that too - a book of all sorts of different stories, without theme or genre or linking text.  I think that's something that the first Chief Skald of Sussex would have enjoyed.

You can pick up a copy and see if you agree for just £1.99 at Obverse Books and Manleigh Books, with all money going to CF charities.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Whitstable - Stephen Volk (Spectral Press, 2013)

You like Peter Cushing, don't you?  Of course you do.  Only a fool wouldn't.  From Winston Smith in Orwell's '1984' in 1952 through Star Wars and Doctor Who, Hammer and Amicus, Shakespeare and Space 1999 there can't be many people in the western world who don't have a favourite Cushing role. By all accounts he was a lovely man too; a perfect gentleman of the old school, with impeccable manners and a never-ending fund of kindness.

Stephen Volk highlights every part of Cushing in this all too brief novella (all too brief because I could have read Volk's Cushing for another 100 pages with pleasure, not because the author misses anything out or leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied - far from it!).  The well known facts - that Cushing attempted suicide on the night of his wife's death by running up and down stairs in hopes of bringing on a heart attack - mix with the lesser known (to me at least) - that he invariably wore a single white glove when smoking, say, in order not to stain his fingers for film roles.

But it's not as a bare recital of quirks and idiosyncrasies that 'Whitstable' excels.  It's the way that every word uttered by Cushing resonates in the head in Cushing's voice, and feels completely right. It's not a cheery read - this, after all, is a faux memoir of the actor immediately after the death of his beloved Helen when, in his own words,
the heart, quite simply, has gone out of everything. Time is interminable, the loneliness is almost unbearable and the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that my dear Helen and I will be reunited again some day. To join Helen is my only ambition
But it's not a depressing read either.  There's a plot in there too, a wholly fictional one I assume though the voice of Cushing is so spot-on that every action feels like something the man would have done in real life.  If the ending is just a smidgin too pat and convenient, well, what sort of celebration would it be which ended with Van Helsing defeated and the vampire triumphant?

As moving and intelligent a portrayal of a much loved actor as anyone could have hoped for, this is a book which anyone who loves Peter Cushing should read, in this the centenary of his birth.

Amazon: ISBN : 978-0957392724

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Great Albums 36: The Magnolia Electric Co (Songs: Ohia, 2003)
Should you ever (for perfectly valid reasons of your own, no doubt) have cause to enquire of friends and colleagues who the greatest recording star of the 1970s was, you should be aware that any answer which is not either 'David Bowie' or 'Neil Young' marks your friend or colleague (whichever it might be) as a fool, a drunk or - only marginally less appallingly - a punk rocker.   Certainly, any other reply brands the respondent as a man (or woman) of questionable taste, as much as if they had expressed a fondness for lamb chops over pork, or avocados over cherries (I missed breakfast this morning, so may be a little food obsessed right now).


I mention this because...well mainly because I am very tired right now, and more than a tiny bit jet-lagged and, as a result, am finding the direct approach more difficult than usual.  Circuitous is about the only path I can tread today, between us.  And because Neil Young turned rubbish virtually overnight as the seventies limped to a close (far more than Bowie who, truth be told, recorded great stuff throughout the 80s), which was a real shame.  Where he had been the only popular artist capable of bringing the house down in flames in the same set in which he sang the most melodic and poetic of ballads, Young wandered through the next few decades, trying his hand at most genre, but sounding a bit dull most of the time.

Now what's this to do with Songs:Ohia then (I'm pretty sure I hear you ask in boredom)?  They sound - on this album in particular - very like Young should have sounded, had he not embraced every passing fancy as the Next Big Thing and spend 30 years staggering from one ill conceived project to the next.

I say 'they' but it's not really a them, it's a 'him'.  Jason Molina had been recording albums for six years by the time this came out, gaining a lot of credit and acclaim and being compared most prominently to Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy.  I don't think that Molina sounds the same as Oldham though - there's hints of the lo-fi swampy, murky country/blues of Oldham's Palace Brothers releases on some Songs: Ohia tracks, but on this - the LP which should have been Molina's breakthrough - he sounds much more like a Neil Young for the 21st century.

Every song on this album is exquisite, but the best way to listen to it is to pick up the US version, which contains a second disc of demos of each song (particularly interesting on 'Old Black Hen' and 'Peoria Lunch Box Blues', which feature guest lead vocals on the album proper).  I did that last week driving across Texas and Oklahoma, listening to first the demos then the final versions as the countryside rolled by.  We crossed the Red River just as Molina began to sing 'Hold on Magnolia' and it was a prefect American moment for me.

I seem to have spent more time wittering nonsense at the start of this than actually talking about the album but, like I said, jet lag and tiredness and all that.

Just to be completely perverse, here's the Scout Niblett version of 'Peoria River Blues' - it is lovely, isn't it?

Sunday, 23 June 2013

My Life's My Own (1969) and Wednesday's Child (1970)

One of the occasional pleasures of my obsession with British television of the sixties and seventies is stumbling across a series which I'd barely heard of, and discovering it's a forgotten gem.  In the past this has included relatively well known shows like the proto-Minder Turtle's Progress, the peculiar Avengers-a-like Spyder's Web and the astonishing and bleak 1975 BBC version of The Legend of Robin Hood, but this week I started watching one of the dvds I picked up on a whim in the Network sale just before Christmas.

Public Eye will, no doubt, get a seperate blog post at some point but for now I want to mention the fourth episode of the fourth series, My Life's My Own.  I watched it this afternoon and thought it was excellent, and surprising in its willingness sympathetically to examine a lesbian relationship (even if, as tended to be the way back in the day, any deviation from the sexual norm ends up with one or other of the people involved being punished).  Stephanie Beacham as heartbroken nurse Shirley, is excellent and if hero Frank Marker both assumes a man to be behind everything and is then treated to a shock revelation, that's perhaps understandable given the 1969 air date.  This is only a year after 'The Killing of Sister George' after all (though a staggering 38 years after the brilliantly shot German movie 'Maidens in Uniform').  The actual relationship is never seen, but since the story is really that of the aftermath, as Beacham's jilted lover runs from rejection to Marker's boarding house, that's not an issue, though the brief scenes in which Marker confronts the married couple from who she's fled did make me want to see more.

Which made all the better the discovery* (courtesy of Jim Smith) that the equally excellent Armchair Theatre had shown a prequel play, Wednesday's Child, the following year, in which the growth of the relationship between Shirley and the older woman she is supposed to be nursing is laid bare.  The role of Shirley is played by Prunella Ransome in this rather than Beacham but she's equally good in a role with a different set of requirements, and the other two over-lapping roles - that of Chris Nourse (Katherine Blake in great form) and her bullying idiot of a husband Charles (Gary Watson) are played by the same actors. This consistent casting isn't the only thing which unites the two plays - most obviously, the bracelet which Beacham wears in Public Eye is given to her by Chris in Armchair Theatre but there are also subtler scripting links (the description of sick rooms requiring get well soon cards and grapes, for instance) and the growth of the burgeoning relationship is beutifully shown across the two plays, as Shirley falls for Chris, convalescing after a hysterectomy, and Chris - for all her initial claims not to feel the same - reciprocates, only not enough and not completely.  It's all subtly done, with no character snow-white and none totally repellant (though Charles comes bloody close), and the feelings of the central characters never entirely clear or definite.

Obviously, as a genuine prequel (shown in 1970), it's intended that it should be watched in the order Public Eye then Armchair Theatre, but it works just as well either way.  Both plays are available from Network - well worth a watch for anyone who appreciates well written and acted television.

* Note to self - I buy too many archive telly dvds sinceI somehow missed this fact even though it's mentioned on the back of the Armchair Theatre dvd...

Monday, 3 June 2013

Sex and Violence in SF Fandom

I was going to post my inane ramblings about Patrick Troughton today, but I just read this post by a sf author called Ann Aguirre, and it's left me actually gobsmacked and - in my autistic way - spitting feathers of rage on her behalf.

I don't know the writer or her work, but I don't need to; both the post itself and the emails she quotes from - let's not beat about the bush here - absolute fucking scumbags are enough to make me want to vomit.

Combine that with a conversation I had with a very talented writer (who will remain nameless) the other day about a certain well-known author of Dr Who books who threatened to punch her for daring to criticise his nasty, misogynstic pile of shit tie-in novel (and whose fans sent her death threats), and I'm left feeling more than a little sick to the back teeth of the plethora of wankers who infest science fiction.

Makes me even more glad that Kate's doing an all female sf book for Obverse.

Quick Update - I should have mentioned that many people other than Ms Aguirre reacted negatively to the initial SFWA Bulletin piece by messrs Malzberg and Resnick.  There's a decent round-up of just a smattering here:

And you can view the initial articles which led to Malzberg and Resnick complaining, like foolish old men, about 'lberal fscists' here:

Quick Question - How does Ms Aguirre's experience compare to that in sf in other countries?  In the UK, say, or Australia?  Anyone?

Monday, 22 April 2013

Pre-Code Hollywood: Safe in Hell (1931)

Bloody hell.  Pre-code Hollywood movies have the reputation of putting it all out there, showing every possible facet of human emotion and interaction, with no censroship to speak of and a willingness to explore the seamier side of life.  And I've seen a lot of them, but I wasn't prepared for the sheer bleakness of  Safe in Hell.

The ending's obviously the bit people tend to comment on and it's true that it's about as dark as cinema every gets, like a black and white version of Lars von Trier's 21st century melodrama, Dancer in the Dark, but far more purposeless (in some ways).  But that's only the tip of the iceberg, and William Wellman (later to make the equally astonishing Public Enemy) makes sure that this is one movie which you won't leave bouyed by the essential goodness of the human spirit, for all that the heroine is driven throughout by the need to keep a vow made in church.

The plot's a simple enough one - girl loves boy but he sods off to sea; in his absence girl becomes a prostitute to survive; girl thinks she's killed a client (who she hates in any case); girl is smuggled by sailor-boy to the only Caribbean island with no extradition treaty with the USA.  You'll need to watch the movie to know how that last decision turns out (clue: not well).

The best thing about the film isn't the plot though, it's the cast of scumbags and ne'er-do-wells who inhabit the island's single hotel (where sailorboy goes and dumps her on her own - again!).  A south american general who struts like a slimy peacock and boats of the three presidents he's killed; a ship's captain who burned his ship for the insurance money, killing all the passengers and crew on board; a crooked lawyer and a lecherous thief (who at one point is cearly accused of being capable of having sex with a chicken - you really don;t get that sort of joke post-Hays Code!)  Worst of all though is Bruno, the island's executioner and warden of the jail.  Suffice to say that it's through the machinations of this sorry group that Dorothy Mackaill as Gilda ends up as she does, though there are some surprising returns to grace amongst the horrible supporting cast.

You'd know the director  is top-notch even if you didn't know it was Wellman incidentally.  Plus point go to him for allowing Clarence Muse and Nina Mae McKinney to talk like normal human beings instead of soft-shoe shuffle comedy black islanders, but its touches like the scene where every man turns his seat round to watch Gilda's bedroom door, then settles himself in place for the show, or Gilda and her sailor fiance whispering to one another with a crate in the way, which really mark this out as more than a run of the mill theatre filler.

Monday, 11 February 2013

I Have Been Reading...

I keep starting to write reviews and then something comes up, so I'm left with half a dozen terribly pithy sentences, or a small untidy pile of comments and references, but no actual review.  However, I do hate waste, so (after a quick bit of pushing and shoving into paragraphs), Little Reviews of Things.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack - Mark Hodder

The most subtle of allusions to Star Trek's Borg and Dr Who's Weeping Angels, plus Zenith, amongst others.  Hodder's writing reminds me of George Mann or Tim Powers, but his strengths are slightly different to them.  'Spring Heeled Jack' has the same sort of sprawling plot as Power's 'The Anubis Gates', but it's more inventive even than that most inventive of novels, and it has the same wonderful steampunk cleverness as Newbury and Hobbes but isn't quite so tightly plotted.  If Newbury and Hobbes are a steampunk Holmes and Watson, then Hodder's Burton and Swinburne are steampunk Avengers (and the bad guys they fight are nothing so much as the sort of motley unlikelies that Sexton Blake might have fought in the immediate post-Word War I period).

Hunting Evil - Guy Walters.

A thought provoking but ultimately flawed history of Nazi hunting, and - if it's all true, which I couldn't say - a crushing indictment of the level of Catholic Church involvement in helping the Nazis get to South America, in addition to being a bit of a hatchet job on Simon Weisenthal.  I'd feel more comfortable about the veracity of the whole thing though - in spite of the fulsome reviews it got from the likes of the author's mates at the Telegraph - if it didn't contains quite so many 'many people believe's and 'perhaps this explains' - the sort of weasel words so beloved of Wikipedia editors with a grudge, and historians with an agenda (said agenda being to defend the Americans and catigate Weisenthal). Riddled with implication and suggestion, far too many of his incidental arguments appear built on straw.  An opportunity missed.

Doctor Who: Dark Horizons - Jenny Colgan

Just lovely.  The modern incarnations of Dr Who work best for me in the absence of the pushy, shrill and uninteresting companions, and I'm fed up with stories set in America, Cardiff and London, so having a solo Eleventh Doctor landing in 12th century Scotland meant this book started off with an advantage or two.  Some gorgeous writing (look out for the fourth doctor cameo), properly rounded secondary characters and a genuine feeling for human interaction puts this head and shoulders above the other 'celeb' Dr Who books (even Michael Moorcock's!).  If only every Who book was like this!

Resurrection Engines - Scott Harrison (ed)

Great idea, well implimented.  Putting a steampunk spin on a dozen or so traditional fairy-tales is a more than decent basis for an anthology, and Scott Harrison does an exemplary job in keeping a tight rein on an excellent range of authors.  There's not a weak story in the collection, but particular highlights for me were Alison Littlewood's take on Silas Marner (a great choice for the opening story, with something of the feel of a Pixar cartoon, for some reason I can't put my finger on), Jim Mortimore's Robin Hood (which, like his 'Center of the Earth' story for Obverse Books, takes multiple Hoods and plays narrative games with them) and - most of all - Paul Magrs' cut up version of 'Wuthering Heights' which I read several times in a row, once out loud, just because the language is so delightful.

'A Big Hand for the Doctor' - Eoin Colfer

 If only the author had ever bothered to watch any Hartnell.  Or the editor had done any actual editing.  Or if anyone spent more than two minutes writing it.  "...his granddaughter, Susan, who was possibly the only person in the universe who could make the Doctor smile at the mere thought of her" - seriously, did nobody read this story before it was put on sale?

The Hound of the D'Urbevilles - Kim Newman 

 George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series casts the longest of shadows over Kim Newman's new novel, The Hound of the D'Urbevilles. It could hardly be otherwise, as Newman takes a secondary character from one of the great fictional achievements of the 19th century (and, incidentally, a character who appeared in two Flashman novels), and then drops him into the 'real' world.  Other attempts to do a Flashman have foundered before, with even the very best (Space Captain Smith, say) weak impersonations of the original.   So why does this succeed?

Newman neatly avoids the weight of Flashman by first off admitting in the Afterword that the weight is present.  More importantly, Newman can be as good a writer as Fraser and knows as much about the fictional 'heroes' of 19th century fiction as Fraser did about 19th century imperial history. The various Sherlock Holmes' (and others') stories into which Newman slides Moran and Moriarty are tweaked and massaged by the author until the two villains seem always to have been there, manipulating and effecting everything round them.

The Walking Dead Volume 1 - Robert Kirkman

If comics and graphic novels were a tv station in the UK, they'd be ITV or, more plausibly, one of those cable channels like DMAX full of unwatchable idiots doing dull things for other idiots to waste their time watching.  Tattoo parlours full of people drawing roses and skulls and thinking themselves artists, shouty people rebuilding trucks and other weird skinny guys making dinner out of roadkill.  There's really not a lot of quality control going on.

Comics are the same.  Ignoring superhero stuff for now, since that's an adolescent thing which you either get or don't, the pile of what for want of a better word I'll call indie comics (yeah, I know they're not as such, but as a tag it'll do) is of such a low quality level that releases which are, in fact, absolutely awful get praised as works of genius (this is not a reference to Alan Moore, btw - that's a genius being praised for being a genius).

Welcome to The Walking Dead.  Witless, dull, inconsistent, dull, stupid, lifeless and dull - teenage death fantasies leavened with a hint of teenage sex fantasies all wrapped up in a bow by a writer who can't write, doesn't do actual dialogue and has no idea about characterisation.

In fact, the closest this comes to genius is the fact that nothing says Frank Darabont is one so much as the fact he created a brilliant TV series out of this mouldy old pile of rubbish.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Edinburgh Dead - Brian Ruckley (Orbit, 2011)

George Mann kindly gave me this book as a Christmas present, presumbaly drawn by the fact that (a) it sounds a bit creepy and other-worldly and (b) it's set in Edinburgh, my home town.  Whatever the reason I'm gad he did, because this is one of the more satisfying novels in every respect that I've read recently.

For a start, the author, Brian Ruckley, does a fabulous job of conjuring up Edinburgh in 1828, as George IV Bridge is being erected across the Cowgate and Burke and Hare are up to their infamous tricks in the West Port and Grassmarket.  It helps, obviously, that I've lived in Edinburgh all my life and did a degree in Scottish history, but even so, I've read similar books which did a far less impressive job of bringing Ye Olde Edinburgh to life.  From an ice covered Duddinston Loch to the opulence of the Assembly Rooms, Princes Street in the gloom of newly installed gas lights to the wynds and closes of Leith by the docks, the descriptive passages are wonderful, not least this description of the house of 17th century warlock and madman, Major Weir:

"It was colder in here than he had expected, like a cave.  That shawl draped around Agnes' head did not seem so redundant.  The walls, when his fingertips brushed them, were damp to the touch.  Hundreds of small webs were tucked into the edges of the celing.  The floor had a disquieting hint of softness to it, the layers of dirt giving beneath his feet.  Not a cave, not quite; a tomb.  Quire felt himself to be disturbing a place that had been asleep for a long time.'

Of course, description with no plot and no characters would be a fairly pointless exercise, but here again, the book doesn't fail to deliver.  The protagonist, Adam Quire, ex-soldier and current policeman, is sufficently well rounded to satisfy (though at times I was reminded of the slightly later, and genuine, Edinburgh policeman, James M'Levy - or at least the radio version of him) as are those Edinburgh folk working on the side of good and those for evil.  Actually, thinking about it, the novel has quite an extensive cast, but each is well drawn and distinct, with Agnes the Witch of Leith perhaps the most interesting, for me at least.

As for the story, the author says in the interview which closes the book that the basis for the book was a stray thought - what if Burke and Hare were stealing bodies for more than just anatomists like Robert Knox?  It's a nice if not startling idea, but Ruckley uses this relatively slight thread to create a rich tapestry which I enjoyed immensely.

The only minor comaplint?  When I went to the author's website to see if there were a sequel, there isn't.  With a bit of luck, Ruckley will remedy that fact soon.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Vince Cosmos, Glam Rock Detective (Bafflegab, February 2013)

I really glam rock, I really like the seventies, I really like Paul Magrs' writing, and I really like The Scarifyers, the audio series from Bafflegab (previously Comsic Hobo) - so it was a fairly safe bet that I was going to really like the new Paul Magrs' audio from Bafflegab, set in the seventies, and starring a glam rock detective (actually I also really liked Hippies starring Vince Cosmos himself, Julian Rhind-Tuitt so, y'know - further reasons to really like this).

Poppy Munday, Geordie lass relocated to London and one time co-ordinator of her local Vince Cosmos fanclub, gets involved with her idol and his cohort of friends, hangers-on and business acquaintances as they battle a possible alien invasion.  It's as though someone took Man About the House and dropped Ziggy-era David Bowie into it.  Which in most hands would be, at best, odd, but Magrs is the one author who can really pull off this sort of mash-up (as his Doctor Who audio, Phantom of Glam Rock, had already demonstrated), and this is an absolute triumph from beginning to end.

With the familiar voices of Katy Manning and David Benson being joined by Rhind-Tuitt as Vince and Lauren Kellegher (who is excellent throughout) as Poppy, the script sparkles and the production values are pretty bloody impressive.  The songs Cosmos sings are suitably Ziggy, the in-jokes come thick and fast, and everyone involved is obviously having a blast.  Little touches, like the cover which mirrors a seventies album, are the icing on the cake - but the cherry on the icing on the cake is the 'Special Price' sticker which, for those of us of a certain age, brings a built-in shiver to the spine.

On every level this is a wonderful thing - pre-order it now and make sure this turns into an ongoing series...