'Volcano Adventure' continues on directly from 'Underwater Adventure', with the 'Lively Lady' being taken over by noted volcanologist Dr Dan Adams, who is intent on doing a survey of the volcanoes of the western Pacific. What impact does this change of director have on the story? Well, it gets very hot very frequently.
One of the major distinguishing features of 'Volcano Adventure', the fourth episode in the 'Adventure' series, is that the mentor figure this time is not exactly reliable. He is in fact prone to mental episodes, and begins to distrust the two Hunts over the course of the novel. He's never an outright antagonist, but for a while he's not a friend either. That is unusual for the series to date, and interesting. Why does he freeze up for minutes on end, wake up screaming on one occasion, and go a bit loco while scuba diving on another? The lack of an overt villain in 'Volcano Adventure' is refreshing, probably because of all the volcano related peril already present. Yes, gentle readers, volcanoes are dangerous. It's also dangerous to punch a tiger shark in the belly, but I think we already knew that. Also, any story with a diving bell trip into the crater of an active volcano is definitely sporting some major adventure credentials.
The mini-tour around the South Seas, and the visit to Japan, is all nicely different too, and there are very few negatives to point out. Hal definitely gets the majority of the page time on this occasion, with younger Roger taking the back seat, but that could turn around in future instalments.
How could Price squeeze any more peril into the following books? How? Having asked that, the next book is 'Whale Adventure', which is definitely set to be the most problematic of the whole series as whaling is not even remotely acceptable any more. I've never read it, have no idea what's in it, and can only prepare for a rough ride.
Tuesday, 22 December 2020
'Volcano Adventure' continues on directly from 'Underwater Adventure', with the 'Lively Lady' being taken over by noted volcanologist Dr Dan Adams, who is intent on doing a survey of the volcanoes of the western Pacific. What impact does this change of director have on the story? Well, it gets very hot very frequently.
Go, go, Hal and Roger! In this third instalment of the classic 'Adventure' series by Willard Price, we continue the maritime voyage begun in 'South Sea Adventure', but this time with a profound submarine component. However, we do still have a finkish villain in the form of SK 'Skink' Inkham, a pretender to the leadership of the mission. There is a lot to learn in these adventure novels, despite their antiquity and focus on being juvenile fiction, and a lot to really be surprised by.
First of all, this time we gets lot of gadgets. There are snorkels, aqualungs, sea sleds, diving bells and just a little bit more. Secondly, we have octopi, sharks, sunken treasure, submarine raiders, and treachery most vile. When I say 'vile', I really mean it, as the boys' mentor this time meets a very cruel death at the hands of a ruthless villain. Inkham is definitely one of the nastier antagonists in the run, and one who rather improbably got away with trying to murder a teacher at school with a deadly snake. Hal's similar experience is very tense here.
Not only do we have a lot of underwater adventures in this instalment, but we also have sunken treasure. Hurrah! Nothing is better than a sunken Spanish galleon, although on this occasion it is trumped by a typhoon. What, you were already happy with sunken treasure? Ha! The wall of water puts all that to shame! Spoilers? Ha!
It's lovely stuff. The resolution with the antagonists seems a bit predictable and glued on, but that's a minor defect. Roll on, book four, even if it does bring the potential problem that is the fifth book one step closer...
Sunday, 29 November 2020
Now this is rather awesome and a huge improvement on 'Whose Body?'. Huzzah! In the second Wimsey novel, we get a massive chunk of the Wimsey family history, a much more personal story and connection to Wimsey himself, the establishment of Parker's own backstory, and a great and totally unexpected ending moment with everyone least favourite detective, Inspector Sugg! And Sugg is partially redeemed. Huzzah!
'Clouds Of Witness' is the great second entry into the Wimsey series, in which Peter's decidedly dim elder brother ends up accused of murder (which means trial by the House Of Lords!). Is he guilty? Probably not, but he won't provide his alibi and probably has secrets of his own to protect and other people to shield. It's up to Wimsey and Parker to find the truth about who killed the amateur sleuth's sister's fiance and try to duck scandal if at all possible.
Wimsey is much more of a relatable person in this instalment in the series, and further rehabilitated from the shell shock and heartbreak inflicted on him prior to the beginning of the stories. In fact, he is pronounced cured of his heartbreak, and even reconnects to his family in the form of his slightly wacky sister Mary, fiancee of the mysterious and dubious dead man. But did anyone really like the victim, including Mary herself? There is peril in the form of bog holes and rushed transatlantic flights with pioneering aviators, covert affairs of the heart, and also all the pomp and ceremony of the trial of a peer of the realm. And lots of breakfasts too. Breakfasts are important.
Recommended. We get much close closer to all the main characters. Excellent. Add ten to whatever score you think this all means.
The cursed era of the Big Nasty continues, and the Quirky Muffin has suffered while I descend into mild depressions and strange moods. There has been some reading, but not a lot, and so it's time for another Literary Reflection, a non-comprehensive summary of some of the books that have passed through the stacks.
Let the odd ramblings commence!
'Police At The Funeral' (Campion) (1931) by Margery Allingham
The British tradition of filling stories with eccentrics, oddballs and noble matriarchs is in full evidence in 'Police At The Funeral', wherein Campion is asked to help out at a town house in Cambridge. The house in question is inhabited by an aged matriarch and her almost totally useless children, nephew and one useful great-niece. Well, perhaps that should be 'late nephew', as murders seem to be happening and no-one is clear on what is going on. Discreet help is needed, and no-one is more discreet than Albert Campion, called in by a friend of the family. The question is this: Can he stop the killings, and save Great Aunt Caroline from a hideous prodigal's return? 'Police At The Funeral' is not one of my favourites of the Campions I've read so far. That would be 'Sweet Danger', the following story, but this is solid. Ultimately, it's just too gloomy and the shadow of the television version hangs over it too much for this to be viewed independently. The beginning sequence in London is rather good, though. Is it a good book? Definitely yes, with a sordid undertone. (These notes written after far too long an interval.)
'Rumpole And The Golden Thread' (Rumpole) (1983) by John Mortimer
This set of six stories aligns with the fourth series of the vintage, classical and unparalleled television series also written by John Mortimer. Which came first, the episodes or the stories? I really have no idea, as it has all become unclear with time and may have varied, year by year. In this set, an eccentric artist seems determined to be convicted of forging, Rumpole is summoned to Africa to defend an opposition leader facing death, a couple are arrested for running a very very middle class brothel, Horace plots to get Miss Allways into Chambers, Allways' sister is accused of murder, and finally Rumpole resorts to extreme measures during a case before the Mad Bull. It's a nice collection of stories, but I'm so late in collecting these remarks (perhaps six months late) that it's not all entirely clear in my mind, especially having watched the television versions so recently. 'The Last Resort' does stir a memory, however, as it is the only prose version that I've read so far which includes a passage not written by Rumpole himself. I will not explain why that is so, but it does mark a high water mark in the set. I wonder what happened to Miss Allways, anyway? (These notes written after far too long an interval.)
'Sweet Danger' (Campion) (1933) by Margery Allingham
The Campion stories are adventures instead of mysteries, which is obvious to anyone who actually reads them or sees the television series. This entry, the fifth, both wonderful for its story but also for introducing the love of Albert's life, the sparky Amanda Fitton. As an early novel, it does have a television episode counterpart, which influences the reading, but it's jolly good by itself too. That said, it's impossible to not see Lysette Antony firing up the scene when Amanda is involved in the episode. In 'Sweet Danger', Albert and some companions set out to save a tiny European valley in the middle of nowhere, which is now valuable as it has acquired a coastline, and restore it to the ownership of a long forgotten British family. There are riddles, quests, a villainous financier, several brushes with danger, strange black magic motifs and more inside this book. Be warned! It is extremely readable! And absolutely wacky in the combinations of incongruous elements. A primitive electric car? Oh, oh, how much more interesting and less homogenous things might have been back in history... Maybe... Rose-tinted spectacles at the ready, everyone!
'The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted' (Stainless Steel Rat) (1987) by Harry Harrison
When last we heard from Slippery Jim DiGriz, the titular Stainless Steel Rat, we had discovered his origin story and the fate of his mentor, the mysterious man known only as The Bishop. Now, in the wake of past events, Jim sets out to escape prison and exact revenge on the villain responsible for the Bishop's fate. In typical fashion, that involves Jim enlisting in a planetary army, becoming involved in an interplanetary invasion, subversion on a massive scale, the discovery of an ancient artificial intelligence, a wholly new social philosophy, and confusion at every turn in the narrative. This is definitely one of the messier Stainless Steel Rats, but it's good. Probably very good. Harry Harrison was a writer who had not problem pushing against his own genre, and I'm wondering when or if this series falls apart. This is the seventh instalment, published twenty-six years after the first. Where next? And will Harrison avoid the trap of trying to top himself every time now we're skipping around in DrGriz's timeline? Time will tell... (These notes written after far too long an interval.)
'An Antarctic Mystery (AKA The Sphinx Of The Ice Fields)' (1897) by Jules Verne
This is an odd one. Having been used to the famous Verne novels, it seemed like time to get a bit obscure and so we end up with 'An Antarctic Mystery', which is apparently a direct sequel to the Edgar Allen Poe story about some guy called Pym. Pym had a (it sounds rather gruesome and morbid) maritime adventure in the Antarctic Circle, which ended in disaster (Poe!), and Verne's story features a geologist hitching a ride home from a remote island with a ship whose captain's brother died during the Pym story. This ride ultimately converts into a trip to the as yet unreached speculated continent of Antarctica, in search of survivors from that trip many many years before. The chief weakness of this story is that it would be completely non-existent without the earlier work, is ultimately just pointless flotsam if, like myself, you are not a fan of Poe. However, there are good points. The gigantic lodestone at the South Pole is interesting, destroying vessels by extracting all the metal fasteners and equipment, and destroying whatever (or whoever) happens to be between those items and this 'antarctic sphinx'. Some of the geographical knowledge about the near Antarctic islands is quite good too. However, there are far too many coincidences, and mutinous crewmen have been so overdone as to cause torpor at this point. Overall, it was a very erratic experience.
The first Lord Peter Wimsey novel doesn't feel like the first. It feels like the second or third. That's a good thing. We don't get the exposition of the various characters' backgrounds, but learn by example. Lord Peter already knows his police partner Parker, Bunter is already his valet and confidante, and the mystery is the thing.
The first time I read through the Wimsey series I was both impressed and a little deterred by its core strength: Its sheer intellectual power. Sayers was a reasoning machine in her writing, and what flashes of emotion we get are brief and powerful. 'Whose Body?' is excellent and impressive while still being disposable in some strange way, but it was more appealing the second time through. The crime, a classic case of corpse switching, is one that takes a while to unravel in the reader's mind. In my case, I didn't work out until a short while after Wimsey did, despite having read the story before.
The curious nature of the Wimsey series is difficult to really articulate. In this book, you might perhaps be reading about people while looking through a stainless steel shield, held by a reverent knight intent on guarding their little universe. Or is that too fanciful? Perhaps it's all in my mind. The notion of post traumatic stress disorder was barely developed in the years following the Great War, but here we have a nobleman, an ex-officer of the battle line, stranded in a now peaceful land and looking for excitement to fill up his life and incidentally help his recovery from what was then called 'shell shock'. We never really get to know Wimsey, but we do know of him.
'Whose Body?' is not the best in the series (you might need the character of Harriet Vane to qualify for that distinction), but it is a very solid opener. This read through will continue...
This is the first entry in a fantastically long series of medieval mysteries that have been championed by the 'In Search Of The Classic Mystery Novel' blog run by the Puzzle Doctor. It's nice to see these stories reaching new eras of history, and not just languishing in the Victorian era and later. Jecks' writing is good, with some imagery thrown in to avoid the bland bestseller style you find in so many modern-ish novels.
'The Last Templar' tricked me, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. Yes, there are spoilers ahead. There are several murders, which according to classical mystery story telling should all be connected, but I can't decide whether the actual solutions to the various intrigues breaks an important rule of these kinds of books or not. Or whether it is ultimately satisfying. The high quality of writing means I'll definitely come back for another one or two in the series, though. The trick behind the title is also very misleading, but feels much fairer in how it works.
The world of policing in the medieval age is so completely different as to be fascinating. There are essentially no policemen apart from a few sheriffs and a bailiff or two, and they have to organise a posse if they ever need to investigate trouble. Yes, a posse, often referred to as 'The Hundred'. It is also a world without light, and one with an awful lot of fire. Fire was the high technology of the time, and was a more common method of murder. It's also a world where people would still be crucified and burned at stakes. How strange it all seems now, even while our hero, Simon Puttock the newly chosen Bailiff of Lydford Castle investigates the murders in his area and meeting his new friend, and suspicious newcomer, Sir Baldwin Furnshill.
Where will this series go? We will have to wait and see. I'll keep going until either the end or the onset of fatigue.
There are so many exclamation marks at the end of dialogue! Yikes! It's sometimes as if the characters are speaking in an episode of 'Batman'! How's that for a cold opening, huh? We return to Michael Jecks, and on this occasion I will be less positive, if only because 'The Merchant's Partner' has some structural similarities to the first book in the series and because of the exclamation marks! The temptation is to put the quibbles aside and lump it all into the 'second book problem' category of woes, which has afflicted so many authors and series. The first book is usually a labour of love, but the second book is often a labour of toil as the author tries to work out what on Earth to do next, given the success of the first instalment.
In that first book, 'The Last Templar', there were were three murders and the strong presence of darkness, which was a major problem back in history. When you only had fire as a source of light, the night time was a dangerous time indeed. This time, there are two murders and the natural problem of coldness, as this is definitely a winter's tale, with snow and potential death by hypothermia around every corner. There but for a few gadgets would we all be. On the other hand, the much deeper symbiosis with the environment seems a far more natural way of life that the sterile isolation from all things animal we have now. Anyway, back to the plot. Sir Baldwin Furnshill, Keeper of the Peace, has invited his old friend Simon Puttock, Bailiff of Lydford, and his wife to visit, but unfortunately two murders complicate matters tremendously. In addition, snow is falling by the yard, Baldwin the unhappy bachelor is desperately pining for a love to call his own. Oh, and one of the victims is supposed to have been a witch...
This one is curious. Overall, it's very solidly constructed and written. The second string narrative of the visiting stranger and his wanderings is quite similar to that in the first book, and exists mainly as a potential red herring to keep us guessing. The medieval setting is still fresh and unusual for a mystery novel, but the long narrative journey to get us to the conclusion seems a bit drawn out and burdened with exposition. It seems a bit far-fetched that neither Furnshill nor Puttock could have guessed at the real nature of the potion that Spoilery Person Number Five took, and Furnshill fell in love so ludicrously fast that his heart may have broken the sound barrier. Still, that could well be my cynicism seeping through.
Second books are always difficult, and this is pretty solid and good on many levels, so the third shall be the real test. It's not time to leave Devon yet...
Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Spoilery times ahead.
It's going to be difficult to talk about this without making a comparison to the rather excellent Ray Milland movie version, but let's try. In 'The Big Clock', we are introduced to our main protagonist George Stroud, who is an editor of the crime magazine 'Crimeways', part of tycoon Earl Jaroth's publication group. He's an average guy, except for being a bit sleazy at times, who gets involved with Jaroth's mistress and then witnesses his boss at her home on the night she is murdered. What follows is a thriller, where the murderer Jaroth tells Stroud to employ the entire magazine group staff on a manhunt to catch... Stroud. There are other wrinkles to it all, but the (mostly) innocent Stroud has to protect himself while trying to deflect the investigation toward the true culprit.
Maybe we should talk about the movie, after all, as the differences are important. Here, in the book, Stroud is saved by a freak event which gets the manhunt called off, and is then mysteriously considered in the clear. He is also clearly a philanderer, which is a real flaw to add to the main protagonist. In terms of the climax and likeable characters, the movie is much much better, since Stroud is instrumental in the climax and fate of Jaroth, instead of being the recipient of good but dumb luck. Also, in the movie, he spends the evening with the doomed lady in bars and antique shops, but it is nowhere near being the grand weeks long infidelity depicted in the novel. Ultimately, the novel is hard-boiled noir, and the movie is filled with more likeable characters.
In an unusual move, each chapter of 'The Big Clock' is written from the point of view of a character, most of them George Stroud. There are, however, several narrated by other characters in the story. At the moment, I can't think of another novel that does that in my collection, although it seems as if there is at least one, currently hidden away by memory. Is it necessary, or a gimmick, or both? There are definitely versions of this story which could successfully be told exclusively from Stroud's point of view, leaving the machinations of Jaroth to the reader's imagination.
All in all, this is a good and short thriller. There is an issue with the ending being so sudden and incidental, leaving Stroud in the clear for no reason, but this is purely a subjective problem. The ending of the movie is definitely preferable. It's more satisfying to tie the ending into your protagonist than not, after all. Still, it is a famous crime novel, so Fearing probably knew what he was doing! It's well written, humorous and serious, but a bit brief. Also, there is an eccentric artist! On the other hand, it's a bit too preoccupied with sexuality and mores for me, but that's not an uncommon problem.
Wednesday, 22 April 2020
Sixteen days have elapsed since the last update, in which everything has continued more or less as before, but with less nervous tension and more sleeping. Doesn't that sound nice? Things really have stayed much the same, which is eerie in many ways, as the country (and the wider world) struggles with the Big Nasty that no-one ever expected. Oh, many have suspected that a killer virus would emerge to wreak vengeance on the species that has caused so much imbalance and ickiness, but those suspicions were never 'this year' or 'this week'. Oh well, we deal with what we're dealt. And then go to sleep each night. That's the British way.
Meanwhile, here in Old South Wales, your genial author is contenting himself with convalescing from that nervous schism that followed the outbreak of the oncoming storm, by diversions such as endless games and escalating reading time. It will be alright. In fact, a re-readathon has been kickstarted, succeeding the monumental string of previously unread stories. Now, unread stories are wonderful, but so is returning to old friends. Thus, 'Belgarath the Sorcerer' makes a reappearance, as does 'The Beiderbecke Trilogy' (not as good as the television shows, but decent), 'Conan The Barbarian', and 'The Columbo Collection' (not even close to being as good as the television series again, but a diversion). I suspect this is going to be a period re-integration of old things with the new. Maybe a new synthesis is occurring in the world, where many of the non-essential fripperies will be put aside for a long time. Maybe pigs will also fly.
It's hard to learn how not to be nervous while essentially cowering away in your dwelling. It's hard to not panic, or fret. Fortunately, there is emotional release through television, movies and even radio plays. Tomorrow, there should be a Clive Merrison and Michael Williams Sherlock-athon. Huzzah! You can't go wrong with those two. You also can't go wrong with just flinging frisbees (or obsoleted flying rings) in the garden, if you have a garden. It's a nice way to get out of the house during this endless sunny spell, about which no-one has really talked. It has been sunny for weeks, and often more like Summer than Spring, and is extraordinarily annoying. Why, oh why, torture us this way, Great Bird Of The Galaxy? However, let's get back to frisbees. If you happen to be lucky enough to have a frisbee, and a number of rings, you can play target frisbee. You throw the disk, and then try to get as close as possible to it with the rings. Yes, it sounds dull, but it's very relaxing, if you can relax enough about wind direction, strength, and what might be drifting from where. Target frisbee is relaxing in the same way that air conducting is a release. It might be time to take a trip to the Teary List in order to feel better...
Will we all have learnt to be more independent when this is over? Will we? And will I want to leave the small book fortress that will have accumulated? Just wait and see... Incidentally, what would be the best way to make a book drawbridge?
Monday, 6 April 2020
It was the year of staying home, of lemony drinks, of being suspicious of winds from the bungalows next door, and of herbal teas most foul. It was the year of being practically unemployed, of anxiety, and of uncertainty as to where the next batch of food might be coming from. It was the year of 2020, and it still is, and it will be for many more months.
The world is hurrying out there, beyond these walls. Researchers and medics are hurriedly trying to repurpose existing medications and vaccines, in the hopes that they might help, while other do their best to develop medicines especially for the Big Nasty as quickly as possible, while not cutting so many corners that they produce completely worthless rubbish. Inventive people are developing equipment that can be 3-D printed, while merciless tycoons and unsavoury leaders try to push unsafe medications on their peoples, in exchange for favours as yet undisclosed to us, the general public. All of these things at once, while here in the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister I never wanted is hospitalised with an uncertain future.
Yes, it is the year 2020, and everything has gone rather ca-ca. Still, it could be worse. Indeed, it could be far, far worse, and we'll just have to wait and see what will happen. Here, things continue in an endless loop, and the squirrels in the garden continue to frolic. We're up to four now. They're nice little rapscallions. There's something hypnotic about the way they move: Fast jumping runs interspersed with moments of utter stillness. That's the beauty of squirrels. Maybe they'll take over one day. That would be nice, and much better than 'Planet Of The Apes'. Yes, I'll have to write 'World Of The Squirrels'. What a wonder that would be!
Yes, this post has to end with 'World Of The Squirrels'. That has blotted out all else, even the incredible irony of a tobacco firm claiming to have developed an antigen, which it's growing inside its plants. Even that has been eclipsed by the squirrels. It could be a great series of novels. 'Birth Of The World Of The Squirrels', 'Revolution Of World Of The Squirrels', 'Dance Of World Of The Squirrels', and... 'Nut Festivals Of World Of The Squirrels'. It must happen.
Monday, 30 March 2020
It has been a few days since the last update, and things have continued in much the same fashion, with a couple of unfortunate trips out, and much stress around dog walking and food deliveries. This whole 'two metre' guideline seems extremely simplistic. If people breathe out droplets, aren't they still going to be there for other people to walk through, or is there some kind of fast dispersion and nullification effect from being outside? Is it the wind? Does that mean calm days are more dangerous for being outside? It's a mystery to me. In a few short weeks there are going to be far too many people wandering around to ever walk the quadruped of terror anywhere but the garden. The mystery of whether open car windows are dangerous continues to be a mystery... as does the safety of food deliveries. I mean, those packages are being breathed on by several batches of people, right? Is it paranoia? Is it?
It would be easy to get paranoid in this situation. There might be six more months of this to go, or more, and everything that comes into the house is suspect, including me. There is no relief. It will probably be better when everyone is not sick, though. There are coughs, and now sneezes, and my chest is still tight, and I'm still not convinced we haven't already had the Mighty Virus, but it's impossible to tell. MAss home testing can't come quickly enough.
What does a day consist of at this stage of the lockdown? At the moment, we begin with getting up, which is traditional. Some people like to get down instead of getting up, but that's too much like work or jive. Then there's catching up on the turn-based games on BoardGameArena, breakfast, a ceremonial television episode with the parents, and then divergence from pattern. On Tuesday, there are a couple of students, on another day there's a food delivery, and on others nothing really happens but a little preparation. That has to change. Something has to fill those days. After the deviation, out with the dog, a game with parents, maybe another television episode, more game turns on the website, a ceremonial e-mail or two, and then to sleep. Or as close to sleep as is possible.
It all feels very sad. Television will have to be our saviour for now.
Wednesday, 25 March 2020
It is a time of extremes. The quarantine is blown as my father had to go to casualty with a cut hand, three times. That equals enormous stress, but we may just have gotten away with it. On the other hand, I was moved to tears by more than four hundred thousand people volunteering to become NHS Volunteers and take up a role in the community. What a wonder that is. Well done, you people! Tears did flow.
In good virus news, mass testing might be upon us, which would lead to a significant advantage over the microorganism. We may beat it yet. On the other hand, Agent X reports a worry about the (small?) fee for early purchase by the general public. We just don't know enough yet.
For even more viral knowledge, here's something about 'viral load':
In short, viruses can be worse the more you're exposed. One exposure from a single source is better than from a crowd in a room. Also, it's best to not hang around with other infected people as you breathe in each other's nastiness and become even more infected. That makes sense, right? Try to recover alone. The source seems reputable, and again it is from secret source Agent X. She'll be named if she's nice, and notices anything away from her family.
Being in self-isolation, and scared of a foe you can not see, you become more than a little afraid. You become afraid of the packaging the food comes in, just in case it was handled by an infected person. You get scared of the clothes you walked the dog in, because they may have picked something up from the air, or from passing cars (with open windows, you rotten twerps), or from gates or brushing on a fence. You get scared of a sore throat, or touching the computer mouse, because you touched it earlier, after touching your coat, which may have been messed by the walk outside, which may, which may, and so on.
Try not to get too scared please. It's not worth it. Eat liquorice instead. Mwahahahahaha. Or glug some echinacea tea, or use the Mystical Unwaxed Lemon Trick. Or find a source of elderberry extract. There are more productive things to do...
Monday, 23 March 2020
And so, after making it a whole week since the last definite contact, the day counter rolls back to zero after a simple misunderstanding. It's back to worrying for all! And that's not even including my old lung would springing some surprise pain for the day. Oh well, I'm always worried anyway, so there's no difference in that respect, but it is vexing.
Many things change in the middle of a massive disease crisis. Here in the Lair of the Quirky Muffin, certain more serious books in the reading stack have gone back into the standby pile, to be replaced by happier and nicer reads. Similarly, the heavier television series in the rotation are being spaced out by somewhat lighter fare. It's all in the spirit of positivity!
Now, if only the old lung wound hadn't started hurting, probably due to gas. No need to panic. There's nothing to see here. Here are some highlights of the day's activities: two absolutely classical episodes of 'Car 54, Where Are You?' ('No More Pickpockets' and 'The Beast That Walked The Bronx'), a well-made raisin cake, and a nice walk without the spectre of open car windows passing by for once. That should become less of a concern if there is a lockdown.
When this whole pandemic crisis blows over, let's all fly a kite, and have a really wonderful day of being able to touch our faces with no shame whatsoever. Oh, the torture of itches...
Friday, 20 March 2020
One entirely predictable consequence of being isolated for three to twelve months is going to be the mental state upon going back to some kind of normal. Some people might even resist it, and try to stay in their exile, especially if they've built up an online profession and virtual life. So, how should we prepare for eventually going back to the social world? I don't have a good answer yet, but presumably we should all stay in contact with our people as best we can, while also focussing on projects and hobbies to keep us sane.
Does that make sense?
In health news, it has been eight days since my mother last went to town for volunteering, six days since my last face-to-face student, and only five days since my father last saw someone from the outside in person. We're doing well so far, so perhaps we're all clean of the dreaded virus. We can only hope!
Just in case, if anything happens to me, you're all brilliant. Even you, slouching at the back. Stand up straight!
Wednesday, 18 March 2020
The overriding feelings, even at this early stage of our months-long pandemic self-quarantine, are ones of panic. 'What if that last student that came here before the doors closed was infectious?' 'What if we pick something up off the post?' 'How is this food delivery regime going to help when people are going crazy?' 'What if we suffer a tragedy anyway?' You see, to do this right, you have to be righteously paranoid, and then there is no end to the worries. Are passing cars dangerous when out walking the dog and avoiding people? How long does this hideous thing lurk after it has been dropped somewhere? The list is virtually endless.
I had hoped that my favourite time-waster and brain-burner, the website BoardGameArena, would be a welcome diversion but it is becoming often overloaded with people playing so intently and constantly that it now has to turn people away when it reaches capacity. This is a blow indeed! I suppose the best thing to do is to relearn how to write. You'll be in this with me. Be afraid, very afraid.
So, here is the Quirky Muffin incarnate, self-quarantined with a lung condition and two older parents with problems of their own, while a pandemic crashes its mighty fist down up on the planet Earth. How did we end up in a dystopian future so quickly, you might ask? Well, reader of the future, it is mostly due to people not doing anything. Thus, the elderly population, the sickly, and anyone who lives with them, are voluntarily locked down, with supermarkets unable to deliver all they need due to panic buying. The deliveries are also sold out for weeks ahead, so everything becomes very difficult indeed.
In the weeks and months ahead, assuming a bad thing does not occur, I will try to describe the mental travails involved in not going completely nutty, staying alive, and finding ways to deal with both the boredom and the fear. Things are going to get rough...
Monday, 9 March 2020
'The Gate Of Ivory' (Gate Of Ivory) (1990) by Doris Egan
Hmmm. This is a tricky one. In 'The Gate Of Ivory', we meet a woman called Theodora, who has been stranded on the magical world of Ivory, without the money to book a space journey home to her university studies. She has been making do, pretending to read tarot cards, and storing up funds for her escape in an illicit bank account. That all changes, though, when she is employed a by a magician as his reader, begins to authentically read from her card, and is drawn into a long and confusing adventure.
This is a tricky story to write about, for it is very level. Well written as it is, there are few peaks or troughs. It feels like a level road from beginning to end, and one which doesn't answer a lot of the questions that I would like answered. Why is Ivory the only world where magic works in the galaxy? Why does this Empire that runs the planet intervene so little in the story? Why is there no reference to music anywhere? How many last memories are stored in that family library? Ultimately, this is good, but it feels as if a thousand things could have been expanded upon. It really does. There could have been two or more standalone novels based on just this material, excluding the second third books that were written.
My confusion might be based in the confusion that is the lead character Theodora. She is definitely less self-aware than would be ideal, coming to conclusions long after the reader might have, and shifting from supporting character to lead, and then back again. Does she care about this, or about that? Or both? Is she a soap opera character, a romance character, or in the middle of an adventure? It's very hard to say, but the world is nice. There are people with their own stories, to be intersected with, and then left behind. Ultimately, this is a good second tier fantasy novel, with soap operatic and romantic leanings.
'The Blind Barber' (Gideon Fell) (1934) by John Dickson Carr
This was only the fourth 'Gideon Fell' novel to be written, and there is very little of Gideon Fell in the narrative. He is part of the framing story, wherein the actual lead character tells the doctor of the events of the transatlantic crossing he and his friends had just made, which are described to us the reader as a flashback which forms the bulk of the book. And that flashback is eventually very good indeed. I say eventually because it starts off rather slowly, and there is a sense of disappointment at the absence of Dr Fell, both of which are subverted into a sense of small amazement at the complex and farcical story that is wound tightly around a probable murder, the theft of a valuable artifact, an imposter on the ship, a drunken puppet master, some scandalous but innocuous home movies, and a very put-upon ship's captain. Even this is topped by a rather chilling interview with the criminal behind it all. It's utterly recommended, and no more will be said. Excellent.
'Some Buried Caesar' (Nero Wolfe) (1939) by Rex Stout
'Nero Wolfe' has really flown under the radar. There were more than thirty novels or collections in this run by Rex Stout, and Wolfe is supposed to be one of the most important detectives in all of fiction writing, but he's a non-presence here in Britain. After reading 'Some Buried Caesar', everything becomes a little clearer. It's a very simply written short novel, almost too simply, with an interesting plot and a narrative first person point of view in the vein of what might be called a hard-boiled Doctor Watson. Yes, that's right, a 'hard-boiled Doctor Watson'.
Similarities to Sherlock Holmes abound, wherein we have the ingenious (and often very sleepy and stay-at-home) detective and his less perceptive personal assistant who might be distracted by the ladies more often than not. Archie Goodwin makes a marked contrast to Watson, in that he discovers things as much as he receives explanation, presumably being the street detective to Nero Wolfe's armchair sleuth. Wolfe, uncharacteristically out of his rooms in this story, spends a lot of time looking for a decent chair in 'Some Buried Caesar', amusingly. I will not say much of the plot, except that there is a prize-winning bull, which supposedly kills someone, and that Wolfe and Goodwin happen to be on the scene thanks to a car accident.
Opinions on 'Nero Wolfe' in general will have to wait until some more experience is garnered.
'A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born' (Stainless Steel Rat) (1985) by Harry Harrison
And so we go back in time to witness the beginning of Slippery Jim DiGriz, the titular character, and it's much better than I thought it would be. The reduction of scale in the story is welcome, as the earlier stories had escalated to the point of madness, as is stripping the character down to being a vaguely moral thief instead of a galaxy-saving anti-hero. These short novels are unceasingly entertaining, and you can't help but admire Harrison's perseverance in keeping them going for so long, and in breaking the cycle of ever expanding space opera by going back to the beginning. Is it classical? Probably not, still, but it's wildly more inventive that what you might find now, so I will finally recommend the 'Stainless Steel Rat' series, and there are still a few more to come...
'Peril At End House' (Poirot) (1932) by Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie books always feel so lightweight to me, with a few exceptions. This is not one of those exceptions, despite being a very good Poirot mystery. Enough said.
'Murder In The Caribbean' (Death In Paradise) (2018) by Robert Thorogood
It's the last (so far) 'Death In Paradise' (DIP) novel, and we finish with a pretty good story. It's also rather unconventional as far as DIP goes, being about a string of revenge killings, oddly referred to as serial murders. I might be wrong, but I thought serial murders were something slightly different. In any case, Richard Poole is on the case, when he's not trying to prove Dwayne is shirking during the time he's supposed to be preparing for his Sergeant's exam. It's a good use of the cast of characters, and never flags, although the depths of the seediness on the island are becoming deeper with every instalment. It does have some of the weaknesses of the television series, in that romantic interests must be connected to the crime or be otherwise extraneous and unlasting, and that nothing can be introduced which breaks continuity. Is there space in the timeline for any more novels featuring the original cast? That break between series two and series three might have been very long indeed, and I have no idea about the level of detail in Poole's final moments... Finally, the book probably needs another proofreading run, as there a few too many typoes. Overall, a good and solid mystery story.
Of course it was XXX, you fools!
'Journey To The West' (volume 3) (16th C) by Wu Cheng'En and WJF Jenner
Finally, we're here at the end of the third volume (out of four) of 'Journey To The West', and all is much the same. It's still quite repetitive, and there is still some fairly and unavoidably bland translation of Chinese poetry, but there are also some incredible moments. Monkey is one of the great characters of literature. It's basically a superhero epic, but centuries early, and with some very ambiguous protagonists. In good news, there's only one volume left! Hurray! This is definitely a fun collection of tales, but two thousand pages spread over four volumes is a bit much...
'First Lensman' (Lensman) (1950) by E.E. 'Doc' Smith
This, more than 'Triplanetary', is the very definition of a fix-up novel. There are obviously several short stories here, fused into a sometimes awkwardly connected novel, with the Arisian/Eddorian conflict bolted on as a framework. Fortunately the remaining novels are more conventionally written, so there is hope in that respect. Apart from that, this is a militaristic space opera, featuring an alien invasion, a battle against corruption, a presidential election, the establishment of a galactic council, an interview with an alien intelligence, and the recruitment of a new corps of telepathy-equipped Lensmen (no women allowed). That is a massive amount of content for such a small number of pages, and some of it amounts to a benevolent military coup, which is confusing in 2020. There is also undercover work, some femme fatale maneuvering, reconciliation with a brainwashed enemy fleet, and even a secret naval yard world. More? Yes, more! It's overstuffed to the point of bursting, somewhat chauvinistic, and without a lot of space for character development. However, there is no way that it cannot be called epic, and we do get an ending that is prophecised earlier in the text, and which we forget would happen, exactly as we were told we would. That's the nicest touch of all.
There's a set of books I didn't read when I was the appropriate age, for whatever reasons. Maybe I was put off by a musty smell, or never even thought to pick them up. Maybe they were leapfrogged over in search of the next thing. I don't really know why any more, but 'Treasure Island' is one of them and is excellent. It would have been a beloved childhood read. It is the absolute epitome of the boys' adventure story, with mayhem to spare. Again, just as in the Willard Price 'Adventure' stories, there's no fear of killing off characters, nor of doing dreadful things. Pirates die horribly of fear and rum, stranglings, tramplings and shootings abound, and adventure just pops out of the book indelibly. It's ridiculously good.
Every story featuring pirates and buried treasure draws on 'Treasure Island' (unless they preceded it, using some devious device of originality). It's iconic, foundational and in some senses mythical. Every devious and untrustworthy pirate is based on Long John Silver, and every marooned lunatic is Ben Gunn. It's also a very devious story, packed with references to past events we will never see, which is fascinating, and loaded with some hints as to future events in the lives of the surviving protagonists. The concept of a story as part of a longer timeline we won't see is always a draw in a book, and is one of the reasons why one-off novels can be so interesting.
Does Polly want a cracker? A piece of eight? Eight what?
The success of 'Treasure Island' is largely due to the complexity of the pirate leader, Long John Silver, the ruthless peg-legged ship's cook, with his parrot and his deadly crutch. At times caring of Jim Hawkins, our protagonist, he is also hard-hearted and utterly untrustworthy in any change of circumstances. Yes, he's a walking paradox, and seemingly far too knowledgeable to be a pirate. It's easy to see why so many people have tried to write novels about the character. He might even be the defining pirate rogue of all time. Is 'Treasure Island' still being read by children? I wonder...
Jim Hawkins is a fine protagonist too, and is clearly having the adventure of a lifetime as the squeaky clean hero of the tale. There are almost no women, Jim's mother being the only one, but it does make sense in context. The noble officers of the ship are good too, but it's really all about Hawkins and Silver.
'Treasure Island' is a classic adventure.
Saturday, 25 January 2020
The story is told from the point of view of the veteran hunter Allan Quartermaine, well versed in the lore and landscape of southern Africa, and reluctant to chance his fate without good reason. Quartermain didn't live to become a veteran without knowing when not to reach for the golden ring. In this case, in his most famous adventure, he is hired by a couple of English explorers who are setting out to find a long-lost relative, who disappeared after going on a quest to find the legendary King Solomon's diamond mine and treasure vault.
You almost have to rate each episode in the adventure separately, and park modern sensibilities selectively at the door. The trophy hunting near the beginning does leave a sour taste, as it should in 2020, but it's a very small part of the story in terms of the pages and if it has to serve a function then let's call that function 'seeing the past for what it actually was'. Quartermaine is a very interesting character and narrator. He's a blend of impulsive idiot and wisely balanced old head, being carried away by events, and stepping away from danger as the circumstance permits. Older protagonists are somewhat rare, aren't they? In this case, his two clients are more cliched British silly people, one of whom is reduced to trouserlessness as it impresses the natives of the lost tribe. This can't be the first instance of the European impressing the lost native with his paleness (and half a moustache and monocle), can it?
Overall, a solid and sometimes very well written adventure story indeed. Good to very good, depending on the part. The end sequence in the vault is still eerie, even after all this time.
Friday, 24 January 2020
2. A poem.
A decimal into a fraction,
Is a most daunting proposition,
Consider the label notation,
Put the digits into position.
3. A poem.
A half, two quarters, three sixths, and so on,
Some of the masks of a number anon,
Each means the same but is used differently,
When adding, or taking, equivalently.
4. J.U.T.J.U.B.: Joining Up Tops, Joining Up Bottoms.
5. B.B.B.: Beware Bizarro-land Below.
(Sizes have opposite effects in the denominator on the answer)
Tuesday, 21 January 2020
2. A poem.
To divide fractions we do something silly
And flip the bottom to make it less frilly.
Then it becomes a very simple affair
To instead multiply the fractional pair.
3. A poem.
To multiply the decimal
We first forget the rigmarole,
Instead we do the number part
And then upon the tens we start.
4. A limerick.
There was an odd fraction called Clyde,
Who knew not that he had to divide,
The line that went right through his middle,
Sent his mind to a merry fiddle,
But now that old line is his guide.
5. A limerick.
Horatio the ratio was a fanciful beast,
Who was used to create the most unusual feast,
For on each of his parts a whole number was seen,
Which decided the shares of meat, veg and bean,
After those whole numbers had all together been pieced.
6. A couplet.
Percentage, percentage, why do you vex me so?
You’re only a fraction with a hundred below!
Saturday, 11 January 2020
It was a shameless travesty, the crooked media manipulated and perverted to their heart's content, and the country elected a government so cynical and vapid that they barely register on any scale. We can only hope they'll do something good accidentally, while selling something off to a low bidder in absolute stupidity. Here endeth the rant.
I think we need some kind of tool, so that we can get source documents and texts directly to the people. It would have to be some kind of master network, connecting as many computers as people want to plug into it. I also think we need to educate people to read for themselves and think about things. What a world it would be. The primary aim of education should be to educate people to the point where they can educate themselves, shouldn't it?
Education, the silver bullet for most social problems, how can we save you from chicanery and manipulation. Let's all think about it for a while. How to get around the people who definitely don't want a self-learning and aware population? Let's think.
Tuesday, 7 January 2020
In this entry in the 'Adventure' series, Hal and Roger Hunt are sent by their father to the South Seas to find some aquatic specimens and experience being at sea. They also agree to visit a secret and experimental pearl bed for a family friend, who is very worried about hostile intervention from some less than honest pearl buyers. We therefore get the introduction of the only recurring bad guy the series, good old loopy Kaggs. Kaggs, posing as a missionary reverend, hitches a ride with the Hunts on a small expedition to the pearl island, and maroons the brothers and their friend Omo, which instigates the major portion of the story.
The trio are marooned on a true desert island, with no obvious resources, food or water. It's only by freak occurrences that they manage to make a shelter, and there's only a temporary water supply thanks to a preceding typhoon's water draining through the rocks into an underwater current. It's all empty and ruined coconut shells and bamboo, and it's excellent. By focusing on this episode for half the book, it becomes a lot more thrilling.
Kaggs is a real creep of a villain, and sea journeys are always interesting. Once again, we get a cruel fate for the bad guy, and a good lead-in to the next episode. Oh, and there are also manta rays, octopi, squids, a sunfish, and more. What's next?
Sunday, 5 January 2020
'Rumpole For The Defence' (Rumpole) (1982) by John Mortimer
This fourth entry in the Rumpole series is the least memorable so far. I don't know if it was me, general fatigue, or that Mortimer had already told the stories he wanted to earlier in the run. This is the only set of stories that was based on a season of radio plays instead of television episodes, so perhaps that played a part. If I look at the list of stories, nothing springs out, so perhaps it is just forgettable. Let's hope the next volume strikes a more interesting chord.
'Look To The Lady' (Campion) (1931) by Margery Allingham
'Look To The Lady', as with the other early 'Campion' stories, is extremely close to the television adaptation, and so it's difficult to assess it individually. It does seem very well written, and works fantastically, but would it be as good without having seen the television version first? There's nothing additional in this original book version, but the characterisation is nice, and the theme or maguffin of the story is utterly unique. The story is roughly this: Albert Campion rescues an indigent young heir, reconciles him with his family, and helps them preserve the family heirloom from an organised and elite artefact thieving ring. The only things are that the heirloom is effectively a national treasure, which has a possibly paranormal protector, and that there are definite questions to answer on just who is employing Campion to help out in the affair...
'Death Knocks Twice' (Death In Paradise) (2017) by Robert Thorogood
We're back in the Caribbean, where DI Richard Poole is faced with another murder mystery, while being really, very, extremely annoyed with life in the tropics. Will he be tempted into loosening up and changing his style, or will the woolen suits persist beyond this installment? We will have to wait and see, while Poole, Camille, Fidel and Dwayne do their best to unravel the true story behind the death of an anonymous vagrant at the historic Beaumont coffee plantation. However, the Beaumont family are not revealing anything, and may be collectively and individually incapable of telling the truth about anything... This third entry in the literary version of 'Death In Paradise' is really rather good, with enough dragged out revelations and red herrings to drive less of a mystery reader go a little mad. I still prefer the first installment, 'A Meditation On Murder', but this is probably in second place, since the final revelation is slightly more palatable to this wonky brain.
'Crisis On Centaurus' (Star Trek) (1986) by Brad Ferguson
This is a fairly simple dramatic story for the Enterprise crew, but benefits from the streamlining. Fresh from an inexplicable and crippling event, the ship is dispatched on a critical super emergency mission to the planet Centaurus (the principal colony of Alpha Centauri), where Joanna McCoy lives, and where it seems an anti-matter annihilation device has been detonated at the capital city, causing mass destruction. The starship, despite being in a hideous mess, responds and investigates, leading to a planet-bound investigation, some character development for Chekov, and the return of an old friend. It's nice to get some small backstory on Kirk, who has land on Centaurus, and on McCoy's daughter, but it's the really the bookend story about the crippling of the Enterprise that is most curious, as well as the information about the structure of the Enterprise. A very solid 'Star Trek' novel.
Oh! Oh! I almost forgot! Uhura gets to be in command for the first time! What a nice thing to write in! She does very well, too. Thank you, Mr Ferguson.
A long time ago, or not so long if we measure on the geological scale, I was an early reader. 'The Three Musketeers' was a ludicrously early read, as were 'The Magician's Nephew', 'The Speckled Band', and the 'Adventure' stories of Willard Price. At the time, Llanelli Library had a good set of Willard Price in hardback in the juvenile section, and they were awesome novels. There was exploration, peril, a laundry lists of animals to encounter in each book, and there all kinds of exotic exotic locales to encounter.
'Amazon Adventure' is a bit of a low key start to the series, where Price was clearly learning the ropes of his new construction, and the pacing is bit off what you would expect from reading the second entry, 'South Sea Adventure'. However, there is still a lot to enjoy. We get the first conservation trip, where series heroes Hal and Roger Hunt, a noted naturalist's sons, take a long boat ride down the Amazon with their dad, looking for animals to catch to supply to zoos and collections. Now, in 2019, this is not quite as accepted as it would have been back then, but it is a vital function to fulfil. We will need animals to help repopulate the natural world of some improved future, when the wild ones have long been extinct, in the most idealised version of this activity. Really, it's just a grand excuse to find out about boa constrictors, anacondas, tapirs, vampire bats, marmosets and more. There's also a head called Charlie, donated by a headhunter tribe. How cute! It does feel very upsetting when some animals die, though, and some of the trapping seems cruel despite it probably being necessary on our notional larger scale.
On this occasion, the villain is a stooge, a man called 'Croc', who is workin on behalf of the competing and less ethical animal collector 'Shark' Sands, who steals their boat and cargo at one point in the story, leaving Hal and Roger stranded on a small floating island, which is where we get the first part of the survival strand of the 'Adventure' books. This is a prelude to the main event of the next entry in the series, but his punishment is really harsh indeed. Croc is locked up with a sleeping anaconda, and probably goes completely crazy, not knowing that the vicious serpent wouldn't touch him for weeks, being full and digesting something else. Bad people can die in this series, they can go crazy, and endings can't be relied upon to compromise for the sake of being 'nice' to the antagonists.
Not the best of the run, but still very good. Great stuff.