Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Blue Notebooks

'The Blue Notebooks' is an album by British composer Max Richter originally released in early 2004. Written as Richter's response to the prospect of the Iraq War this beautifully haunting suite of compositions has slipped the shackles of it's composers intentions and has featured in a number of movies over the years most recently in 2016's 'Arrival'.

The music is often fragile, sometimes brittle and always deeply poignant.  It features several spoken word extracts from Franz Kafka's 'The Blue Octavo Notebooks' and Czesław Miłosz's 'Hymn of the Pearl' and 'Unattainable Earth' as read by Tilda Swinton.

It's a stunning piece of music and one I find myself returning to again and again. 

I hope you enjoy.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Newbury & Hobbes

As I'm currently knee deep in the 4th book in George Mann's series of steampunk romps I thought I'd share with you my write-ups of the first three that appeared a few years ago in the pages of another blog.


The Affinity Bridge

Welcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution. Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by new inventions. Airships soar in the skies over the city, whilst ground trains rumble through the streets and clockwork automatons are programmed to carry out menial tasks in the offices of lawyers, policemen and journalists. But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side. For this is also a world where lycanthropy is a rampant disease that plagues the dirty whorehouses of Whitechapel, where poltergeist infestations create havoc in old country seats, where cadavers can rise from the dead and where nobody ever goes near the Natural History Museum.

Inside this beautiful cover lies a rather nifty little romp featuring gentleman investigator Sir Maurice Newbury along with his new assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes and his close friend Chief Inspector Sir Charles Bainbridge. In this first novel in the series Newbury sets his sights on unravelling the cause of a mysterious airship crash. Around this main strand there are a number of intriguing subplots (the zombies particularly) that are left maddeningly undeveloped as they fade from view over the course of the book. One can only imagine that they'll play a stronger part in later books in the series - although not it seems in book 2.

Mann has a lively and engaging style that is a joy to read. The world he has created is plausible with the new technologies still, for the most part, emerging and finding acceptance amongst the inhabitants. This small concession gives the storyworld a solidity that can be lost in those books that rush to fill the world with new techno marvels. The characters follow fairly established tropes but this is genre writing they're kinda meant to and besides they are fleshed out nicely and soon find their own identities within the story.

The Affinity Bridge is fast, fun and frivolous with a real 'Boy's Own' playfulness. Full of spiffingly brave and honest chaps (and a chapess) that battle doggedly against all manner of dastardly foes for the glory of her Britannic Majesty. It's great fun and like all good pulp writing utterly compulsive.


The Osiris Ritual

Sir Maurice Newbury, Gentleman Investigator for the Crown, imagines life can be a little quieter from now on after his dual success in solving The Affinity Bridge affair. But he hasn't banked on his villainous predecessor, Knox, hell bent on achieving immortality, not to mention a secret agent who isn't quite as he seems.... So continues an adventure quite unlike any other, a thrilling steampunk mystery and the second in the series of Newbury & Hobbes investigations.

The second of his Newbury & Hobbes Steampunk mysteries. I thought the first (The Affinity Bridge) was a fun, if a little flawed, romp through a fog-ridden London that mixed zombies, robots and airships into an entertaining neo-Victorian thriller. It's recommended for those looking for a more than satisfyingly pulp steampunk fix.

This second one wasn't as good as it's predecessor. The plot was a little rushed and lacked grandeur and scope but mostly i think he sacrificed too much of the world-building that was so well done in the first. I heartily approved of how naturalistic he allows the newly emerging technology to feel but half the joy (for me at least) of this sort of genre fiction lies in how the author interweaves technology and the subsequent cultural and societal changes into the narrative. I felt like I didn't learn anything new about the universe he's created and without that it may as well have been set (to an extent) in our own Victorian era.

That said though, Mann has an engaging style and the book was a fun, fast-paced read with a third volume still to come.


The Immorality Engine

On the surface, life is going well for Victorian special agent Sir Maurice Newbury, who has brilliantly solved several nigh-impossible cases for Queen Victoria with his indomitable assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes, by his side. But these facts haven’t stopped Newbury from succumbing increasingly frequently to his dire flirtation with the lure of opium. His addiction is fueled in part by his ill-gotten knowledge of Veronica’s secret relationship with the queen, which Newbury fears must be some kind of betrayal. Veronica, consumed by worry and care for her prophetic but physically fragile sister Amelia, has no idea that she is a catalyst for Newbury’s steadily worsening condition. Veronica and Newbury’s dear friend Bainbridge, the Chief Investigator at Scotland Yard, tries to cover for him as much as possible, but when the body of a well known criminal turns up, Bainbridge and Veronica track Newbury down in an opium den and drag him out to help them with the case. The body is clearly, irrefutably, that of the man in question, but shortly after his body is brought to the morgue, a crime is discovered that bears all the dead man’s hallmarks. Bainbridge and Veronica fear someone is committing copycat crimes, but Newbury is not sure. Somehow, the details are too perfect for it to be the work of a copycat. But how can a dead man commit a crime?

This is the third of Mann's Newbury and Hobbes books and, judging by the way it ends, not the last.

Newbury's drug use has escalated over the time between books and it opens with him an opium addled mess. The erstwhile Miss Veronica Hobbes and Chief Inspector Bainbridge find him and set him back on track in order to help them with a puzzling new case. Someone has been leaving dead duplicates around the place. These investigations soon begin to incorporate both the shady Bastion Society and also the very refuge where Veronica's sister is being treated for her visions.

As the investigation proceeds events start to tumble over each other and intertwine in a not altogether satisfying way. The characters seem at odds with their own personalities and often behave like cliches. Newbury's addictions, in full swing at the opening, are managed with almost ridiculous ease throughout the rest of the book and Veronica has become almost superheroic.

This volume was lacking the spark that made the other books in the series so much fun. It felt more than a little overblown. Towards the end it really started to come together and I enjoyed the final ride. I could definitely go another set of these in the future though.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Wyrd Britain Shop

Those of you who follow the Wyrd Britain Instagram page (ID: wyrdbritain) will have noticed several posts recently marked as being 'For sale in the Wyrd Britain  Etsy Shop.'

I've been building the shop up over the last couple of months and thought it was about time to share it with you all.  Currently the focus is on vintage books (Etsy describes vintage as pre 1997) but other things will be added over time.

There are a fairly wide selection of genres represented from sci-fi to horror to young adult & kids books to romance and I've loosened the strings slightly to include cool books from all over the world rather than the solely British content that I focus on in the blog.

Hopefully you'll find something of interest.


Friday, 25 November 2016

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson
Collins Crime Club

The latest in a new series of classic detective stories from the vaults of HarperCollins is a reissue of one of literature’s most audacious and thought-provoking novels of murder and intrigue, in hardback with its 1929 cover design and a brand new introduction.
“The Detective Story Club”, launched by Collins in 1929, was a clearing house for the best and most ingenious crime stories of the age, chosen by a select committee of experts. Now, almost 90 years later, these books are the classics of the Golden Age, republished at last with the same popular cover designs that appealed to their original readers.
Originally published in 1886 as “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, Robert Louis Stevenson’s book had been propelled to massive success following a favourable review in The Times, and by 1901 had sold a quarter of a million copies. This is how the Detective Club described the book:
‘In addition to being one of the most amazing crime stories ever written, “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is probably the most remarkable of all the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson. It would be unfair to the reader to give away the secret of this thriller. Suffice it to say that every page grips and the unforgettable portrait of a mast criminal takes shape until the sensational climax is reached, a climax of dramatic intensity, without equal in the realm of detective fiction. If one wished to append a moral to this crime fantasy it might well be this: “The self you choose to-day, and not the self you chose yesterday, is the fate of to-morrow.”’
This new printing includes a brand new introduction by classic horror story expert, Richard Dalby.

This is one of those books that I've always wanted to read but have simply never found a nice copy of.  Cover design goes a long way to deciding which edition of a book I buy and on the day I bought this I'd passed on two others in two different shops.  The one I settled on is a reproduction of an edition originally released in the early 20th C. by The Detective Story Club. I liked the pulp fiction vibe of the cover and being a new edition it was immaculate so I took the plunge.

Now, before I start on the main story I'm going to point out that more than half of this edition is padding.  The actual story is a novella of only 82 pages so to make up the other 98 they've added a number of things; two Stevenson shorts - his fabulous resurrection men tale 'The Bodysnatchers' and another called 'Markheim' which there really didn't seem much point in reading because the ending had already been revealed (spoiled) in the book's introduction by Richard Dalby - I'll return to it some other time when memory has faded - there's also an afterword dating from the 1929 edition.  The oddest inclusion though is of two unauthorised sequels by Francis H. Little and Robert J. McLaughlin.  Of the first, just 5 pages proved there to be nothing of interest there and of the second, well, I didn't even try.  Unprofessional of me? Possibly so but I am but a humble amateur and by then other more intriguing looking books were beckoning from the shelf.

So, just the main story to discuss then.

Like the rest of you I know the most basic of premises for the story - Doctor makes potion that makes him fall behind a settee and then get up again as a hairy evil, troglodyte looking fellow - which is pretty accurate as far as it goes (apart from the settee bit) but does nothing to restraint and subtlety of the story.

Jekyll's story is told in a number of ways via an acquaintance - a lawyer named Utterson, who in addition to his meetings with and observations of the two titular men also receives various verbal and written accounts of their actions via numerous other acquaintances and finally from Jekyll himself.

The Doctor is portrayed as a well intentioned but ultimately deeply flawed man whose weaknesses lead him to let loose his darker side to the point where it's depredations consume him and he loses his identity to the other.

Stevenson never lingers on Hyde's activities, indeed we are really only presented with examples of a couple of his callous and evil actions and neither does he preach at the reader.  We are left to sympathise, empathise or despise Jekyll at our will and this moral ambiguity on the part of the author allows the reader a greater investment in the story and a much deeper appreciation of the flaws of both man and the society that binds him.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Making of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Way, way back in a time almost lost to history and now known only as Monday the 5th of January 1981 the BBC screened the first episode of the TV adaptation of the book adaptation of the radio show adaptation of the thoughts of a bloke called Douglas.

Douglas was a clever man and like all the best types of clever men he knew that some clever things were also funny things and so set about making a funny thing out of the clever things.  In order to do this he drafted in some other clever people.  Some who were clever at organising, some who were clever at drawing, some who were clever at filming or recording or building or musicing or pretending to be someone else.

Then, 10 years later, someone else who was clever had a clever idea to take all the extra bits that the clever people had filmed, film some new bits of some of those self-same clever people and get the main clever pretending man to talk about how clever everyone was.  They even had the idea to put two different spaceships at the beginning to make less clever people who really like watching clever people at work go "Yay!" like the big geeky kid that he is they are.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Man in the Picture

Susan Hill
Profile Books

An extraordinary ghost story from a modern master, published just in time for Halloween. In the apartment of Oliver's old professor at Cambridge, there is a painting on the wall, a mysterious depiction of masked revellers at the Venice carnival. On this cold winter's night, the old professor has decided to reveal the painting's eerie secret. The dark art of the Venetian scene, instead of imitating life, has the power to entrap it. To stare into the painting is to play dangerously with the unseen demons it hides, and become the victim of its macabre beauty.
By the renowned storyteller Susan Hill--whose first ghost story, The Woman in Black, has run for eighteen years as a play in London's West End--here is a new take on a form that is fully classical and, in Hill's able hands, newly vital. The Man in the Picture is a haunting tale of loss, love, and the very basest fear of our beings.

Although this book is subtitled 'A Ghost Story' I can't help feeling that to be a bit of a misnomer.  There're no ghosts in it,  plenty of haunted people and a darkly delicious core idea but not really any actual ghosts.

This novella tells a story within a story that's framed, at the very last inside two other stories all concerning the same painting of Venice and the people depicted within. An elderly Cambridge professor tells a visiting ex-student of his acquisition of the painting and the events that surround him gaining a deeper understanding of it's history and the tale surrounding it.

In the classic way of things much of what happens does so through the telling of tales around a fire with a glass of liquor to hand and a cosiness that offsets the mounting unease.  The professor's story at the heart of the tale shares this with it's country house setting but suffers from a marked similarity to Wilkie Collins' 'The Haunted Hotel'.  The outermost layer of the story is likewise flawed but also in it's rather heavy handed attempt to provide a 'shock' ending that can be seen coming long before it lands.

If I sound overly negative then please understand that there is much to like here.  Hill is a writer with an eminently readable style and she's obviously and utterly au fait with those writers of the macabre, the unsettling and the weird that she is channelling here and with only 145 pages it provided me with a pleasantly macabre early Sunday morning read alongside some mellow music and a cafetiere full of my favourite coffee.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Passenger to Frankfurt

Agatha Christie
Fontana Books

It was an unusual predicament for Sir Stafford Nye-to awaken in a stupor after being drugged, only to find his passport stolen. There was also no trace of the fascinating woman he encountered in Frankfurt who begged him to help save her life. But Sir Stafford's troubles are only just beginning. The target of two murder attempts, he now seeks the help of the stranger who so urgently sought his. If he can locate her. What he finds is a woman of numerous identities and twice as many secrets, who ushers him into the shadows of an international conspiracy that could well prove to be the death of them.

Well, what a very odd book.

I love the Agatha Christie TV adaptations, the Geraldine McEwan Marples are a particular favourite but the only thing I've ever read by her is a short horror story.  This one is one of her, very, late books published in 1970 to mark the ladies 80th birthday.  The cover art alone, by Tom Adams, was enough to get me to drag it off the shelf but a quick web search for a synopsis meant it jumped to the head of the pile.

What we have is not, as you might have guessed, a detective novel but a spy novel.  Now, I've only ever read one other spy novel in my life, the utterly brilliant 'Death will Have Your Eyes' by James Sallis, but I thought it was perhaps time for another.

At the heart of this book we have a global conspiracy to encourage armed revolt amongst disaffected teenagers by a shadowy cartel of nazi sympathisers and the plucky Brit aristos lined up against them. There are a few flashes of wit and brilliance here, Lady Matilda being a favourite and especially so when she heads off on her little spying trip, but on the whole this is a fairly uncomfortable read that seems much more of a chance for Christie to complain about the various she thinks that are wrong with the 1960s.  What kept popping into my head was how much it reminded me, in particular, of the movie adaptation of Michael Moorcock's 'The Final Programme'  (the first Jerry Cornelius novel) just with a very different mind set and purpose.

The story is sketchy and lacking in flow and the ending arrives unheralded and unexpected dragging itself out of the muddy morass of the rest of the book.  There's an interesting story in there somewhere but one that I think would have needed a few rewrites to tease into shape.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Alfred Hitchcock's Ghostly Gallery

Various authors
Puffin Books

"Good evening, and welcome to Alfred Hitchock's Ghostly Gallery..." So begins the introduction to this marvellous book for young readers presented by none other than the master of the macabre himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Following his invitation to "browse through my gallery", readers will find ghoulish ghost stories "designed to frighten and instruct" -- instruct, that is, about the strange existence ghosts must endure! Stories include Miss Emmeline Takes Off by Walter Brooks; The Valley of the Beasts by Algernon Blackwood; The Haunted Trailer by Robert Arthur; The Truth About Pyecraft by H.G. Wells; The Isle of Voices by Robert Louis Stevenson; and more. Parents and kids can't help but chuckle at Hitchcock's comment, "I don't want to appear disloyal to television, but I think reading will be good for you."

Bit of a classic this one.  It's one of those books that loads of folks seem to have owned back in their youth.  I didn't, I wasn't a horror book reader as a kid, films yes, books no.  I was all about the sci-fi books and it's only in the last few years that I've got into exploring these old horror folks which is one of the things that make these 1970s Puffin (and the like) reprints such a draw - the other reason is I'm a sucker for the wonderfully lurid cover art.

A.M. Burrage
So, as you'd probably expect from a book with that title this one is heavy on the big names but also has a pleasing selection of stories that aren't common fodder in anthologies.

After a short and silly introduction by the man with his name on the top the book opens properly with a story I've seen pop up in a few places, A.M. Burrage's 'The Waxwork' where a reporter endeavours to spend the night in a house of horrors.  It's a pretty nondescript little thing that feels old fashioned and a bit weak in it's ending.  This is followed by the first of several humorous stories that are littered throughout the book, 'Miss Emmeline Takes Off' by Walter Brooks (the creator of the 'Mister Ed' stories).  A tale of witchcraft, friendship, social climbing and money.  It's entertaining enough in it's way but not something I have any particularly desire to read a second time.

Algernon Blackwood
The ubiquitous Algernon Blackwood tale follows and it's one of his American adventure stories, 'The Valley of the Beasts', where a belligerent, arrogant and wasteful Englishman meets native American spirituality and both loses and wins which is a fate that also befalls the hapless lead in Robert Arthur's, 'The Haunted Trailer'.  Arthur actually provides three stories to the book which is no surprise as he was the actual compiler of the contents with Hitchcock's name added purely as a selling point.  His other two stories, 'The Wonderful Day' and 'Obstinate Uncle Otis' are both as whimsical and readable as the first but all three come across as very disposable and a little like a comedy back-up tale from an old 'Vault of Horror' comic or some such.

Lord Dunsany
F. Marion Crawford is another of those authors that turns up regularly in these things as does this particular story, 'The Upper Berth' as a ship-board traveller is disturbed by a ghostly presence on an Atlantic crossing.  Following this there's a run of humorous stories topped and tailed by the two Robert Arthur stories I mentioned earlier.  H.G. Wells', 'The Truth About Pyecraft', is a pretty dreadful little tale about one unpleasant little man and one unpleasant bigger one.  Henry Kuttner tells of a mysterious bird cage in 'Housing Problem' and, of most interest to this reader, a chance to finally read something by Lord Dunsany in the form of 'In a Dim Room' an amusing little tale about a tiger.

Closing the book is one of Robert Louis Stevenson's south sea islands stories of greed, magic and cannibalism on 'The Isle of Voices'.  These sort of stories aren't of great appeal to me as my anthropology degree starts yelling in my head and it all gets a little uncomfortable but the story itself is obviously written with a fondness for both people and place.

This is very much a book for those with a marked fondness for amusing, lighter stories or simply a need for an occasional smile.  For me it was a reasonably entertaining way to pass an afternoon.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Silly Verse For Kids

Spike Milligan
Puffin Books

Silly Verse for Kids - a hilarious collection of silly poems by Spike Milligan! A collection of the absurd, ridiculous, sublime and characteristically anarchic verse from the brilliant Spike Milligan. With his very own illustrations, this collection, which includes the famous On the Ning Nang Nong will make you laugh from the bottom of your belly - just like Spike did.

I've been a fan of Spike Milligan as long as I can remember.  Whether it be watching the various Qs as a kid or reading the wartime memoirs as a teenager or getting wrecked and watching 'The Bed-Sitting Room' in my early twenties. I still think one of the funniest pieces of TV I remember seeing was a re-purposed Goon Show skit in one of the 'Q' series that I've always known as the dustbin dance.

For those of you who've not discovered them the various volumes of his wartime memoirs are a brilliantly funny and at times deeply poignant read that are heartily recommended but for a more instantaneous hit of pure Milligan his poems are the place to head to.  I quite like a bit (and I do mean a bit) of poetry but I'm in no way a connoisseur. I've only ever learnt three poems off by heart and they're all by him with one of them appearing here.


There are holes in the sky
Where the rain gets in
But they're ever so small
That's why rain is thin.

(all copyright to the owner)

These poems were all created to amuse his children and that's the sort of mindset that you should approach them with.  The collection is a cavalcade of the joyous abandon of logic and rules, filled with playful wordplay and inventive stupidity that sees the creation of works of wonder like 'On the Ning Nang Nong', 'Contagion' and 'Failure' and makes this a book that you can pick up again and again.

Oh, and it's almost impossible to read them out loud with finding yourself doing a Spike Milligan impersonation.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Top Ten TV: Sci-Fi

This is something from a few years ago that I just stumbled across and thought I'd post up to make some of you shout at the screen.

It was made in 2001 by Channel 4 here in the UK and is presented by Tom Baker in full scenery chewing mode with commentary by Nick Frost. There's a whole host of talking heads from the various shows along with fans and critics such as Kim Newman and various other sci-fi magazine editors and contributors.

These sort of lists are always contentious (i.e. they're a bit rubbish) but are an opportunity to revisit some old favourites and disagree with other peoples choices.  Personally I can't for the life of me imagine who voted for #9, I was never much of a fan of #1, couldn't stand #4 and think #2 is the greatest thing ever.