Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Mr Hudson's Diaries - Michael Hardwick (Sphere, 1973)

For all my pretentions to literary fiction and for all the nice things I might say about Umberto Eco and Ian McEwan (well, not McEwan - he bores the arse off me), my real first love are tv tie-ins.  Some of that is down to nostalgia, obviously - the Target Dr Who books for me, as for lots of people my age, were the reading materials of my youth after all - but sometimes it's because a tie-in novel seems able to do things which I can't believe the parent show would ever touch.

Books like the BBC Doctor Who novels The Blue Angel or Interference go well beyond what their parent show is even capable of imagining, let alone presenting on screen, but that's possibly to be expected.  The Virgin and first set of BBC Doctor Who spin-offs are acknowleged by all but partisan fools to be amongst the best tie-ins every created and the show is one which cries out for limitless imagination.

Other series, however, seem as though they'd be far less interesting when committed to paper - but that's an equally foolish assumption.  As I mentioned somewhere else on here (I'm sure my reader can get off his chair and go and look) the Crossroads book 'A Warm Breeze' features a Lost Horizon-style hidden valley, a boy who talks backwards and ends with actual magic taking place, but that's a genuine novelisation of several bonkers (and now tragically lost) episodes of the soap opera, so the madness lies with the script-writer not the novelist.

I've just finished one of the Upstairs Downstairs back-story novels, Mr Hudson's Diaries however, and Michael Hardwick and his wife Mollie have done as solid a job with the story of Angus Hudson's life prior to coming to 165 Eaton Place as anyone could possibly expect.  But added to the tales of Hudson's crippled father, first dalliances with women, tragic loss and eventual rise, is a chapter in which an actual poltergeist haunts the Bellamy family home until the bones of a murdered baby are found buried nearby.  Like the apparently genuine Ouija board in the Christmas 2011 edition of Downton Abbey it's this brilliant implausability which raises the book above the ordinary.  There's no need for anything so mental, but it's entertaining and interesting and improves a solid book into a memorable one.

You don't get great stuff like that in bloody Atonement, I can tell you.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Hiram Grange and the Nymphs of Krakow - Richard Wright (Shroud, 2010)

You need, I think, to have a minimum of two strings to your bow to be a really good writer.  A great sense of character allied with an ear for dialogue, say, or a strong plot element combined with a vivid imagination.  Richard Wright, thankfully, has all four of those plus a couple more besides.  He's done a couple of excellent stories for Obverse Books and, as the back cover blurb by Steven Saville says, he is a bit of a hidden gem.

The Nymphs of Krakow (from Shroud Publishingneeds all his skills, not because it's a poor idea but because it's the final book in a five novella series and if there's one thing I really can't be doing with it's clunky and intrusive exposition (that - and the fact it seemed to have been written as a joke by an idiot in crayons - killed Hawaii 5-0 for me just last week, for example - but I digress).  Instead of that, all the information the reader needs bleeds into the book - almost literally, at times - and the story is left to run at its own natural and enjoyable pace.  The dialogie is snappy, the various Big Bads intriguing and unexpected, even when they seem to be fantasy cliches, and the finale has a nicely ambiguous feel to it.

Don't get me wrong - this isn't War and Peace.  It's an 80 page adventure novella in what fans call 'dark fantasy' or 'urban fantasy' or something like that.  But instead of being the usual teenage wibbling about torture and eating babies and a guy working down the chip shop who swears he's Cthulhu, this is a driven narrative in which sundry plot strands are tied together, various characters get their comeuppance or otherwise, interspersed with some exciting and very well written set pieces.  There's a darkness at times - the fate of one errant river God gave me a chill, for a start - and Hiram Grange himself is an interesting soul, even if he has rather too many little quirks for comfort for me (using only a Webley revolver is fine, but all the stuff with the absinthe?  As bad as Morse and his real ale - chracter created by check list).  But Grange isn't Wright's character, so he can hardly be blamed for that.

In the end, this last story was good enough to make me seek out the first four.  Can't say fairer than that.

(In other news I listened to the Doctor Who audio 'Curse of Davros' in the car on the way to and from work over the last few days.  Let's just say - to use a phrase currnetly much in fashion - it's not my favourite Big Finish release).

Monday, 6 February 2012

In Deepest Darkest Derbyshire (or could be Cheshire)

I meant to mention this at at the time, but I spent a great few days in darkest Derbyshire (or possibly Cheshire; it was never entirely clear) on a writer's retreat, with the likes of George Mann and his brother Scott, Paul Magrs, Cav Scott, Mark Wright and several excellent, friendly and very industrious Black Library guys.  With my customary terror of the new, I half expected it to be horrible, full of people talking about tossers I didn't know getting seven figure publishing deals, and what a shit some editor I'd never heard of can be, but instead it was wonderfully restful and fun, from the moment Paul and I bagsied the warmest bedroom in the house, right at the very top of the winding, low beamed stairs all the way to saying goodbye to Mark in Manchester Piccadilly Station, seconds before I realised I'd missed my train!  I spent the days sitting cross-legged on one bed, with Paul using the other bed as a desk and tapped out an entire Zenith short story, which I'm quite pleased with, and a detailed breakdown of the first few chapters of My Great Novel.  An hour writing, then wander downstairs for a cuppa, always to find one of the guys or other had had the same idea and was therefore available for a natter, then back upstairs for another hour.  Knock off at tea time for big glasses of wine and pizza, and screeds of old telly and movies on George's big HD projector.  Sheer heaven.

It was great to get home though - that was the longest I've been away from J since we got married, after all, and I missed the family quite a bit.  It's great to get away and do something, especially in such fantastic company, but even Cam gave me a big cuddle when I got in (incidentally, I read Graham McCann's excellent biography of Terry-Thomas on the train home - highly recommended) and it always makes me happy to be sitting somewhere in the house, hearing the sound of my lot getting up to all sorts of shenanigans somewhere upstairs or down.