Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Book: 'The Voyage Of The Beagle' (1839) by Charles Darwin

Finally, it is finished. The odyssey is completed, which through various lengthy interruptions and other lapses has taken literal years to be read in its entirety. The voyage is over, and Darwin showed as much relief at the conclusion as the reader would, as it is a lengthy journal, and one in which a lot of attention is paid to detail. There is a lot of detail, shown somewhat indiscriminately at times, to politics or social geography and the natural world. For Darwin, the journey lasted many years, and consumed a significant portion of his life.

The value of 'The Voyage Of The Beagle' is perhaps more valuable for its picture of a world long gone than for its contribution to natural history. We get snapshots of lots of the more remote cultures of the early nineteenth century and of the world before industrialisation. At least, it was before the grand bulk industrialisation that created the modern world. There is a certain honesty in how Darwin views the primitive peoples, sometimes agreeable and sometimes slightly distasteful, but always honest. In a world where we are almost gagged by peer pressure against saying anything honestly, that is more interesting than you might imagine.

The famous interlude in the Galapagos Islands takes place far past the mid-point of the narrative, on the far side of South America, where the bulk of the journal's entries take place. If you had to choose to describe the main locale, it would indeed be South America (and its islands), followed by Australia and Tazmania. The Galapagos Islands form a small part indeed. Darwin did quite a lot of hiking in the interiors, spent a lot of time on horses, completely ignored the sea travel in his published notes, and didn't pay as much attention to the wildlife as I thought he would. He also spared time for geology, landscape and longer-term processes.

There are only very occasional flashes of what Darwin would later come to be known for in 'The Voyage Of The Beagle', mainly in pursuing theories on incremental geological changes. If you're looking for a mass of evolutionary theory, then this is not the book to read, but if you're looking for a historical travel-log then this might be for you. Yes, there are some tedious episodes, especially in the earlier phases of the book, but it is worth the effort. Is it hypocritical to say that after stopping so many times? Uh-oh. There could be a problem here. The Quirky Muffin might implode from the contradictory pressure.

Okay, one note: This is definitely a book you need to work at. It is very prone to being put down and then left for a while. Bear that in mind. Darwin could string a few sentences together with skill.


Saturday, 15 December 2018

Books: A Trio Of Verne Novels

As a prelude to the next book-related post, which will be another official addition to Project Catch-Up, it is now time to jabber on about the three Jules Verne novels re-read during this awful Year Of Sickness. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 8, the first manned trip to lunar orbit, and next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11, the actual first Moon landing. Apollo 10 and Apollo 12 also flew in 1969. It was a big year, but Jules Verne wrote about such a voyage more than a hundred years earlier. A whole century earlier, when steam-powered locomotion was the grand innovation. Anyway, let's get on to Mr Verne.

'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth' (1864) by Jules Verne
What would happen if you found an ancient message from a noted alchemist, telling you that it was possible to travel down to the centre of the Earth? What would you do? That's the core of this, my favourite and most read Verne novel. It's a grand and old fashioned adventure, which starts with a puzzle, continues with a grand journey, and never features an antagonist. It's all about the journey, the legacy of the alchemist Arne Saknussen, geology, and the exploration of a nice 'what if?'. What if the world didn't have a hot core, and instead featured a great subterranean lake, fringed with primitive lands and inhabited by prehistoric beasties? Well, it's mostly geology, with one quite harrowing sequence when our protagonist Axel is separated from the party and gets trapped in the dark. Being lost without light in a cave hundreds of miles from the world we know is one of the most horrific things I've ever read.

'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth' is a recommended read, even though I think some people would get bored by the geological references, which I find rather endearing. Verne mostly incorporated his 'scientific content' within the descriptions and prose rather than in the story or dialogue, but it works well here, for me. The puzzle at the beginning is lovely, and finding runes in an adventure story is amazing. How many times does Iceland feature in an adventure or a science-fiction story? How often does an eccentric geology professor drive the plot? It's wonderful and charming, and the ending is so daft as to be endearing.

'From The Earth To The Moon' (1865) by Jules Verne
'Round The Moon' (1870) by Jules Verne

I didn't re-read these for a long, long time. Now, after going through them a second time, it's half clear why. 'From The Earth To The Moon' is by far the better story of the two, but it is entirely about organising the great journey of the title. It's all the setup, with the final moments being the launch. 'Round The Moon' is essentially three men in a space capsule, conducting a passive survey of the Moon's geography when their landing is fouled. It's very hard to get interested in three people watching scenery through a porthole for the vast majority of the reading time. The journeying time to and from the Moon is much better though, except for some moments involving one of the dogs, which are very disturbing to my mind.

Getting back to 'From The Earth To The Moon', we find a wonderful exercise in imagination, pre-dating the Apollo program by almost exactly a century. Yes, the capsule is shot out of a gigantic cannon sunk vertically into the ground, but the genesis of the whole endeavour is fascinating and endearing. The machinations and details of how exactly it is going to work (it would kill the astronauts in the real world) is less so. Cities rise, economies are forged, political influences determine sites, industries are built up, and there are many meetings. Some of it works, but we mostly wait to see what happens to the president of the Baltimore Gun Club's great project, and whether he will come into conflict with his rival in the armory world, while being vaguely annoyed at the late introduction of the 'motivating' European character.

In contrast to 'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth', where geology is mixed in fairly well, the lunar geography and space travel mechanics is incorporated quite clumsily in 'Round The Moon', which is in principle a three-way dialogue over several days. It doesn't work as well, sadly, and does become dull for a moderately long time. Perhaps it's just me. However, a lot of the things built in to the journey itself were very prescient, foreshadowing the great events that followed a hundred years later.

Whether voyaging to the centre of the Earth or to our own natural satellite, Jules Verne was an incredible prophet of things to come. How did he do it? We haven't even covered nuclear submarines in 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea'! What a mind he must have had. He conjured it all up, or put it all together from the scientific speculation of the day.


Sunday, 25 November 2018

Books: 'The Happy Return', 'A Ship Of The Line' and 'Flying Colours' (Hornblower) (1937-1938) by CS Forester

Where to begin? This is a tough one. My CS Forester knowledge was always very limited. I know that I watched the Gregory Peck 'Hornblower' movie at one point, and that 'Flying Colours' must have been read at some point as the squeamish moment of the ligatures has endured in the memory. However, everything else has faded or is connected to the ITV television mini-series, which was based on later published novels. In fact, this opening trilogy is very connected to the Peck movie's narrative. That movie needs to be watched again.

'The Happy Return', 'A Ship Of The Line' and 'Flying Colours' were published in quick succession, followed by a long interruption due to the Second World War, and can easily be considered to be a self-contained story, detached from all the other novels. Indeed, each of the three books is also quite distinct. 'The Happy Return' is an introduction and a tale of a down-on-his-luck Hornblower assigned to a mission in South America and facing countless hardships during his duties. 'A Ship Of The Line' is a great tale of Hornblower on the ascendant, and eventually going too far and sacrificing himself in his zeal to ensure a greater victory. Finally, 'Flying Colours' is a tale of the captain's ensuing imprisonment in France and the following escape and flight back to Britain. It is a very distinct trilogy indeed.

Apart from the derring do and naval adventure on display in the novels, both of which are considerable, the thrust of the Hornblower novels so far seems to be in painting a pen portrait of a deeply insecure and unconfident captain, who cuts himself off from his crew and officers in order to conceal his doubts and perceived flaws, and whose personal life on shore is tortured by self-imposed duty to an unloved wife. Hornblower is quite the tortured human being, which is one of the main differences from his space-faring successor James T Kirk, but not from his naval fiction descendant Jack Aubrey. Oh, Horatio, you do have a knack for confusion on land, don't you? And falling in love with a noble lady, too? You dopey idiot, you.

It was surprising to find, on this first official reading, just how fresh these novels were. Yes, 'Flying Colours' did drag a little, but that may just have been because it was the last of three read in a very short time. That old world is captured very well, and with as much accuracy of detail as would have been possible. Forester seems to have had a fascination with historical fiction, and life on the water. 'The African Queen' was a staggering achievement indeed. Hornblower doesn't quite live up to that one-off.

As an extended story, as a trilogy, these three novels are slightly disjointed but it does work well. 'The Happy Return' is a great and fresh maritime adventure, 'A Ship Of The Line' is a fine war story with a surprising ending, and 'Flying Colours' is an extended prison escape story, with a very sudden ending. It's a good trilogy. Well done, CS Forester. I should never have avoided you for so long. It was the ligatures that did it.


Sunday, 9 September 2018

Books: The Literary Reflection, XIII

Yet again, it's time to do the potted reviews of books that didn't quite make it to a full review for whatever reason. It doesn't mean that they were bad, necessarily! They might be good but without being truly noteworthy or significant.

'Spend Game' (Lovejoy) (1981) by Jonathan Gash

A grand improvement. It's not entirely clear why it's a big improvement, but my best guess would be the departure from formula and the continued effort spent in integrating the differing continuities of the first few novels as we get into this fourth episode in the 'Lovejoy' stories. On the other hand, it's a bit swearier, which counts against it. The mystery is much more mysterious, with a red herring detail that I followed down a rabbit hole, and has a nice bit of psychology making Lovejoy's situation much more perilous than any of the previous entries. Very good. Bring on some more of the series! Crikey, there should be some description of the story, perhaps? Lovejoy is drawn into a mystery sounding the death of an old army mate, literally dumped in the road in front of him, and his connections to a strange railway enigma. Yes, railways are involved, making a double hook. Ah...

'The Last Defender Of Camelot' (1980) by Roger Zelazny

This is not to be confused with the much later collection of the same name but different contents, This 'The Last Defender Of Camelot' was read over such a long period, that the earlier portions are now lost in a hazy recollection. Lots of the stories are excellent and brilliantly written, but Zelazny does fall into the classical paradigm of people trying to be taken seriously: He is absolutely unwilling to write a happy ending to anything. Anything! The anthology comprises many, many short stories, which cumulatively become a massive downer if you read too many in a row. Some time in the future, I will again write a massive diatribe about how ludicrous it is that misery is critically acclaimed. Aaaargh. Having said that, the titular story almost breaks that coda, and is really rather stunning in its simplicity, being the last story of Lancelot, a thousand years late. 'For A Breath, I Tarry' is also rather stunning, a future Eden story in fact. Oh, it's a great collection, but you can't read it all in one go, as the cumulative effect of great but sad stories like 'He Who Shapes', 'Damnation Alley', and even 'The Stainless Steel Leech' will leave you ragged.

'Rendezvous In Russia' (2014) by Lauren St John

The final novel in the 'Laura Marlin Mysteries' has been laid to rest, and it was about on a level with the others. It's a solid juvenile adventure mystery geared to the younger end, and it's hard as an adult to really make any kind of judgement. The telegraphing of plot points is very strong, which makes it a bit of a problem, and the depiction of Russia is a bit hard to reconcile with what we're presented (distorted or not) in the news, but it's still solid. It's a ridiculously tidy and neat ending, though. All in all, a good set of books to keep around if you're a sometime English tutor. You will read these, little people, and this other pile too! Get to it! Grraaaaa!

'The Lost World' (1912) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Oh, that cheeky Arthur Conan Doyle, fooling us with all those historical novels and Sherlock Holmes mysteries, before blowing the doors off with this genre giant, 'The Lost World'! Dinosaurs! Ape men! Lost plateaux in the Amazon! It's a grand old adventure, in the same field as 'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth', but not quite on that exalted level. The social changes in the intervening century have made the hunting aspect of the story much less acceptable, even though it was a radically different thing at the time than the industrial hunting we have now. Also, attitudes towards hired native help and stereotypes have changed, but you have to take the rough with the smooth. There be dinosaurs here! For all the cliches, Zambo was an excellent guy.

'Star Trek: Probe' (1992) by Margaret Wander Bonanno

The 'Star Trek' novels really degenerated into a tick box exercise of filling in continuity gaps and interlinking things that didn't need to be connected after a while, but this was before all that. This is 'Probe' by the excellent Margaret Wander Bonanno (who wrote a few more sterling Trek novels besides this), a sequel to the events of 'Star Trek IV' and in many ways a complement to the much maligned 'Star Trek V' as well as providing a further thread feeding into 'Star Trek VI'. It still feels like its own entity, somehow, despite even probably referencing the Borg. 'Probe' succeeds by telling a simple story that is consistent in terms of character, tenor and 'Star Trek' in general, without feeling at all derivative or forced. Yes, there is that plethora of connections, but they're incidental. It's entirely credible that that giant probe from 'The Voyage Home' would return to investigate the mystery of the disappearing and reappearing whales. It would have to travel from somewhere, so why not have it traverse the Romulan Star Empire, and coincide with a fragile Romulan peace initiative? As 'Star Trek' novels go, this is one of the good ones. Bonanno could indeed write.

'The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge' (1970) by Harry Harrison

We're a little out of sequence here, having read this second 'Steel Rat' novel after the third ('The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World'), but it doesn't seem to make a huge difference. This is much better than its successor, mainly due to doing one thing coherently instead of zapping around in time and doing three things less well. Or, to be fairer, this one lives up to its potential better. Slippery Jim DiGriz is swiftly pushed into marriage with his true love, the ex-homicidal and currently very pregnant Angelina, before being pressed into a special and very perilous mission by the Special Corps. Can he stop a new star empire expanding just by himself? There is the usual amount of humour, the usual cavalcade of gorgeous (but not gratuitously described) female characters, and the plot that is a level above what you would expect of a comedic science-fiction novel. Therer's still a lot of drug-related behaviour and plot development, though, which was symptomatic of the times. I imagine that they thought that all kinds of things would be safely achieved via pharmaceutical constructions at the time. What a different world, and a different attitude! In any case, this series is so far recommended. What will happen with the fourth instalment, though?


Saturday, 8 September 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Mad, Mad, Tea Party Affair' (1965) (Aired 1x18, Produced 1x21)

We return to UNCLE after missing 'The Secret Sceptre Affair' due to it being a bit dull. In the series's defence, it would be practically impossible to make twenty-nine episodes in a season and not have a few duller entries in the back half of the run. There are also some very good shows in that back half! Barbara Feldon will be appearing soon...

'The Mad Mad Tea Party Affair' has an interesting twist on the Involved Innocent conceit as well as a standard version, and is actually one of the cutest episodes of the season. 'Tea Party' begins with an ordinary looking man (Richard Haydn) launching a model plane in a park and watching it fly away, describing it as a 'sort of' suicide mission to some helping youths. The plane crashes into UNCLE headquarters, with the written message 'Boom! You're dead!' in the wreckage, and so the misadventures begin. Later on, there will be guppies. You have been warned.

Haydn's mischief maker is swiftly joined in the bystander stakes by a goofily deeply voiced Zohra Lampert as the woman he shoves through the secret UNCLE entrance at Del Floria's in order to occupy the agents' time while he probes their security at Mr Waverley's (who was trapped in a bathroom without his pipe, egads) request. The actual villainy of the episode is a plot by THRUSH (including the extremely beautiful Lee Meriwether briefly) to disrupt a vital diplomatic meeting at headquarters. How do the diplomats get in? Is there an official entrance somewhere? We never get the answers! An explosive conference table and a mole within UNCLE comprise the villainous scheme, but in an era of mass smoking, was it wise to make the detonators ash trays?

It's a great cast, Lampert's odd delivery not withstanding, and Waverley demonstrates his deep organising power yet again. Oh, and the cool factor is back again. We get all of this while almost never leaving the standing UNCLE sets, which makes this a very ambitious bottle episode. Bottle episodes are our friends, and always have been. There's something very powerful about winding up your actors, and letting them loose in a set with a well-written script.

We have a clear run to the end of the season now, people. Let's have fun with it!


Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Book: 'The Rainbow Trail' (1915) by Zane Grey

This is impressive, maybe just as impressive as the first half of the story, which was contained in 'Riders Of The Purple Sage'. 'The Rainbow Trail' (TRT) is a great example of successfully looking at the end of one story, asking 'what if?', and actually producing a good second part. There are few examples of that being done successfully... No, 'Riders' is probably a bit better but simultaneously denser and more difficult, so there are checks and balances in play. All together, it's a grand (unplanned?) two-part story.

TRT is a great Western epic, which spans a year of narrative, or more, and is centred around an ex-preacher called John Shefford. His quest is to discover the fate of the mismatched trio of Lassiter, Jane and little Fay following the events of the first novel, where they were walled into the mini-paradise that was Surprise Valley as an escape from their Mormon pursuers, vengeful at Jane for abandoning her creed. We get more criticism of the Mormons here, such criticism being common for the period, but with more nuance as the youngest generation of that creed perform far more admirably according to the lights of the story.

While 'Riders' was more of a siege story, this is a road novel, with a mock trial and an escape punctuating the two parts of the journey. Shefford is an interesting protagonist to follow in his journey, morphing as he does from a confused ex-preacher through several states. However, the really interesting character is Nas Ta Bega, his Navajo soul brother, who helps and guides him, and who is suffering for the slow demise of his nation. Joe Lake, the allied Mormon, is also a good character to bring in, proving as he does that progress is going to be made. The Shefford story is intertwined with the much shorter (in pages, not time) story of Fay, imperilled in her own little drama, which is in many ways a complement to the whole story. In fact, every other character's story is a complement to Shefford's.

The strengths of TRT are the incredibly wonderful descriptions of the terrains and landscapes of the story, the sparsely written but well defined characterisations, and a great sense of wonder and danger in the wilderness and canyon country.

Very recommended, except for some ant-related peril. Yikes.


Friday, 10 August 2018

Board Game: 'Spy Club' (2018)

Forty Variations Of Something Nice

With one whole campaign of this co-operative now in the bag, playing solitaire as two players and only going slightly mad in the process, it's time to talk a little about 'Spy Club'.

This board/card game popped up on Kickstarter a year ago, and arrived just a couple of weeks ago. It's a quietly fascinating non-destructive and replayable campaign game, which is effectively a set of forty variations of a basic game, with some extra modifier cards which are persistent once they've been unlocked.

The basic game is about working out the details of a minor crime as a bunch of kid detectives, which is achieved by collecting sets of cards of each of five colours, one at a time. The 'bad stuff' phase, typical of almost all co-operative board games, is managed by a little suspect pawn who moves around the different player boards in a circle, with a set event occurring for each colour of card he might land on.

The base game is pretty hard, but the theme is wonderful and light, with none of the lurking dread common to most co-op games. Even if you don't fully succeed, you will pin down some of the aspects of the crime, to pass on to the police. There is no absolute failure here, but there is a definite race against time in that there will be only twenty-two turns, and several other other fail conditions. The potential for storytelling goodness is very good, as you try to build a narrative between the motive, suspect, location, object and crime cards that you've successfully nominated. What could link the garbage man, the ice cream shop, revenge, a stamp and a prank? What? And how does it relate to the 'master crime' being pinned down in the campaign?

The campaign of variations is a great concept and well executed. My experience is limited to a small number of games, but the ingenuity that has been employed in finding different ways to 'solve' the case using only the equipment provided is clear to see. Sometimes the variations make it harder, and sometimes easier. Sometimes they change the game in a major way, and sometimes just add an extra condition for winning. The only minor gripe I would have after this limited experience is that the campaign persistent modifications seem quite rare.

Aesthetically, it's very pretty, very thematic and very light. There is no gloom or doom here. The illustrations and art are beautiful. This is a recommended game.

Now, we just need a few more co-operative games which are thematically on the lighter side.


Thursday, 9 August 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Deadly Decoy Affair' (1965) (Aired 1x15, Produced 1x19)

Ilya really worked well in this episode. He almost held his own with Napoleon. Of course, it helped that they were both being duped by a far more devious mind, or even two far more devious minds, but it's still nice to see him get his due. Oh, what devious webs these spy masters weave. Actually, maybe there were three far more devious minds, but who can keep count in a spy show?

In 'The Deadly Decoy Affair', which is again a beautifully pretty episode, Napoleon and Ilya are assigned, after an off-duty altercation, to escort a decoy for a captured THRUSH bigwig to Washington, while Waverley takes the real superspy by heavily armed transport. Of course, we know who's going to get all the attention, don't we?

It's a pretty nice caper, on many levels, as our pursued dynamic duo and their prisoner become entangled with the Innocent of the week in a dress shop, unfortunate handcuffings occur and there's a cross-country chase. We even get a stop at an Amish house, and a Hitchcockian moment in passing the bound together villain and Innocent as newlyweds, but of course Napoleon uses his window lurking tendencies to good effect to keep the peace. Also in the category of Hitchcockian twists, we get a train journey which goes awry, and a blind THRUSH spymaster.

The enduring virtues of this first season of UNCLE are all on display here: Beautiful black and white photography, excellently paced and witty storytelling, a charming antagonist (or is he????), some lovely Walter Scharf jazzy music, and of course Robert Vaughn. He is the King Of Cool. Leo G Carroll could well have been the King of Cool in his earlier career, which is why he is perfectly cast as part of the regular UNCLE triumvirate. Witness, for example, the effortless Waverley karate chop and his deeply devious machinations. There should also be a special mention for Ralph Taeger as THRUSH prisoner Egon Stryker, who almost manages to out-cool Robert Vaughn, and another to the blind THRUSH spy hunter co-ordinating their chase. This episode is definitely recommended. I suppose the Innocent of the week is a bit bland, to make a negative.

We're well into our closing straight on 'The Man From UNCLE'. Next, 'The Secret Sceptre Affair', if all goes well.


Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Television: 'The West Wing: Inauguration - Over There' (2003) (Episode 4x14)

This is a joyous episode of 'The West Wing', as if Aaron Sorkin had finally put all the baggage of the election storyline in the past, and focussed on just making the best half-season of television possible before his departure. All the favourite supporting characters are pulled back in, Bartlet is indeed allowed to be Bartlet, Josh and Donna are getting lots of screen time, and my favourite character of Will Bailey is here, punching above his weight for just half a season and putting the departed Sam Seaborn into an almost instant forgotten limbo. Sam who? Rob Lowe who? It's Joshua Malina all the way to the end now, people! It must have been nice to not have Rob Lowe (reportedly) agitating for more screen time constantly. Oh, and Danny and Zoey are back too. It's almost as if season one is picking up all over again.

One of the continuing natural storylines of the series was that of Bartlet allowing himself to do the right thing, despite a lifetime of holding himself in due to the restrictions of his offices and of looking to the future. That was all the limitation we ever really needed in the show, with the rotten MS storyline being an extremely forced method to make re-election look like something less than an absolutely certainty. The daddy issues hampering him in the campaign a bit better, though. Here, we get the ultimate version of the Bartlet dilemma, where the standard policy of only intervening in overseas conflicts when Americans are endangered finally comes to a crunch, and needling from the newly arrived Will and some influencing from Laurel and Hardy finally push him into following his conscience. Thus, we get the best of Bartlet and the best of Will, against the backdrop of an inauguration and several balls, concluding in the formalization of Will's continuing role in the West Wing. It's classical, and there can never be too much of Stan and Ollie.

In other parts of the episode, we get things for absolutely everyone to do. CJ gets to bounce off of the returned Danny, Danny gets to bounce off absolutely everyone delightfully when he's in the party to get a wrongfully shamed Donna out of her apartment and into the balls, Toby and Josh get several wonderful moments of just hanging around and being brilliant, and Charlie gets to assert his love for Zoey Bartlet before realising the battle ahead of him. Everyone gets something to do. Everyone! Well, everyone except Sam Seaborn, who is inexplicably absent and promoted to non-existence at the end.

Ultimately, this could be analysed to death, but the secret to the wonder of this episode is that it's plainly joyous, and increasingly so as the episode goes on. The right thing was going to be done, we all knew it was going be done, and then it was. Tears of joy were shed. Brilliant, and if you weren't already in love with Donna, then here is occasion eighty-four for that to happen. All hail Janel Moloney.


Sunday, 5 August 2018

Book: 'The Black Spectacles' a.k.a. 'The Problem Of The Green Capsule' (1939) by John Dickson Carr

These earlier John Dickson Carr novels from the 1930s really seem to hit a specific button that works with me. The prose is denser, there is more detail, there is a greater tendency to just go off on dialogue tangents, and everything is just a tinge funnier. Ah, 'twas a grand time in the world of mystery writing. On this occasion, in the tenth novel of the Gideon Fell series, an Inspector Elliott (apparently featured in the previous novel) is sent to investigate the goings on and repercussions of a long cold poisoning incident in the village of Sodbury, but arrives to discover a new and even more mysterious murder. Most unfortunately, all the suspects in the murder of Marcus Chesney were witnesses to the event, and one of them is the woman that Elliott loves. Is that a stretch too far, to have the detective be in love with the very definitely prime suspect? In this case, it mostly works.

It's a grand mystery, with lots of minor twists and turns, and one whole character who is a literal red herring, in that we never see him at all! Is that a spoiler? No, of course not. In fact, you could argue that there are two such characters, although that might not really make sense at all. I blame John Dickson Carr for all this foolishness. What an insanely clever writer he was.

One of the games in any Gideon Fell novel is wondering just when the verbose and titanic genius is going to make his entrance. In this case, he doesn't appear until the end of about the first third, and has to be recruited from a spa town after being mentioned at the beginning of the story. He almost gets to give a lecture in the style of that famous chapter from the masterpiece 'The Hollow Man', but it is averted, and he seems to come to grips with the case pretty quickly. The know it all! Fell is actually very diplomatic in this one, withholding information for the inspector's sake, the prime suspect's sake and even just for dramatic effect. The critical twists are pretty good this time, with one being provided by the dead man himself, which will be an inexplicable lure to a reader yet to get through 'The Black Spectacles'.

There hasn't been much on the plot of the novel here, has there? It's partly intentional, as talking about the story of an 'impossible mystery' is definitely not a helpful thing to do. The reveal is very nice, and is best not even approached. It's better to talk about the inexplicable opening in Italy instead.

Thank goodness for John Dickson Carr.


Monday, 16 July 2018

Book: 'The Worm Ouroboros' (1922) by Eric Rucker Eddison

This is the very definition of epic, and not just because I read it over two periods separated by years! To be accurate, the second time was a complete restart, but let's not quibble. 'The Work Ouroboros' is a classical exercise in writing a one volume, self-contained, stand-alone fantasy. It was also apparently based on the childhood stories invented by Eric Rucker Eddison, an author now mostly buried in obscurity. In fact, my purchase was motivated almost entirely by a mention of this novel in relation to David Eddings, one of my early favourite fantasy authors, and not from any popular repute. 'Ouroboros' is more epic than most other fantasy or science fiction novels I've ever read, but at the cost of being horribly hard to get into due to a necessary acclimatization to the prose style. You're going to need some true reading skills and patience at the outset of this one, before it all snaps into place! (This was even harder in my case due to the awful optical character recognition and typesetting used in my copy. Diabolically bad. Must get a different edition.)

It's a marathon novel, covering the epic conflict over many years between the peoples known as the Witches and the Demons of the world Mercury. They aren't actually witches or demons, nor are the other people really ghouls, goblins or pixies. They're all just arbitrary names, as is Mercury, which bears no importance to the narrative. Yes, the demons are mentioned to have horns once, but it's quickly forgotten, as is the entire gimmick of the opening, where a man called Blessington is transported in spirit to a birthday celebration for the rulers of the Witches, our heroes, as part of an astral jaunt. One chapter for Blessington, and then gone. Perhaps he imagined the horns?

The conflict truly is a long and majestic one, with many twists and turns, and is mainly between the triumvirate (technically a tetrarchy, but one is missing for most of the novel) of Demon Lords, and the reincarnating dark king Gorice of the Witches. There be dark mystical arts at play, a grand quest, desperate contests between generals, a time-lost queen banished to the edge of the world, court intrigues and one of the most ambiguous and twisty protagonists in the world of adventures in the form of Lord Gro, the goblin of shifting loyalties. Gro is possibly the most interesting of everyone in the work, as his changes are extremely well motivated. He's just a thwarted romantic, really! We never really address the waste of lives inherent to all the battles and conflicts, but this is not that kind of novel to begin with, and our modern judgement of military conflict is not in tune with any other era's in any way.

This was extremely enjoyable, after the settling in period. The only aspects that I really dislike in retrospect are the prologue and the epilogue. The prologue establishes the previously mentioned novelty which is swiftly thrown away, while the epilogue effectively undoes the main thrust of the whole narrative in a bid to have the novel literally become repeating, instead of just having the evil King be the representation of recursion in fiction. However, these are small things to worry about in reality. 'Ouroboros' was a grand exercise, and it would be nice to go on to the Eddison trilogy that awaits in the future.

Wow. Completely out of the blue, a classic.


Sunday, 8 July 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Fiddlesticks Affair' (1965) (Aired 1x16, Produced 1x18)

We're passing over 'The Terbuf Affair', which introduced some back story and an old flame for Napoleon, but was mostly unmemorable. Instead, it's time for a good old fashioned heist movie as Solo and Kuryakin aim to break into a THRUSH vault deep beneath a European casino and burn up a large portion of that villainous organisation's budget. Yes, it's time for our chaps to get proactive! What a lovely change of pace it is.

We have two variations on the 'innocent of the week' in this instance, one real and one counterfeit. The counterfeit innocent is a rascally bank robber (played by Dan O'Herlihy from 'The Last Starfighter') that Napoleon and Ilya coerce into helping them do the break-in, but who is really allied with THRUSH, while the true one is a bored American girl (Marlyn Mason) who Solo woos into acting as a diversion. Of course he wooed her. Ilya gets all the awful jobs, like any good sidekick, and Napoleon gets all the wooing and the the glamorous end of the heist. On the other hand, Solo does almost get gassed to death, so maybe the distribution isn't so unfair after all.

The real guest star to watch out for this time is Ken Murray, playing the casino owner, and THRUSH kingpin, Anton Korbel. Murray was a showman, and really took over any scene he was in to great effect just by waving his cigar around. It's a shame that he didn't get a bigger showdown with the UNCLE agents, but we can't have everything. The last few episodes have put a much darker edge on the characters of Solo and Kuryakin; they really are very ruthless and sometimes darkly manipulative. They really do push O'Herlihy's bank cracker onto their side by the most nefarious of extortions, and the thrill-seeking lady is soon trying to sell them on her own ideas for capers at the end. She really was pretty brave to go through with that tantrum. Oh, the corrupting influence, the diabolical tendencies! Is UNCLE really the bad organisation after all???

It's really a very enjoyable episode, although it lacks the lightness of touch of the very best ones. It's not exactly heavy-handed, by any means, but not the super-stylish caper we've seen in other instalments. It's probably inevitable, after such a strong (and presumably very expensive) start to the season, and with so many episodes still to come, that the strain would begin to tell. It's still a good episode, despite this nit-picking. What an elaborate vault setup that casino had!

Alas, we have only eleven episodes left. What a shame! What fun this is!


Thursday, 5 July 2018

The Literary Reflection, XII

It is once again time to break weblog silence and blabber a little about some of the things read recently, which won't be getting posts of their own. And, here we go, with lots and lots of 'Lovejoy' in the mix...

'The Judas Pair' (1977) (Lovejoy) by Jonathan Gash
The rogue-ish Lovejoy makes his debut here, with so many typos in the edition that I read that I almost went mad! Is there no proofreading in the world? Whole missing words or some needing to be entirely replaced is substandard indeed. However, it's still a brilliant little gem, although the attitude towards women is a little misleading at times. Yes, he's saying some pretty sexist things in the first person narrative, but his actions are actually saying something contrary. Or are they? He does bash that woman at the beginning, and shoves her in the bathroom. I've sort of lost track. Lovejoy is commonly described as 'rogueish' for a reason. I've already done it myself! 'The Judas Pair' is a great antiques-laden thriller, despite the typesetting woes, and the narrative is both compelling and funny. It is very short, though, and comparatively slight, prompting inclusion here, rather than in its own post. This could be a very good sequence of novels, although I don't know how Gash is going to continue any kind of status quo after such destruction and mayhem...

'Gold From Gemini' (1978) (Lovejoy) by Jonathan Gash
... but maybe he didn't even try. What happened to continuity? The cottage is back, the local population is changed, with many replacements? Lovejoy has a married lover called Janie, and a dimwit apprentice called Algernon? Only Tinker and a couple of supporting characters, one of whom is murdered, support this not being a restart. Perhaps it's from earlier in the life of Lovejoy? Maybe he's broke because he rebuilt his cottage? What is going on? He's not quite so violent this time around, and the mystery is very nice. An unknown master painter (and forger) supposedly knew where some ancient Roman gold was hidden on the Isle of Man, but was murdered. Lovejoy, followed by his unwanted allies Janie and Algernon, end up on the Isle, caught up in a confrontation with a murderer and some scenic wanderings. This one might be our closest approach to the television version of 'Lovejoy', with Janie and Algernon being reasonably close to the screen Janie and Eric. Tinker is still far too much a human wreckage though. The worry is that this second book has established a formula, being structured similarly to 'The Judas Pair'. Is every novel going to be essentially the same? Will he ever stop trashing women in his first person narrative? Is he being serious?

'The Vulcan Academy Murders' (1984) (Star Trek) by Jean Lorrah
This is a nice little 'Star Trek' novel, which paints in a lot of the Spock/Sarek/Amanda backstory and the events that transpired after 'Journey To Babel'. Of course, every trip to Vulcan includes a murder mystery, and experimental science, doesn't it? I think it's a rule. Sadly, the culprit is pretty well telegraphed here, but it all works well as a further exploration of Spock's wacky homeworld, which very much goes against the uniformly desert-ravaged screen version. One episode in a desert region does not mean the whole planet is a sandy hole, screen writers! It is nice to get Kirk, McCoy and Spock in a non-mission situation for once.

'The Grail Tree' (1979) (Lovejoy) by Jonathan Gash
And now, with the third 'Lovejoy' novel, we reach a crossroads. The formula is deeply ingrained at this point, as seen in the first two novels outlined above. Is anything going to change, or is going to be same thing but different details each time? Yes, it's different to have a supposed Holy Grail as the object this time, and a showdown in a local museum is unique, but the mysteriously rotating characters of the local antiques trade are becoming a bit vexing. What happened to X and Y, and how did T suddenly become a well established character? Putting all that aside, it's a very well executed book, and Lovejoy's new amorous apprentice Lydia is kind of interesting. Will she back next time, though, or is she just another phantom, due to mysteriously disappear next time? How could she? Her final bargain is rather pivotal! Only time will tell. Maybe one more novel in the series wouldn't be a big stretch, but if Lovejoy ends up pursuing vengeance for the death of someone he just met again, we may have to reassess...

'The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World' (1972) by Harry Harrison
In this, the second of the 'Stainless Steel Rat' books, we get time travel, continuity loops, pulpy thrills, piles of heists, and loads of laughs. It's a solid little mix, reminiscent of a cross between Dortmunder and Jasper Fforde. It's a shame that it's so slight, though, as it feels like there is a seed of something far more monumental in this series to date. In 'Saves The World', Slippery Jim is sent back in time from a disintegrating future to stop the meddlers who are changing history. Does he succeed in restoring the future and his wife and kids? Does it only take one jaunt through time? Just who is the mysterious villain known only as 'He'? Why are so many questions being asked? You might have to read to find out. This is better written than the first novel in the sequence, but not quite so novel. On the other hand, there are lots of things in 'Saves The World' that you just won't find in other sequences. The 'drugs as tools' aspect is a bit weirder now than it was in the early 1970s, though. Oh well, it is what it was. It's possible that is a setup for a really good third entry, so let's see what happens.


Thursday, 14 June 2018

Book: 'The Seedling Stars' (1957) by James Blish

Suppose, for a moment, that the consensus view on moving out into the stars was a little wonky, and had been manipulated by vested interests bent on making money through one specific methodology. (Where have we heard something like that before?) Suppose that there were another ultimately cheaper but more contentious strategy for populating less than suitable worlds by something other than terraforming. What if we changed the people instead of the planets, and then left them to proliferate on their own, seedlings of new adapted humanities across the galaxy? How does that sound? Pretty weird? Yes!

'The Seedling Stars' is a fix-up of three connected short stories and an abbreviated epilogue, concerning the origins of adaptation and some case examples of adapted people on other worlds. It's an amazing work of great scope, while still being remarkably adventurous in its construction. It's important to do both: to be both an enjoyable story and one which pushes at interesting ideas. Blish has such a track record with 'Cities In Flight' and 'A Case Of Conscience', and this does not disappoint that tradition, adding in a discussion of how much humans can be adapted before they stop being humans. Oh, and of course, the continued prejudices of humanity. Racial differences will be of little import when there are gilled amphiboid humans, hairy tree-dwelling humans, and cold-blooded humans who run on entirely different kinds of blood to exist on the Moon or the moons of Jupiter!

Why think small when you can adapt humans to other worlds instead of other worlds to humans? There could giants as well as people only an inch tall. There could be water dwellers and people who live on clouds, tree climbers in addition to hole diggers, and even people who live in the gaps between dimensions and in black holes. Would it be the right thing to do, though? In 2018, that answer is still just as fuzzy as it has ever been.

There are three stories: 'The Seeding Program', 'The Thing In The Attic', and 'Surface Tension', the last of which is the most famous and involves a crashed spaceship seeding a puddle with some adapted people based on the genetic material of the doomed and few remaining crewmembers. They're the most alien people of the three sets considered, being less than an inch tall, sporulating and therefore hibernating in shells during the Winter, dwelling in the water, and having lost all of their heritage in the process. For them, life is all about beating down the natural predators, and eventually reaching and exploring the other 'worlds' of different puddles in the neighbourhood. Space to them is air and less filtered sunshine. It's fascinating, but I prefer 'The Thing In The Attic', with it's tree people and a band of un-Orthodox exiles rediscovering life on the surface. Finally, the first story is much closer to being an origin tale for the set, revolving around yet another dystopian future Earth, but it has its moments.

Toss the coin. Shall we change planets or ourselves?


Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Literary Reflection, XI

It's once again time to take a ramble through the recently read novels that don't quite warrant a special post all of their own. Never fear, for Groucho is here, as are John Dickson Carr and Tony Hawks? There really has been a lot of reading this year so far, proving that even pneumonia had a good side.

'Groucho Marx, Secret Agent' (2002) by Ron Goulart

This, the fifth entry out of six, is definitely the best story so far in the Groucho mysteries. It all hangs together, Groucho's lines are lovely, and we have both Nazi spies and the sleaze of Hollywood to uncover over the course of the slight narrative. It's not quite so slight this time, though. Why does this one work better? Perhaps it's the espionage aspect? Or the backdrop of series narrator Frank Denby's imminent fatherhood? Or the increased distance from the heyday of the Marx Brothers movies, when it becomes more likely that Groucho would have time to do all these things? Or maybe Goulart hit a rich vein of form? I would like to hope that the final entry in the series will be the best of the lot, but we will have to wait and see...

'Groucho Marx, King Of The Jungle' (2005) by RonGoulart

... what happens. Sadly, after 'Groucho Marx, Secret Agent', this last instalment reverts to being a bit of a letdown. It's a patchy series overall, but there's a sense of melancholy underlying 'Groucho Marx, King Of The Jungle', as times are definitely a'changing. This time, the very imminently parental Frank Denby and fading movie star Groucho are caught up in the death of the death of the star currently playing the mighty Ty-Gor, King Of The Jungle. We get all the usual twists, all the rambling about chatting to the usual sources of information, and a general sense of things getting serious as the war in Europe rumbles on and our protagonist duo even dig up a mouldering corpse. Not the best, but at least we got a little more pseudo-Groucho in our reading lives.

'The Nine Wrong Answers' (1952) by John Dickson Carr

So far in my sporadic munching through Carr, I've either been highly pleased or mildly satisfied. This definitely falls into the latter category. It's an extremely clever thriller, with a great novelty of including nine footnoted explanations throughout the narrative of why the theory you have probably just developed is wrong, and then a culmination at the end in which the nine RIGHT answers are revealed in a confrontation with the villain of the piece. It all makes sense, but it's not a spectacular read, just a  very good one. The book's protagonist Bill is talked into impersonating a reluctant heir to a fortune for a few months, until the malignant benefactor has finally deceased, for a healthy fee. There are implied dangers, and before not very long, the heir is dead and Bill is locked into a duel of mortal intrigue. Just what exactly is going on? And are you quick enough (quicker than me) for the footnotes to actually be relevent to your reading experience?

'Round Ireland With A Fridge' (1998) by Tony Hawks

This is a semi-legendary travel log and a mock inspirational story about the famous hitch-hiking journey of Tony Hawks around Ireland, with a fridge. It was a small fridge, on a little trolley, but it was still a fridge. It's definitely funny, but it doesn't quite cast the shadow that its depicted legend does. On the other hand, Tony Hawks is a very funny writer, and does the material justice. It just feels like it could have been... a grander read somehow, but that's wrong. It's the story, or part of it, that really happened. It was real life. There was a fridge, there were innumerable pub stints, several bawdy interludes in the internal monologue, and magnifcent runs of generosity from the Irish people and British and other ex-patriates involved too. It's good, but just a bit too sweary for me. I like them cleaner. Hawks' 'One Hit Wonderland' fits the bill better, but it never would have been written without this one, nor would Danny Wallace's 'Yes Man'. Where do I stand now? Confused.


Monday, 28 May 2018

Book: 'The Stainless Steel Rat' (1961) by Harry Harrison

A fix-up in the grand old sense of the term, in that this is a re-edited merger of the two earlier published shorter stories (in 1957 and 1960), which launched the venerable 'Stainless Steel Rat' series. This is pretty good fare, but there are some grammatical errors and fudges that weaken the narrative more than they should. However, the use of a recruited ex-criminal as the anti-hero protagonist of the novel is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. When did ambivalent heroes first come into use?

Apparently, in the far future everything has become so structured, law-abiding, and homogenised that only the hardiest of society's few remaining deviants, the toughest and most slippery, the 'stainless steel rats', can survive for long. What would happen, however, if a crook (Slippery Jim DiGriz, perhaps) were captured by the Special Corps of the galactic police, and discovered that it was staffed almost entirely by recruited former criminals?

As it turns out, what happens is that Jim jumps into the Corps, and almost immediately jumps out again, after his failed first mission and an encounter with a homicidal genius lady confidence trickster and would-be dictator called Angelina. On the run from the law, and on a quest to hunt down his lady nemesis and also unfortunate love interest, Jim goes through several ordeals before reaching the end of his current story.

There are some unusual moments in the mix here, including an unusual interlude when Jim takes a chemical cocktail in order to think like the mentally imbalanced Angelina and almost goes off the deep end. Of course, with our modern narrative savvy, we know that Jim's exile from the Special might not be as lengthy as he thinks.

Overall, 'The Stainless Steel Rat' is a pretty good read which doesn't quite sustain its length. Does it inspire continued reading through the series? Maybe, if the following volumes are easy to find. This one is almost a classic, but not quite.


Sunday, 27 May 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Yellow Scarf Affair' (1964) (Aired 1x17, Produced 1x16)

Vito Scotti! India! A one-on-one contest of wits with THRUSH! Women!

It's time for an always welcome Napoleon-rich episode, with not an Ilya in sight, and Vaughn pulls it off again. He doesn't have as much to work with as usual, but it still works, partly because of some excellent guest casting, and also due to an unexpected trip to India. Yes, it's time to go international again over there in UNCLE land. (It's also time to makeup some actors to look Indian, but there are two genuine actresses, so they definitely made an effort.)

In 'The Yellow Scarf Affair', a prototype decoding device that has been restolen from THRUSH by our friendly UNCLE is unwittingly restolen again by a mysterious third party. It wasn't just restolen though, for the plane it was travelling on was crashed and the passengers murdered. Could it be a Thuggee plot?

The trail of this prototype, concealed as it is within an explosive typewriter case, leads Solo and an air stewardess ultimately into the lair of her secretly Thuggee father, and only being rescued accidentally and unwillingly by the interference of a THRUSH agent who has been tangling with Solo throughout the whole plot. It all works very well, especially the THRUSH complications, which rhymes with some of the great THRUSH interferences of previous stories. It's a man this time, so none of the sauciness recurs, but it's nice to have a stylish anti-Solo wandering around. We also get a brief appearance from Madge Blake as a genial UNCLE courier and Vito Scotti, the all purpose character actor!

This is a solid example of the great first season of UNCLE, with yet more realistically super-beautiful women, a great escape from a Thuggee temple, and humorous interactions with the despicable THRUSH. Who exactly is the mastermind behind THRUSH, anyway? We know that it's a person, from the information given in previous episodes. The joy here is that this is a show which can be both serious and humorous. What a wonder that would have been in 1964!


Thursday, 3 May 2018

Book: 'The Roaring Trumpet' (1941) by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

It's fascinating to find out that this was first written (as a shorter story) in 1940. This is perhaps the first real prototype 'man travels to another world' story, if you throw away 'A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court' and the 'John Carter' novels. Okay, so it's not the first, but it does predate a second favourite example, 'Three Hearts And Three Lions' by Poul Anderson, by almost fifteen years, which is impressive. However, out of all the stories mentioned, 'The Roaring Trumpet' features a protagonist who chooses to travel between the worlds, which is an important distinction. Yes, he ended up in a different world to the one he planned, but it was an expedition instead of an accident, and what an expedition! The central conceit is that we are capable of experiencing and receiving far more sensations than those of our own universe, and that it is entirely possible to travel between the universes by re-tuning our consciousnesses to receive the impulses from those worlds... Yes, it is interdimensional travel by self-hypnosis, or so it seems!

'The Roaring Trumpet' kicks off the 'Harold Shea' or 'Enchanter' sequence, which is a great achievement. This, and the following story, 'The Mathematics Of Magic' are the extended versions of the original magazine stories. Every story is in some ways a parody of or a homage to a notable mythology. This time, we get Shea visiting Norse mythology, on the very eve of Ragnarok, and it's lovely indeed. We get encounters with the Norse gods, species aplenty, snow, snow, and more snow, and lots of interaction between the modern man Harold and the natives. Wonderful prose, warm characterization, a novel premise, and a good dose of verisimilitude holding it all together. Is it a parody, though, as people suggest? The interior of the story doesn't think so.

It's always nice to visit the Norse legends, isn't it? Much more warm and comforting than wandering off to the Greek or Arabian tales... Maybe that's because we have a more censored version of the Norse stories in the public consciousness, or a lack of awareness of specifics? Perhaps it's the secret inner Scandinavian which lurks in the core of all us British coldlanders.

'The Roaring Trumpet' could well appeal for it's comparative innocence, despite not really being all that pure. It's written in a simple and appealing way. Now, will 'The Mathematics Of Magic' live up to its standard?


Monday, 23 April 2018

A Long Story, Or A Short One

The Quirky Muffin has been on partial suspension due to a series of serious and idiotic complications. At the beginning of the year, I feel sick with a chest infection, and recovered, before falling sick again. Some chance remarks passed on by the people at large invented the notion of a twelve week virus, and so I set myself to wait it out. However, I stayed sick, and got worse and worse. Six or seven weeks in, the first visit to the doctor occurred, in which all the misinformation led to nothing conclusive, and then after that x-rays, before it finally became clear that it was a very well developed chest infection indeed. The final result, after lots of anti-biotics and three months elapsed, is that things are approaching normal once again here. Yes, there is still some pain from the cough-inflicted damage, but it will be repaired. A diet rich in anti-inflammatories is proving very useful indeed... Roll on, cocoa, oranges, olive oil, almonds, broccoli, ginger and more. There are ways to do things.

It's nice to not feel exhausted, or scared of going to bed, any more. Very nice indeed.

Oh, and it's Snooker World Championship time again! Many more interesting long and short stories.


PS If someone says 'broncoscopy', don't expect anything pleasant!

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Finny Foot Affair' (1964) (Aired 1x10, Produced 1x15)

Baby Kurt Russell. Leonard 'The Kraw' Strong. The lovely silent opening. The Napoleon centred episode. He missed out on that mother! Waverley calms him down at the end. Marc Daniels. An explanation of the 'Finny Foot' title. Living dangerously in powdered chemical land. That wonderful and traitorous hound. Where would we be without caves?

This is a very impressive affair, immediately from the silent opening as Napoleon and Ilya investigate and ultimately incinerate a dead Scottish village in containment suits. It's a visual stunner. Then, we get the best of cases, a Napoleon-centric episode and a great guest star in the form of the little tiny Kurt Russell of 1964! Not only Kurt Russell, but also Leonard 'The Kraw' Strong, whose legendary role in 'Get Smart' has forever ruined his earlier appearance here. He could have been doing anything, even acting out the best villain in all of screen history, but all you will think of is the Kraw. Anyway, with that put aside, this episode is studded with interesting and unusual moments.

At one point, a scientist doing a post-mortem on a dead seal stops to explain the 'finny foot' of the title in reference to the taxonomical name of the specimen, and it works! He just does it, theoretically to the UNCLE crew via the closed circuit television. Kurt Russell's Christopher endlessly tries to matchmake his temporary guardian Napoleon with his beautiful widowed mother, which is sweet, and there's a potent sense of innocence mixed in with all the intrigue. It's a remarkable achievement when the problem being investigated is so deeply serious: a chemical which causes accelerated ageing, which thankfully is only shown as a pre-established result during the introduction. Napoleon is rather cavalier with the 'dried out' powdered chemical when it's found, though.

Russell is very good as Christopher, but the real guest star of the episode was a lovely and cuddly dog, who sadly leads the enemy agents also in pursuit of the chemical directly to Napoleon and the lad, and to the rusted drum that housed it. What a cute dog! And what a cute little moment, when Napoleon solved the riddle of the ring and the statue. It's a lovely episode, with a nicely characterised ending, when Christopher decides Napoleon is too busy to be his dad, and leaves with his actually attractive mother, while Mr Waverley wisely leads the dumbstruck Napoleon away before he does something he would regret.

Mr Waverley is wise. Never doubt it.


Next time: 'The Yellow Scarf Affair' (If it's interesting or good!)

Thursday, 12 April 2018

The Literary Reflection, X

There have been quite a few things read while I've been, and continue to be a little, sick. A few won't make the grade for being talked about, mainly due to being a bit lightweight and flimsy. 'Lightweight and flimsy' is excellent when you're a bit distracted and disconnected from reality! Let's get to it.

'She Died A Lady' (1943) by Carter Dickson a.k.a. John Dickson Carr
This one has faded from memory quite quickly. There was an unhappy marriage, a pair of lovers leaping from a cliff, Sir Henry Merrivale cavorting around in a powered wheelchair and a toga, and a very extended unravelling at the end which didn't quite cut the mustard. The characterisation is excellent, though, and the ultimate ending to the story is unexpected. It seems that villains sometimes get away with things in the Carr universe. How strange that is. It's oddly reminiscent of 'The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, while being quite different. Middle of the road Carr.

'He Who Whispers' (1946) by John Dickson Carr
This has actually grown a little in my memory since the reading. Carr seems to have been a very brave writer in terms of brushing with what must have been taboo subjects, mostly in the realms of sexuality. Here we have a pre-war scandal about a lady secretary being built up around her once again, a vampire allegation, a country house mystery, and they're all tied up together by a curious string of coincidences. It's good, better than you think it is on the first reading. The final unravelling is not the best in the world, however, but it is much better than that of 'She Died A Lady', and culminates in something entirely unexpected. Needless to say, there are no real vampires in the Dr Gideon Fell universe. Or are there? He seems to be constantly dicing and debunking the supernatural in his cases, which we will surely return to. Maybe it's because he seems part supernatural himself, in that grandiose, too large to be true, description he has.

'The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer' (1876) by Mark Twain
The complicated relationship with Twain continues, as 'Tom Sawyer' has drawn to a close. It's a great example of a youthful adventure story, so far removed from the world of 2018 as to be entirely fantastical. There was a time when children could get away with roving wild in the countryside, living lives of comparative innocence, free of the insecurities caused by being as extremely interconnected as we are now. It's charming, comparatively brief, and free of the quality that makes Twain such a nervous read at times: The unbendable impulse to make a satirical point. 'Tom Sawyer' has none of that, and is brilliant as a result. That man Twain could write like no other. Even the inclusion of a crime story doesn't over-balance the narrative too much. Someone (Oh, I give up, it was John Dickson Carr, continuing our trend) once said that adventures were impossible to write after the Second World War as the world had gotten too small. Would a cavern labyrinth cause so much fear and confusion if written in the year 2018? Probably not. Tom Sawyer himself would have been demonised as some kind of delinquent after all his misadventures and his parents beleaguered by Social Services, despite the fact that he ended up as Mark Twain himself!

It's charming, and meanders around in some kind of circle before we end up back with the mischievous Tom Sawyer, the delinquent Huck Finn, and the prospect of other stories that will follow. It's a nice children's story, with a lot of appeal for adults jaded by the present too.

'Dimension Of Miracles' (1968) by Robert Sheckley
Ah, Sheckley, the great weirdo. You can never tell what you're going to get with this writer, except that it will probably be offbeat, and sometimes very, very confusing. In 'Dimension Of Miracles', we get one of his most comedic novels, wherein an executive called Carmody is mistakenly awarded a galactic sweepstakes prize, before immediately being mislaid in the cosmic scheme of things, while a Carmody-eating predator is automatically spawned according to the natural laws of the universe. What follows is a bizarre quest for home, with an intelligent and rather sarcastic prize in tow, and the mystifying questions of 'Where, when and which?' to answer before safety is reached.

'Dimension Of Miracles' is incredibly inventive, with so many bizarre concepts thrown in that you can get quite overloaded at times. The self-consuming Prize, the Carmody-predator, the 'where, when and which?' conundrum, a crippled God of a lonely world, and planetary architects combine to make this confection. Is it any good? Honestly, I have no idea, but it has been read a few times. The ending just sweeps out of nowhere.

'A Study In Scarlet' (1887) by Arthur Conan Doyle
This is the legendary and lesser read first Sherlock Holmes story, a novella, which so brilliantly defined Holmes and Watson that its details stood nearly unaltered for the whole canon. There's the first meeting, the classic list of Holmes' talents that Watson compiles, the violin, the unusual murder, the introductions of both Lestrade and Gregson, and the Baker Street Irregulars. That's practically the whole universe, although I don't recall whether this is the story with the Mrs Turner / Mrs Hudson confusion. It might have been one of the best of them all, except for the extremely frustrating and extended flashback that explains the motivations of the ambiguous villain of the piece. That flashback, in combination with Zane Grey's 'Riders Of The Purple Sage', really takes a hammer to the Mormons of the time. Was there a societal campaign/prejudice against Mormonism at the time? It is, overall, a mixed bag as a result, but the Holmesian portion is most brilliant, and its importance is paramount.

'The Sign Of Four' (1890) by Arthur Conan Doyle
Now, we get to the second Sherlock Holmes story, which is one of the great crowd favourite. It has everything you could want, packed into novella length: Thrills, a romance, hidden treasure, a mystery, subcontinental connections, a secret sign, huge pearls delivered annually, a siege, poisoned darts, and even a frantic boat chase down the Thames. Strangely, considering that the vast majority of the stories remain to be written, Watson is effectively written out of the mythology by the conclusion. He will, however, return! This is practically the prototype or quintessential adventure, and you probably can't do too much better. The boat chase may directly have inspired the train chase in 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution' by Nicholas Meyer, which is a great inspiration to take.

Oh, there should probably be some kind of plot summary for this one. A young lady hired Holmes and Watson to accompany her when she receives a message from the same hand that has been sending her a magnificent pearl annually, saying that she has been greatly wronged and will get justice. What follows is a grand yarn with roots in the Indian Mutiny, the Andaman Islands, and in treasure. Treasure! Oh, and Watson gets engaged. If you want any more, then you'll have to read the thing! Classical, legendary, brilliant, and adventurous.

Dr John Watson will return...

'They Shall Have Stars' (1956) by James Blish
This is the first chronologically, but the second written, in the 'Cities In Flight' series, and is quite distinct from the other three novels, in that it is an origin story for the ensuing status quo and based effectively in the present day (2013, to be precise). 'They Shall Have Stars' is a scientific and philosophical tale, which revolves around the dangers of ignoring crackpot and marginal theories, of becoming so like your enemies that they win by default, of the great vistas of exploration that still await, and even more cosmic endeavours. Down on the strictly textual level, it's the story of an astronaut who stumbles into something unusual while delivering soil samples to a laboratory, of a gigantic experiment on Jupiter, a political intrigue being run by a besieged senator, and a McCarthy-esque figure overseeing the accidental destruction of the West in its ultimate Oswald Spengler decline.

The whole thing works together well, and Blish write so interestingly that you have to keep reading. It's amazing to think that he's not a very well known writer, in comparison with the established Giants of science fiction. His 'Star Trek' adaptations will stand forever as great writing especially, as will 'Cities In Flight' and 'A Case Of Conscience'.

Is it a good novel? Yes. Is the Spengler stuff interesting? Yes, although it's only really highlighted in the collected 'Cities In Flight' volume. We seem to have deviated from Spenglerian laws a little in our world, but also followed them quite a lot. What will happen to us next? The invention of the Spindizzy is one of the best ideas in all of science fiction, and its culmination in lifting whole cities into space to become galactic 'fix-it men' is spectacular, but that awaits in future volumes. For now, the stars have been opened up for all. How glorious is that?

Other things read:'Star Trek: Dark Victory' (1999) by William Shatner
'Star Trek: Preserver' (2000) by William Shatner
Selections from 'The Complete Prose' (1998?) by Woody Allen

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Project Strigas Affair' (1964) (Aired 1x09, Produced 1x14)

We've missed out 'The Love Affair', which was pretty uninspired.

This is an odd one. It's notable for featuring both Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner before the advent of 'Star Trek', but this episode is also a prototype for the gigantic cons that would feature in 'Mission: Impossible'. It's an odd mix, which works but doesn't quite feel like UNCLE. Even Shatner feels a little unformed, as if Captain Kirk was the final resolution of his learning curve as an actor. It's still fun to see him, though. Oh, Shatner... Nimoy plays one of his typical three-dimensional heavies, and almost never intersects with his future acting partner, except for one brief moment.

In 'The Project Strigas Affair', Mr Waverley tasks Napoleon and Ilya with discrediting a troublesome foreign ambassador by any nefarious scheme they can come up with, so they fabricate a completely fictitious and top secret weapons project called 'Strigas', recruit a former top chemist (Shatner) and his wife to act as fake traitors, and then sit back and watch the spies unravel. It's an extremely ambitious hour. Mr Waverley even gets to be chilling and dangerous when seizing and levering a foreign agent to be a double. Sadly, though, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn't quite work.

At least it's interesting, unlike 'The Love Affair', which continued the sequence of Eddie Albert appearances in old television series that don't work. Here, all the performances are good, and the story is intricate and interesting, including a major disaster for our heroes. Maybe it's better than I've made it out to be, with a jaundiced view of things while apparently endlessly sick. The only thing to really be held against it is a certain staginess, and the relative absence of Robert Vaughn. Elevating McCallum and guest starring Shatner means that some of that prized Napoleon Solo time had to be taken away, and so everything is just a little less SMOOTH...

Is this the introduction of Ilya's shoddy disguises?

Next time: 'The Finny Foot Affair', hurrah! Normal service is still far from being resumed, due to exhaustion and illness. It really never does end.


Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Rest Interval Continues

As may be freely observed, the Quirky Muffin sabbatical continues. I, as a suffering sick person, burdened with an apparently immortal virus, just don't have the energy to do much of anything. Surely, there will be an eventual recovery? Surely?

Friday, 9 March 2018

The Absence Of Horizontality

The prevailing theory is that the writer of the Quirky Muffin is suffering from a twelve week virus combined with a ripped throat, causing extreme fatigue, endless coughing, and absolutely no sleep due to problems with being horizontal.

Oh, the joy of being horizontal, so long absent. What is sleeping the night through really like? Will there ever be enough energy to get the Quirky Muffin back in full operation? How on Earth do people sleep while sitting up? How?

Next time, it will be the next episode of 'The Man From UNCLE', but for now it is time to rest. Or not rest, but desperately try to, while being increasingly confused.


Saturday, 3 March 2018

A Reflected Starscape, AKA We Will Return

The Quirky Muffin will return, once this hideous marathon of ill health has come to an end. However, to write something, if you have your head over a dark bowl of hot water infused with vaporub, all covered over by a dark towel, the points of light that come through the weave can look like a reflected starscape in the water. It's almost romantic...

Recovery is inevitable. Recovery is inevitable.


Note: 'The Worm Ouroboros' seems to be a very good novel. Bold beyond all belief.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Some Disconnected Yarns

After a few more days of coughing and feeling run-down, there's not a lot to write about here in the Quirky Muffin. Admiral Nelson has had a relapse of lycanthropy in 'Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea' as I write, which is proving difficult, and Lady Jane's replacement has been a bit of a letdown in the next episode of 'Lovejoy'. 'Star Trek Logs 5 and 6' by Alan Dean Foster has been pretty good though. It's a set of adaptations of 'Star Trek: The Animated Series'. 

No, there's not an awful lot to write about in the realm of the real world. What about in the land of make believe? Would you believe that nine leprechauns have stolen the keys to the Grotto of Galoomba deep underneath the house? Perhaps they think we've been storing the family treasure there, but in reality it's where we keep the scale models of the Seaview and the Penguin submarine from the 'Batman' movie of the 1960s. The latter is always very popular for rides in the Summer.

Oh, good grief. Will they never catch that werewolf? Now, they've locked him in the circuitry room! Not the circuitry room! That's where every goon causes problems!

The main problem with being sleep-deprived is that you don't get to be very creative, just incoherent. Since reality is something we create or interpret by our consciousness, does that mean reality is itself distorted when we get sick? That could get rather interesting, couldn't it?

Ah, lycanthropy is cured by deep water pressure or maybe the Bends. That's okay, then. Jolly good. What madness!


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.



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...


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!


Friday, 9 February 2018

Friday, Friday

It's Friday. Friday! The gateway to the weekend has almost come to its natural end once again. Thanks to some very helpful coincidences, a free weekend looms, and the question becomes what on Earth to do with it all. What? What? There is a big pile of waiting correspondence, from long-neglected friends to respond to, and the associated guilt is building. However, there is also a nice pile of books waiting, which will be nicely relaxing, and another pile of student files to be updated.

On the other hand, it is time to take a turn at the cooking and in contending with the Cursed Kitchen. Yes, our kitchen is cursed, or haunted, and fights back. Nothing ever goes right. Things beep and shriek, there are thousands of fans, and it might be that there will be an earthquake the next time I go near it. There is a curse. Perhaps a donkey was pulled against its will across this valley back in the olden days, and it decided to put a hex on that spot as an arbitrary retribution? Or maybe the aliens left an odd radioactivity residue when they left the coal under the hill? Or maybe the configuration of the building aligns with one of the pyramids of Egypt and channels some abstract stream of occult energy.

Is this interesting? Does it have to be? Expect something else next time, as another episode of 'The Man From UNCLE' has been watched, and some more John Dickson Carr novels are in the works. It is definitely impossible mystery season in the reading room of the Quirky Muffin. There's nothing quite so puzzly and satisfying as a locked room mystery. Ack, 'The Chinese Orange Mystery' is still queued up for it's blog post. Will it make any sense? Will we get to it while we remember what happened?

The Cursed Kitchen awaits. Please send positive mental assistance.


Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Television: 'Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea: The Plant Man' (1966) (Episode 3x12)

It's such a relief to feel better. Somewhere deep inside, I suspect that people always wonder if they actually are going to get better, and then are surprised when it happens. Is that human sense of paranoia encoded too deeply to ever go entirely away? However, that's enough of that. What happened on the Seaview today, I imagine hearing you ask, whoever you are. Strange people.


This time, on the submarine Seaview, the vessel is off to check up on another of Admiral Nelson's hand-picked science projects. Since every one of Nelson's handpicked research teams seems to be staffed with crackpots and lunatics, it was always inevitable that something would be wrong. I'm amazed that the crew doesn't turn up each week, braced for something weird from the outset, handcuffs at the ready. What exactly is the screening process to get Nelson funding anyway? Oh, what a digression. The submarine is carrying one half of the pair of identical twins running the project, who claims to to have a telepathic connection with his brother, but who is actually long used to mind controlling his sibling and has a plan to convert their hydroponic specimens into a horde of rampaging kelp monsters...

Ah yes, the old rampaging kelp monster bit. That's the third time this week. We've not had identical twins before, though, which is nice. This is a pretty decent example of the well populated 'rampaging blokes in monster suits' subset of 'Voyage' episodes, not being too repetitive and actually being decently eerie in several instances. The sight of the kelp creatures peering out of the reactor room window was very surreal and unusual. This is such a weird series, where successive episodes of silliness can sometimes be dispelled by completely unpredictable moments of brilliance. There must have been someone somewhere in the production team, waiting for opportunities to just jump in and do interesting things when the budget and time constraints allowed.

It's a pretty good episode, all in all. Basehart is his usual brilliant self, as is Hedison, holding everything together at every opportunity, and there's a not a weak link in the acting for once. The kelp monsters are really kind of cute too. Yes, there are cute kelp monsters. Have you not heard that phrase before?


Monday, 5 February 2018

Boom Yakka Monty

Strength is returning, and concentration improving, but overall the world still seems a mostly grotty place. It wasn't a bad sickness, but not sleeping for several nights is a deeply disturbing experience. After a while, you begin to wonder if you will ever remember how to sleep.

If you get too tired, it becomes paradoxically difficult to sleep, doesn't it? The brain becomes too confused and disturbed, and refuses to settle because it's too overheated. Will it ever happen again? Will the snuffling ever subside? Will the coughing become a thing of the past?

Sleep? How did that work? Was it a real thing?

Hmm. Not bad for a first post in the post-exhaustion world.


Saturday, 3 February 2018

Once Again, Curtailed

This Quirky Muffin is also curtailed due to illness, but not so urgently. Wellness is on the horizon once again. For now, though, screen time must be at a minimum.

Next time, there will be words!


Thursday, 1 February 2018

Lurgy Town

This post is curtailed due to sickness. If only we could never be sick, never have these dismal sore throats, and never be so tired we can't even write more than a few words. For now, the Quirky Muffin rests.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

In The Frenzied New Year

It has been a hectic year so far. There has been a new dog, about to go to surgery, a parent having a knee replacement, several new students, a sudden shift in travel arrangements, and a change away from being a student. In fact, I can't think of any ways that it could have become any more eventful short of a wedding, death or alien abduction. Of course, this might all be the result of an alien abduction, and the following immersion in a virtual reality environment, bent on turning me into a mental vegetable. However, and this they could not anticipate, already being an intellectual tuber has its advantages. You can't get me, extra-terrestrials! Bwahahahahaha!

Ah, the old 'bwahahaha'. What memories. I was introduced to the 'bwahahaha' by reading the old 'Justice League' comics by Giffen and DeMatteis, which were a quiet delight in being funny or dramatic, when appropriate, and in not being particularly interested in having a silly fistfight every issue. It was lovely. It was a superhero clubhouse for all the supporting players who didn't have their own comic books, and who were prone to not get on from time to time. I'll have to write about it properly on some other occasion. The subsequent devolution of the comic book form was a painful thing to observe.

The problem with having hectic days is that you end up with very little energy left to write a blog post, or an e-mail to a friend, or anything else! At least good work is being done, and people are being helped. It's nice to help people. Now, with it being very late at night, and with exhaustion setting in, it's almost time to hang up the keyboard for the night and descend into the pits of deepest slumber. What a fascinating thing sleep is. It is often used as a device to make aliens seem more alien. The Vulcans don't sleep in 'Star Trek', and there was once a very strange Robert Duval character in 'Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea' who positively scorned the slumber instinct. Of course, he didn't make it to the end, the fiend. Sleep is important.

And now, to the hibernation, and then another busy busy day. Adapting to new students is hard, but patterns will return to normal once it has been done.