Monday, 14 May 2018

New Doctor Who by me!

News from Big Finish this morning! Iris Wildthyme and Panda crash into Doctor Who in 1920s Paris!

"Oooh la la! It's been a long time coming, but the Doctor is about to be reunited with Iris Wildthyme! They're both in 1920s Paris and everyone's flocking to Iris's salon. But wait...! What's that noise..? Thud thud thud...! It's the soft, approaching feet of a small and acerbic Art Critic Panda...! Hold onto your large, extravagant hats everyone, it's time for a not-quite-so Pure Historical from Paul Magrs."

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Million Love Songs - Carole Matthews

Million Love Songs – Carole Matthews

I’ve read Carole’s novels for about ten years now. Perhaps not every single one – she usually publishes two a year. I stop by and read the latest one when I feel like I want to visit old friends. Even when the characters are strangers, they still feel like old friends. There’s something about the world she conjures that seems at once welcoming and familiar. She likes to give us cosiness and friendship, but also excruciating embarrassment and a certain amount of calamity. All these things are a strong draw for me, in those times I want to read something soothingly funny and just a bit – but not too – soppily romantic.

The heroines are always resourceful and practical – Ruby Brown is no exception. She’s unusual in Carole’s oeuvre in that she doesn’t have any particular talent or ambition that she discovers and hones through the course of the book. She isn’t a whizz at baking or making up business plans. Ruby is just a nice person with modest ambitions to be happily fulfilled. In a way her story is more old-fashioned than those of other Matthews heroines of recent years – it’s a tale of vacillating between two very different suitors and trying to figure out what kind of life might be best for her. Will she opt for the adventurous, spoiled playboy Mason or the domestic complications of divorced dad Joe.

I absolutely believe in all these characters, and it’s something to do with the way Ruby addresses us directly – begging our indulgence, confiding in us, whispering asides about her friend, Charlie. The tone is casual and guileless – we like Ruby because she tells us the unadorned truth. Even her most embarrassing moments don’t make us cringe too much because she never plays victim, even when she’s in the worst moments of being tangled up with ‘Shagger’ Mason. When he takes her away for a supposedly romantic weekend in Paris he shags the whole thing up big time, but Ruby can admit to herself (and us) when she’s made a daft mistake, and she simply walks out to do her sight-seeing alone.

Carole’s heroines are always keen to try out something new. Here, as well as threesomes it’s scuba-diving and there’s a lovely, gentle ruefulness about the kinds of situations you get into if you embrace new possibilities. There’s every chance that you’ll end up bobbing about at the bottom of a murky pool holding some fat bloke’s hand, or hanging around in a quarry while everyone else is snorkeling about. Ruby puts herself bravely out there – even when the results look as if they might be disappointing. She’s even willing to hang out in hotel foyers waiting for a glimpse of Take That. Throughout all of these things there’s an underlying belief in the idea of throwing yourself whole-heartedly into stuff, and in trusting that things will work out in the end.

Ruby is forthright and confident and, perhaps, a little more profane than the average Matthews heroine. I liked her cursing and swearing a lot – there was a breeziness to it. Also, her frankness about the sexual adventures Ruby occasionally gives herself up to – all of that seemed realistic to me, and about as silly, awkward and exciting as these things can be in real life. Ruby’s robust swearing and shagging was refreshing in a pop culture world that seems just a bit mimsy, mild and well-behaved these days.

When it was finished I felt very much like I’d spent time with old friends and heard all their latest, eyebrow-raising stories and then, all of a sudden, it was over. But that’s the good part of carefully leaving out one or two of Carole’s books now and then, and setting them aside for rainy weekends: you’ve always got one on stand-by, for when you want to return to her world.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Diamonds in the Rough: Reading in the First Third of 2018

Diamonds in the Rough

Reading in the first third of 2018

I began the year with the Armada Sci-Fi collections 2 and 3, edited by Richard Davis in the late Seventies, and these set the tone (and the bar) for the months to come. Reading these was a case of revisiting stories I’d partly forgotten, but it also involved discovering new and similar stuff, too.

I enjoyed reading some Judy Blume and some PG Wodehouse, I loved memoirs by Eddie Sarfaty and Dave Hill from Slade. Neil and Sue Perryman’s tomes eavesdropping on their Doctor Who-viewing marathon have been my constant companion through the year so far, and they’ve kept me laughing throughout the adventures of ‘The Scruffy Drunk’, ‘The Pompous Tory’ and ‘The Mad One.’            

I went back in time to reread a lot of Enid Blyton. This time I focused on her magical stories – her Faraway Trees and pixies and goblins, and I was reminded of just how strange she could get. Lucy Mangan backed me up with her memoir ‘Bookworm’ on the subject of rereading books you loved as a kid. Though I felt, in the end, that her choices were all about finding quality. She was hunting out books that were demonstrably good and discarding the trash, as her reading tastes matured. I’ve always been on an endless search to turn up the diamonds in the rough, and to find good pages in all the mountains of cast-off and over-looked tat.

And so I entered into a phase of reading Tie-in fiction. I went to one of the most under-valued and debased genres of all and I went back to examine my own early love of novelizations. In the early days of spring I spent time with lots of favourite characters – Flash Gordon and Dale Arden; Batman, Robin and the Joker; Cagney and Lacey; Doctor Who; Spiderman and Aunt May; Scooby-Doo; Planet of the Apes and the crew of the Starship Enterprise. In an over-busy and sometimes rocky start to the year, these old pals have been a very steadying influence. It’s a nice thing to remember: if you start to get sad, those familiar characters are always there waiting for you to pick up where you left off.

My top reads and recommendations from the first third of 2018:

Armada Sci-Fi (four volumes) – edited by Richard Davis
So Here it is – David Hill
Mental – Eddie Sarfaty
Dr Omega: The Strike of Midnite – John Peel
Star Trek Legacies: Captain to Captain – Greg Cox
Bookworm – Lucy Mangan
The Further Adventures of Batman – edited by Martin H. Greenberg
The Day of the Doctor – Steven Moffat
Cagney and Lacey – Serita Deborah Stevens
Spiderman – Peter David
Lost Mars – edited by Mike Ashley
The Wife in Space (all volumes) – Neil and Sue Perryman
Scooby-Doo Team-Up – Sholly Fisch

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Fairy Tales and Fantastic Stories - by Terry Jones

Fairy Tales and Fantastic Stories – Terry Jones

I’m rereading Terry Jones’ stories. It’s a large omnibus I found in Cheadle last Wednesday – 59p! Generously illustrated by Michael Foreman (I’ve been trying out his wet-on-wet watercolours this morning, painting silly pictures of cats shouting ‘Apples!’)
            Rereading Jones – of cake horses, cabinets of magic glass and people turned into wood… and the story of the Fly-By-Night, who changes flight direction by seizing the whiskers of the cat he’s piloting – I realise how well I remember them all from reading them to my sister when she was small. I’d go home from Uni quite often in the early 90s and read to her each night I was there. These stories (along with Judy Corbalis’ books, ‘Oskar and the Ice Pick’ and ‘The Wrestling Princess’) have stuck in my head (and hers, too, I hope.)
            Terry Jones’ tale-telling voice is filled with a silliness and endless inventiveness that’s very familiar.
            Watching just recently the behind-the-scenes documentary about Monty Python’s live shows in 2014, it’s very striking how much the others rib him about his memory. You can see him slipping… He’s laughing and smiling at his own failings, trying to hang onto the words of, say, the chocolate frog sketch. It becomes a running joke for these crusty old men, irked and busy backstage. It’s a documentary about cross, topless old men donning drag and other disguises. They talk about money and the old days and various old conflicts.
Cleese comes out as the most irked of all. He turns on Jones mid-sketch, in front of the 02 audience, snatching his idiot board and reading out his lines for him. Everyone roars – and yet Jones blinks benignly and smiles… not quite in on the joke. He looks dazed. He looks like Mr Toad sitting in the wreckage of his caravan.
And, watching this on Netflix a few years later, you can’t help thinking – this memory loss is a serious one. You can see it in his face every time he’s in shot. He looks sweetly befuddled by everything.
I keep thinking – it’s the man behind those fairy tales. That good nature, that generous soul. It’s also the mind at the heart of ‘Labyrinth’, too. His is the voice that makes the whole thing human and silly and therefore real (‘Come inside and meet the wife!’) While he’s trying to remember the lines to these silly old skits and hold onto the tail end of Python, the world of those fairy tales and that labyrinth and all those fantastic things – they’re all in there, too. They’re looking out through his bewildered eyes.
It’s kindness that you read in them, and in his tales of boastful herring, lying tigers and brave little kids. His kindness is what shines through the whole lot.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Lost Mars - edited by Mike Ashley

Lost Mars – edited by Mike Ashley

This isn’t really a Beach House Book. It hasn’t been on To Be Read Mountain for months or years. It turned up in the post and I read it at once: it was exactly the right book at just the right moment. It’s a perfectly succinct, beautifully designed and presented anthology of stories about Mars, from HG Wells in the 1890s to JG Ballard in the 1960s. It’s the first in a series of SF reprints from the British Library; a series hopefully to rival the popularity of their delightful British Crime golden oldies.
            I had a terrific couple of days revisiting Mars in all its aspects via this collection. We are taken from the realms of quaint and gentle Edwardian mystery through the rather more rambunctious era of Space Opera and into grittier, more hair-raising days when writers were paying more attention to what living conditions on Mars might actually turn out to be like.
            Like all the best SF this collections gives us both the cosmic and the domestic under the same covers. We have stories that are both unnerving and whimsical by rapid turns. I already knew and loved several of them – Wells and Bradbury, of course. But then there were gorgeous surprises from the days of early Pulp magazines. There’s a story I found almost unbearably moving, about a man stranded alongside a race of Martian rabbits known as the Maee. They live in caverns and harvest peas, and weave little burlap sacks for collecting them (twice in this collection, the true sign of a civilized race is seen as the ability to manufacture carrier bags.)
‘Here in the hidden crater was the secret sanctuary of the little red-brown rabbit men.’ The story is ‘The Forgotten Man of Space’ by P. Schuyler Miller. Abandoned by his own ruthless fellows, Cramer is befriended and looked after by the rabbits until he grows very old. His own kind eventually find him once more, and they’re astonished to discover him alive in the middle of a richly sustainable food source. (They don’t mean the peas.) The men blow up the caverns and here comes the bit I found painful:
‘The Maee watched too, from the dark – myriads of round eyes watching from the dark. He ran with the other men when it was time, but the Maee did not run. They sat and watched from the dark, till the glare came, and the noise. The black-striped one was killed. Others died, too – others he had known for a very long time…’
Filled with remorse and anxiety, reading this. Anxiety because, as I read, I was hoping Cramer would know what to do for the best. And wondering if I would know what the morally courageous response would be? Hopefully he or I wouldn’t simply return meekly to his own kind, implicitly condoning their murderous actions. Science Fiction – the best kind – always puts us in the thick of moral quandaries.
In the end Cramer sacrifices himself and we are told that the remaining Maee know why he does so. They understand that he’s preventing the humans from coming to eat them all. So it works out kind-of okay in the end… but only just.
Many of these stories are terribly sad, I found.
There’s a story by Walter M. Miller Jr about a man from Peru who wants to work for five years on Mars, breathing thinly, being careful not to let his lungs atrophy, so that he can return home and eventually explore the wonders of Planet Earth. He realises that the changes wrought by the work he is helping with have ruined him forever. Yet by the end he finds a kind of contentment in the idea that eight hundred years in the future mankind will be able to live easily on Mars, and so his miserably wasted life actually means something…
There are other tales of stoicism and various forms of suffering, of viruses and radioactive dust storms and intangible Martians emerging from plants to possess unwary human visitors. There’s a rather lovely story (‘A Martian Odyssey’ by Stanley G. Weinbaum) about a man who befriends Tweel, a Martian ostrich (one with a habit of dive-bombing the dusty ground, beak-first, rather like Road Runner in the cartoon.) The story is really an amazing natural history lesson offered by a native to a visitor, as they struggle to communicate with a few words and gestures. It’s a very sweet story, with a few scary moments and its message of cautious cooperation and exploration stands at the very heart of a collection that is by turns lurid, gritty, dreamlike and harrowing.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Spider-Man - Peter David

The 2002 Spider-Man movie was just about all right, but some of the changes to the original material drove me up the wall. It’s the problem I have with all the Marvel Universe movies: as a kid I reread the reprints from the Sixties of all these titles, and I reveled in the Seventies comics as they came out. Nothing on screen could live up to the Marvel Universe in my head – it’s brash, noisy, full of team-ups, crossovers, star-spanning sagas, cheeky badinage and, at most, four colours, tops.
            But reading the novelisation of the movie this week I realized something I knew long ago and forgot: ie, through some strange alchemical evolutionary process, novelisations can come to replace the thing they’re based on. The Tobey Maguire trilogy of movies has been rendered obsolete by remakes three times over already, and so the book I was reading was hopelessly lost in time… and yet, picking it up this week, I found myself drawn into it so easily and happily. It was like I’d found the ideal literary version of that Spider-Man origin story.
            I suppose it’s because I feel exiled from comics. They stopped being something I can read with the same enjoyment sometime around 1988. When I was a kid I’d be utterly transported: I’d live inside each and every frame. As soon as I got to about eighteen it had to be prose fiction for me, if I was to be caught up completely inside a story. I think it had something to do with seeing the limitations of the artwork; of not buying into it completely when you can see the rough edges of the pictures… And maybe it’s just that I grew out of superhero stuff? That seems fair enough, too…
            And yet… those characters at the heart of the Spider-Man story are so present in some deep layer of my mind. I’m fond of them all: MJ and Norman, Aunt May and dead Uncle Ben. I love the fact that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko gave everyone – and especially their colourful super villains – such believable back stories. Everyone had a history, and foibles we could understand. And each of them was preserved in my memory, from endless summer holiday afternoons re-reading those old comics.
            So… when I come to read Peter David’s elegant adaptation of an imperfect movie from sixteen years ago, I find myself reunited with all these people. They’re not in the Sixties and Seventies – they’ve been bumped up to the turn of the century (an era that seems almost just as quaint by now) – but everyone is present and correct. Peter Parker is just as neurotic and sweetly tortured as he ever was. Aunt May is a doughty and tetchy and loyal. Even J Jonah Jameson is a lovable, idiotic curmudgeon in the exact way I remember. It’s as if the author is taking the broad outlines of the movie, and the events, and the relationships and set-pieces and the dialogue too… but somehow he’s infusing it with the spirit and the atmosphere of the original comic. Gone are the flickering CGI effects that made everything look like a computer game, and gone are the usual superhero movie clich├ęs… and what we’re left with feels rather like a definitive Spider-Man novel, that gets us to the heart of everything that was good about that character in the first place.
            David is a class act. This is my first time reading him, I believe, and I’m delighted to find his prose as fast and direct as webbing fluid – and what’s more: it sticks. It just runs along effortlessly and takes us with it. He dances rings around the original material – introducing fabulous extras, such as scenes from the point of view of the runty radioactive spider who bites Peter Parker, and Peter’s own letters to his departed parents. The whole book is chockablock with Easter Eggs, as they call them: little mentions and glimpses and references to Marvel characters and stories, sprinkled like goblin dust throughout the text.
            I loved it from start to finish. If I were Marvel I’d repackage it without reference to the film at all and let it stand by itself. And, of course, as soon as I finished it, I ordered the next two from Ebay (my Beach House Mountain isn’t getting any smaller.) As I remember, the two sequel movies were slightly ropey? So I’m hoping that novelizations work in inverse ratio and the books will get even better.