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A Vampire with Heart

Bad Blood

by Nicky Peacock

A Review

‘Modern vampires don’t believe in anything. They strut around with a new self-worth, declaring themselves to all and sundry. They’ve been brainwashed by TV and books into thinking being a vampire is cool.’

I’m way past my teens and vampire horror is not my usual genre. So, when I received a copy of this novel in exchange for a fair review, I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, a writer must read widely, looking to the unfamiliar for snippets of unexpected inspiration.bad-blood

In Bad Blood, Brianna, Britannia as she prefers to be called, is a centuries-old vampire created by magic. But she is not your typical vampire. Though she has drunk human blood and has taken human lives, her vampire life has been dedicated to killing others of her kind. With streaming blue hair that shows blond at the roots, and armed with deadly scythes, she wreaks havoc among the newborn creations of her nemesis Nicholas.

However, when London and the rest of Great Britain are threatened by a plague of zombies, Britannia takes the side of the humans and uses her talents to fight the encroaching menace. Now partnered by the annoying Nicholas, she gathers together an assortment of survivors at the Dead Hare Public House with the objective of transporting them to safety in Scotland. The group included Britannia’s neighbour Tracy, two trigger happy soldiers, Green and Rollins, a terminally ill teenager called Danny and the dog, Satan, most of whom know – or at least suspect – what Britannia and Nicholas really are but are too scared of the zombies to argue. It must be added that the younger refugees are rather taken with Brit’s powers and fancy being a vampire would be cool. Satan doesn’t seem to mind her at all.

“Clusters of undead still milled about on the streets . . . these guys seemed intent on congregating. Zombies were social creatures.”

Not least among the complications besetting this unlikely alliance is that Rollins is very probably a reincarnation of Langdon, the love of Britannia’s human life. More pressing is the need to find and destroy the alpha zombie with vampire abilities who is orchestrating the attacks.

The two vampires and their followers acquire a double-decker bus and, cleaving their way through mounting heaps of dismembered zombie bodies, head north. As the story evolves and they fight their way across England, we get glimpses of Britannia’s earlier lives – both human and vampire, her creative sense of fashion, her dietary preferences and her ambivalent feelings about Nicholas. Above all, we discover Britannia is a vampire with heart, one who kills with a conscience and is freaked out by the chamber of horrors in Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. Plans have to change as the bus approaches Liverpool and she discovers that the vampire Elders (reminiscent of the Volturi in Twilight) have another agenda.

Bad Blood is a fast-paced teen action horror, packed with odoriferous, decaying body parts, buckets of blood and a scythe-swinging, kick-ass heroine.

“This particular human had been a rather nasty piece of work who’d dedicated his life to making people suffer. I’d been drinking the tax inspector for five days now, and as I downed the last of him, I heard another more impatient moan . . .”

Of course, I am familiar with Stoker’s Dracula; I have read the Twilight Saga, and all of Lisa Jane Smith’s Vampire Diaries (those she wrote herself anyway). Meyer and Smith both play it straight with only the occasional touch of humour. Nicky Peacock writes with a sparkle in her eye and, we sense, with her tongue very firmly in her cheek.

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Full of snappy dialogue alternating with colourful – mostly red – narrative, Bad Blood brings originality and a large helping of Britishness to the vampire legend. It is a novel in which the macabre sits comfortably with delicious (malicious?) and sometimes outrageous humour. It introduces us briefly to two vampires with the unlikely names of Tate and Lyle, a reference that, sadly, could be lost among American readers.

Bad Blood was a lot of fun to read. I feel certain that teenagers who enjoy dipping (dripping?)into the world of the undead will find Britannia and her exploits irresistible. They will love it.

*****

Dreaming the Impossible

‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales’ [attributed to Albert Einstein]

We live in a universe of wonders and possibilities.

The ancients looked up into the night sky and saw bright lights formed into the shapes of fish, dogs, human figures and other familiar objects. When they reached out to touch the lights, they may have been surprised to discover they could not. They may have imagined the Sun and Moon as powerful gods, pursuing one another through the heavens as night changed to day and day to night. When the hunt was unsuccessful or a harvest failed they may have blamed these beings. Perhaps they sought to pacify them with gifts or sacrifices. When nature brought bounty or new life, these primitive humans would pile more gifts on their altars with prayers that their good fortune might continue.

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The everyday winds, tides, springs and sounds of nature they may have supposed to be under the control of lesser spirits. When their nights were overcast and there was no starlight, they no doubt imagined monsters and demons and told tales to warn their children of dangers lurking in the darkness. Generations of shamans and priests would play on fears of the unknown to exercise control over the tribes, because fear in one group meant power for another.

Today, most of us scorn and laugh at such ideas. When we look up, we see other suns, and galaxies, and pulsars, and we try to imagine fourteen billion years of cosmic expansion. We speculate about what caused the first spark that started it all, and about how the universe will end.

Humans have invented and built machines that travel faster than sound. We have space vehicles that can escape Earth’s gravity and travel to the limits of our solar system and beyond – that can even send back pictures and data that tell us what the distant planets look like and how they are composed. We can send packages of information at the speed of light using other machines no bigger than the palm of a human hand, and with the same devices receive messages and pictures from the other side of the world. Such devices make use of laws that scientists call quantum mechanics but which no one, not even the scientist, seems to fully understand.

We know that the Moon controls the tides; that winds are caused by variations in atmospheric pressure and earthquakes by movement in tectonic plates. We know all these things but there is still so much we do not know about this planet we live on and about the universe around us. We can move information at the speed of light but have not yet learned how to move anything else as fast. We can look into the vastness of space and the minuscule world of the photon and quark but we do not yet know or understand the mathematical and physical laws which connect the very large with the very small.

And we laugh at the primitive superstitions and rituals of the ancients. We call them fantasy.

The ancients might have used the same word to describe our world. Perhaps they would call our aeroplanes, our mobile phones, our computers and our instant messages ‘magic’. A man or woman of 1800 would have put the same label on the scientific achievements of the last fifty years, or at very least called them ‘impossible’. Even now, as we stare out into that fourteen billion year void, we look beyond the horizon of the possible and achievable into fantasies of our own.

Are we alone in the universe, a single intelligence among the quadrillions or quintillions of other star systems out there? And if not, will we ever find a way of communicating with the others, and of reaching them? Are wormholes real? Is time reversible?

These are some of the fantasies of today – the realms of the impossible – just as, for our ancestors, flying, X-rays, solar heating and television would have been magic in their age. And we wonder, as they wondered. We dream, as they dreamed.

And these dreams we translate into stories, on the pages of a book, an electronic reader or a movie screen. Our fantasies are all around. Perhaps one day . . .

We live in a world of wonders . . . and possibilities.

*****

[from Chapter 1 of my new book It’s A Fantasy World!  – Exploring the Best Fantasy of Page and Screen available from Amazon]

Jane’s History

The History of England

from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st

by Jane Austen

[Henry the 8th] ‘ . . . [his] last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it.’

[James the 1st] ‘. . . had some faults, among which & as the most principal, was his mother’s death.’

This charming little book, which I have read several times and often dip into, but have never reviewed, was written by Jane Austen when she was only sixteen. It is one of five items of juvenilia contained in Volume Two of a series of three notebooks treasured by Cassandra Austen – who did the illustrations  – after her sister’s death, and subsequently bequeathed to relations and family friends.

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Jane wrote finis at the end of The History of England on Saturday, 26th November 1791. It occupies a mere thirty-four pages of Jane’s handwriting and was a teenage response to the ponderous historical tomes from which children of the age were expected to learn. The work demonstrates all of Jane’s latent, but as yet underdeveloped skill at parody and satire – of making fun of postures and attitudes she found ridiculous. Describing herself as a ‘partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian’ , she treats us to a feast of outrageous black comedy, sending up kings, queens, princes and politicians with her unique wit.

[Elizabeth] ‘. . . a disgrace to humanity, that pest of society . . .’

‘. . . the dreadful moment came in which the destroyer of all comfort, the deceitful Betrayer of trust reposed in her, & the Murderess of her Cousin succeeded to the Throne.’

One can never be absolutely certain whether Austen’s personal opinions, such as her strong support for the Stuart dynasty – especially Mary – expressed so clearly here, are genuinely held or whether the whole thing is merely a symptom of teen rebellion. After all, as daughter of a Church of England clergyman, she might have been expected to have less enthusiasm for the Roman Catholic cause. Some Austen fans have attempted to convince us that it was ALL a joke, that she did not really mean it, but I am not so sure.

[Richard the 3rd] ‘. . . It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews and his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two nephews . . . & if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife . . .’

[Henry the 4th] ‘It is to be supposed that Henry was married, since he certainly had four sons . . .’

Jane’s style and her approach to history will recall for some readers another work by two wits of the early 20th century, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, whose 1066 And All That, published in 1930, gave me and my fellow students so much enjoyment. Some literary (and history) purists will no doubt cast this work as cheap, trite and fatuous.

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It is my belief, however, that to appreciate and value history, one has to be prepared to smile, or even laugh uproariously at its absurdities which – Jane Austen’s ‘partial and prejudiced’ views notwithstanding – are, like its injustices, many and varied.

[Edward the 5th] ‘This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that nobody had time to draw his picture.’

*****

Gaia Revisited

Lovelock – where is our species headed?

When James Lovelock sprang to the attention of the wider public in the 1970s with his Gaia hypothesis, not all mainstream scientists were enthused. The idea that the Earth, its atmosphere and all life upon it is a self-regulating mechanism was, for some, too like science fiction. Other critics saw in Lovelock’s theory the implication that a super intelligence was at work. Others still accused him of scaremongering in his predictions of planetary disaster through climate change and overpopulation.

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Since formulating his theory, James Lovelock has written several books about Gaia, the first, Gaia, A New Look at Life on Earth in 1979. His latest, published in 2014, is A Rough Ride to the Future. Here, he seems to take a slightly different but no less stimulating approach to the problems facing our world. A Rough Ride to the Future might be classified as a book about evolution, though evolution in its usual scientific sense may not be quite the correct word. Whilst not changing his view that our species has damaged the planet,  Professor Lovelock appears to have backed away a little from the panic button evident in his earlier works.

‘What is important to us is that the growth of population, wealth, climate change and biodiversity are now coupled to inflated evolution.’

The theme of this book is that, with the invention of the steam engine by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, mankind has entered a new epoch, which Lovelock calls the Anthropocene. Our rapid industrial development  (and its consequences), the colossal spurt in the business of information gathering and retrieval, and the exponential growth in computer power (Moore’s Law) have placed life and Gaia on a new evolutionary path. And although the goal of Gaia remains the preservation of life, the inevitable end for our wet, carbon-based lifeform is in sight – basically, in about 100 million years from now, the global temperature will be too hot for us!

‘We must not forget the high probability that it is all but impossible … to reduce the input of fossil-fuel combustion products to the air rapidly enough …’

However, there may be ways to mitigate the effects of global warming, and Lovelock discusses these, throwing out from time to time those seemingly crazy ideas I wrote about  in my last article, Odyssey. We should not give up our efforts to slow climate change but coincident with those we need to consider designing climate-controlled city societies (like Singapore). Technology has already allowed our species to form a kind of symbiosis with machines; Lovelock cites heart pacemakers and bionic joints and limbs as examples. He envisages a future where this trend might continue, allowing the evolution of a new intelligent lifeform more able to withstand a changed atmosphere and a hotter sun.

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Science fiction? I wonder. I am reminded of Arthur C Clarke’s famous dictum that the true impediments to scientific progress are the failure of nerve and the failure of imagination. (Profiles of the Future

A Rough Ride to the Future won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It is a scary book. Our overpopulated Earth is heading for disaster, even if it escapes an extinction level event like collision with a planetoid. A lot of the book is biographical and other parts are a rant against politicians and bureaucracy. James Lovelock accuses governments and the media, for example, of exaggerating the dangers of nuclear power. He exudes a quiet arrogance when he speaks of his achievements and those of his close colleagues, though in his ninety-five years he may have earned the right to be arrogant. ‘The future may be a better place,’ he says at the end, ‘but we will not all make the journey.’

Yes, a scary book, but one that makes you think about who and what we are, and where we are going. Maybe we all need to read it.

*****

 

Odyssey

Reflections on the Space Race

I have been following with interest the space “mission” of British astronaut Tim Peake. Yesterday, he became the first Brit to do a space walk. That, and an article in last week’s Sunday Times, reminded me that more than half a century has passed since we humans first sent one of our fellow humans into space – a young Russian called Yuri Gagarin. It is also something over 40 years since we sent a manned mission beyond the Earth’s  orbit, going boldly where no one (or nearly no one) had gone before.

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When, back in 1969, we sat glued to our television screens as Armstrong took that first gigantic step, we dreamed of a different future. Even distinguished scientists were predicting that before the century was over, human beings would set foot on Mars and perhaps begin colonising it. As one of the millions of all races and ages who watched that momentous Moon landing, I was already geared up to believe that, within my lifetime, travel agents would be running  trips into space:

“Two weeks on a Space Station – Only £2,000 a head, all meals provided – See the Earth as you’ve never seen it before!”

“Experience life in a vacuum. Visit the Moon – Full bed and board exclusive holidays from only £5,000!”

“Get away from the rat-race! Experience Mars in a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Special rates for gap year students.”

It hasn’t quite worked out like that. However, though manned space exploration has stagnated for so long, it has been a period of enormous strides in science and engineering – in physics, computing and communications for example. Our knowledge of the Solar System and what lies beyond has advanced almost exponentially. Whilst we have not managed to send people to the planets, we have succeeded in sending our human inventions. And the information they have sent back to us is more astonishing than we could ever have imagined.

There are certainly no ‘Martians’ out there, and – Dr Frank Drake’s equation notwithstanding – there are probably no Klingons or Romulans either (though I wouldn’t bet on it). But the odds on there being life of one sort or another are pretty good, I think.

Only last week, NASA celebrated the anniversary of the discovery of the 1,000th exoplanet to be identified by the Kepler space telescope – see http://kepler.nasa.gov/Mission/discoveries/ – and now, at the beginning of a new year of discovery, already around 2,000 of these other worlds have been confirmed. Much closer to home, Scientists are already re-assessing the chances of finding ‘life’ within the Solar System itself; the moons of the gas giants could be possible candidates.

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Last week too. I began reading James Lovelock’s latest book A Rough Ride to the Future. ^^ Lovelock is one of those intuitive scientists, an inventor who throws out ideas to left and right, sometimes crazy ideas, yet when one begins to think seriously about them they don’t seem so crazy after all. This is not a book about space travel or about alien life forms. However, in a chapter entitled How Invention Accelerated Evolution, the Professor theorises on what forms ‘life‘ might take here on Earth when the Sun’s ‘radiant heat may be more than our wet, carbon-based organic life can cope with.’ This leads to a discussion of robotic systems worthy of Isaac Asimov.

Perhaps, as Lovelock speculates, ‘we are about to join in union with the electro-mechanical and intelligent life we are now constructing . . . Could this be a felicitous route to a new endosymbiotic life-form?’

One thing is clear. No one knows just where our evolution is heading. How can we possibly know to what evolution might have led elsewhere in that 14-billion-year void out there? Maybe, if we cannot explore the cosmos Star Trek style ourselves, our inventions might come back and tell us.

^^ Review in a few days time

*****

 

 

 

 

Getting Away With Murder (3)

The Retired Cop

My third (and last) fictional detective of the week is not exactly a ‘classic’, but he has been around for a few years now. John Rebus, creation of Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin, was born in 1947 (we are told on Rankin’s website). However, he did not make his appearance on the Edinburgh police force until 1985.

‘Time to call it a night. Four was plenty. His doctor had told him: best cut it out altogether. Rebus had asked for a second opinion.

‘ “Here it is then,” the doctor had said. “You should stop smoking too.” ‘

My first observation is that my three detectives seem to smoke a lot. Rebus certainly does – he also drinks rather a lot; Cormoran Strike does too, and Philip Marlowe is always lighting up. [Golly gosh, I nearly wrote Philip Morris!]

dogsSet in post-Scottish Referendum Edinburgh, the latest Rankin novel to feature Rebus is Even Dogs in the Wild, in which a distinguished former lawyer Lord Minton is found battered to death in his home. At about the same time, an unknown gunman takes a shot at ageing Edinburgh gangster Ger Cafferty. Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke discovers that Minton and Cafferty have received identical threatening letters. However, she is getting nowhere with the case and calls on Rebus – now retired – for help.

Meanwhile, a crack Glasgow CID force is on a surveillance op on Glasgow Mobster Joe Stark, who seems to have designs on the Edinburgh underworld. Malcolm Fox, another of Ian Rankin’s main protagonists, is seconded to the team.

‘The body was wrapped in a plain blue bedsheet. Or it had been. The trip had loosened the makeshift shroud. The driver rested the shovel against one of the tail lights, but it slid to the ground … Which was when the corpse burst into life …’

Are the two cases connected is the question Clarke, Fox and Rebus have to answer and if so, how? Rebus forms an alliance with Cafferty, an old adversary, to get an insight into mob activities and soon suspects that at least one of the cases is tied to a former youth “correction” facility, where the inmates have been abused by prominent members of Edinburgh society. Even a senior policeman and an MP may have been involved in a cover-up. Pursuing separate lines of enquiry, Rebus and the two police detectives eventually arrive at the truth but not before there are more murders and beatings – and even Fox ends up in hospital!

Even Dogs in the Wild is a fast-moving “cop and robbers” story but rather than thrilling car chases it gives us mostly cerebral, painstaking police work. The reader’s excitement comes from trying to work out the puzzle ahead of the professionals. Ian Rankin seems to know what goes on in Police Scotland and gives this piece of fiction a very probable and realistic feel. The dark lanes and seedy public houses of the underworld contrast sharply with the luxury hotels and terraced mansions of the Edinburgh upper set, yet the two coalesce in the merging lives of their respective inhabitants.

I think Even Dogs in the Wild has a few too many characters; it is hard to remember all the names and sometimes to recall their place in the plot. Nevertheless, the characterisation, especially of the three main investigators, whom we already know from previous Rankin novels, is good. The reader finds it easy to empathise, even when their annoying traits come to the surface. [eg Rebus dribbling his beer]

Like Career of Evil, which I wrote about yesterday, the title of this novel comes from the world of popular music. Even Dogs in the Wild is a number by a Scottish New-Wave band of the 1970s and 80s, The Associates.

*****

 

Getting Away With Murder (2)

The War Hero

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If I were into hard rock and heavy metal bands – which I’m not – I would have known that Career of Evil is the title of a track by the group Blue Öyster Cult. It is also the title of the latest crime novel by Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. JK Rowling. I really enjoyed the previous story featuring Galbraith’s distinctive protagonist, Cormoran Strike, so I couldn’t resist this one.

Career of Evil begins when Strike’s partner Robin Ellacott receives a dismembered leg in the mail. The amputee detective suspects it to be the work of one of four men from his past. Readers of Galbraith stories will remember that Strike, a decorated former military policeman, lost his leg in an explosion in Afghanistan.

‘The total absence of communication ought to have been a warning but he had been too busy with Robin and a dismembered body to give it much thought.’

Only a few weeks before Robin’s wedding, she and Strike embark on an investigation which does not always endear them to Scotland Yard. Of course, a leg means a (probably) dead body, and it soon becomes clear that the murder (and there is one) is the work of a sadistic serial killer, bent on revenge on Strike for some real grievance. The killer’s way to his enemy is through Robin – whom he calls The Secretary – and he begins stalking her.

‘He’d had a close call once. That had been the second time he had killed, in Milton Keynes. You didn’t shit on your own doorstep …’

The chase for the murderer – a collector of souvenir body parts – involves surveillance in darkening London streets. It takes the investigative pair on a tour of England, first to Cumbria then back to the capital via the Midlands and the fringes of East Anglia. It introduces them to a bizarre internet cult of wackos who fantasize about hacking off their own limbs.

‘ “It’s a need,” said Tempest composedly. “I’ve known ever since I was a child. I’m in the wrong body. I need to be paralysed.”

‘ “Know many disabled people?” Strike was asking Tempest.’

The clues to the solution are there for us to find but they are subtle clues which the writer cleverly hides within the plot and among her colourful cast of supporting characters. And, of course, a question we keep asking ourselves is: will Robin actually go through with that wedding?

Career of Evil is stronger and darker than anything Rowling has done before. Occasionally one gets the feeling she is wallowing in it a bit too much. Certainly she seems to be enjoying herself immensely with her creations! Macabre it might be, but the novel is not without humour.

**

The best crime story writers create characters that are unique and distinctive, leaving us with a clear mental picture of what the detective looks like. Galbraith/Rowling is especially good at this. It’s a picture that is often shattered when we see the character of the novel portrayed on screen.

Philip Marlowe for me IS Robert Mitchum, and not Robert Montgomery who played him in the film of Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, which I reviewed yesterday. Only David Suchet comes close to being Hercule Poirot, and the one and only movie Sherlock Holmes is Basil Rathbone – (well, maybe Jeremy Brett).

I cannot begin to imagine who will play Cormoran Strike on screen. Maybe the BBC can do a CGI job with the late Orson Welles? We shall just have to wait and see.

[Next: The Retired Cop]

*****

 

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