Sunday, 31 July 2011

Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham - MC Beaton (1999)

I really hate being disappointed in a book. Not that I don't get annoyed at a disappointing movie or album or whatever, but there's something particularly unexpected and irksome about a poor book from a trusted writer. Note - not a disaster from a favourite writer; that'd be a cause for real concern, not my current feeling of vague irritation. Don't get me wrong, this is not John Irving's descent from the majesty of A Prayer for Owen Meaney to that dull one about tattooists (or, on a muscial note, Bowie managing to go from Scary Monsters to Never Let me Down in a few short years), but still I found myself turning each page with an almost audible grunt of dissatisfaction and a sense of being very ineptly mugged.

It'd be too tiresome to go into some sort of line by line breakdown of what's wrong with this book (and besides, it's fairly clear no editor ever bothered such an analysis prior to publication, so why should I?), but it'd be facile to just shrug and say 'it didn't work for me' when there is actual stuff which can be pointed at accusingly.

It's not very well written but anyone coming to one of Beaton's cosy mysteries expecting scintillating dialogue and subtle characterisation is in for a nasty shock. As with all the other Agatha Raisin mysteries, every character uses the exact same voice, the heroine and her coterie of friends and admirers are so sketchily, well sketched, that were it not for someone occasionally baldly stating their ages the reader would struggle to pin them down to within a couple of decades. At times even that doesn't really help much - Agatha herself is at times described as a pensioner and middle-aged and jumps in and out of bed with the gay abandon of a teenager, while I still have no idea what age her occasional paramour, Charles, is supposed to be.

More importantly though, the actual solution to the mystery is both extremely obvious from the very beginning and, crucially and disappointingly, is solved by Charles taking 'a lucky guess' and thus discovering the murderer. Throw in a small village in which - because it suits the plot - there lives a sound engineer who can also set up bugs on people, about fifty unhappily married and easily seduced women and a seeming innocent who just happens to have connections in the Glasgow underworld...oh never mind. I can already feeling myself considering looking up a few examples of utter stupidity and I said I wasn't going to do that.

Suffice to say that usually Beaton turns out uninspired but comfortingly cosy mysteries - this, however, falls well below even that standard.

Like Agatha and any of her tediously uncaring lovers I'm horribly disappointed...

Friday, 29 July 2011

The Immorality Engine - George Mann (2011)

You know what's particularly annoying about most alternate Britains, especially steampunk ones? It's the fact that the author seems far too often to think that all that's required is to stick a Zeppelin or two in the sky and allude to brass instruments a lot and that means he's done his job. The flip-side of this overly lazy approach is no better either: the type of book which doesn't really have a story as such, just a series of carefully constructed non-electronic machines, described in lovingly autistic detail, with a plot of sorts hazily sketched in between clockwork robots and steam powered spaceships, like an inconvenient addendum.

So, the fact that George Mann's alternate England is one where the machinery complements rather than swamps the story puts him ahead of the game from page one. This world is one where steam-driven machinery is everywhere, but only mentioned when the exploits of Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes require it. The same goes for the Revenant (for which, basically, read 'zombie') plague which lay at the core of the first N&H book. There are still revenants wandering about London, but they remain in the background, because they're not needed in this book. Miss Hobbes may mention a zeppelin on the horizon in passing, but she feels no need to delineate the exact mix of hydrogen to helium required to make it float, or to give us a potted alternate history of flying machines. Like the maps at the beginning of epic fantasy novels, such concerns have their place, but are only of fleeting interest - they might provide what marketeers refer to as Added Value, but they're not the reason for purchase.

As a result, Mann's London feels like a real place, with a real (if different) history and a cast of real (if different) people, who step forward and back into and out of the narrative when the situation requires and not simply to show how clever the author can be,

Queen Victoria in this world, for example, has existed since the first novel as a malevolent spider at the centre of a web of tubes and coils, piping and pumps, all designed to artificially extend her life. In The Immorality Engine she achieves centre stage while rarely actually appearing as it becomes crystal clear that everything which has happened to date is a consequence of her altogether selfish machinations. Newbury and Hobbes, meanwhile, continue their will-they, won't-they dance round one another and Charles Bainbridge (in many ways my favourite character in the series) continues to struggle between what he'd like to be true and what evidently and actually is.

On which subject, this book successfully addresses one minor failing (if you can call it that) of the earlier books. There's far more emotional depth to the characters here than before. There was always a sneaking suspicion in the two earlier novels that Newbury and Hobbes' mutual attraction was more a matter of authorial fiat than growing naturally from two characters in real sympathy with one another, but here Mann treats the relationship (and that between the two and Bainbridge) with a wonderfully deft touch. That Newbury's opium addiction, initially obviously reminiscent of Holmes' cocaine habit, is overcome under Miss Hobbes' ministrations is refreshing in itself, as it sets Newbury apart from that too famous detective. Better still, however, towards the end of the book it seems possible that Newbury will have to re-addict himself for the good of Miss Hobbes and her ailing sister. Layers pile upon layers in a relationship which could easily have appeared artificial until it's clear that Mann intended this slow growth in affection all along.

Don't be fooled however; this is not a novel of romance only. Mann is one of the best writers of action sequences in any genre, and he never fails to impress here, with several set pieces which glory in quick shifts of perspective, sudden bursts of activity and sundry feats of derring-do. Bainbridge under attack from rockets and ruffians; robotic horses at the charge; and more than one mechanical spider armed with razor sharp blades - Mann treats the reader to all this and more with apparently effortless skill.

Like Paul Magrs' Brenda and Effie series or George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman, this is a book which can be read as a standalone or, more profitably, as one in a series of increasingly impressive volumes. If you haven't tried any Newbury and Hobbes yet, this is the perfect time to jump on, while the series is still young.

Trust me, this is a series that could run and run...

[Oh, btw, I get thanked in the acknowledgements but that doesn't make me any more of a fan of the book - it's a chicken and egg thing. If I didn't think it was a great series, I wouldn't have been a proof-reader and so wouldn't appear in the acknowledgements!]

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture (1983)

It may seem a bit daft to leap from the original Ziggy Stardust album to a live version released ten years later, but it would be far more counter-intuitive to put this in strict chronological order, straight after the 80s popgasm of Let's Dance. More importantly for me, this is the album that introduced me to Bowie, and so it both makes more sense to cover it as early as possible and, by putting it here, I'll actually have something to say beyond comparing live to studio versions of the various tracks.

I can remember ripping the wrapping paper from two large, thin, square Christmas presents in December 1983 as though it were, if not yesterday, at worst a day sometime last month. We were at my Nana's house and the presents were from my freshly separated-from-my-mum dad. They had to be albums obviously, but which ones - and why?

In retrospect it's difficult to imagine what prompted my dad to get me two LPs for Christmas, given I didn't own a record player of my own and he had no idea (nor did I, really) what kind of music I liked. Which is not to say I didn't like music - but it had tended to be stuff from my parents' music collection (mainly Frankie Laine, Tammy Wynette, Jim Reeves and Elvis) and the occasional single ('Bright Eyes' by Art Garfunkel was an early favourite, replacing the Disney double A side of The Emperor's new Clothes/The Ugly Duckling in my affections). My own taste in music was as unformed as my taste in naked ladies - I was sure I'd have favourites one day, but Christ alone knows how you found out what those favourites were.

I assume - like Scott's dad with the notorious suitcase full of meat - he bought the records from some random guy in the pub, and I could just as easily have ended up with Handel's Messiah in a commemorative box or a handsome gentleman's shaving set, but maybe I'm doing him a disservice.

Regardless of the reason, it was a revelation for me. The first album - the original Now That's What I call Music - less so admittedly, but even that had some good stuff on it. I spent the whole of the Boxing Day playing the two albums over and over again on my Nana's ancient drinks cabinet cum radio cum record player, loving Genesis, Madness and Culture Club on Now! but just staring open mouthed at the turntable every time 'My Death' came up on the Bowie album.

From that moment on, I both obsessed about music and loved anything David Bowie chose to record. This is the starting point for a life time of Bowie obsession, then, the jumping on point for all those singles, albums, posters, books, soundtracks, cds, videos, dvds, movies and everything else. This album is the reason that I once spent most of a day on the Internet trying to track down a Bowie track I once had listed on a bootleg as 'Library Pictures'. It's the cause of me and an equally Bowie daft mate at school asking for a copy of 'Trader' in HMV (someone somewhere having got the album title 'Lodger' mixed up and thus - in that pre-Internet age - having us believe in a mythical lost Bowie album). It's the justification for the title of my first ever short story ('Future Legend') and that of my less than stellar only ever novella ('The Shape of Things'). This LP led me to the rest of Bowie's back catalogue, but also, circuitously, to Ultravox, Thomas Dolby, Brian Eno, Mick Ronson, T Rex, Tony Newley, the entirety of the sixties folk rock boom, Gary Numan, Sparks, Velvet Underground...

Actually, this album led me to everything. That's why it's the best album ever.

Great Missing Track

A bit of a no-brainer. Jean Genie in a segue into and back out of Love Me do (with Jeff Beck on guitar and Bowie on mouth-organ) was recorded but never included on the album. You can see it here:

Monday, 4 July 2011

Sapphire and Steel: Assigment 6 (1981)

Has there ever been another show which brilliantly turned the mundane creepy? Top floor flats, old railway stations and, as here, a deserted motorway service station - PJ Hammond has the quite useful knack of making the everyday spooky and claustrophobic, even if the actual story makes almost no sense.

It's thirty years since I saw this, the final story in the original run of Sapphire and Steel, but memory didn't cheat. It's slight to the point of emaciation, short (only four episodes and each one contains a lengthy recap) and the ending comes from nowhere, but it's not something you're likely to forget.

Even for British television of the 70s and early 80s, it's a bleak, bleak ending to a never exactly chirpy show - it may, in fact, be the very pinnacle of that strand of seventies miserablism that killed off Jack Ford, Greg Preston and Lord Hazlemere, amongst others, and left Avon standing in a crowd of his dead crew-mates. If I shut my eyes I can remember clearly watching the last five minutes in a sort of awe-struck shock, confused by the sudden springing of the trap (no wonder - the 'trap' makes sod all sense), and - even at 11 years old - faintly terrified of the horror it contained. Nowhere...forever is a scary thought for a young boy, and to be honest it's not got any more comforting in the three decades since.

There's almost no plot to this particular story - not even the mad, disjointed plotting which suffices in other parts of the series - though, as if make up for that, there are specific references to the nature of Sapphire, Steel and Silver. And brilliantly, those references make the time agents sound like nothing so much as talented middle managers and their eventual destruction a consequence of their refusing a job offer from a rival firm of accountants.

Which is a nice way to remember them, I think. Not the equivalent of Doctor Who's Guardians, not demi-gods or elemental forces of nature, but civil servants working in a minor but vital government department, constantly short of budget (a fact Sapphire comments on) and prey to the bully-boys of the private sector.

No wonder they disappeared just as the Tories got into their Thatcherite stride...