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 clichés… 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.



Love All - Molly Parkin





I was aware of Molly Parkin’s appearances on game shows and in documentaries, where she’d always cut a larger-than-life figure; a true bohemian, sporting feathered gowns and turbans and elaborate eye make-up. She was someone fabulous from an earlier era who was still around and painting outrageously garish canvases in her eighties: still out there, still making a splash. I was half-aware that, back in the day, she had published a string of racy novels. Now, at last, I’ve read her first one, from 1974, ‘Love All’ and I’ve discovered that it’s a delightful, outré number… a kind of cross between Abfab and Collette.
            Our heroine is Myopia: a divorcee and mother in a fancy Hampstead home in the early 1970s. She’s a woman who feels the need to please everyone, and so falls instantly for the blandishments and cajolings of all the men whose orbit she falls into. What a terrible bunch she knocks about with! They’re all alcoholics or immensely rich, impotent fatties, or emotionally-stunted MPs or her own batshit crazy father…! Your heart can’t help going out a little to the poor woman and the way she lurches drunkenly through her days, swigging brandy, whisky and red wine,  stumbling from one afternoon encounter to the next…
            In many ways it’s deliciously decadent, and you can’t help seeing Myopia as more liberated and in-control than she claims to be. She dances rings around these fellas, and she’s having a splendid time – especially when she waltzes off to Paris for the weekend with her new gay pal, to star in a photo shoot for his ex’s new collection of designer frocks.
            There’s something intrinsically silly about all the wish-fulfilment and fantasy and the coincidences at play in this novel. Everyone who turns up is either an ex-lesbian lover or a red hot brand new paramour who can’t wait to introduce her to a sexual practice she hasn’t tried out before. But the contrivances and the daftness don’t really matter. We’re in a fantasy world whizzed up from the relics of 1974: from Biba and David Hockney’s ghostly portraits of Celia; of David Bowie dressed as a pirate in red dungarees during his Diamond Dogs period…
 This is the erotic bildungsroman that the era of glam rock thoroughly deserves, and I was glad to encounter it all these years later. Myopia really is a heroine of her time – she’s the working class girl from the seaside café suddenly pitched into this very sophisticated world of fashionistas and decadent drifters. Hers is a time when this kind of social mobility was taken for granted, and anyone, from any background, might wander into the high-life like Myopia does…
Molly Parkin’s sense of humour lifts this book up, I think. There are lots of novels about dreary narcissists having the time of their lives. This never gets dull and it never feels earnest. It’s someone writing with great panache, and with a tongue firmly in their cheek.            ‘We lay on the bed, Jean and me, naked, covered in boys. There must have been seven of them, three on her, three on me, and Sergio, that was his name I remember, he was odd man out. Scrabbling around for any bit of bare flash he could find…’
             


Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Paddington Turns Detective - for World Book Day




In the supermarket I'm having a look at the selection of World Book Day Books. Our local supermarket tends to have a very small selection of books. Usually they’re very popular paperbacks at less than half the actual price, which is a terrible idea. People get used to the idea of having very little choice and treating them like junk – but what can you do? That’s how publishing is run these days, and I’m sure these people know what they’re doing.
            There’s a Paddington collection for World Book Day, for a pound. The three stories are all reprints, of course, but I have to buy it anyway. It’s illustrated by Peggy Fortnum and the stories are from Michael Bond’s heyday. It drops easy as anything into my basket: irresistible.
            There's an older, large lady working at the checkout. Calling me ‘lovey’. When she scans and beeps ‘Paddington Turns Detective’ she says, with mock sternness, ‘I hope you’re not going to be reading this yourself.’
            I give her a hard stare. ‘Why ever not?’
            She laughs at me. ‘Isn’t it for kids?’
            I shrug. ‘I’ve no idea. But I’ve got a collection of Paddington books going back to 1970, when I first started buying books. I’ve got everything he appears in.’
            She beeps the rest of my shopping. ‘I bet they’d be worth a fortune.’
            ‘I doubt it,’ I say hotly. ‘Not only are they not for sale, but they’ve all been read a hundred times. They’re not the kind of thing people sell. They’re my reading copies.’
            ‘Oh,’ she says, looking thoughtful. ‘Didn’t they make a film out of Paddington recently? Did you go and see it, lovey?’
            I tell her that both the film and its sequel were great and more than lived up to my expectations.
            ‘Oh, that’s good,’ she says, as I pack my bag. ‘Because sometimes you go and see the film and it’s no good at all, compared with the book and the way you imagine everything inside your head.’
            ‘Quite,’ I say.
            She sighs. ‘You can have all your illusions squashed.’
            Squashed? I assure her that that’s something I never want to happen to me.
            ‘You have a nice afternoon, lovey,’ she tells me, as I pay and she gives me my change and then I head back out into rainy Levenshulme.




Cylon Death Machine - Glen A. Larson and Robert Thurston





I have read my second novel based on the original 1970s TV show, Battlestar Galactica. When I was eight in 1978 the book based on the pilot movie was my favourite book of the year. It just struck a chord with me - giving me more of the space opera swash and buckle I’d loved so much in the previous year’s Star Wars. In some ways Battlestar was even better, with its insect monsters, furry robots and follow-on TV show.

            For some reason it has taken me forty years to move on to book two. Not sure why. I think I was less keen on the ‘Gun on Ice Planet Zero’ episode that the novel is based on. However it’s by the same author(s) – Glen A. Larson and Robert Thurston, so this world of Battlestar Galactica in print is immediately recognizable. What I remember is the consideration the authors give to the interior voices of the two leaders – Adama for the humans, and the Supreme Leader for the Cylons. There was always something creepy about the monstrous, glittering-eyed being sitting at the top of that plinth, even on TV. In the books we learn that he has three brains and a mania for routing out every last human being by any means necessary. I love all the bits of Cylon culture we learn about. Surprising bits to do with the suppression of written language. The Cylons are free to create poetry – but they must never write it down. Odd nuggets of invention like that are what gives this strange series its distinction.

            Much of the book comes narrated by the criminal, Croft, who is hoisted from the depths of a prison ship along with some of his fellows, because the computer has judged their mountaineering skills the most useful for a mission to the ice world on which most of the book’s action takes place. Croft is a great invention – allowing us to see the first book’s heroes through fresh (and rather shifty eyes.) What was on TV a rather duff story about a mega genius and his ray gun and his race of perfect clones becomes a story about second chances, self-sacrifice and redemption.

            Also, a story about a fluffy robot Daggit called Muffit – always my favourite character in the BS universe. He’s a replacement for the actual, fleshly daggit the child Boxey lost in the first book. There’s a moment here that’s lovely, in which the boy reflects that this second Muffit is almost as nice as the first. Maybe, in his pre-programmed way, he’s not as affectionate. Also, when he licks Boxey’s face his tongue isn’t wet like a real animal’s, it’s dry and scratchy, and so Boxey has to tell him to stop. There’s something very touching in that: the realization that the robot pet is a compromise, and not a perfect one. Novelisations again, proving to be much more subtle in such things than the TV versions.

            My favourite moment of all in the book comes from Commander Adama, who doesn’t really take part in any of the events of the novel. He merely pontificates from his bridge and his office. However, one of his journal excerpts sees him reminiscing about the things that the last remaining humans have lost forever in their flight to safety. He focuses on a single space adventure book he loved as a child – ‘Sharky Star-rover’. When he searches the ragtag fleet’s libraries, he discovers that no one has thought to salvage a single copy of this beloved book of his youth. So he spends a chapter trying to reconstitute its plot, and attempting to account for the power it still exerts over his imagination.

            It’s a very curious – perhaps whimsical – chapter: especially when it comes to the hints of possible romance between the hero and his globular alien pal, Jameson. To this reader the interlude stands out a mile, since it sort of describes my own relationship with books and novelizations of the past. They all belong to a lost era of about thirty or forty years ago. An innocent era, in many ways, in which Sharky Star-rover himself wouldn’t be out of place. Battlestar Galactica is swept up in the nostalgic yearnings I have for that kind of reading pleasure. Was any book as much fun or as absorbing as that particular one you read in 1978..? Is every new / old book you fall upon just another doomed attempt to recapture that feeling?

            I was astonished to find those questions partially answered – at least addressed – by Adama aboard Galactica, back in the day…

            Adama writes: “Clearly, Sharky Star-rover was a flawed book, and perhaps some misguided programmer librarian thought he / she had good reason for not including it in the Galactica computer library. That’s too bad. Sharky’s quest for a more adventurous life seems so similar to our quest for Earth. The story might give us hope when we need it. No matter how much of the book I can reconstruct, no matter how much eloquence I attempt in trying to retell the story to anyone, I’ll never really have Sharky again. So much has been destroyed. So much.’

            I never expected to share Adama’s feelings quite so closely. But in my reading life generally I feel like I’m attempting a great big act of salvage. I’m often reconstituting the things that matter to me, and bringing back the items from culture that other people have chucked out, supposing them valueless. I think I would be keen to bring back Sharky Star-rover and his blob of a best pal, Jameson, too.




Friday, 13 April 2018

Cagney and Lacey - Serita Deborah Stevens



It's been a while since I've talked about my Beach House Books project...

That was my ongoing, endless project to read the novels I've collected over the years and formed into the To Be Read Mountain...

Well, even though I've not talked about it so much, the project has been going on and on... and just lately I've been reading a bunch of TV and Film Tie-in novelisations that have been awaiting my attention. I've been thinking a lot about the whole phenomenon of the tie-in, and it seemed like a good time to write about what i've been reading recently...

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Cagney and Lacey - Serita Deborah Stevens


In some ways it’s almost the perfect Tie-In novel. It gives us stuff that the TV show never did and never could. It segues perfectly with everything we saw on screen and, as we read it, becomes kind of indispensible: I can’t picture those people without these histories now. Serita Deborah Stevens’ 1985 novel, ‘Cagney and Lacey’ is one of those Tie-Ins that gives us the origin story of its protagonists, beginning two decades before the TV show ever did. It provides us with stories not necessarily too ‘broad and deep’ for TV, but too early and too youthful.
            There’s a special joy in getting to know the principal characters of Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Zmgrocki in their early years. In alternating chapters we meet very recognisable versions of the women we know from TV. Before their lives are twined together they are in very different circumstances: Chris having a high old time in Paris and then London in the Swinging Sixties as a society photographer; poor Mary Beth is struggling along as a secretary living alone with her ailing, abandoned mother.
            In some ways it’s a very simple story, leading us through the life changes that bring both women to enroll in the NYPD’s training program. We get set backs and triumphs, first and second loves, first collars… and we get smashing, snarky dialogue – especially when the two women are first assigned to the beat together and don’t particularly hit it off.
            There’s so much to love in this short, readable volume. I loved the scenes dealing with Mary Beth’s falling in love with Harvey – the much put-upon house-husband familiar from the show. When she first walks the beat with a nightstick and a gun she finds him tailing her in their car, trying to bring her coffee and a corned beef sandwich. It’s a very touching scene.
            I also really enjoyed the early scenes with Cagney in London, living in a kind of racy Danielle Steele novel, before what she decides she really wants is a Ed McBain kind of life. It’s a novel about back stories in which two women decide what kind of story they want to be living their adult lives inside and, what we get, by the end, is a rather gritty crime story involving hookers, pimps, concentration camp survivors, Nazis and diamonds. In fact, though some later chapters are based on early episodes it’s rather grittier in places than the TV show would get.
            By the very end, with the women’s promotion to detective status, and the shifting of their desk to the space beside the coffee pot, we dovetail neatly with the beginning of the TV show. It makes me rather sad that there were no print sequels from Stevens or anyone else. There were TV movies to tell us what became of Mary Beth and Christine in their later careers, but a TV movie isn’t quite the same as a novel. TV movies fly by so quickly and they don’t give you the dull little moments of downtime that novels do so well.