book review: James Coltrane — Talon

Joe Talon is an anachronism. He’s a hippie ex-surfer with a James Bond complex working for the CIA, barely conforming at work and not hiding it. But Talon is very good at his job of checking anomalies in satellite photos. Too good. Talon spots an anomaly where no anomaly was marked for his attention, and starts digging into it. Talon’s attention to something nobody was supposed to notice focuses attention on him–the sort of attention that has him running for his life.

Talon’s choices are simple–die, disappear for good, or find a way to expose the conspirators within the Company while he’s on the run. All three look like good choices to him at various times during the course of the novel, but Talon’s final choice is to fight back.

Talon isn’t a trained spy, just a highly specialised clerk; but he’s bright and desperate and he’s stolen some interesting goodies from work over the years. The ensuing chase makes for a thrilling read, with a lot of careful world building going into making the story feel realistic. The book was first published in 1978, so the technology is very dated now, of course; as are some of the social attitudes. But it’s still a good read, even today.

LibraryThing entry
Talon at Amazon UK
Talon: A novel of suspense at Amazon US

Book review: WJ Burley — Wycliffe and the Winsor Blue

When local businessman Edwin Garland dies of a heart attack, there’s not much surprise in it. But when his son is shot dead on the evening of his funeral, both deaths become the focus of a murder investigation. Was Garland murdered as well? And even if he wasn’t, are the deaths connected?

Garland’s will hints at some enormous joke perpetrated by Garland and his friend, artist Gifford Tate; a joke that has not yet finished playing out. Tate died some years ago, and the last remaining member of their trio of friends has no idea what his friends were up to. Wycliffe realises that the will may provide more than the obvious financial clues as to motives for murder. But teasing out the real clues from the abundant red herrings may take him a little while…

It’s not difficult to work out what joke Gifford and Tate were playing, as the clues are clearly signposted for the reader — perhaps a little too clearly, because it takes Wycliffe an annoyingly long time to realise what is going on. But there’s still plenty of meat in the shifting stories offered by the suspects as they try to protect themselves and their secrets, and knowing what the joke was is only part of what’s needed to be sure of whodunnit and why. Watching Wycliffe and his colleagues painstakingly sift through conflicting stories and motives to find the real truth is an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours.

LibraryThing entry
Wycliffe and the Winsor Blue at Amazon UK
Wycliffe and the Winsor Blue (Wycliffe Series) at Amazon US
Wycliffe and the Winsor Blue at Powells

Book review: Harry Harrison — Plague from Space

1978 printing, so presumably the original and shorter version of this novel, which has apparently been published at two different lengths and under several titles. First published in 1965, and thus dated in odd little ways — not least being the lack of some 1990s-level consumer technology in a story set in a then near future where we have the technology to send a manned mission to Jupiter.

The story opens with that manned mission’s return to earth in dramatic fashion, with an emergency landing right on top of Kennedy Airport in New York, one which wreaks havoc on the airport. Young emergency room doctor Sam Bertolli is part of one of the first ambulance teams on the scene, and is directed to the ship itself. Thus he is the first to encounter the sole survivor — who dies within a few minutes of a deadly disease brought back from Jupiter.

There follows a medical mystery drama, as the city medical services follow standard quarantine procedures, and the situation escalates. Harrison does an excellent job of showing the hard decisions that need to be made and the human reactions — the people desperate to protect their beloved animals from a vital culling programme, the people trying to cover their own backs in the political games being played, the conflicting priorities in the battle to prevent the disease from spreading beyond the city. There’s a lot of good world-building detail about what the medical teams actually *do* in such a situation, rather than simple hand-waving. Unfortunately the mismatch between extrapolated technology levels and what we really ended up with can break suspension of disbelief for current audiences, in part because Harrison did such a good and careful job with this. But for all that it’s dated in places, it’s a good read, with a strongly drawn near-future world, some great characters, and a deadly serious task for them to do.

LibraryThing entry
Plague from Space (Sphere science fiction) at Amazon UK
Plague From Space at Amazon US

book log: Alan Garner — Red Shift

Book log, because I’m going to have to read this again at least once before I can even hope to review it. It’s nominally YA, with a fantasy feel to it, first published in 1973. It’s not an easy read, in either style or subject matter, but I found it very rewarding, if depressing. There’s a good description of Red Shift at Wikipedia.

LibraryThing entry (with reviews)
Red Shift (Collins Voyager) at Amazon UK
Red Shift (Collins Voyager) at Amazon US
at IndieBound”
at Powells

Book log: John Carnell — New Writings in SF 10

New Writings in SF was an anthology series that ran from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, doing exactly what it said on the tin — showcasing what the editor considered examples of the best in new authors and new techniques in written science fiction. Volume 10 is from 1966, and as such a fascinating look at what was new and exciting more than forty years ago. It’s a slightly surreal experience reading an introduction to “new American author, Thomas M Disch”…

Seven stories in this volumes, plus an introduction by editor John Carnell.

The longest is “The Imagination Trap” by Colin Kapp, and I suspect this one was the reason I bought the book in the first place when I found it in a second-hand shop, because as a teenager I was very fond of Colin Kapp’s work. It’s a fifty pager about a test flight of a new faster-than-light ship; a test flight that is almost certain suicide, as it’s a last ditch attempt to find out why most of the previous test flights didn’t come back, and those that did had suffered strange dimensional effects. It’s an interesting combination of serious thinking about psychology and about physics. It’s also very sixties in feel, not least because it comes over to me as being partly an attempt to describe the time/space distortion and hypersensory experiences reported by LSD users in controlled experiments with the drug which were being carried out at that time.

John Baxter’s “Apple” is something that required me to actively operate my disbelief suspenders, because it uses an apple mutated to the size of a hill by the after-effects of nuclear war as a metaphor for… well, something. But it was well worth gagging the bit of my brain that insisted that this is not physically possible. There’s a lovely brief exploration of human nature woven through a clever piece of world-building in this short.

G L Lack’s “Robot’s Dozen” is an exchange of letters between a gentleman who has rented a robot to impersonate him as a burglar deterrent while he is on holiday, and the firm from which he hired it. The outcome is predictable enough, but that’s not the point — the joy is in watching how the story gets there.

Joseph L Green’s “Birth of a Butterfly” considers an expedition to find intelligent life, and how easily humans might recognise it once they had found it.

Thomas Disch’s “The Affluence of Edwin Lollard” examines the problem of wilful poverty in a society wealthy enough that nobody need be poor. The editor suggest that it’s about the end product of the welfare state, but to me it looked much more like the end product of conspicuous consumption.

Brian W Aldiss’s “A Taste for Dostoevsky” is another heavily psychological piece, one which didn’t really work for me even though I can see objectively that it’s good.

John Rankine’s “Image of Destruction” is a space opera romp, a short from a series of stories about the character Dag Fletcher. Lots of fun, if rather dated now.

I didn’t like everything in this anthology, and some of it looks dated by current standards, but it’s a solid collection which lives up to its stated aim.

LibraryThing entry
New Writings in SF 10 at Amazon UK
NEW WRITINGS IN SF 10 at amazon US