Sunday, 31 October 2010

Ask the Parrot by Richard Stark

Second rate Parker, but still highly enjoyable. You may know Parker as either Walker or Porter depending on whether you've watched Lee Marvin or Mel Gibson mowing his way through a heirarchy of gangsters, looking for his money after being left for dead during a heist gone wrong. The story's known variously as Pointblank, Payback or The Hunter. Stark is one of the pseudonyms of crime legend Donald E Westlake. The name George Stark's also used by Stephen King for his fictional author Thad Beaumont's alter ego in Dark Half, drawing on his own experiences with his Richard Bachman nom de plume. All clear?

Anyway, this is late period Stark - the penultimate before Westlake's death - and starts with Parker on the run in the woods after another heist gone wrong. And gets mixed up in yet another heist. Which goes wrong. The plot unfolds nicely, the bodies stack up and Parker gets to be a hard nosed bastard, though not as much as you'd like.

Some of the plot points are little far fetched. It's probably not a great idea to join in the search for yourself when there's a photofit of you going around. Despite Parker's assurances that you don't get recognised from photofits, it happens to him. Twice.

All the characters are convincing, even the minor ones. Puts me in mind of Elmore Leonard's attention to detail.

I was in the mood for some more pulpy goodness, so I started "There's Something Down There" by Mickey Spillane. Ex CIA agent v possible sea monster? Too trashy even for my lowbrow tastes. Gone for some Simon Schama instead.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The World Crisis 1911-18: Part One 1911-1914 by Winston Churchill

After Churchill killed Hitler, the ungrateful people of Britain immediately voted him out office. What did he do next? Sulk like a girl? Never! Publish a self-serving memoir? Well, kind of. He wrote a massive six volume history of the Second World War. He praised Clement Attlee to the skies, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and Nazi-spanking and was returned to power. Always a class act.

This wasn't out of character for him. Back in the thirties, he wrote a massive four volume history of the First World War. Despite not killing the Kaiser personally, Churchill certainly wasn't lazing about during the conflict. He started off in charge of the Navy, instigated the disastrous Gallipoli campaign which Mel Gibson got so annoyed about, resigned from Government then fought in the trenches. Oh, and he invented tanks. Again, a class act.

But you don't get most of that juicy stuff in volume one. It didn't help that the first cd was scratched to buggery. It mostly covers the build up and early mobilisation, with big emphasis on the naval side of things. When he's talking about his own experiences, he's electrifying. Attending a jolly naval regatta between Britain and Germany as they get the news that the Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated; visiting the front line in the first months of the war and watching the man next to him geting killed by shrapnel; his growing friendship with noted YOU-needer Lord Kitchener, despite him having refused to let Churchill fight in his regiment in the Sudan years before because he'd heard what a headbanger he was. All amazing stuff.

But, while Winston understood the great sweeps of history, he was primarily a details main. Which makes big chunks of this as boring as hell, with big lists of ships and regimiments and fifteen point memos about....actually I was never quite sure. I drifted off a lot, and never listened to the last cd. Since it's Churchill, I feel kind of bad.

Quick props to the narrator Christian Rodska who does a good accent without going all over the top and cigary.

Final fantastic Churchill fact. He built walls. For fun.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Temporal Void by Peter F Hamilton

Epic sci-fi you could choke a whale with. Peter "F" Hamilton is a modern colossus in the genre, and this is part two of his latest trilogy.

Here's the central idea: in the centre of the Milky Way a void has been discovered which occassionally expands and eats up space. Well, they say void, but humans know what's going on inside, because they're dreaming about it. And they want to be part of it.

So you've got a religion based around these dreams which wants to enter the void, and other factions, including powerful aliens, who want to stop them because it could destroy the galaxy.

Then you've got the dreams themselves which are told throughout the books (this part of the trilogy in particular) so you only learn slowly why so many people want to be part of it.

There's another Hamilton trilogy set in a different universe which is a mixture of sci fi and horror (the dead return in a strange way) and this is another play with genre - science fiction and fantasy. As always with this writer the sci fi is top drawer. Amazing ideas aplenty, and actually used well. Especially powerful is how communication technology develops, with everyone having telepathy and empathy through nanotechnology.

The fantasy side of things is also great, and concerns a world where everyone has psychic powers, but one individual - "the Waterwalker" - has powers that could be limitless. Arthur C Clarke's assertion that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic is being played with here.

It's really well plotted, the characters are good and the action sequences are clear and exciting. Quality stuff. But I read the first part of the trilogy, what, six months ago? And it still took me a few hundred pages to get to grips with who everyone was and what they were doing. A "previously in the Void trilogy" would have been helpful. But what's even more annoying is that as the books progress, there are more and more elements introduced from two earlier books (Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained) set 1200 years before, but featuring many of the same characters. I wish I'd read them first, but these books are all at least 700 pages long. A big investment, but worth it I reckon.

Now I'm reading Children of Dune by Frank Herbert which blows all of them out of the water. Or sand.

Monday, 11 October 2010

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Okay, I didn't finish this one but I did get two thirds of the way through so I suppose it's worth a write up.

Ned Kelly is the Australian Robin Hood, famous for wearing a home-made suit of armour, so I was really looking forward to some iron-clad bush-tucker craziness. To my dismay this isn't a trashy outback western, but a Booker Prize winner.

Ned himself's a nice guy, always trying to do the right thing, but everyone around him continually shits on him. He's of Irish stock so the colonial police think he's criminal scum. Then his mum sells him to the world's crappest highwayman. Even then it takes a hell of a long time for him to become an outlaw. He should've started taking care of business a long time before.

This is largely about social injustice (well, this is set in the past - there was a lot of it going about) Irish roots and Australian wildlife and geography. It's like one of those Bob Dylan folk songs about outlaws, and it is pretty good, but I found it too dull to finish. Too much whiney-whiney, not enough shooty-shooty.

This was a book on tape, so I've abandoned it for Winston Churchill's history of the First World War. On the paper book front I dumped the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when I realised I'd seen the film, in favour of some massive sci-fi by Peter F Hamilton.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Just After Sunset by Stephen King

It's not often I struggle to finish a Stephen King. You always bank on a few duffers in his short story collections, but this is chock full of them.

His latest in what must now be dozens of "the picture mysteriously gets creepier" tales is a low point - the guy gets an exercise bike and paints his basement wall as a country road, but is chased slowly by personifications of his metabolism whom he's put out of work. Or something. They don't even bother to kill him! Rubbish.

The one about 911 sucks, there are two boring ghost stories where railway stations are the afterlife, and one about curing disease in a Green Mile style which is remarkable in being completely unmemorable.

There are a few passable stories - one about a woman who gets captured by a serial killer, one about a middle aged couple and a bad dream, one about a party that gets interrupted in the worst way possible, and a pleasingly gory one about a bad cat

But....there are two tales here I did really enjoy. A Very Tight Place, about an unpleasant encounter in a portaloo, and N., about obessive compulsive disorder, madness, suicide, and unspeakable horror from beyond the stars. NOT inspired by Lovecraft King has been keen to point out - he claims he's ripping off Arthur Machen - but the tale gives me those HP goosepimples I love so much. Two cracking horror stories from different ends of the spectrum.

So, I don't know. Maybe after prematurely blowing his load over the Dark Tower he's kind of at a loss. I think he needs a new project. I'd like to see him do a bit more of the old cosmic horror. N., From a Buick 8, glimpses in Under the Dome, way back to the Mist - I want more. Pick up that Lovecraft mantle! Call it the Machen mantle if you must!

Just no more stories about paintings coming to life.