Sunday 27 November 2016

Newbury & Hobbes

As I'm currently knee deep in the 4th book in George Mann's series of steampunk romps I thought I'd share with you my write-ups of the first three that appeared a few years ago in the pages of another blog.


The Affinity Bridge

Welcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution. Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by new inventions. Airships soar in the skies over the city, whilst ground trains rumble through the streets and clockwork automatons are programmed to carry out menial tasks in the offices of lawyers, policemen and journalists. But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side. For this is also a world where lycanthropy is a rampant disease that plagues the dirty whorehouses of Whitechapel, where poltergeist infestations create havoc in old country seats, where cadavers can rise from the dead and where nobody ever goes near the Natural History Museum.

Inside this beautiful cover lies a rather nifty little romp featuring gentleman investigator Sir Maurice Newbury along with his new assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes and his close friend Chief Inspector Sir Charles Bainbridge. In this first novel in the series Newbury sets his sights on unravelling the cause of a mysterious airship crash. Around this main strand there are a number of intriguing subplots (the zombies particularly) that are left maddeningly undeveloped as they fade from view over the course of the book. One can only imagine that they'll play a stronger part in later books in the series - although not it seems in book 2.

Mann has a lively and engaging style that is a joy to read. The world he has created is plausible with the new technologies still, for the most part, emerging and finding acceptance amongst the inhabitants. This small concession gives the storyworld a solidity that can be lost in those books that rush to fill the world with new techno marvels. The characters follow fairly established tropes but this is genre writing they're kinda meant to and besides they are fleshed out nicely and soon find their own identities within the story.

The Affinity Bridge is fast, fun and frivolous with a real 'Boy's Own' playfulness. Full of spiffingly brave and honest chaps (and a chapess) that battle doggedly against all manner of dastardly foes for the glory of her Britannic Majesty. It's great fun and like all good pulp writing utterly compulsive.


The Osiris Ritual

Sir Maurice Newbury, Gentleman Investigator for the Crown, imagines life can be a little quieter from now on after his dual success in solving The Affinity Bridge affair. But he hasn't banked on his villainous predecessor, Knox, hell bent on achieving immortality, not to mention a secret agent who isn't quite as he seems.... So continues an adventure quite unlike any other, a thrilling steampunk mystery and the second in the series of Newbury & Hobbes investigations.

The second of his Newbury & Hobbes Steampunk mysteries. I thought the first (The Affinity Bridge) was a fun, if a little flawed, romp through a fog-ridden London that mixed zombies, robots and airships into an entertaining neo-Victorian thriller. It's recommended for those looking for a more than satisfyingly pulp steampunk fix.

This second one wasn't as good as it's predecessor. The plot was a little rushed and lacked grandeur and scope but mostly i think he sacrificed too much of the world-building that was so well done in the first. I heartily approved of how naturalistic he allows the newly emerging technology to feel but half the joy (for me at least) of this sort of genre fiction lies in how the author interweaves technology and the subsequent cultural and societal changes into the narrative. I felt like I didn't learn anything new about the universe he's created and without that it may as well have been set (to an extent) in our own Victorian era.

That said though, Mann has an engaging style and the book was a fun, fast-paced read with a third volume still to come.


The Immorality Engine

On the surface, life is going well for Victorian special agent Sir Maurice Newbury, who has brilliantly solved several nigh-impossible cases for Queen Victoria with his indomitable assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes, by his side. But these facts haven’t stopped Newbury from succumbing increasingly frequently to his dire flirtation with the lure of opium. His addiction is fueled in part by his ill-gotten knowledge of Veronica’s secret relationship with the queen, which Newbury fears must be some kind of betrayal. Veronica, consumed by worry and care for her prophetic but physically fragile sister Amelia, has no idea that she is a catalyst for Newbury’s steadily worsening condition. Veronica and Newbury’s dear friend Bainbridge, the Chief Investigator at Scotland Yard, tries to cover for him as much as possible, but when the body of a well known criminal turns up, Bainbridge and Veronica track Newbury down in an opium den and drag him out to help them with the case. The body is clearly, irrefutably, that of the man in question, but shortly after his body is brought to the morgue, a crime is discovered that bears all the dead man’s hallmarks. Bainbridge and Veronica fear someone is committing copycat crimes, but Newbury is not sure. Somehow, the details are too perfect for it to be the work of a copycat. But how can a dead man commit a crime?

This is the third of Mann's Newbury and Hobbes books and, judging by the way it ends, not the last.

Newbury's drug use has escalated over the time between books and it opens with him an opium addled mess. The erstwhile Miss Veronica Hobbes and Chief Inspector Bainbridge find him and set him back on track in order to help them with a puzzling new case. Someone has been leaving dead duplicates around the place. These investigations soon begin to incorporate both the shady Bastion Society and also the very refuge where Veronica's sister is being treated for her visions.

As the investigation proceeds events start to tumble over each other and intertwine in a not altogether satisfying way. The characters seem at odds with their own personalities and often behave like cliches. Newbury's addictions, in full swing at the opening, are managed with almost ridiculous ease throughout the rest of the book and Veronica has become almost superheroic.

This volume was lacking the spark that made the other books in the series so much fun. It felt more than a little overblown. Towards the end it really started to come together and I enjoyed the final ride. I could definitely go another set of these in the future though.

Saturday 26 November 2016

Wyrd Britain Shop

Those of you who follow the Wyrd Britain Instagram page (ID: wyrdbritain) will have noticed several posts recently marked as being 'For sale in the Wyrd Britain  Etsy Shop.'

I've been building the shop up over the last couple of months and thought it was about time to share it with you all.  Currently the focus is on vintage books (Etsy describes vintage as pre 1997) but other things will be added over time.

There are a fairly wide selection of genres represented from sci-fi to horror to young adult & kids books to romance and I've loosened the strings slightly to include cool books from all over the world rather than the solely British content that I focus on in the blog.

Hopefully you'll find something of interest.

Friday 25 November 2016

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson
Collins Crime Club

The latest in a new series of classic detective stories from the vaults of HarperCollins is a reissue of one of literature’s most audacious and thought-provoking novels of murder and intrigue, in hardback with its 1929 cover design and a brand new introduction.
“The Detective Story Club”, launched by Collins in 1929, was a clearing house for the best and most ingenious crime stories of the age, chosen by a select committee of experts. Now, almost 90 years later, these books are the classics of the Golden Age, republished at last with the same popular cover designs that appealed to their original readers.
Originally published in 1886 as “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, Robert Louis Stevenson’s book had been propelled to massive success following a favourable review in The Times, and by 1901 had sold a quarter of a million copies. This is how the Detective Club described the book:
‘In addition to being one of the most amazing crime stories ever written, “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is probably the most remarkable of all the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson. It would be unfair to the reader to give away the secret of this thriller. Suffice it to say that every page grips and the unforgettable portrait of a mast criminal takes shape until the sensational climax is reached, a climax of dramatic intensity, without equal in the realm of detective fiction. If one wished to append a moral to this crime fantasy it might well be this: “The self you choose to-day, and not the self you chose yesterday, is the fate of to-morrow.”’
This new printing includes a brand new introduction by classic horror story expert, Richard Dalby.

This is one of those books that I've always wanted to read but have simply never found a nice copy of.  Cover design goes a long way to deciding which edition of a book I buy and on the day I bought this I'd passed on two others in two different shops.  The one I settled on is a reproduction of an edition originally released in the early 20th C. by The Detective Story Club. I liked the pulp fiction vibe of the cover and being a new edition it was immaculate so I took the plunge.

Now, before I start on the main story I'm going to point out that more than half of this edition is padding.  The actual story is a novella of only 82 pages so to make up the other 98 they've added a number of things; two Stevenson shorts - his fabulous resurrection men tale 'The Bodysnatchers' and another called 'Markheim' which there really didn't seem much point in reading because the ending had already been revealed (spoiled) in the book's introduction by Richard Dalby - I'll return to it some other time when memory has faded - there's also an afterword dating from the 1929 edition.  The oddest inclusion though is of two unauthorised sequels by Francis H. Little and Robert J. McLaughlin.  Of the first, just 5 pages proved there to be nothing of interest there and of the second, well, I didn't even try.  Unprofessional of me? Possibly so but I am but a humble amateur and by then other more intriguing looking books were beckoning from the shelf.

So, just the main story to discuss then.

Like the rest of you I know the most basic of premises for the story - Doctor makes potion that makes him fall behind a settee and then get up again as a hairy evil, troglodyte looking fellow - which is pretty accurate as far as it goes (apart from the settee bit) but does nothing to restraint and subtlety of the story.

Jekyll's story is told in a number of ways via an acquaintance - a lawyer named Utterson, who in addition to his meetings with and observations of the two titular men also receives various verbal and written accounts of their actions via numerous other acquaintances and finally from Jekyll himself.

The Doctor is portrayed as a well intentioned but ultimately deeply flawed man whose weaknesses lead him to let loose his darker side to the point where it's depredations consume him and he loses his identity to the other.

Stevenson never lingers on Hyde's activities, indeed we are really only presented with examples of a couple of his callous and evil actions and neither does he preach at the reader.  We are left to sympathise, empathise or despise Jekyll at our will and this moral ambiguity on the part of the author allows the reader a greater investment in the story and a much deeper appreciation of the flaws of both man and the society that binds him.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

The Making of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Way, way back in a time almost lost to history and now known only as Monday the 5th of January 1981 the BBC screened the first episode of the TV adaptation of the book adaptation of the radio show adaptation of the thoughts of a bloke called Douglas.

Douglas was a clever man and like all the best types of clever men he knew that some clever things were also funny things and so set about making a funny thing out of the clever things.  In order to do this he drafted in some other clever people.  Some who were clever at organising, some who were clever at drawing, some who were clever at filming or recording or building or musicing or pretending to be someone else.

Then, 10 years later, someone else who was clever had a clever idea to take all the extra bits that the clever people had filmed, film some new bits of some of those self-same clever people and get the main clever pretending man to talk about how clever everyone was.  They even had the idea to put two different spaceships at the beginning to make less clever people who really like watching clever people at work go "Yay!" like the big geeky kid that he is they are.

Saturday 5 November 2016

The Man in the Picture

Susan Hill
Profile Books

An extraordinary ghost story from a modern master, published just in time for Halloween. In the apartment of Oliver's old professor at Cambridge, there is a painting on the wall, a mysterious depiction of masked revellers at the Venice carnival. On this cold winter's night, the old professor has decided to reveal the painting's eerie secret. The dark art of the Venetian scene, instead of imitating life, has the power to entrap it. To stare into the painting is to play dangerously with the unseen demons it hides, and become the victim of its macabre beauty.
By the renowned storyteller Susan Hill--whose first ghost story, The Woman in Black, has run for eighteen years as a play in London's West End--here is a new take on a form that is fully classical and, in Hill's able hands, newly vital. The Man in the Picture is a haunting tale of loss, love, and the very basest fear of our beings.

Although this book is subtitled 'A Ghost Story' I can't help feeling that to be a bit of a misnomer.  There're no ghosts in it,  plenty of haunted people and a darkly delicious core idea but not really any actual ghosts.

This novella tells a story within a story that's framed, at the very last inside two other stories all concerning the same painting of Venice and the people depicted within. An elderly Cambridge professor tells a visiting ex-student of his acquisition of the painting and the events that surround him gaining a deeper understanding of it's history and the tale surrounding it.

In the classic way of things much of what happens does so through the telling of tales around a fire with a glass of liquor to hand and a cosiness that offsets the mounting unease.  The professor's story at the heart of the tale shares this with it's country house setting but suffers from a marked similarity to Wilkie Collins' 'The Haunted Hotel'.  The outermost layer of the story is likewise flawed but also in it's rather heavy handed attempt to provide a 'shock' ending that can be seen coming long before it lands.

If I sound overly negative then please understand that there is much to like here.  Hill is a writer with an eminently readable style and she's obviously and utterly au fait with those writers of the macabre, the unsettling and the weird that she is channelling here and with only 145 pages it provided me with a pleasantly macabre early Sunday morning read alongside some mellow music and a cafetiere full of my favourite coffee.

Buy it here -  The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story (The Susan Hill Collection)