Friday, 23 February 2018

Books: A Curious Blend

It's a curious set of books that can be seen around the lair of the Quirky Muffin. It's a genuine hodge-podge, in fact! There are Arthur Conan Doyle and Jasper Fforde, Frederick Pohl and GK Chesterton, Douglas Adams and Roger Zelazny, John Dickson Carr and Woody Allen, William Shatner and James Blish, and piles and piles of 'Star Trek' and 'Discworld'. The only significant absence is of anything very contemporary. That needs to be assessed. Is it a problem, or just a result? A modern author with that level of interesting prose hasn't stumbled across my path in quite a while.

It really is a strange set of novels. Would you like a comedic Chinese ghost fantasy, with a gigantic twist? Then you should really read 'Bridge Of Birds' by Barry Hughart. What about a truly mystifying mystery? 'The Hollow Man' by John Dickson Carr. A classic fantasy adventure series for boys? 'The Belgariad' by David Eddings. Something bizarre and totally unclassifiable? How about 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' by Douglas Adams or 'To Say Nothing Of The Dog' by Connie Willis.

The 'Star Trek' novels were a lifeline while growing up, a window to a different universe, and a series I hadn't really seen very much of at that point. 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' was on the rise back then, but it was never as interesting or as solid as the old series, and sometimes even 'Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea' reflected well in comparison! Oh, that reminds me that Bob 'Chip Morton' Dowdell died last month, which fact was discovered here yesterday or the previous day. Goodbye. Dowdell, you could definitely pull off a serious face. It's a shame that there weren't a significant load of 'Voyage' books.

There is a prevailing theme in the books around here, now that some thought has been squandered tangentially. There is humour everywhere, coupled with strong leanings toward fantasy and mystery. Oh, and there is almost no swearing or gratuitous sleaziness. Hence, there are strong presences for Glen Cook, Terry Pratchett, GK Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Arthur Conan Doyle, Lord Dunsany, Douglas Adams, Jasper Fforde, David Eddings, and PG Wodehouse, amongst many others. Oh, and Patrick O'Brian, even if I did conk out before the last few novels due to the gloom permeating the end of the sequence. There are also the one-offs, like 'Gateway', 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution', 'Bride Of Birds', 'To Say Nothing Of The Dog', 'The Master And Margarita', 'Three Hearts And Three Lions' and 'The Three Musketeers'.

It's a nice mix. Books are good. Read more, people of the world.

Oliver.

Note: I missed off a few names: Jules Verne, Roger Zelazny, Donald E Westlake, Dorothy L Sayers, Wilkie Collins and probably more.


Wednesday, 21 February 2018

A Taxing Day

Wow. After several nights of barely sleeping, a student with an associated hike, the holiday board game afternoon, and the departure of the beloved Lady Jane Felsham from 'Lovejoy' in today's episode, this has definitely been a taxing day.

It was a nice board game session too, despite a hideously low attendance. We actually played games! There were 'Rhino Hero: Super Battle', 'Anomia', 'Twin Tin Bots' and a fill-in at the end of 'Fluxx'. Good grief! Four! Or two and two bits! That was a nice thing. It's a shame that I'm inwardly asleep most of the time, due to sickness. Ah, will this thing ever go away? Will it? Argh. All thank yous to my deputy, who will go nameless.

Lady Jane's last (regular) episode of 'Lovejoy' was pretty harsh. The series, which is phenomenally patchy after the first run, has a horrible tendency of pulling off its handbrake turns with all the subtlety of a boulder rolling through a greenhouse. You actually feel physically yanked around after some of the messing around that has been pulled to affect changes. However, this time it was done pretty well, although it still doesn't really make any sense. Tissues were needed aplenty. She's gone, and now we head into the twilight of the series.

With that, and with exhaustion knocking at the door, it is time to close up another Quirky Muffin. Goodbye, Lady Jane Felsham.

O.

Monday, 19 February 2018

The Literary Reflection, IX

It has been mostly mysteries on the completed reading lists this time around. Let's get to it!


'Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders' (2001) by Ron Goulart
There is a deep craving inside me for this series to be more than just good. It is good, without doubt, but nothing more. Maybe it should be funnier. Every so often, it touches on the history of it all and rises, but then descends again. In this case, the most fascinating part is the first half, which mainly takes place on a cross-continental train ride from Los Angeles to New York, and sees Groucho doing some impromptu entertainment in the saloon car as well as general loitering. Oh, what a joy that would have been! To be on a long train ride with a legendary entertainer. Pretty decent, pretty decent. Now, there are only two books left in the series to read. That's a bit sad.


'The Chinese Orange Mystery' (1934) by Ellery Queen
This was potentially undermined by a particularly bad case of old book smell, but in recollection it was a very good mystery novel. It did, however, lose me in the final technical explanation of the locked room murder, which never happens. That's a definite negative. The character of Ellery Queen seems to be an inspired creation, as does his relationship with his policeman father, and his status as a writer of mystery stories. The prose is elegant and witty, and only the stereotype of his servant lets down the whole affair. Now, if 'The Judas Window' weren't below, this would be the best of the four. The impossible crime here is simply nowhere near as neatly resolved, though.


'Star Trek: Spectre' (1998) by William Shatner
The Shatner 'Star Trek' novels, also worked on by Gar and Judith Reeves-Stevens are deeply paradoxical. They follow on from the not particularly good film 'Star Trek: Generations', resurrect James T Kirk, and then run him through some new adventures while allowing for the massive passage of time and co-existence with the characters of 'The Next Generation', 'Deep Space Nine' and even 'Voyager'. The other casts seem to be an intrusion most of the time, though, and the main impetus of 'Spectre' is in following up on the events from 'Mirror, Mirror', long before in the original series. That strand is fascinating, much more so than Kirk's love for Teilani or Picard's own doppelganger issues. The writing will probably put some people off, though, with short chapters which constantly end on portentous statements, but you do become used to it eventually. The power of these Shatner-verse trilogies is in the overall arcs, though, and that story is rather good, covering as it does so many different points of continuity and bizarrely also keeping Scotty, McCoy and Spock in on the action. Normally, I hate overtly linking too many points of history together, but since this is all broadly non-canonical anyway, it becomes a point of fun. Recommended, but for the 'Star Trek' lovers.


'The Judas Window' (1938) by Dickson Carter
The pick of the bunch by a wide margin, 'The Judas Window' could easily flow into a mammoth entry here in the Literary Reflection. This John Dickson Carr (Carter Dixon is a pseudonym) novel is a classical example of how to write wittily and warmly, of how to introduce and resolve an impossible crime, of how to relate almost all of the story within a courtroom scene, and beguile the reader from the very first page. Carr really was that good, funny and smart. Good grief, if I knew of a current writer as good as him, they would be trumpeted here constantly.

The story: James Answell goes off to meet his prospective father-in-law, in order to formerly obtain consent for marriage, and drop over into a drugged stupor after accepting a drink. Upon awakening, he discovers that the drugged drinks have vanished, that the doors and windows are all securely and impenetrably closed, and that his host Avory Hume is lying dead on the floor, stabbed to the heat with an arrow covered in Answell's own fingerprints. How exactly is he going to get out of it? Is he even sure he didn't do it? And how will series hero Sir Henry Merrivale prove he didn't in court? And what is this 'Judas Window' he keeps referring to anyway. There are many tangles in the web, but the main thrust is impressive.

This one is up there with 'The Hollow Man', and both together lift Carr up into the highest echelons of mystery writing. He's up there with Doyle, and very few others, as his best also has vital re-readability necessary to genuine classics. Excellent. 


O.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Disruptions Continue

This Quirky Muffin is disrupted by continuing sickliness. It's a shame, as there could have been blithering yarns about the earthquake, 'The African Queen', and maybe even 'Spiderman: Homecoming'. At least there will be lots of books to write about once this is all over.

O.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Double Affair' (1964) (Aired 1x08, Produced 1x12)

This is fascinating, one of the rarest phenomena in television: an episode which was simultaneously (I think) shot as a theatrical movie. UNCLE did this a few times, and it does show up a little in the television episode, where some things seem to be dealt with very briefly indeed. Is it the editing down process?

This is another masterclass for Robert Vaughn, both as Napoleon Solo and his anonymously evil Thrush double. The level of physicality shown by Vaughn here is amazing, with motorcycle riding and some pretty impressive climbing being added to his list, over and above all the aquatic work, running and sparring he has done in previous episodes. This is all coupled with an anomalous science-fiction sub-plot, where the fake Solo and Ilya are sent with a new vault code to a secret base associated with the deeply mysterious August Affair. What is the August Affair? A top secret project called Project Earthsea, which is a super-weapon designed to protect the planet from possible future alien incursions. Yes, that's definitely science-fictional.

Now, having done a little research, it appears that 'The Spy With My Face' movie was stitched together from this episode and 'The Four-Steps Affair', so maybe there was no super budget available due to also being a theatrical movie. Perhaps there was some forward planning done, though. Let's be positive about it all. This may just have been the regular production value for the show, which is amazing! Absolutely amazing! The cinematography is great, the music is wonderful, and the cast is brilliant. Season one of UNCLE often looks like a trip to the movies.

This week, the innocent subplot is almost notional, as a stewardess flame of Solo's is drawn into the intrigue when the fake Solo fails to recognise her despite having taken a pasta assault from her two nights previously, after having been spotted with yet another ludicrously beautiful Thrush operative. Seriously, where does Thrush recruit those ladies? Where? And is Thrush really a single person, as is implied here?

Despite all this gushing, 'The Double Affair' is not the best of the season, but it's definitely in the top tier. It just feels a little too rushed in places. However, the fact that it's not the best says an awful lot about the other episodes.

Recommended.

O.



Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Before Valentine's Day

As always, another year means another Valentine's Day, and another opportunity for the lonely to feel rather mopey, the enamoured to potentially make fools of themselves, and the already coupled to feel great pressure. And all of this goes on while the florists and greeting card companies smile evilly... Yes, if there ever has been evidence that there are businesses who are fronts for supervillain societies, then Valentine's Day must be part of it.

Even now, some Macchiavellian mind (gosh, I hope that was spelt correctly) is sitting at the centre of its web of romantic trip-wires and cackling. Cackling, I say! Who invented this holiday, basing it so beguilingly in the wonders of romantic love, and then inspiring the mass movement of money and things, as well as so many daftly failed aspirations? Can we blame this on the Borgias too? No? Blast! Would you believe Nixon? What about the Wright Brothers in a small dinghy?

Oh, it's not all bad. Let's be fair. The main flaw of Valentine's Day is that it pins all that stress on one day of the year. Yes, exactly one day. There's nothing wrong with romance at all, but the instigation of romantic endeavours purely to make money for businesses is pretty creepy. I wonder just how cynical it was, to begin with?

Love, the great healer, has been much maligned of late. Will we see a renaissance of the great romances as we move on into future history? Can the cynicism inspired by the horrific connectedness of the Internet ever be beaten back? Does any of this make sense at all? Is there a reason why modern entertainment is particularly repugnant when it comes to love stories?

Next time we will return to reality, with a 'Literary Reflection'. More endless blithering...

O.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Dove Affair' (1964) (Aired 1x12, Produced 1x11)

This is the one with Ricardo Montalban, giving one of his most interesting and least imposed performances. There's no stereotyped written assumption of latin pride or arrogance here, just a character that he gets to play. It's a pretty good episode of UNCLE, in which Montalban and Robert Vaughn get to play against each other while contesting for a maguffin known as the Dove.

You see, in 'The Dove Affair', Napoleon Solo is trapped in a foreign country after stealing a peace prize known as the Dove from the chest of a dead dictator during his official period of resting in state. This is brazen even for Solo, who was on a completely different kind of mission until the chap died. Thus, after hiding the mysteriously vital prize and being caught on numerous occasions, all the while having to half-trust Montalban's enigmatic and double-dealing spymaster Satine, he is caught in a bit of a pickle.

It is Montalban's episode, although June Lockhart does get a few good moments as a school-teacher escorting one of the weirder bunches of American students around whatever corner of Europe they may have been stumbling. The 'innocent' aspect of the show is being kept alive, and is usually a nice and unique touch. Yes, it is indeed a touching scene to have a chat with the older teacher lady. This all leads into one of the stranger parts of Satine's characterisation, which is a fear of children? Even these children, who look old enough to be taking care of themselves on this trip, with their weird walkie-talkie fixations? All that stuff does weaken the episode a little. Why is he getting so panicky? The bits with the indigestion pills are much more subtle.

There are some moments of brilliance, though, mainly in the banter between Solo and Satine, and some of the double-dealing. The final resolution is nice, where each gets what they want in a way, and we see Solo drive something that James Bond never did: a locomotive! Take that, Bond! There is no McCallum in this one, so Vaughn gets the limelight to himself and runs with it handsomely. Also, there is one of the most brazen hiding places in the series to date. Good grief, it's a crazy fictional and real world out there.

This is definitely in the top ten for the season. Great episode. It was nice to see Ricardo get to do something different for once, although he does get just as many costume changes as he so famously did in Star Trek's 'Space Seed'. Was this something associated with him?

Next time: 'The Double Affair'! Hurrah!

O.