From the mediocrity of War-Gamers' World and One Against the Moon to the horror of Fimbulwinter and The Hidden Children, I read these things so you don't have to. But hey, there's good news as well! Mystery lovers will delight in 13 Minutes and Squeeze Play, and Robert E. Howard is here to restore my faith in fantasy fiction with "Shadows in the Moonlight".
Hugh Walker's War-Gamers' World (1975) is a disappointment. It is a set-up that we don't see so often any more, and, in fact, might be one of the first of its kind. Our protagonist is a gamer, and, in the opening chapters (paragraphs, even), he's sucked into his game world. No longer is he the master of fate - merely one of its pawns! He's seeing, first-hand, the carnage and chaos of his 'game'! He learns a valuable lesson about humanity, privilege and power!
Actually, none of that happens.
To celebrate, three very different romances: a contemporary space opera (kinda), a globe-trotting adventure (kinda), and a Regency romance (kinda). Love is in the air, and it is not so easily classified.
Madeline Brent's Moonraker's Bride (1973) is another of the award-winning novelist's semi-Gothic, globe-trotting, quasi-Victorian escapades. I'm slightly obsessed with Brent's books ever since discovering that 'she' is the pen name for Peter O'Donnell, who also wrote the action series Modesty Blaise. The obsession has now paid off with a handful of really delightful books, of which Moonraker's is one.
Lucy Waring, our heroine, is born overseas, an orphan in a remote Himalayan village. This means she's got practical skills (including yak-herding!) and an adventurous spirit... but is completely on the back foot in British society. The combination means she can be shy, but courageous, and supremely competent... yet also in constant need of rescuing. This is the delicate balance that Brent creates in all 'her' books, and it might be at its most delicate in Moonraker's. Further familiar twists include the circumstantial-marriage-that-could-be-real-love, family secrets, and a lot of ponderously-delivered pop psychology.
"Rupert Orange" first aired on Beyond Midnight on January 9, 1970
Thoughts Before Listening
It’s called Rupert Orange, I mean come on. Btw hallo dears.
The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs (1969) is an oft-overlooked fantasy classic. Two elderly wizards - Prospero and Roger Bacon - meander across the North and South Kingdoms in search of a cure for some ill-defined metaphysical curse that's plaguing the land. The evil is deliberately vague, and all the more horrifying for it: an ancient tome is being read by a dark-hearted wizard, and badness is spilling forth. From damp moths to off-putting mists to an ominous sense of malaise, Bellairs excels at conveying an implicit wrongness that is more atmosphere than overt threat.
Though unmistakably a product of its time, it represented a significant departure from its contemporaries. Most 80s action flicks tended to come in one of four flavours: Spy/Cold War narratives (the James Bond franchise), soldier/ex-soldier stories (First Blood, Delta Force), sci-fi (Alien, Terminator), or buddy cop (48 Hrs).
Die Hard didn’t conform to any of these, yet in spite of this – or perhaps because of it – it became the most influential action film of the decade, spawning so many knockoffs that it practically qualifies as a subgenre all its own.
The 1990s recycled Die Hard over and over again, serving it up Sam-I-Am style in every conceivable location: on a plane, on a train, on a trip and a ship, in the snow and the ice, in a school with a fool… well, you get the idea.* And that’s not even counting the sequels: Die Harder, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Die Already, Why Won’t You Just Die (or some such… I lost track after a while.)
Much the same could be said of the film’s iconic baddie, Hans Gruber, played by the inimitable Alan Rickman.
However, the topic is well worth revisiting, as this excellent book is now published in the US and UK. You can find it on Amazon [that American cover is amazing!] and in the UK through Belgravia Books (as well as other retailers).
Katya Grubbs is an exterminator - more a relocator, actually, as she’s a fundamental believer in vermin’s right to life. A swarm of mysterious beetles infests an idyllic suburb and Katya is hired to do her thing. Her investigation brings her in contact with pests of all shapes and sizes - including the suburb’s sleazy developer and her own wayward father.
Despite the lack of any SF/F elements, Nineveh is a contemporary urban fantasy classic, along the lines of Zoo City and King Rat; a tale about a hidden world and the people (or creatures) that live beneath our notice. Katya is an exterminator with a heart. Eschewing her father's brutal approach to the job, Katya tries to move the insects rather than killing them.
Her standards - ethical, moral, professional - are all put to the test when a wealthy developer hires her to clear his new suburb of a beetle infestation. This is where things get creepy, crawly and a little bit chilling. The beetles don't behave the way bugs should, the previous exterminator on the job was her (mysteriously absent) father, and the property itself is inherently disturbing: a surreal landscape of abandoned wealth and unfinished buildings.
Nineveh works excellently as a metaphor for gentrification and class structure, but, for me, the real strength was in Katya's own journey - an exploration of empathy and the tenuous impossibility of finding balance. Katya tries to travel between two worlds; she's a good soldier and a loyal daughter, but also attempting to adhere to a greater moral code. The resulting novel is a haunting mystery and a perceptive character study; an unsettling and gorgeous tale of what lies beneath.
[Editor's note: Londoners, there's a launch gig tonight at Gallic Books!]
Ah, String. Easily one of my favourite TV characters of all time, from one of the greatest television shows ever made, HBO’s The Wire. Amid a large and stellar cast of characters, String stands out; only Omar Little gives him any real competition for Best in Show. This is down in part to the suave, physically imposing presence of Idris Elba; he literally towers over nearly everyone else. But it’s also because, like Omar, Stringer Bell is textured and sympathetic enough that you’re almost tempted to consider him an antihero, in spite of his – uh, let’s say casual – regard for human life.
Dodo Ink are a new publisher of fiction set up in 2015 by the novelist Sam Mills, book blogger Thom Cuell and myself, with a mission to publish innovative, risk-taking, imaginative and experimental fiction.
We had each had experiences that lead us to believe that there was an audience for novels that didn’t fit neatly onto mainstream publisher’s lists: Thom, on The Workshy Fop, as a champion of fiction from indie publishers; myself, having worked in the industry for several years and seen an ever-increasing focus on acquiring highly commercial properties, at the expense of what is termed the ‘midlist’, authors who are popular enough to command a steady readership and remain profitable to publish, but often not deemed commercial enough to them the tailored sales, marketing and PR attention that could help them develop their careers creatively and commercially. Sam, as a novelist and writer, experienced this first-hand when trying to help her friend Tom Tomaszewski secure a book deal or agent for his novel, The Eleventh Letter, which was deemed interesting, accomplished and original, but not commercial enough in today’s publishing climate.