A Western set in the early years of the twentieth century, so there was some interesting use of the telephone, with rural ‘party lines’ for communication.
‘Stringer’ McKail travels from San Francisco- where he’s one of those too-honest-to-be-rich-and-famous newspaper reporters- to Calaveras Countys, where he grew up. Not long after arriving, people are trying to kill him. Soon after that, he meets the first of a string of women who want to sleep with him.
It’s all got something to do with a stagecoach robbery fifty years earlier, and a bandito who most likely never existed- his name translates from Mexican Spanish as ‘Grumpy Joe’, and may have been a catch all to keep the ‘Anglos’ from persecuting the local Mexican community. Somebody thinks they can track down the treasure, and they’re not above killing and kidnapping to get to it.
Part of my research on consciousness for an upcoming project. This was more of a philosophical read on the definition of consciousness, and its benefits and problems, than about the process that may have brought it about.
Lots of interesting ideas, and the book is sprouting many coloured bookmark tabs where I found ideas worth exploring further, or springboards for ideas to put in the story.
Rick is a Lupan- human/wolf hybrid, whose forebears were created for war- tending his small bar on the lowest levels of a dead end station in neutral space. When he comes into possession of a small vial of genuine Earth water, he sees a way home and away from the dangerous situation he’s put himself in. But is the water a McGuffin? Are there more important things at stake?
This is a universe, and characters, you could happily find more and more about. It’s almost a shame it’s self-contained and doesn’t appear to be setting up further stories.
Murder mystery and natural disaster collide in America’s tornado alley.
Chief McKechnie keeps the peace in the quaintly named town of Friendship, having transplanted their from New York ten years earlier. It’s a quiet beat, usually, but over one long day, that’s set to change. The wife of one of the town’s more prominent citizens is found dead in a tornado decimated house, shot in the head. The prominent, but secret, lover of her sister-in-law is also in town, and needs protection. And, because things aren’t complicated enough, there are a pair of cop-killer bank robbers trying to make their escape through the county, and larger and larger twisters touching down all around.
The story moves at a good pace, playing the various complications off each other as McKechnie investigates, getting caught up in keeping political secrets from his fiancee, the editor of the town’s paper. You know what event the story will end with, but you want to know where everyone is when it does.
The only problem with this book is that it was published in 2000, so I’m at a loss over what’s happened in the last fifteen years.
This is a fascinating wander through the roots of reggae, from the yard parties and sound systems most often playing blues and blues inspired local sounds, to the international reggae breakout of the seventies, and beyond.
It moves faster, and covers more ground per chapter, the nearer to (then) contemporary sounds it gets. The impression is that the author wasn’t impressed by the dancehall and ragga that were the dominant forms in the late nineties, and only grudgingly gave them any coverage. His tone lightens in the last chapter, as he detects a return to old-school values over sample driven pap.
The striking cover of this book- a crippled Concorde in a desert location, surrounded by men with assault rifles*- has been tempting me in charity shops for years. I finally gave in when I found a copy on the 20p table.
Written in the late seventies and set in the early eighties, the story starts with peace between Israel and its neighbours a strong possibility. El Al’s two Concordes are to fly the country’s delegates to New York for the final talks. Security is tight, on the ground and in the air. However, one terrorist has outsmarted Israeli security, by planting bombs on the planes before they even left the factory.
Intercepted by the man holding the detonators, one Concorde is blown up, the other led on a radar dodging low level flight to the terrorist base. Only as they’re about to land does the fight back begin. The pilot takes the plane off the landing strip and gets it to higher ground.
The plane is now on the original site of Babylon. Referencing biblical events, the siege at Masada and more recent horrors, the passengers and crew must fight off a battalion of Palestinians, all orphans trained from childhood to hate them.
With a river on one side, and surrounded by enemies on all the others, it’s obvious that the passengers’ situation is a metaphor for that of their country. The cast of characters, no doubt, represent the author’s views on the strengths and weaknesses of Israel, their response the one he believes their country should adopt. In his opinion, democracy is a luxury they can’t afford, and only inventive, all-or-nothing violence can help them. The peaceniks amongst the passengers are humiliated or forced to see the error of their views, and the bullying security official who steamrollers all opposition is the tragic hero.
The Palestinians, of course, don’t get a sympathetic portrayal. Their ranks are full of homosexuals, obviously considered a weakness by the author, and they’re given to horrific torture of prisoners. (When the Israelis coerce a captured terrorist, they barely have to touch him, and then politely send him back to his comrades. Who promptly kill him.)
The story races along, non-stop, so you don’t notice all the subtext until after you’ve finished it. It’s a thick book, but I read most of it in one go, wrapping up around three in the morning.
Not just a disaster tale, this story was a plea for the Thames Barrier to be built. There’s also a subplot about the fatal flaw in the design of a particular type of high rise, for good measure.
A storm surge meets a high tide and rain laden Thames, and London is about to be overwhelmed. As the emergency response sees its coordination hampered by politicians trying to manage the news cycle, the water keeps rising, and a series of little dramas are set in play.
The author established early on that he had no problem killing likeable characters you expect to live, giving tension to the final rescue.
Dated in some ways, but the threat of flooding remains, even if the barrier did get built.
This is one odd book. It starts as one of those low-key seventies thrillers, veers into bizarre campy Bond territory, then ends with some icky supernatural nonsense that feels tacked on.
Steadman used to work for Mossad, doing wet work on former Nazis and other enemies of Israel. Now he’s a private investigator in London. Approached by an old accomplice he refuses to get involved- until his business partner ends up tortured and crucified, nailed to his front door.
Now, he does get involved, and the story wanders around aimlessly for a while, taking in diversions involving mystically controlled tanks and a hot reporter who may be working for the CIA.
Then it all wraps back to the rich, corrupt arms dealer Steadman was tasked with investigating. A long time anti-semite, his plan involves the spear of the title- the one that stabbed Jesus on Golgotha- which will be used to resurrect a high ranking Nazi (though not the obvious one).
Throw in some nastiness involving a hermaphrodite and other oddness before the rotting corpse of undead Himmler staggers around for a couple of pages. The bad guys are summarily killed off, the spear is disposed of and the grand plot foiled.
Herbert was a horror writer, but it feels like the horror and supernatural elements were crowbarred into the story. And the whole thing with the hermaphrodite is just horrible and made an already poor ending worse.
A good old fashioned monster tale set in the Brazilian jungle. It’s almost a shame that the monsters in the story are given away in the title. The author does a good job of building the mystery and giving glimpses of the terror.
Young anthropologist Jane Sewell returns to the Brazilian tribe she has been studying with her father, only to find the village deserted. All that is left of the former residents is a pile of stripped clean bones and a (temporarily) mute boy.
Before she can begin to work out what has happened, she has to rescue a pilot who crashes nearby. It turns out he flies for a local plantation owner, so the three of them head in that direction.
Only as they near the plantation is the threat revealed- mutant ants! Not giant mutant ants, as you might imagine from the cover, but telepathic mutant ants. That can sometimes communicate with humans, and they’ve enslaved other ants to help them.
There’s lots of soap opera stuff going on at the plantation- the owner’s wife is carrying on with the manager and the local workers are reverting to superstition- which play out in fairly obvious ways as, one by one, they get eaten alive.
In the end, it’s a race to the river, with a little help from a different ant colony. The wrap up is rushed, after all the build up, but it’s a fun, if occasionally predictable, journey to get there.
This is a thin book, and I had the time to spare, so I read it in a day. And it’s taken me over a month to write up the review.
Fradley aerodrome was built, and then abandoned during the war, and, at the start of the book, has been functioning as a storage space and makeout spot. In the prologue, we get a hint of the evil that resides on the site, as a young woman is whisked away to be sacrificed by hooded figures.
Fast forward a little while, and the aerodrome has been purchased by Flyways (Guy N Smith wasn’t great at making up company and product names) to be turned into a major airport for the Midlands. Even before the first sod is cut, the deaths start. But, despite the mortalities, and local opposition, construction continues.
The problem is, the airport has been built on the site of an old stone circle. It’s even larger than Stonehenge, and still guarded by the spirits of the evil followers of the Old Religion who worshipped there. The grotesque Druids are able to bend space and time, or seriously cloud the minds of their victims, to kill people in recreations of their old domain.
When the airport is built, the deaths ramp up even more, with plane crashes, hotel fires, virgin sacrifices and more. There’s so much chaos that one whole plane crash is skipped, and you only find out about it several pages later when it’s mentioned in passing.
It’s all fun, and a bit gruesome, but, as a whole, the book felt unfocussed. Just what the Druids wanted, or expected to achieve, was never explained. The reactions, of staff and public, aren’t too deeply explored, and it ends with an event which feels unrelated, which was prophesied a mere few pages earlier.
Despite my misgivings above, I still enjoy these seventies vintage horror potboilers, so I’m going to give it a good score.
This year’s Hugo award winner. All the shenanigans around the awards has, at least, got me reading some more sci-fi.
Starting with China’s Cultural Revolution, the story initially follows a woman’s progress as she sees her father killed for failing to renounce his scientific discipline. She is also a theoretical scientist, a career now barred to her through association. Through a series of political missteps, she ends up finding herself assigned to a secret radio telescope project at Red Coast Base, where they want to use her knowledge, even though they don’t trust her. As the story unfolds, we find out what happened to her at the base, and how her actions there affect Earth’s place in the universe.
The story unfolds as a mystery in the present day, with flashbacks to events at Red Coast Base until just what happened, and the danger it has put the world in, is revealed.
There’s a lot of telling, rather than showing, going on, and many of the conversations feel stilted. I don’t know if this is a fair representation of the structuring of Chinese novels, or if the translation couldn’t do the original justice. Having said which, the story drew me in and pulled me along with it. At no point did the drawbacks of the language put me off.
Another slice of 70s/80s horror, though it might be better described as a disaster story with gruesome bits.
Racing to make a delivery, the driver of a lorry hauling a tanker of weedkiller goes off the road and into a reservoir. Weedspray, as it’s imaginatively named, is the strongest, most horrible concoction imaginable. Painfully and incurably toxic- whether drunk or just through skin contact- it’s also, somehow, highly flammable, even when watered down. This stuff is so ridiculously deadly that it’s impossible to believe in. I know the story’s set in the late 70s/early 80s, but surely even then they weren’t this lax on health and safety.
Anyway, thanks to criminal incompetence and industrial cowardice, the poison enters the water supply of Birmingham, condemning most of the city to horrible deaths.
Ron Blythe is the main viewpoint character- though there are cuts away to others occasionally- and he’s a long way from sympathetic. A serial adulterer and snob, who created Weedspray seemingly by mixing every other weedkiller together, he ends up trapped in Birmingham as part of the ineffectual disaster committee. As the city descends into chaos and carnage, he somehow gains a girlfriend whilst avoiding contact with poisoned water but being otherwise useless.
Sadly, from somewhere around the mid-point, the story’s something of an extended, gruesome anticlimax. Timelines and logic get garbled. Somehow, in the midst of the ongoing disaster and social breakdown, one of the sub plots manages to include a full formal funeral. Even with suggestions that various events overlap each other, it still feels like they unfold over a month when I’m sure it’s supposed to be less than a fortnight.
Not as much fun as Night of the Crabs, I’m afraid. However, I recently found a bunch of Guy N Smith, and similar vintage, books, so the trip through 70s/80s horror shall continue.
In an unspecified future, Britain has become The City, a coast to coast sprawl of enclaves known as Neighbourhoods. Generally, Neighbourhoods are insular places, keeping to themselves so they can nurture their own eccentricities.
Stark is one of the rare individuals who can fit in in any enclave, one of the many skills he utilises in his role as a troubleshooter for hire. Contracted to track down an executive from Action Centre- a neighbourhood dedicated to Getting Things Done- and starts a trip through the strangeness of the city.
A reticent narrator, as much as an unreliable one, Stark spends the first half of the story alluding to back story and refusing to divulge details unless they become relevant. Unsurprisingly, they become increasingly relevant as the story goes on.
Stark finds the missing Actioneer, but decides there’s more going on than he’s been told. He just needs to work out what. The story goes off in a completely different direction, as the secrets of what makes Stark so good at his job are revealed. It feels like an odd tangent at first, as events become even more surreal, but, bit by bit, provides all the answers Stark refused to give earlier in the book.
The change of tack halfway through was jarring, but it does- in the very last pages, admittedly- wrap the tale up neatly and coherently.
Not a biography of the dashing hero of the space lanes, but the story of the life of Eagle magazine and its main character. There was some stuff in there that was new, but it wasn’t as detailed as I’d hoped.
I’ve got a copy of The Man Who Drew Tomorrow, which is larger format and definitely better illustrated, but it’s been so long since I last read it that I can’t remember how it holds up on the detailed story of the comic.
Ah, the glory of mid-seventies horror pulp. I’m sure I read this as a teenager, but the only thing I remembered from it was the sex in the dunes (don’t look at me like that, I was a teenager).
A young couple on holiday in Wales go missing whilst swimming. The readers know that they didn’t simply drown- something violent happened- but no-one else does.
The uncle of the dead boy- and boss of his girlfriend- drives down to Wales to try to find out what happened. Here he meets hot divorcee Pat, who tags along when he goes out investigating. This is when the sex in the dunes happens, shortly before the couple witness a deaf mute beachcomber being torn apart by a horde of crabs the size of cows.
Of course, no-one believes them, not until the crabs come ashore and tear up an army base.
Now, the authorities take notice, and tanks and soldiers appear on all the beaches. Not that it makes much difference. The crabs are impervious to gun and tank fire, and are led by an intelligent King Crab. It’s only a last minute, poisonous, solution that saves the day.
The story is nowhere near as gory, or sexy, as I remember it (I was a teenager, okay). It rattles along at a great pace, though it could, on occasions, do with a bit more detail. I finished it in a couple of hours.
There are another four or five Crabs stories, and Guy N. Smith’s back catalogue is now available for the Kindle. I think I’ll be picking up more of them.
Hugo Drax is a national hero in mid-fifties Britain, having risen from amnesiac wounded soldier to millionaire businessman. He is spearheading, and funding, Britain’s ICBM programme- the Moonraker of the title. However, horrors, he cheats at cards.
This is where Bond enters the story, as M asks him to show the cheater a lesson. This would probably have been a more thrilling sequence if I knew the rules of Bridge. Amped up on one of his less appetising cocktails- champagne and benzedrine- Bond fleeces Drax for fifteen grand, somewhere in the region of seven times his annual salary.
Then, the story proper starts. A security officer at the Moonraker site has been shot, before he could report something he deemed important. Bond goes in as his replacement, to work with undercover Special Branch officer Gala Brand. I won’t give away any more plot points, but, together, they foil a nuclear plot.
Bond doesn’t really do much to uncover the plot. He simply stirs up some trouble trying to find out what his predecessor had stumbled upon, whilst the key discoveries- and the solution- come from Gala Brand. He suffers some serious batterings, and writes off another Bentley, along the way.
The plot of Moonraker hinges on a lot of coincidences. Indeed, Bond himself muses on all them toward the end of the book. But, in the reading, it rolls along at such a pace that you don’t really notice the happenstance until the hero draws your attention to it.
After following the silliness around the Hugo awards this year, I thought I’d read one of the books that all the fuss was about.
Ancillary Justice won the Hugo, and several other awards, last year, and is, supposedly, exactly the sort of thing that’s destroying good old, hairy chested science fiction. To hear the various Puppies tell it, this is one long feminist diatribe with no redeeming features and too few spaceships and rayguns. They must have been reading a different book.
This is intelligent space opera in the Iain M. Banks mould, with gigantic empires ranging against each other, but with individuals still able to make a difference.
The narrator is Breq, an artificial intelligence inhabiting a human body. She used to run a space ship and whole garrisons of ‘corpse soldiers’, but a betrayal has taken all of that away. As we follow her through the end of a twenty year quest for vengeance, the full details of the betrayal are also revealed.
I had some problems with the story arc of the main supporting character, but also got the impression that Breq wasn’t completely convinced by it either. Perhaps it’s something that will be explored in the rest of the trilogy.
The fault with the story, as far as the Puppies were concerned, was with the handling of gender. The culture that Breq is from doesn’t differentiate between the sexes. Everyone is referred to as her, or she. Not knowing who’s really a boy or a girl upsets certain types of fanboy, apparently. It’s a dumb thing to get so angry about, and I’ll take this sort of interesting feminism over yet another story dwelling upon fantasy white guys and the size of their guns.
The premise is interesting enough- terrorists are holding the Dutch to ransom, threatening to breach dykes and canals and flood the country. A top Amsterdam detective and two undercover cops are the best hope of stopping them in time.
But all the action happens off-page, and the reader is left with a tension free trudge, as coincidence is piled on coincidence, and the threat is rendered ever more laughable. Even worse, plot development was mostly delivered by way of long, stilted, info-dumps of dialogue as one character after another explained the reasons for their actions or showed off just how cleverthey were for figuring something out.
I kept reading to the end, in the hope that the story would shift up a gear and provide a worthwhile climax.
As the Labour Party is trying to tear itself apart rather than pick a new leader, it seemed like a good time to read up on their greatest Prime Minister*.
At times, this book felt like it was a satire on the current state of British politics, dressed up as the biography of an unjustly forgotten politician. There’s the tyranny of charity- the way the ‘Big Society’ could never work because the donor gets to decide who the deserving poor are, and punishes anyone not behaving the way they are expected to. Inequality propped up by the system (and Tory support for that system). Other Labour PMs who were more interested in having the post on their CV than doing anything useful with it. The big egos with talents that don’t match up, who think they should be running the party rather than the quiet little man who’s a little too far to the Left for their liking. (They failed, and the little man oversaw the creation of the NHS, welfare state and much more.) Trouble with the unions and even, after losing the 1951 election, a vote from the membership that had the Party establishment crying that there had been a (non-existent) Communist infiltration.
Clement Attlee was a son of an upper middle class family who seemed destined for dissatisfied normality, until he started doing charitable work in the East End. Appalled by the inequality he saw there, he shifted, gradually, to socialism and, eventually, membership of the Labour Party. Never the greatest public speaker, he nevertheless garnered respect for his organisational abilities, commitment and fairness.
Attlee quietly worked his way to leadership, outmanoeuvring the more flamboyant candidates who believed they had an automatic right to the post. He acted as deputy to Churchill in the Second World War, and surprised many by becoming Prime Minister in 1945. His one full term in power (the second saw a vastly reduced majority and the Government fell apart due to party infighting) changed the nation drastically. Despite terrible finances- exacerbated by the behaviour of the USA- the NHS and welfare state were created, and key industries nationalised. Everything the Tories have been trying to destroy ever since was created between 1945 and 1948.
After defeat in the 1951 election, Attlee stayed at the head of the Labour Party, something that would never happen nowadays. He remained in place until he could be sure that his role would go to someone on the Left of the party, understanding how bad a drift toward the Tories would be in the long run. In retirement, he quietly faded away, so that most of us, nowadays, know very little about him.
Attlee himself didn’t help much in preserving his memory, either. He kept no diary, and wasn’t given to long winded explanations of his stances. As portrayed in this book, you could almost think of him as the biggest of egos in a profession full of big egos. Unlike the others, however, this ego wasn’t tied to an insecurity that needed everyone to know how great he was. Attlee was always confident of his own decisions, and rarely felt the need to explain them. He comes across as a man so confident that he barely cared what others said of him.
The introduction of the book says it was written in 1997. Still, it managed to get in some barbed comments about the Blair style of leadership, even at that early stage. But if it was a sly satire written about the state of the nation in 2015, the message would be fairly obvious. It’s the little man, with the unfashionable ideas and poor presentation skills, who could be the one Labour really needs if it is to survive and prosper**.
*Sure, Blair was PM for much longer, and did achieve some good, but he didn’t change the country as drastically and positively as Attlee. And let’s not get started on all the negatives tied to Blair’s time in power.
** I’m a member of the Green Party. I’m most interested in Labour as the party we’re replacing, ideologically, as it slides to the Right and makes itself irrelevant as any sort of opposition.
Written in 1977, you could look at this as a precursor of all the technothrillers that flourished in the 80s and 90s. It’s a what-if tale loaded with technical details.
The book starts strong, with Mossad hitting a Palestinian terror cell in Paris and stealing paperwork about planned attacks. There’s then a lot of shuffling of characters across the globe to get them into place. This bit ground on a bit, with far too much telling rather than showing, and, I admit, there were moments when I thought about putting the book down. But I didn’t, and was rewarded. The last two thirds to three quarters of the tale used all the setting up very well.
With all the characters and equipment in place, the main event takes place. A DC10 airliner coming in to land at Heathrow, is shot down and crashes onto central London, specifically, Victoria station at rush hour. As the emergency services do what they can, the politicians start looking for scapegoats and the media act like ghouls.
It’s all very convincing, and, in some ways, still contemporary. The conflict that the act of terror springs from- Israel and Palestine- is still going on. In fact, the biggest and strangest difference for me from the jet set age of the mid seventies was the way that airline passengers could happily light up a cigarette in flight.