Monday, 21 March 2011

Enter Wildthyme - Paul Magrs (snowbooks, 2011)

By now you'd think that reading a new Iris story would be like pulling on comfy slippers. After all, it was back in the last millennium that I first came across the character shining out of the pages of a Doctor Who book like the sudden beautiful view across the hills that you sometimes get on the road to somewhere dreary. And since then there have been novels, short story collections and audios, some of them even written and published by me. You'd think I'd be bored.

But not at a bit of it, as this new Iris novel proves. True, Iris has recreated herself again, but that's part of the charm of the character as well as the perfect way to keep things fresh. Paul Magrs is incapable of writing dully and Iris, Panda and the Bus are the ideal foil for him, even more I think than his other fabulously mad series with Brenda and Effie. Actually, it's a bit surprising that Brenda doesn't make an appearance in here; almost everyone else does as Magrs pulls off the clever trick of introducing a plethora of new characters to first time Iris readers, while making their various introductions intetesting for more seasoned dabblers in the Magrs' universe.

Like one of those Hollywood spectaculars of the fifties and sixties, if you name a star from a previous Magrs' book he or she probably makes an appearance (even if only in cameo) in Enter Wildthyme. Unlike those movies, however, I was never left thinking 'why the hell is John Wayne playing a Roman centurion?' Here everyone has a part to play and so, rather than over-filled or gratuitous, this book feels like a party to which we've all been invited by Iris, the reader included.

It'd be a bit pointless to go into detail about everyone who turns up and what role they play, but I can't let pass the opportunity to mention that Barbra the Vending Machine from Sick Building and 'The Dreadful Flap' returns in all her stale crisped glory. Even if the rest of the book were rubbish (which it isn't - it's great!) it'd be worth buying this just to see Barbra on the Bus.

They should invite Paul Magrs to write for Doctor Who on telly. This is the one sort of story missing from the series since it came back, a proper, mental, funny, sometimes sad, often daft extravaganza.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Crossroads, Kojak and The Wood

It's been a week of books about tv and pulpy horror. Steve Cole kindly sent me a copy of the massive Goodies book, Super Chaps Three, which I'm currently making my way through while simultaneously watching the series from the start. And then Johnny Mains, horror geek extraordinaire, sent me a big envelope stuffed full of the kind of cheap, trashy books I love. Finally, a slight tidy up of my 'office' pushed a Mac Hulke Crossroads novel which Paul Magrs gave me at Christmas to the top of the To Be Read pile.

First though I read Kojak: Reqiuem for a Cop from Johnny's parcel of mental paperbacks. It's not a tv series I ever cared much for, and I wasn't expecting more than a straight copy of the tv script , but instead the book is written as a kind of hardboiled first person narrative. Kojak talks like Sam Spade at times as he investigates the murder of an old friend, full of stylised threats of violence and evocative sketches of the city, playing the unconventional, rebellious loner card to the full and leaving a trail of battered bodies in his wake. At times it even reminded me of Chester Himes' Coffin Ed books. Actually, that's perhaps pushing it a bit far. There is something reminiscent of Himes, but it's be wild hyperbole to claim that this was as good as Himes' fantastic crime novels. And there's an unpleasant homophobia at play throughout which leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Still, as novelisations of tv scripts go, there's a lot more effort been put into this than a reader thirty years later has any reason to expect.

Crossroads: A Warm Breeze on the other hand is exactly what I would have imagined a Mac Hulke penned Crossroads novel would be like. Astonishingly bonkers source material (in one section Meg and former motel manager Kevin crash their plain in what is effectively a hidden valley and there discover a house where nothing has changed since World War I!) combined with Hulke's fantastic prose style and desire to inject left wing rhetoric into everything he wrote, make for the sort of book you just have to read to the end in one go.

It's enormously funny, full of asides and sly nods from Hulke, but with a definite air of the sinister about it. The waitress Josefina's belief that the English postal service are censoring her husband's mail in the manner of Franco and the way she checks under the stamps on the envelopes for the smuggled out truth, combines this mix of the witty and the worrying perfectly, but the book is littered with examples of Hulke's subtle layering of jokes and social commentary.

Elsewhere, poison pen letters accusing Meg of murder arrive in the same week that a figure in the dark attempts to assault various female members of the motel staff, and a Spanish couple who work in the kitchens find themselves the victims of racism and intimidation. And yet this juxtaposition of the comic and the creepy never feels forced or imbalanced, even at the end where it all goes a bit 'Twin Peaks' of all things!

Hulke's simply a good writer, incapable of writing rubbish and as a result 'A Warm Breeze' is a bit of a mini-triumph.

Another good writer playing his trade at the less well thought of end of the fiction marker is Guy N Smith, legendary author of 'Night of the Crabs' and other creepy, slightly minging horror novels.

Big admission up front - I'm not very knowledgeable about horror novels. Even as a kid, although I read King, Herbert and a couple of other big name horror writers, I wasn't what you would call much of a fan. It always seemed a bit predictable and backwards and needlessly gory - give me a spaceship over a graveyard, any day.

The Wood doesn't start particularly promisingly either, to be honest. Unpleasantly voyeuristic rape scene combined with spooky wood outside little village sums up the brutal end of 70s horror for me.

As it turns out though, this is a strangely dream-like book, with very well imagined overlapping realities and a lovely turn of phrase - 'His instinct surfaced, defied surrealism' is not, for instance, a line you'd expect in a producton line horror novel, at least in my mind. Smith actually has a very distinctive voice (which he uses to better effect for internal monologue than dialogue, if I'm being honest - the dialogue is the weakest part of the book for me) frequently utilising sentences witha fairly uncommon structure ('Starting to panic as an awful realisation dawned on him: life sentence.', 'Blank, terror stricken stares; the boy starting to sob.') to excellent effect. But it's the manner in which the various time periods overlap and integrate into one another which brought it home to me that horror novels needn't all be yawn-inducing clowns, plagues of unlikely killer insects or repulsively misogynistic rape fantasies. Really, I went into this expecting to give up half way through, but I ended up ripping through it, and I intend to move onto more Smith books in the near future.

That's this week's reading then - two tv novelisations and a cheapy horror paperback. And every one of them more enjoyable than the latest weighty, worthy, pompous Salman Rushdie tome.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Erasing Sherlock - Kelly Hale (2008)

There's one truly shocking line in the otherwise brilliant Erasing Sherlock, a sentence so unbelievably bad, so implausible and unlikely, that it suspends belief for a second, jerks the reader out of the narrative and leaves him glaring at the page, daring the words to re-assemble themselves into something which more nearly approximates to a sensible universe.

'After 3o years of writing short stories, Kelly Hale has had two published'

The Author's Note also mentions one novel co-authored for the BBC Doctor Who range and, of course, the current volume, in the copy to hand the penultimate novel in the Faction Paradox range of loosely linked novels.

One and a half novels and two short stories (actually now three, after I had the pleasure of publishing the quite lovely 'Big Horn Casino' in Iris: Abroad last year) in 30 years for a writer as talented as Kelly Hale? That's horrible.

Anyway, enough of the soapbox stuff - what about Erasing Sherlock?

First thing to point out is that if anybody's worried that they don't know a bloody thing about this Faction Paradox malarkey, don't worry. As with all the best Faction stories, ES has only the most tenuous link to anything else in the series and, in truth, the actual Faction stuff occurs only very late on and has a very 'tacked on' feel to it (presumably the new Kindle version of the book removes the Faction entirely which will, I suspect, make it an even better book).

The second thing worth noting is that it's a fabulous novel, not a fabulous science fiction novel or a fabulous Sherlock Holmes sequel. True enough, it's the story of a modern day academic who goes back in time to study the real life Sherlock Holmes as part of her doctoral thesis into 19th century crime. But, no matter how that sounds, this is neither merely competent genre fiction nor simple above average pastiche.

Holmes and Watson live and breathe in this book in a way that brings to mind Conan Doyle himself rather than the ranks of hacks and cash-in artists who followed him, and Hale has clearly studied the more seedy elements of Victorian society and demonstrates that study on the page to great effect. Gillian Petra is a believable heroine and the story itself is a fascinating one, moving from serial killing in smog bound London to torture and murder near Krakatoa as it erupts and covers the world in ash.

But at the heart of the book is the relationship between Holmes, Watson and Petra. Hale thankfully doesn't shy away from...well, from anything. Actually, maybe it's that which prevented this novel from being a deservedly massive hit. Where it should have picked up impetus from Sherlockians desperate for new Holmesian adventures, it possibly scared them away by talking about - the horror! - periods, rape and masturbation, and by depicting the Great Detective as a sexual human being. But the fact is that, as with Hale's portrayal of Watson, nothing in the characterisation of Holmes feels askew. Rather, Holmes suddenly feels imbued with a third dimension (for reference, playing the fiddle and being a bit of a junkie do not a genuine personality make) and Watson becomes more than a mere cypher.

'I have a fondness for the game - the challenge and the chase - which I fear will fade once the puzzle of you has been pieced together...It is craven of me to want you the way I do, when I know I will not when you cease to be a mystery to me.'

I drew one hand dramatically across my brow. 'You have no affection for me? Mon Dieu. I shall die!' His mouth pursed in annoyance. 'If this is supposed to be an apology, it's a piss-poor one.'
Erasing Sherlock is a more up to date and modern take on Sherlock Holmes than the recent Robert Downey Jr movie or anything from the past 100 or so years of sequels, parodies and pastiches (though you can spot certain similarities with the new BBC tv series written, co-incidentally, by another couple of Doctor Who writers). As demonstrated by it's change from a prize winning entry in the North American Fiction prize in 2000, to its existence as a Faction Paradox novel in 2008 and now a Kindle standalone novel in 2011, it's good enough to work on any number of levels and with any amount of different emphases.

Seriously though - three short stories and one and half novels in thirty years? That's a bloody disgrace. Someone give this woman a three novel contract, now!

You can buy Erasing Sherlock for Kindle here (not for the superior epub format though, which is something which needs fixed)

Monday, 7 March 2011

Mrs Capper's Birthday (1968)

Everybody knows that the best Coronation Street were the black and white ones. You watch them now on dvd - grimy, poorly lit and grit specked prints in which everything moves at a glacial pace and the majority of the action consists of half-cut pensioners whispering about brassy looking types and men fighting about pigeons, women and booze. It's like real life except every so often something dramatic will happen or, even better, something plain odd.

'Mrs Capper's Birthday', an Armchair Theatre play from 1968 from a story by Noel Coward, is like watching a year's worth of that sort of Corrie all squeezed into an an hour long special. It's wickedly fast paced for the period, admittedly, which Corrie never was, but the amount of sheer stuff the writer crams into a bare hour is astonishing. And yet you never feel that it's gone daft or ludicrous. It always remains rooted in something akin to real life, even if the situations Hilda Capper finds herself in very often veer towards the implausible.

Because all it is, really, is a single day in the life of fifty year old cleaner Mrs Capper.

At first I thought it was going to be a bittersweet tale of an old lonely lady (Beryl Reid 's age is very hard to pin down after she hits about forty, I find) and her long dead husband, then I thought it might well be a darkish sort of story about marital infidelity, with Hilda taking sides between the couple she cleans for, but it wasn't. Then I wondered if it were about the generation gap and it wasn't. I even wondered if it were a late blooming romance sort of thing, as Arthur Lowe gave another wonderful little man performance as the tobacconist whose proposal of marriage Hilda interrupts.

But it's none of these things, nor is it about the loud, drunken friend who takes over every occasion, or the prissy, sniffy landlady who spoils every occasion. It's not about the camp, gay waiters who serve the family at dinner and who Hilda thinks 'talks all funny', or the unexpectedly appearing pre-op tranny who runs the pub (of whom Hilda asks whether she has many more injections to get), or the singer who belts out two complete old time sing-songs towards the end of the play.

It's not even about the film star (played by George Baker) who just happens to be visiting the pub with his glamorous American co-star, and who remembers Hilda when she was younger.

What it's about, in the end, is the happiness to be found in even the most simple life. Beryl Reid as Hilda has one of the all time great smiles, making her entire face shine as she moves through her fiftieth birthday, surrounded by family and friends, delighted by the gifts she's been given and the life she leads, remembering her husband (dead in the war twenty five years before) but not allowing that memory to sour any part of her life.

Quite wonderful, really. Quite, quite wonderful.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Moriarty - John Gardner (2008)

The big list of Stuff I Like includes Doctor Who, David Bowie, historical fiction, seventies telly and classic crime novels (a combination of all of these in one would be the perfect product for me). So I'm inclined to be attracted to things like John Gardener's 'Moriarty', the third and final book in a series which tracks the career of Sherlock Holmes' nemesis after he (allegedly) survived his encounter with the Great detective at the Reichenbach Falls.

Don't be put off by the fact this is the end of the series, btw. The first two books were written in the 1970s and the main connections between those and this book are explained by the author's preface. It's enough to know that Moriarty is back in London after a spell in the States and is looking to take his criminal empire back from one Sir Jack Idell ('Idle Jack') who has taken his place as London crime Kingpin.

Having read one of Gardner's Bond books and finding it...unassuming at best, I picked up this book cheaply in an excellent remainder bookshop just outside Manchester (on a cold, misty night in the good company of Paul, George and Jeremy, which made book buying all the more pleasurable), attracted byt he subject matter far more than the writer. And I'm glad I did. It's the sort of book I find myself gobbling up greedily, delaying putting the kids to bed to finish the chapter, walking slowly to the shops so I can read another couple of pages on the way, hiding in the bedroom to read just a little more. The writing is assured and never descends to pastiche and Gardner has clearly done his research (even including a glossary at the end).

What sets this apart form many other Holmes' sequels I've read (apart from the almost complete absence of Holmes!) is the set of characters who inhabit the book like very slightly shop-soiled Dickensian figures. Armies of punishers and dippers, lurkers and cracksmen create a backdrop against which Moriarty and his Praetorian Guard plot and scheme against Idle Jack and his minions, and in which disfigurement, torture and death seem a commonplace, even if love and humour also flourish in the most unlikely of places. It's a wonderfully immersive book, and an easy one to get lost in, as all good books should be.

The first two in the series seem to be quite expensive second-hand, but I'll be buying them in any case. Highly recommended.