Sunday, 14 February 2021

Books: The Literary Reflection, XXIV

Here we go again! Welcome back to Book-ville!

'Thank You, Jeeves' (Jeeves And Wooster) (1934) by PG Wodehouse

This is excellent stuff, and with more built into it than was in the coresponding 'Jeeves And Wooster' television episode. There is, in particular a string of three chapter endings that stun you with the comedic turns and backlashes. Could anything more have gone wrong for Bertie Wooster? Could it? He spends half of the book blacked up with shoe polish, being assaulted by his new valet, harrassed by the well-meaning constabulary, and paying for his new love of the banjolele by the absence of Jeeves. It's a wonderul sequence of events, and it's hard to imagine any actual person being able to string it all together. It's not quite up there with the masterpiece that is 'The Code Of The Woosters', but very few novels are. Wodehouse even manages to redeem the pompous Roderick Glossop, egad! I can't write any more without providing coherent spoilers (incoherent spoilers are admissable, after all), and so will stop at this point. Time to go back and start from the beginning with Mr Wooster, it seems.

'Death Of A Doxy' (Nero Wolfe) (1966) by Rex Stout

Much as with 'Some Buried Caesar', I'm still very confused on the Nero Wolfe series. 'Death Of A Doxy' is a straightforwardly (but very well) written crime story, with some unique touches, and is comparatively short. Archie Goodwin continues to narrate and drive the plot while Nero Wolfe himself potters around and thinks in between sessions at the dining table and with his orchids. I suspect this is an excellent novel, and yet... I wish there were a rough edge or two somewhere to make it less perfect. One of my longest-standing biases is that of being a little put off by things which are so glossy and flawless that they becomes inhuman, and this may well have fallen into that hole. The interludes with singer Julia Jaquette and Nero are fascinating, however, as is her ultimate path. She may be as close as we get to an Irene Adler for Mr Wolfe? I can't imagine anyone else calling him 'Big Man' in serious, or song, or jest and getting away with it. Apparently Rez Stout became an octogenarian just during the writing or just after the publication of this one, and you really wouldn't have known. The cold opening, 'en media res' in other words, in particularly solid. Very good. Maybe excellent. Probably excellent.

'Star Trek: Logs Nine And Ten' (Star Trek) (1977-1978) by Alan Dean Foster

Never during reading all these adaptations of 'Star Trek: The Animated Series', have they felt exactly like 'Star Trek', which is perhaps a sign of their accuracy as the animated series never felt that way either. In these last two instalments, Foster massively expands the two episodes 'Bem' and 'The Slaver Weapon'. In moving to this kind of expansion, we get even more crazy stuff. There are agglomerated monsters, symbiotic crowns, mass body swaps, enough Klingons to have a small party, and another prank by Scotty. As with the animated series, the characterisation is very different to the original series, which makes it problematic. Very problematic. Kirk in particular does some very un-Kirk-like things in resolving the major problem in 'Bem' and setting up a devious ploy in 'The Slaver Weapon'. as adaptation of the animated series, this concludes the series and is probably very good. As 'Star Trek' in general, I don't know. Is that wishy-washy enough?

In a big minus, there was a major problem with my copy of 'Logs Nine And Ten', where thirty-something pages were printed twice, the second instances overwriting a part of the story. That is a hideous oversight in the reprint and should be scorned. Scorned! I'm looking at you, Insert Publisher Here! Grrr.

'Sackett's Land' (Sacketts) (1974) by Louis L'Amour

Chronologically first, but published twelfth, 'Sackett's Land' is the prequel to and beginning of L'Amour's planned history of the pioneering American frontier, and is a fairly short and straightforward story of adventuring across the ocean while facing intrigue on the land. In fact, it's a story about many things. There are valuable antique coins, ship battles, Indians (the American kind), alligators, true love, sword fights, elements of intrigue, rough times living wild and more in 'Sackett's Land', and it skims over all those things in a flash. In fact, it feels as if it pays far too little attention to many of its plot elements, as we hop back and forth. One moment our protagonmist Barnabas is marooned amidst enemies, and the next he's saved, only to be threatened again, survive, and so on and so on. It's good, though, and is in fact one of the very first non kiddie books I ever read, although I remembered only the beginning parts, set in the Fens of the United Kingdom.

Let's belabour the point here: It's strange to think that in only one hundred and eighty pages we start with a Fensman discovering some coins, transition through five or six other subplots, voyage to America and back, and establish both a romance and the foundations of the chronologically following books in the series. However, it could have been so much more! The sequel to this novel, which will be read soon, is a much longer and thicker novel so L'Amour could be more elaborate when he wanted. In summary, good but very fast and packed. In many ways, it is difficult to fully evaluate this novel without having read the others in series. Time will tell.

'The Starship Trap' (Star Trek) (1993) by Mel Gilden

Oooh... a 'Star Trek' novel! You can't see it from wherever you may be, but there are a lot of 'Star Trek' novels here, most of which haven't been read for a long long time. 'Trek' was a staple of my reading while growing up, before even seeing much of the original series, but the simplistic and basic writing of quite a few of them can be offputting decades later. As a case in point, 'The Starship Trap' has a plot worthy of being an episode of the show, with a cool science fiction concept at its heart as well as a nicely defined antagonist, but the prose is very plain indeed. Fortunately the concept transcends the style, which itself improves a little as we proceed, and we ultimately get a decent to solid entry into the series. But my, what an episode it would have made! You see, there is this weaponry designer who goes rogue, and he invents a twist in the space-time continuum and starts to...

'Death Of A Ghost' (Campion) (1934) by Margery Allingham

Another excellent Campion story, and another one so similar to the television episodes that it is very difficult to disentangle. In fact, the only real differences are the elimination of a minor character or two and a small tag on the end. It's a very well written book, and highly recommended if you like this series of classical adventures or Golden Age stories in general. Oh, one major change is that there's no Lugg in this original prose version of the story. That's right, NO LUGG! To be fair, he's nowhere near as important in the books as he was in the television series, where Brian Glover made him a kind of treasure. What's it about? Oh, details! Campion becomes embroiled in a murder connected to the unveiling of a long dead artist's latest time released painting. There's a rather vivid sequence where Campion is... Oh, that would be too much. Warning, there are a lot of eccentric artistic types in this story.


Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Book: 'Volcano Adventure' (Adventure) (1956) by Willard Price

'Volcano Adventure' continues on directly from 'Underwater Adventure', with the 'Lively Lady' being taken over by noted volcanologist Dr Dan Adams, who is intent on doing a survey of the volcanoes of the western Pacific. What impact does this change of director have on the story? Well, it gets very hot very frequently.

One of the major distinguishing features of 'Volcano Adventure', the fourth episode in the 'Adventure' series, is that the mentor figure this time is not exactly reliable. He is in fact prone to mental episodes, and begins to distrust the two Hunts over the course of the novel. He's never an outright antagonist, but for a while he's not a friend either. That is unusual for the series to date, and interesting. Why does he freeze up for minutes on end, wake up screaming on one occasion, and go a bit loco while scuba diving on another? The lack of an overt villain in 'Volcano Adventure' is refreshing, probably because of all the volcano related peril already present. Yes, gentle readers, volcanoes are dangerous. It's also dangerous to punch a tiger shark in the belly, but I think we already knew that. Also, any story with a diving bell trip into the crater of an active volcano is definitely sporting some major adventure credentials.

The mini-tour around the South Seas, and the visit to Japan, is all nicely different too, and there are very few negatives to point out. Hal definitely gets the majority of the page time on this occasion, with younger Roger taking the back seat, but that could turn around in future instalments.

How could Price squeeze any more peril into the following books? How? Having asked that, the next book is 'Whale Adventure', which is definitely set to be the most problematic of the whole series as whaling is not even remotely acceptable any more. I've never read it, have no idea what's in it, and can only prepare for a rough ride.


Book: 'Underwater Adventure' (Adventure) (1954) by Willard Price

Go, go, Hal and Roger! In this third instalment of the classic 'Adventure' series by Willard Price, we continue the maritime voyage begun in 'South Sea Adventure', but this time with a profound submarine component. However, we do still have a finkish villain in the form of SK 'Skink' Inkham, a pretender to the leadership of the mission. There is a lot to learn in these adventure novels, despite their antiquity and focus on being juvenile fiction, and a lot to really be surprised by.

First of all, this time we gets lot of gadgets. There are snorkels, aqualungs, sea sleds, diving bells and just a little bit more. Secondly, we have octopi, sharks, sunken treasure, submarine raiders, and treachery most vile. When I say 'vile', I really mean it, as the boys' mentor this time meets a very cruel death at the hands of a ruthless villain. Inkham is definitely one of the nastier antagonists in the run, and one who rather improbably got away with trying to murder a teacher at school with a deadly snake. Hal's similar experience is very tense here.

Not only do we have a lot of underwater adventures in this instalment, but we also have sunken treasure. Hurrah! Nothing is better than a sunken Spanish galleon, although on this occasion it is trumped by a typhoon. What, you were already happy with sunken treasure? Ha! The wall of water puts all that to shame! Spoilers? Ha!

It's lovely stuff. The resolution with the antagonists seems a bit predictable and glued on, but that's a minor defect. Roll on, book four, even if it does bring the potential problem that is the fifth book one step closer...


Sunday, 29 November 2020

Book: 'Clouds Of Witness' (Lord Peter Wimsey) (1926) by Dorothy L Sayers

Now this is rather awesome and a huge improvement on 'Whose Body?'. Huzzah! In the second Wimsey novel, we get a massive chunk of the Wimsey family history, a much more personal story and connection to Wimsey himself, the establishment of Parker's own backstory, and a great and totally unexpected ending moment with everyone least favourite detective, Inspector Sugg! And Sugg is partially redeemed. Huzzah!

'Clouds Of Witness' is the great second entry into the Wimsey series, in which Peter's decidedly dim elder brother ends up accused of murder (which means trial by the House Of Lords!). Is he guilty? Probably not, but he won't provide his alibi and probably has secrets of his own to protect and other people to shield. It's up to Wimsey and Parker to find the truth about who killed the amateur sleuth's sister's fiance and try to duck scandal if at all possible.

Wimsey is much more of a relatable person in this instalment in the series, and further rehabilitated from the shell shock and heartbreak inflicted on him prior to the beginning of the stories. In fact, he is pronounced cured of his heartbreak, and even reconnects to his family in the form of his slightly wacky sister Mary, fiancee of the mysterious and dubious dead man. But did anyone really like the victim, including Mary herself? There is peril in the form of bog holes and rushed transatlantic flights with pioneering aviators, covert affairs of the heart, and also all the pomp and ceremony of the trial of a peer of the realm. And lots of breakfasts too. Breakfasts are important.

Recommended. We get much close closer to all the main characters. Excellent. Add ten to whatever score you think this all means.


Books: The Literary Reflection, XXIII

The cursed era of the Big Nasty continues, and the Quirky Muffin has suffered while I descend into mild depressions and strange moods. There has been some reading, but not a lot, and so it's time for another Literary Reflection, a non-comprehensive summary of some of the books that have passed through the stacks.

Let the odd ramblings commence!

'Police At The Funeral' (Campion) (1931) by Margery Allingham

The British tradition of filling stories with eccentrics, oddballs and noble matriarchs is in full evidence in 'Police At The Funeral', wherein Campion is asked to help out at a town house in Cambridge. The house in question is inhabited by an aged matriarch and her almost totally useless children, nephew and one useful great-niece. Well, perhaps that should be 'late nephew', as murders seem to be happening and no-one is clear on what is going on. Discreet help is needed, and no-one is more discreet than Albert Campion, called in by a friend of the family. The question is this: Can he stop the killings, and save Great Aunt Caroline from a hideous prodigal's return? 'Police At The Funeral' is not one of my favourites of the Campions I've read so far. That would be 'Sweet Danger', the following story, but this is solid. Ultimately, it's just too gloomy and the shadow of the television version hangs over it too much for this to be viewed independently. The beginning sequence in London is rather good, though. Is it a good book? Definitely yes, with a sordid undertone. (These notes written after far too long an interval.)

'Rumpole And The Golden Thread' (Rumpole) (1983) by John Mortimer

This set of six stories aligns with the fourth series of the vintage, classical and unparalleled television series also written by John Mortimer. Which came first, the episodes or the stories? I really have no idea, as it has all become unclear with time and may have varied, year by year. In this set, an eccentric artist seems determined to be convicted of forging, Rumpole is summoned to Africa to defend an opposition leader facing death, a couple are arrested for running a very very middle class brothel, Horace plots to get Miss Allways into Chambers, Allways' sister is accused of murder, and finally Rumpole resorts to extreme measures during a case before the Mad Bull. It's a nice collection of stories, but I'm so late in collecting these remarks (perhaps six months late) that it's not all entirely clear in my mind, especially having watched the television versions so recently. 'The Last Resort' does stir a memory, however, as it is the only prose version that I've read so far which includes a passage not written by Rumpole himself. I will not explain why that is so, but it does mark a high water mark in the set. I wonder what happened to Miss Allways, anyway? (These notes written after far too long an interval.)

'Sweet Danger' (Campion) (1933) by Margery Allingham

The Campion stories are adventures instead of mysteries, which is obvious to anyone who actually reads them or sees the television series. This entry, the fifth, both wonderful for its story but also for introducing the love of Albert's life, the sparky Amanda Fitton. As an early novel, it does have a television episode counterpart, which influences the reading, but it's jolly good by itself too. That said, it's impossible to not see Lysette Antony firing up the scene when Amanda is involved in the episode. In 'Sweet Danger', Albert and some companions set out to save a tiny European valley in the middle of nowhere, which is now valuable as it has acquired a coastline, and restore it to the ownership of a long forgotten British family. There are riddles, quests, a villainous financier, several brushes with danger, strange black magic motifs and more inside this book. Be warned! It is extremely readable! And absolutely wacky in the combinations of incongruous elements. A primitive electric car? Oh, oh, how much more interesting and less homogenous things might have been back in history... Maybe... Rose-tinted spectacles at the ready, everyone!

'The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted' (Stainless Steel Rat) (1987) by Harry Harrison

When last we heard from Slippery Jim DiGriz, the titular Stainless Steel Rat, we had discovered his origin story and the fate of his mentor, the mysterious man known only as The Bishop. Now, in the wake of past events, Jim sets out to escape prison and exact revenge on the villain responsible for the Bishop's fate. In typical fashion, that involves Jim enlisting in a planetary army, becoming involved in an interplanetary invasion, subversion on a massive scale, the discovery of an ancient artificial intelligence, a wholly new social philosophy, and confusion at every turn in the narrative. This is definitely one of the messier Stainless Steel Rats, but it's good. Probably very good. Harry Harrison was a writer who had not problem pushing against his own genre, and I'm wondering when or if this series falls apart.  This is the seventh instalment, published twenty-six years after the first. Where next? And will Harrison avoid the trap of trying to top himself every time now we're skipping around in DrGriz's timeline? Time will tell... (These notes written after far too long an interval.)

'An Antarctic Mystery (AKA The Sphinx Of The Ice Fields)' (1897) by Jules Verne

This is an odd one. Having been used to the famous Verne novels, it seemed like time to get a bit obscure and so we end up with 'An Antarctic Mystery', which is apparently a direct sequel to the Edgar Allen Poe story about some guy called Pym. Pym had a (it sounds rather gruesome and morbid) maritime adventure in the Antarctic Circle, which ended in disaster (Poe!), and Verne's story features a geologist hitching a ride home from a remote island with a ship whose captain's brother died during the Pym story. This ride ultimately converts into a trip to the as yet unreached speculated continent of Antarctica, in search of survivors from that trip many many years before. The chief weakness of this story is that it would be completely non-existent without the earlier work, is ultimately just pointless flotsam if, like myself, you are not a fan of Poe. However, there are good points. The gigantic lodestone at the South Pole is interesting, destroying vessels by extracting all the metal fasteners and equipment, and destroying whatever (or whoever) happens to be between those items and this 'antarctic sphinx'. Some of the geographical knowledge about the near Antarctic islands is quite good too. However, there are far too many coincidences, and mutinous crewmen have been so overdone as to cause torpor at this point. Overall, it was a very erratic experience.


Book: 'Whose Body?' (Lord Peter Wimsey) (1923) by Dorothy L Sayers

The first Lord Peter Wimsey novel doesn't feel like the first. It feels like the second or third. That's a good thing. We don't get the exposition of the various characters' backgrounds, but learn by example. Lord Peter already knows his police partner Parker, Bunter is already his valet and confidante, and the mystery is the thing.

The first time I read through the Wimsey series I was both impressed and a little deterred by its core strength: Its sheer intellectual power. Sayers was a reasoning machine in her writing, and what flashes of emotion we get are brief and powerful. 'Whose Body?' is excellent and impressive while still being disposable in some strange way, but it was more appealing the second time through. The crime, a classic case of corpse switching, is one that takes a while to unravel in the reader's mind. In my case, I didn't work out until a short while after Wimsey did, despite having read the story before.

The curious nature of the Wimsey series is difficult to really articulate. In this book, you might perhaps be reading about people while looking through a stainless steel shield, held by a reverent knight intent on guarding their little universe. Or is that too fanciful? Perhaps it's all in my mind. The notion of post traumatic stress disorder was barely developed in the years following the Great War, but here we have a nobleman, an ex-officer of the battle line, stranded in a now peaceful land and looking for excitement to fill up his life and incidentally help his recovery from what was then called 'shell shock'. We never really get to know Wimsey, but we do know of him.

'Whose Body?' is not the best in the series (you might need the character of Harriet Vane to qualify for that distinction), but it is a very solid opener. This read through will continue...



Book: 'The Last Templar' (Medieval West Country Mysteries) (1995) by Michael Jecks

This is the first entry in a fantastically long series of medieval mysteries that have been championed by the 'In Search Of The Classic Mystery Novel' blog run by the Puzzle Doctor. It's nice to see these stories reaching new eras of history, and not just languishing in the Victorian era and later. Jecks' writing is good, with some imagery thrown in to avoid the bland bestseller style you find in so many modern-ish novels.

'The Last Templar' tricked me, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. Yes, there are spoilers ahead. There are several murders, which according to classical mystery story telling should all be connected, but I can't decide whether the actual solutions to the various intrigues breaks an important rule of these kinds of books or not. Or whether it is ultimately satisfying. The high quality of writing means I'll definitely come back for another one or two in the series, though. The trick behind the title is also very misleading, but feels much fairer in how it works.

The world of policing in the medieval age is so completely different as to be fascinating. There are essentially no policemen apart from a few sheriffs and a bailiff or two, and they have to organise a posse if they ever need to investigate trouble. Yes, a posse, often referred to as 'The Hundred'. It is also a world without light, and one with an awful lot of fire. Fire was the high technology of the time, and was a more common method of murder. It's also a world where people would still be crucified and burned at stakes. How strange it all seems now, even while our hero, Simon Puttock the newly chosen Bailiff  of Lydford Castle investigates the murders in his area and meeting his new friend, and suspicious newcomer, Sir Baldwin Furnshill.

Where will this series go? We will have to wait and see. I'll keep going until either the end or the onset of fatigue.