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Review Round-up: Flamesong, Sledgehammer and The Gameshouse

Gameshouse - PK

Three recent reads - a vintage fantasy, a terrific new trilogy and a particularly heavy-handed crime thriller.

Claire North's Gameshouse trilogy (2015), with apologies, as I did my frothing fanboy thing on Twitter, but, these are simply brilliant. The trilogy is comprised of three novelettes (novellas? long shorts? maxistories? minibooks?), each with a different narrator, setting and - wonderfully - tense. All three feature players in the enigmatic Gameshouse - a location/organisation for those that gamble, and gamble to win. The outer room is for the games we all know and love. The inner room is for the real players, the ones that manipulate lives and nations. 

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Radio Drama: "The Thing from the Darkness" (1942)

Thing from the Darkness"The Thing from the Darkness"

Original air date: April 3, 1942, from the series Dark Fantasy.

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Thoughts Before Listening

I am excited to hear this because the words ‘thing’ and ‘darkness’ are very promising. Things in darkness are often menacing except maybe things like bananas but I am confident this will not be about a banana in the darkness because they didn’t fuck around in 1942, this is probably going to be about something with teeth that eats people. Also, Dark Fantasy is the name of a chocolate biscuit in India and it’s really gross but I will not allow that to ruin my listening experience.

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Review Round-up: The Long Ride and After Midnight

The Long RideThe Long Ride (1961) is another corker from James McKimmey, who may be my personal favourite discovery of 2015. The story begins with a Midwestern bank robbery - one that goes horribly (bloodily) awry. The suitcase o' loot winds up in the hands of a complete bystander, a bitter young man. 

One thing leads to another, and our 'innocent',  an undercover FBI agent, and the bank robber all wind up sharing a car out to San Francisco. All, of course, under assumed identities and with (theoretically) no knowledge of the others. Also in the mix - and the car: four innocent (?) women, each with their own quests, motivations and suspicious backgrounds.

What follows is a road trip equal parts tense and comedic. Wells, the murderous bank robber, is a particularly chilling villain, a calculator of a man, with absolutely no regard for human life. By contrast, Allan is a hot mess, a small-time chiseler that's completely over his head. Sadly, John, the agent and our ostensible protagonist, is the dullest of the three men, and even the dash of romance inserted into his point of view chapters fails to liven him up. But his phlegmatic perspective gives the reader a relatively balanced view of the happenings, especially as Wells and Allan lose their respective grips on sanity.

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Review Round-up: Vanishing Ladies, The Big Guy, Along Came a Spider

Three thrillers from the late 1950s and early 1960s - featuring Ed McBain, Wade Miller and Maude Parker.

Vanishing LadiesVanishing Ladies (1957) is a stand-alone mystery from Ed McBain, originally written under the pen name Richard Marsten. I have a vague theory that the Marsten books are a little 'grittier' than the McBains, but there's a small sample size, and frankly, Vanishing Ladies disproves it - it could very easily pass as one of the more slapstick entries in the 87th Precinct. Detective Philip Colby takes his girlfriend, Ann, on a road trip.

Circumstances force the pair into a seedy, secluded motel, and, in the middle of the night, Colby realises Ann's gone missing. It gets even more odd from there - the motel is revealed to be a high-end brothel, and, in an act of Kafkaesque proportions, the local community all band together to convince Colby that Ann never existed. Frustrated, Colby calls for backup, and the middle part of the book is told from the perspective of Tony Mitchell, one of his colleagues.

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Review Round-up: Knitters, Pirates, Cops, Princesses and Priests

TheBig SinA quick-fire round-up of eight recent holiday reads - including some vintage mysteries, a brand new fantasy, a YA that'll have you in stitches (fnar) and a saucy pirate romance. Most of these were recommendations via Twitter, so thank you all for sending them my way!

Prologue Books are one of my go-to publishers - whomever is putting together this list of out-of-print fiction is doing a cracking job. (Also, they use Amazon well, so I can find their books by searching Prologue Crime or Prologue Western, which is really helpful.) Anyway, that baseline of praise established... Jack Webb's The Big Sin (1952) might be one of my favourites so far. Webb's story ticks all the right narrative boxes: a cop versus a Big City machine, a man framed for murder, criminals being forced to choose between doing 'bad' and doing 'evil', the works. And, beneath it all, he underpins everything with a discussion of faith.

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Review Round-up: The Collegium Chronicles and Unfaithful Wives

Two books/series with very little in common. Except, I suppose, I found them both kind of dissatisfying - Mercedes Lackey's Collegium Chronicles and Orrie Hitt's Unfaithful Wives.

RedoubtThe Collegium Chronicles (2008 - 2013) are five of the (counts rapidly) bajillion Valdemar novels by Mercedes Lackey. This particular sequence follows the young Mags as he's rescued from working as a mine slave and makes the startling transition to student at a magical university. His efforts to fit in, make friends, and adapt to his comfy new existence are occasionally interrupted by assassins.

If I sat down at wrote a list of 'stuff that bugged me in fantasy novels', the Collegium Chronicles would tick a dozen different items - from annoying dialects to poverty porn to magical horses to meandering descriptions of meaningless trivia (seriously, one of the books features a page-long list of pie fillings) to frequent, implausible deus ex machina to heavy-handed infodumping. Hell, there's even a shameless Quidditch knockoff.

And, good lord, the Chosen One-ness. Mags is lifted from obscurity because he's born magical and special - if he weren't, his plight (like those of his dozens of peers in the mines) would have gone completely unnoticed. As he grows, we learn that he's amazingly special in so many, many unique ways. Even at a magical university packed with magical snowflakes, he's the snowflakiest of all: the best at everything he does, possessed of a uniquely powerful magical talent, and, of course, descended from a mysterious bloodline. 

And yet...

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Review Round-up: Planes, Fruit, Rags and Lions

Four oldish treats from the 1950s and 1960s. I suppose they're all sort of joined up by being "thrillers" in unconventional settings. But that's pretty spurious - they're really joined up by being four books that caught my eye recently; there's not much more pattern than that.

High CitadelHigh Citadel (1965), by Desmond Bagley, is a nice combination of survivalist horror and siege-porn. A small plane carrying a motley group of passengers is hijacked, and makes a crash-landing in the Andes. It turns out one of the passengers is politically important (the ex-President of a mythical South American country) and a group of Communist insurgents are keen to see him disposed of and out of the way.

But the Commies didn't count on American derring-do! The plane's captain, a former POW in Korea, shrugs off his burgeoning alcoholism and assembles the remaining passengers into a rag-tag group of freedom fighters. It is more fun (and less preachy) than it seems, as the team defend their mountain perch with a combination of medieval and jury-rigged weapons. And, in parallel, others try the murderous march over the mountains to get help - but with almost no supplies.

Although it tries, this isn't exactly a soaring novel of human triumph - the characters are mostly one-dimensional and the situation escalates far past the ability to suspend disbelief. But the detail is enjoyable, in a Robinson Crusoe Goes to War kind of way.

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Friday Five: 5 Nifty Noir Films from Before 1955

Do you want to watch some film noir?

I hope so, because I have five films to suggest. Films about dames gone wrong, poor doomed saps, murders, sex and modern knights errant. I suppose, to me, noir films are shadowy films about darkness seeping in and seeping out. If you like these films, you might want to look a little more into the filmographies of Jacques Tourneur, Ida Lupino, Edgar Ulmer, Nicholas Ray, and John Sturges.

Meanwhile, beware of spoilers. I tried to keep some secrets, but in the end, I'm a femme fatale. I've always got my own game going. 


Out Of The Past / Build My Gallows High (1947) (Jacques Tourneur)


Some people, most people even, think of Double Indemnity (1944) as the quintessential film noir, but my Double Indemnity is Out Of The Past. It stars Robert Mitchum as private detective Jeff Bailey. (90% of Mitchum's characters are named, “Jeff” no matter what IMDb says).

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Extended Memory: Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Mexico city

Game: Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego - Enhanced (1989)
Developer: Brøderbund Software, Inc.
Original platform: DOS

I know this is not the intended lesson of Carmen Sandiego, but god help me, I’m considering a life of crime.

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