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.