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Monday, 22 August 2016

Book review - Rhapsody in Black

Second in Brian Stableford's sequence of six Hooded Swan novels, Rhapsody in Black (1973) doesn’t quite work for me, though it’s still worth reading for the humorous aspects, the banter between ‘the wind’ and the anti-hero Grainger, and to continue his adventures. Clever titles like this are music to my ears...

Stableford jumps into the action at once, Grainger on the run from miners on the planet Rhapsody. We don’t know why he’s in this predicament, but it will be revealed in flashback. Rhapsody is one of ‘God’s Nine Splinters’, isolated worlds with a religious bent, the others being: Ecstacy, Modesty, Felicity, Fidelity, Sanctity, Harmony, Serenity, and Vitality. Life on Rhapsody is lived underground, the denizens only comfortable in darkness or semi-darkness; hence the title. They’re constrained by their leaders who are strict; as one stated, ‘There’s a lot of life in the old dogma yet.’ As a pun, it’s not bad, I suppose.

Why is Grainger here? As the indentured pilot to the owner of the Hooded Swan, he goes where he’s told. The owner, Charlot has heard there’s something valuable on the planet, and he wants to negotiate for it. To further his aim, he has co-opted some exiled people from the planet to help. Unfortunately, on arrival the religious indigents imprison them all.

They escape and then the chase goes on through the mine shafts.

The characters from Halcyon Drift, Eve, Johnny and Nick hardly enter the story. Grainger’s mind-parasite – which is a symbiote, it insists – does not figure greatly either, though he comes to the fore when needed. The Hooded Swan isn’t in the story much, either.

I don’t know at what point Grainger the pilot became an expert on biological forms, but he spends three pages giving a breakdown on three interlinked types of organism. Of course, Stableford has a degree in biology and lectured in sociology – both treated in the closed society of the book. As the Tribune review stated in a review, ‘Stableford… has one of the best lines around in exobiology.’

He misuses ‘he hissed’, one of my pet hates since it was pointed out to me decades ago by sci-fi author Ken Bulmer, but he’s not alone there among popular authors.

There’s a twist at the end. The series obviously survived through popularity, so I’m sticking with it. 

Pan books maintained the cover design for the six books, which must have gladdened the author's heart. At the time, all Pan sci-fi featured the same silver oblong box; this boldly identified the author and the genre, though I'm sure it created visual issues for the artists!

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Film review – Robot & Frank

Some films are small but have big hearts and this is one of those.

Robot & Frank is set in the near future. Frank (Frank Langella) is a retired burglar who now lives alone. He’s suffering from the onset of dementia, but he’s in denial, to the frustration of his son Hunter  (James Marsden)  and daughter  Madison (Liv Tyler) who have their own lives to lead.

Against Frank’s wishes, his son buys a walking talking humanoid robot to help around the house, preparing meals, essentially fulfilling a carer role. Robot: Hello, Frank, it’s a pleasure to meet you. To which Frank replies, How do you know?

The robot attempts to improve Frank’s lifestyle, by by getting him to eat healthier food and going on walks.

Robot: Frank, that cereal is for children. Eat this grapefruit.
Frank: You’re for children, stupid.

The voice of the robot is Peter Sarsgaard, exuding patience and solicitude regarding curmudgeonly Frank; he also has some of the best lines. Yet this undoubtedly Langella’s film, though he is ably supported by the rest of the cast. Langella performs a master class in conveying his character’s confusion, stubbornness, and compassion. Susan Sarandon underplays Frank’s only friend, a librarian. There are plenty of amusing scenes and lines, including the interchange between Frank’s robot and the robotic library assistant, Mr Darcy.

At the heart of the story is the growing friendship between the robot and Frank, especially when Frank realises that he can utilise the robot’s unique abilities to perform another heist.

There’s a poignant twist, too, which alters much that we thought we knew.

The film deals with dementia in a non-sentimental but honest way.

Paradoxically, the friendship between man and machine extols humanity.

A moving, thought-provoking little gem.

Released 2012, 89 minutes

Friday, 19 August 2016

Blog Guest - Jo Walpole aka Terry James

Jo Walpole is a published writer of four westerns – under the pen-name Terry James.

Welcome to the blog, Jo. I have a few questions that I hope you can answer, so I’ll kick off with this. It is said that ‘A life without books isn’t a life.’ Do you know how many books on average you read in a year?

Sadly, I know exactly how many I read because I keep a list in my journal then add them to a spreadsheet year-on-year. This helps me keep track of what titles I’ve read, as much as anything. On average I read between 26 and 36. In 2016, I’m already up to 30. It’s poor, I know, but I’m a bedtime reader so I read 1-3 chapters a night depending on when I fall asleep.

It's not sad, it's sensible, Jo! My wife and I do the same, keep a record (though not on the computer!) What are you reading at present?

My last remaining BS Dunn book Long Trail To Redemption. I’ve been hanging on to it because I didn’t want to run out of things written by him. He’s such an enthusiastic storyteller and his pacing and action are so good that I find my output improves when I read his.

What book would you take to a desert island?

That’s a tricky one, actually. My immediate thought was To Tame A Land by Louis L’Amour but it wouldn’t last long so maybe Bitter Eden by Sharon Salvato, a wide-sweeping and emotional historical that I haven’t read for 35 years.

What book gave you the reading bug?

The Janet and John books when I first started school. I remember racing through them in class and I’ve always loved reading so I would guess that’s where it started.

What book left you cold?

I had to think about this but the answer, when it came, hit me like a sledgehammer. It has to be Rogue Male (1939) by Geoffrey Household. I was forced to read it as part of the school curriculum. All I can remember is that I hated it, mainly because it didn’t have chapters and there was no logical place to stop. I’ve thought about rereading it as an adult, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

That’s often the case with books one’s ‘forced’ to read when young; maybe the first-person narrative didn’t help. Rogue Male is in my TBR pile, so I will be intrigued to see how I take to it! I’m planning an updated variant of the story, too…

In most cases, writers are also avid readers. Some readers stick to a particular genre of fiction, or even eschew fiction and prefer non-fiction. Besides westerns, what do you read?

I read a lot of news and current affairs on a daily basis. In the way of fiction, I enjoy Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes when I’m looking for a break from westerns, but on the whole I’m an avid reader of westerns and they form the bulk of my reading list.

Writers were readers first. Then they decide to write. What drew you to writing westerns?

Easy! Alias Smith & Jones. I used to love watching them, and still do. I think it’s the perceived romanticism. Although I was only about 6 years old, I’d make up episodes for my mum. Added to the boys, I’d say old western movies with Richard Widmark, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Bo Hopkins and the like. As I got older, I visited the library to see what was on offer in the genre. At that time the shelves were full of Louis L’Amour, JT Edson and Zane Grey. Louis L’Amour is my stand out favourite and his writing nurtured my interest and enthusiasm.

Yes, this rings bells for me too. TV series can have a profound influence. 

Do you ever hanker after writing any other genre fiction?

I have dabbled in contemporary shorts incorporating humour with a twist and, by popular demand, I published some on Amazon this year under the title Life and Laughter: A Look at Life On The Light Side under my own name. 

The genre I’d really like a crack at is pure sci-fi. I say pure sci-fi as it would be for my husband who believes that the genre has been overrun with fantasy and according to him that isn’t the same thing. However, since I don’t enjoy reading (and often don’t understand) sci-fi (by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Harry Harrison) I don’t feel I’m in a position to write it. I’d like to do it as a challenge at some point though.

Agreed, fantasy is a separate genre these days.

Where did your pen-name come from?

I thought that to have some credibility in a male dominated genre, I should adopt a male pseudonym. I toyed with turning Joanne into John and keeping my surname but I wanted a name that meant something to me. I was going to use Tim Francis, which was my beloved father-in-law’s name, but it didn’t seem to fit, which was a shame because he was my biggest advocate. In the end I chose Terry James, which are my husband’s first and middle names, and gives me another opportunity to show my unerring affection for him.

Can you describe your writing process? What comes first, for example – the character, the plot, or a central theme or idea?

To be honest, I’m not sure. It’s a bit haphazard. With my current WIP, the main character came first. I wanted a stereotype (gunfighter) with a quirk (panic attacks). However, whilst listening to a Dierks Bentley song recently, I came up with a plot for my next book, then the character to carry it and then a couple of key scenes and associated allies and villains. Once I have an idea of these things, I put it together with twists that will ramp up the stakes.

Do you plot the whole book or go where the story takes you?

I used to write off the cuff with just a beginning and end in mind. Having been stuck on my previous book for about 3 years, a friend (author Lee Clinton) suggested I write a plan of each chapter from start to finish so that I could work to it, plough on and keep track of where I was in the scale of things. I attribute finishing that book to Lee and to that method. That’s the process I’m still using but it is flexible and I am changing it as I go within the general framework.

You write about strong female characters in your westerns. Who is your favourite character from one of your books and why?

I like Ros West from Long Shadows. She’s tough and capable with a dry sense of humour. I recall you previously mentioning in your review one piece you liked: ‘Beats me how I hurt my hand when I stopped the fall with my face’. That demonstrates perfectly her humour and the fact that she gets knocked down but she gets back up.

Where do you find inspiration?

From books, films (any genre), the news, songs (I listen to a lot of country and western – there’s plenty to go at in the lyrics), people I meet (usually their quirks and mannerisms).

What are you working on now?

My current WIP has a working title of Gunman’s Bounty. As I mentioned earlier, the main character is a gunfighter who having almost died in a shootout now suffers panic attacks when faced with a showdown. As with all my books, it’s a story about friendship and loyalty between people thrown together in extraordinary circumstances that include murder and kidnapping and ends in an exciting and bloody finale. Along the way the plot is fairly complex with several twists and turns but the conclusion will tie up the loose ends and provide reader satisfaction.

I like that title!

On your FB page you selected twelve authors that you feel influenced you and stick with you. In no particular order, they are:

01. Louis L’Amour
02. Sharon Salvato
03. Kathleen E Woodiwiss
04. Shakespeare
05. Rosemary Rogers
06. C S Lewis
07. Roald Dahl
08. Daphne Du Maurier
09. Robert Louis Stevenson
10. Charles Dickens
11. Wilfrid Owen
12. TT Flynn

It’s an eclectic mix, with only two western authors! Can you give us an insight, perhaps by letting us know which book (or poem) by the above stands out for you?

Sorry to be difficult but, no. There are three that I can’t separate. The first would be To Tame A Land by Louis L’Amour. I read this book every year without fail. Rye Tyler is by far my favourite western character. It’s the story of his young life and has a superb twist at the end. The second would be Bitter Eden by Sharon Salvato. I read this when I was about 12. I bought it for 5p from the library. Back then it was falling to bits and now it’s held together with brittle, yellowing tape and treated with kid gloves. I wouldn’t part with that copy though because it was pivotal in me wanting to write with real emotion and depth. The last would be The Wildest Heart by Rosemary Rogers. Although as time has gone by I have come to dislike certain aspects of the story (some of the sex scenes verge on rape), the characters and the unexpected twists have stayed with me since I read it about 35 years ago. For me, all the aforementioned things make a good book great.

Thanks. I agree, this is a tough ask at any time. I have so many favourite authors, I’d be hard-pressed to limit the number. As for influencing me, none consciously, though I’m sure several have done subconsciously!

Do you have a favourite quotation?

Lots of them but the one I’ve had since secondary school is: It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.

If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be and why?

I’d like to live in the US, possibly Virginia. It’s such a huge, diverse country and Virginia is a beautiful state. I’d spend my life exploring and knowing I’d never run out of vastly different destinations to experience and enjoy.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Good luck with the latest tome, Gunman’s Bounty!

Jo at windswept John O Groats!
No, thank you for giving me a place on your blog.

Jo’s books on Amazon:

Jo’s blog:

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Book review - Halcyon Drift

Brian Stableford’s series of six books concerning star-pilot Grainger and his spaceship The Hooded Swan begins with this novel, Halcyon Drift (1972); they’re regarded as classics by the science fiction fraternity. Stableford has written in excess of seventy novels; yes, he’s prolific. I met his mother when she briefly attended a few of my writers’ circle meetings here in Spain. A brief review of his book Young Blood appears here

Stableford is a good writer who presents effective visuals with his prose: ‘Brown clouds move sullenly across the sulky face of the sky, washing the black mountain faces with hazy tears.’ (p7) Other examples from page 128: ‘Alien night is always a bad place to be.’ And ‘The horizon glowed white, surrounding us like a vast silvery ring set with a jewel-like flare at the point where the sun had vanished.’

The story begins with a prologue in the present tense, outlining the fact that Grainger has crashed his spaceship Javelin on an uninhabited rock, killing his partner, Lapthorn. So he’s alone.  The inhospitable place is plagued by winds, always blowing down the grave marker. Through his reminiscences, we get an insight into Grainger’s nomadic life with Lapthorn, trading and dealing from planet to planet, encountering fascinating and intriguing life-forms. Grainger is cynical: ‘A lot of spacemen are like me. Cold, emotionless men who don’t inherit any part of the worlds and the people that they see.’ (p13)  He reminisces about his friend Alachakh, a Khormon trader, whose life he saved once. That’s all he’s got, stranded on this rock for two years, waiting to die.

And then the wind starts to talk to him in his head. He isn’t going nuts: it’s an alien mind-parasite. It’s quite a lengthy prologue, ending with him being rescued by a passing ramrod ship, the Ella Marita. He gets away but he’s stuck with the mind-parasite – for life.

The rest of the tale is told in the usual past historic and it's inventive, in description and the alien life-forms, and in the leaps to a possible future: ‘I dialled through to the Illinois cybernet… a credit card, punched and banded, oozed out of a slot… I tapped out a query on the keyboard, asking how much the card was carrying…’ Bearing in mind this was written in 1972 or earlier: not bad. (I didn’t get my first credit card until 1987, when I was 39!)

There’s also irony and humour, to be enjoyed. Here’s the mind-parasite speaking in Grainger’s head: ‘I’m an expert on you, Grainger, and I’m learning more all the time. I’m right inside you. I’m with you every decision you take. I’m riding your every thought, and feeling everything you feel. This isn’t the most comfortable of minds to live in, my friend. I would appreciate it greatly if you could get it sorted out a little. Come to terms with yourself and the universe.’ (p34)

The nameless mind-parasite isn’t the only great invention in this story. Meet The Hooded Swan, a ship that can fly ‘like a bird. She’s jointed and musculated. She has the most complete and most sensitive nerve-net any mechanical device has ever had.…’ In fact, Grainger the pilot is connected to the nerve-system of the spaceship and feels what the craft feels; his body becomes part of the body of the ship. Grainger literally flies by feel.

One of the several inventions is the quite tragic Khormon race. When these people have filled their memories – nothing is ever forgotten – they have reached their end. As Alachakh says, ‘I wish I could forget a little and create some space, but I cannot. I am stuck in the day before yesterday. There can be no question of a long tomorrow, and I doubt the latter hours of today. Soon even the minute swill become painful to squeeze away into tight corners…” (p89) Another invention is the metamorphic life system Grainger encounters in his quest: ‘Our presence and progress would cause the plants which we touched unbearable pain.’ And: ‘… the feel of the furtive, glutinous chaos through which we moved. Myriads of tiny creatures were accidentally transferred from the plants to me, and I hoped none of them was adapted for chewing tough plastic.’ (p134)  

Grainger is hired to pilot The Hooded Swan and enter the Halcyon Drift in search of a spaceship that was lost in the drift eighty years ago; a distress signal has bleeped since then but due to the awesome peculiarities of the drift it hasn’t been located yet: ‘Drift space casually disobeys principles which are called laws in saner corners of the galaxy.’ (p97)

Perhaps the ending was a little rushed, but he was writing to fit into a specific format. How Grainger resolves his quest is intriguing – and moral, to boot. Needless to say, he survives to fly The Hooded Swan in another novel, and I’ll be reading all of the series.