Monday, 21 January 2019

Books: The Literary Reflection, XIV

This set covers a long period of time, but it's time to get it out there. Once again, these are the books which either didn't go well, or aren't quite substantial enough to warrant a post of their own. It's not necessarily a bad thing to be in 'The Literary Reflection'!

'The Thin Man' (1934) by Dashiell Hammett
Oh, 'The Thin Man', a novel that is equal in stature to its film adaptation, but which has very little going on beyond the obviously brilliant prose. Therein lies the problem: It's wonderful but slight. Some people wouldn't even call that a problem, but for me it hinders re-readability, especially when the film also exists. The book is superior in structure, lacking the horrific preamble tacked on to its screen equivalent, but it doesn't have William Powell or the possibly diving Myrna Loy. They both have the great dialogue, though. Oh, Hammett, you were a wonder!

'Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan' (1982) by Vonda N McIntyre
Ah, more 'Star Trek' and more novelizations. I've always been a bit shy of this novelization for some reason, preferring those for the other original cast movies, but that long string of illness (still ongoing, lingeringly) allowed plenty of opportunities and so it came into the rotation. 'Wrath Of Khan' tries to tread a tricky path, following the plot of one of the best movies made, while adding things which were wholly absent in that screen version. We get added background stories for Saavik and Peter Preston, motivation and character for Khan's chief henchman Joaquim, character arcs for some of the other Genesis scientists, and some other details which change the tone of the story markedly. This is definitely one of those instances where a well-written adaptation still doesn't live up to the original, as some of the subtext becomes explicit text and loses potency. It's good, but definitely alternative instead of complementary. Watch the movie instead.

'The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd' (1926) by Agatha Christie
This is one of the most famous Agatha Christie mysteries, and one of her Poirot stories. You see, every so often, Christie went off and employed what was then called a 'gimmick', and this is one of the finest, creating a legacy in all following mystery stories. As a result, this is both famous, for the high quality of writing, and infamous for the central trick. It's so good that I have given it as a gift on several occasions, and often consider throwing it at students as a reading practice! Unusually for a Christie, it can be reread without becoming tedious. Well done.

'The Vatican Rip' (Lovejoy) (1981) by Jonathan Gash
This is where we part company with the 'Lovejoy' series of novels, as this more gloomy and sweary than usual example finally pushes me over the edge. I suppose it's okay as an entry into the series, and has unique features, but it's just too much. In combination with the ongoing inconsistencies, it's just a stinky mess to wade through. Oh, for a ray of sunlight in that dreary world. Knocking off the Vatican? Ha! Not likely at all.

'Captain Cut-Throat' (1955) by John Dickson Carr
There is more exposition than you might expect in this Napoleonic-era thriller, but there are some thrilling moments too. Your liking for this will will on what you expect from such a story, and whether you can accept a non-mystery from the king of the intricate mysteries. My own inclination is to like it quite a lot, but to be a little annoyed at the long spells of explanatory dialogue. On the other hand, it was read pretty speedily, which is a recommendation in itself. Non-military stories in this era are pretty rare, and espionage tales are almost unheard of. The closest other book in the collection is probably 'A Tale Of Two Cities', which is set in pre-Napoleonic France and Britain, but is close enough for jazz.

A brief synopsis? A top British agent is captured in France, and blackmailed by the French secret service into trying to identify and capture the invisible assassin who is killing French sentries and causing panic. Mixed into this are the agent's estranged wife, a beautiful enemy femme fatale, and two cavalry troopers with possible secrets of their own. Hanging over them all is the shadow of the Emperor, and the French spymaster Fouche, who may know more than all of them. Is Captain Cut-Throat a real person, or just a trap? Does our hero have more cards up his sleeve than we're aware of? You will have to read it to find out. Recommended.


Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Book: 'Moon Shot' (2009?) by Dan Parry

Fifty years ago, three men strapped themselves to the top of a rocket, and were launched on a week long journey, to land on the Moon and return. Yes, the Moon. It was and is amazing, and it was the culmination of a massive amount of work, including two previous Apollo missions around the Moon, without landings. 'Moon Shot' tells a dual narrative, swapping between the story of the space program in general, and the preparations and proceedings of the Apollo 11 crew specifically.

You can't help but be impressed by the courage and careful planning involved in this ridiculous undertaking, and the pressures being felt as the Soviets played their own part in this grand race into space. It's really very disturbing that no human has left Low Earth Orbit since the last moon landing in 1972. That's forty-seven years, for those counting. Apparently the race meant more than the project, for the people paying the bills.

This is a nice book, with some gorgeous photos and deep biographical information on Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin. The information on the preceding Mercury missions and the general development of space flight was probably the more interesting part for me, however. The grand sweep of that process is fascinating. Completely fascinating. Parry is definitely a gifted writer, and he uses first hand accounts and excellent research to make an already dynamic story resonate on the page.

It's still very hard to believe that anyone could really launch themselves into space on top of a giant firework rocket and then land on the moon in a tin foil capsule, before returning in one piece. Yes, they may have been test pilots and drenched in the spirit of maddening courage, but it has that bizarre smell of unreality to it. It's no wonder that people disbelieved the veracity of the Moon landings for so long.

The human costs of the Space Program become clear as you read, culminating in the final cost for the Apollo 11 crew, that of becoming icons and losing their anonymity and to some extent their connection to the world as conventional human beings. All of the glamour of the Space Program was attached to them, while the other astronauts live in the shadow.

Yes, it really has been more than fifty years since we first sent people around the Moon. What a grand project it was, and how well it has been documented. As I get to more books about the Space Program, this one will be put into more perspective, but it is for now my first and the best.


Monday, 7 January 2019

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The See-Paris-And-Die Affair' (1965) (Aired 1x22, Produced 1x24)

And we're back! There aren't that many episodes of UNCLE left, but we will continue to the end of the season as previously promised, having missed out 'The Bow-Wow Affair' and 'The Four-Steps Affair. This time, on 'The Man From UNCLE', Napoleon enlists/kidnaps a singer in order to convince her to use her old relationship with a rich bar owner who has stolen some diamonds (with his cousin) to their advantage. So, the innocent here is clear from the outset, and Napoleon is a bit of a creep throughout. He even drops Ilya into hot water at the end, presumably from some sense of glee and mild vengeance for a mistake earlier in the episode, and for having to spend a story in Paris.

Okay, so Napoleon is being a bit mean, and we have some of the guest stars of the time in the forms of Lloyd Bochner (universal deep-voiced sympathetic villain), Aldred Ryder (The Swiss army knife of antagonistic character actors) and Gerald Mohr ('Maverick'! 'Maverick'! And tonnes of radio!). We also have Kathryn Hays ('Star Trek: The Empath'), being abstractly beautiful and just about pulling off the singing, and having a lot of fun with some of the supporting characters later in the episode. This episode does have some fun with the supporting French characters in general, in a loving way. Oh, and there is also Kevin Hagen, who I always remember as a pink-clad invading alien in 'Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea'. Oh, and in another episode he died an Ahab inspired death. What a cast!

The story is quite slight, but they do a lot with it, and strongly invest in some helicopter action towards the end, where Ilya has to land the requisitioned chopper on top of the moving van that is carrying the valuable furniture, which really contains the jewels. They must have read 'The Twelve Chairs', the adaptation of which I watched for the first time yesterday. There is some nice, if rather ruthless, business where Ilya and Napoleon turn the criminal brothers who have taken the diamonds against each other, and a nice gag where THRUSH blow up Ilya's surveilance gear with a tuning fork. A definite streak of 'Mission Impossible' manipulation has made it into the show at this point, despite predating that other series.

All in all, a rather good episode of UNCLE, which doesn't quite break into the top echelons of the season. Still, Kevin Hagen does make a very good THRUSH agent. Very nice.


Tuesday, 1 January 2019

It's A Whole New Year

Well, we made it through. There were a lot more Quirky Muffins in 2017 than there were in 2018, and that is because 2018 was what we call a Bad Year. There were multiple health scares (the complications of which still continue), lots of fatigue and exhaustion, some problems with concentration, a falling off in the tutoring business and a great leaning towards reading nice things away from the computer. However, 2018 is done! Oh yes! And we're into the good quarter of a new year, where the days are lengthening and we are still on Real Time. As a result, there are plans to get this blog onto a more even footing. Nothing can be guaranteed, but the book reviews and potted insights will hopefully continue, and there might be an extra bonus from time to time.

The major problem, however, is going to be boosting the work side of life and reconnecting with the wider world in person instead of through the virtual interface that is the Internet. Having to rest and convalesce is tiring in itself, and limits the extent to which you can interact with the outside world. That's the lighter side of being sick, and it's still no holiday. However, things can only get better!

The Quirky Muffin will return, presumably with book-related content, some chatter on bits of television and film, miscellaneous rambling, and whatever else comes to mind. The stories have probably halted, though. That mindset has been shocked into insensibility, and we will have to wait and see if it can be reclaimed. It might be better diverted into writing stories for planned publication instead, if that is even possible. What am I talking about? Everything is possible. Behold, for it is 2019, the new Time Of Opportunity, and the year that sees my fortieth birthday. Anything could happen!


PS Happy New Year!