Friday, 28 August 2015

The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan | review by Jacob Edwards

The blood wells, the ink heralds.

Richard Morgan seemed to spend most of The Steel Remains, the first book of his A Land Fit For Heroes trilogy, coming to terms with his own dark take on the fantasy genre. The ending was abrupt (almost like walking off a cliff), and it took him much of the second book, The Cold Commands, to prod and coerce his protagonists back into the story. These characters, however, were always the key, and having made his name writing holistic and gritty science fiction, Morgan, from the moment he embarked upon his disquieting march across genre boundaries, clearly wasn’t going to start faffing about with bog-standard wizards and warriors, chalices and chosen ones; nor, for that matter, join-the-dot quest narratives, rainbow character arcs or pre-industrial paradises threatened by long-dormant evil forces now risen. The setting would be, as the umbrella title suggested, one calling out for heroes, but those heroes in turn would be the tarnished product of their environment. By nature of his approach, Morgan implicitly promised (then explicitly delivered) the sort of unsettling realism that sees shires ransacked and Hobbits crushed dead underfoot. The result is urgent, forceful, unromantic, unforgettable – including graphic, present tense flashbacks to defining acts in the protagonists’ lives, some of them sexual and uncensored, brazenly confronting – yet, by spurning escapism and the lazy warm glow of the happily ever after, could Morgan, for all his exertions and for all that his titles play coy with noun/verb ambiguity, ever have thought to leave us with fantasy sutras as satisfying as they are compelling? The answer, of course, lies in the trilogy’s concluding book, The Dark Defiles (Gollancz, 549pp).

Morgan’s brand of high fantasy differs from the historically popular model in several key aspects, the most pervasive of which is a grimness of setting; the stark refusal to glamorise a world in which the overwhelming majority of the population is poor, miserable, vulnerable and without prospect. A Land Fit for Heroes is not, in short, a place that right-minded readers would wish themselves into, not even (or perhaps especially not) as the heroes in question. Morgan’s main characters – Ringil, an outcast homosexual swordsman; Archeth, an immortal drug addict orphaned of her alien heritage; and Egar, an aging nomad and onetime dragon-slayer too restless to settle – have their own codes to live by, certainly, but they are more self-serving than altruistic or noble; as much as their particular natures have inured them to the heroism (such that it is) of railing against life’s misfortunes and limitations, their dogged struggle for self-determinism rarely appears more than a rearguard action. As The Dark Defiles builds towards its conclusion, the plot doesn’t so much resolve as clear sufficiently to at last reveal something of Morgan’s grand purpose for the trilogy: seemingly, to undermine the tradition, to question the very concept, of an externally mandated quest. Yes, Ringil, Egar and Archeth are on a quest (or, more accurately, three quests with considerable overlap), but the defining difference is that they are not instruments of some greater need; rather, the course of events is shaped by their needs. They are not recruited to the quest; they generate its existence. Morgan’s crowning accomplishment, then, is to leave his players unaware that they are part of any great undertaking, while slyly inculcating in the reader an appreciation that fantasy is, ultimately and at its best, about the intricacies of who, and that where and why, and what and how and when, are merely tributaries and run-off in an ever-refining, ever-defining cycle of identity.

With The Steel Remains having broken new ground as an audacious if incomplete challenge to genre platitudes, and The Cold Commands then coming on again as unremitting and unflinching, near enough self-contained, a high-water mark, The Dark Defiles remains faithful to Richard Morgan’s rose-thorn-scratched not rose-tinted ethos; inaccessible, perhaps, without the preceding books, but cleverly resolved and feeding synergy back into the mix, allowing the trilogy to reach a most apposite, far from inevitable conclusion. If Tolkien laboured over every detail, every where, why, what, how and when of Lord of the Rings, Morgan has sweated blood on the who of A Land Fit for Heroes. In the perfect world he so emphatically disavows, this would see him take pride of place for the next fifty-plus years. As it is – well, chances are he’ll just have to suck it up and keep on doing what he does. But such is the way of heroes.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #52: now available for free download!

free epub | free mobi | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #52 is a little shorter than usual, but still features four great stories: Rocking Horse Traffic by Yarrow Paisley, Quest for Lost Beauty by Howard Phillips, Zom-Boyz Have All the Luck by Len Saculla, and “Surprise Thee Ranging With Thy Peers”, the latest Two Husbands episode from Walt Brunston. The Quarterly Review from Douglas J. Ogurek, Stephen Theaker and Jacob Edwards includes reviews of It Follows, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Insurgent, Memory Lane, Jurassic World, Holy Cow by David Duchovny, The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan, The Glorkian Warrior Eats Adventure Pie by James Kochalka, and many others.

  • Rocking Horse Traffic, Yarrow Paisley
  • Quest for Lost Beauty, Howard Phillips
  • Zom-Boyz Have All the Luck, Len Saculla
  • “Surprise Thee Ranging With Thy Peers”, Walt Brunston
  • The Quarterly Review
  • Also Read
  • Also Reviewed
  • Forthcoming Attractions

Here are the kindly contributors to this issue:

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their pit bull Phlegmpus Bilesnot. Douglas’s website can be found at:

Howard Phillips is a dissolute poet whose previous contribution to this zine received such bad reviews that he wept for three days, burned seventeen unpublished novels, and wrote a series of angry blog posts accusing various parties of disparaging his genius. We asked him why he had taken it so badly, and he replied, “If you need to ask, you’ll never know.”

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his deviantart page: His novel The Master of Clouds is now available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards flies with Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but meets us in the pub between runs. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at He also has a Facebook page at, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity. Like him and follow him!

Len Saculla has had stories and poems published in venues such as the BFS publication Dark Horizons, Terry Grimwood’s Wordland and Ian Hunter’s Unspoken Water. He has also had a couple of stories turned into podcasts from Joanna Sterling’s “Tube Flash at the Casket” (

Stephen Theaker’s reviews have appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers, runs the British Fantasy Awards, and works in legal and medical publishing.

Walt Brunston’s adaptation of the classic television story, Space University Trent: Hyperparasite, is now available on Kindle.

Yarrow Paisley lives in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, USA. His fiction has appeared in Shimmer, Strange Tales V (Tartarus Press), Sein und Werden, and Dadaoism: An Anthology (Chômu Press), among others.

As ever, all back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Pork pies in the gardens: my FantasyCon 2014

FantasyCon 2015 is coming up soon. Not sure yet if I'll be there this year, but if you're on the fence about going and wondering what it's like, here's my report on last year's event, originally written in November 2014 for the BFS Journal #13.

Eating a pork pie in the lovely grounds
of the Royal York Hotel.

I wasn’t in a great mood heading off for this year’s FantasyCon, which took place from September 5 to September 7. The plan had been to go with Mrs Theaker and both children, but a school entrance exam on Saturday torpedoed that plan, and so I made my way to York alone. The hotel (a charming Premier Inn five minutes from the convention hotel) already had the children’s beds ready, so that made me rather glum.

But the 75% reduction in Theakers at the convention had some benefits: I saved a good deal of money, and I didn’t have to wait till the kids were back from school to set off. So I arrived at the hotel in good time for the opening ceremony. It was overshadowed by the absence of Graham Joyce, obviously not a good sign given what we already knew of his health. FantasyCon chair Lee Harris filled in, and introduced us to Kate Elliott, Toby Whithouse, Charlaine Harris and Larry Rostant, each of them taking a turn to make a few comments.

The first panel I attended was the end of Doctor Who: Space Messiah, where Guy Adams, Mark Morris, Juliet E. McKenna, Caroline Symcox and Joanne Harris were being moderated by Jonathan Oliver. I wasn’t there long enough to hear much, but what I heard was interesting.

Paul Cornell and Caroline Symcox hosted a FantasyCon edition of Pointless, which was very good fun. Lots of audience participation, good-natured hosts, challenging questions – even the crying of a hungry baby couldn’t spoil things. It was nice to see an event at which regular attendees (as the contestants) were the main focus of attention.

I didn't spend much time in the dealers' room, not having much money free to spend or anywhere in the house to keep any books I might buy, but I was surprised to see one blogger selling off pristine, unread review copies and ARCs for a pound each. Selling ARCs is frowned upon at the best of times, never mind doing it in direct competition with booksellers and publishers in the same hall.

In the evening I was on my first panel since 2010 (panels not being something I ever volunteer for), my first ever as an actual panellist, on “Awards and their value. What are they good for? Which are the important ones? Who really benefits?” The moderator was Glen Mehn, who did a brilliant job of bringing everyone into the conversation. The other panellists were publisher Simon Spanton, agent Juliet Mushens, and author Charlaine Harris (who talks exactly like Sookie in True Blood), which meant there was a wide range of views on the panel. Apologies if I spoke too loud – I didn’t realise there were microphones!

What I learnt then about preparing for a panel is to focus on your own position and perspective; that’s why you’re there. The publisher, author and agent talked about how awards affected them, so all my notes covering those angles were useless. I should have concentrated on what awards mean to me as a reader, a fan and an awards administrator.

There wasn’t much programming at this convention for later in the evenings, certainly none of the entertainingly blotto midnight panels I’ve attended in the past. I spent a bit of time in the Joel Lane bar, where a karaoke began. Many attendees proved to be skilled in the art of making tuneful noises come out of their mouths, not least the FantasyCon chair himself.

Once it got to the point that most of the singers taking part were young women, I felt any further interest I showed in the event might be open to misinterpretation, and headed up to the main bar to send some maudlin texts to Mrs Theaker and make notes for the AGM. I got a delicious pizza from the bar, and had a good chat with the BFS’s new events organiser Richard Webb, who seems like a very sensible chap, as well as some other nice people whose names I failed to note.


“The Pen vs the Sword” (“Writers who also happen to be swordfighters discuss the myths and realities of the sword in fiction – and demonstrate their skills with the blade!”) featured Marc Aplin as moderator, with Fran Terminiello, Juliet E. McKenna, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Clifford Beale on the panel. The discussion was fascinating, and extremely useful for anyone whose fiction features people fighting with melee weapons. (So pretty much everyone at FantasyCon!)

Fran Terminiello and Juliet E. McKenna
show us how to fight.
The only problem was that they left it a bit too late to get onto the meat of the practical demonstration, and took it into the adjoining room, which tempted away much of the potential audience for guest of honour Charlaine Harris’s conversation, and it made quite a racket until the doors were solidly closed.

Adele Wearing soldiered on, and did a great job of interviewing Harris, who cheerfully laid out the failures that led to her current success. It was good as well to hear that her political differences with Alan Ball, and the direction in which he had taken True Blood, hadn’t affected her respect for him as a writer.

I left the panel “Surprise!” (“Why do some shock twists leave an audience in awe and others make them feel cheated?”) as soon as a panellist said “I’m sure everyone knows the ending of…” because it was clearly going to be a spoiler-heavy hour, and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t read the Radio Times listings till after I’ve seen Doctor Who. My own silly fault: what was I expecting?

Charlaine Harris and Adele Wearing
in conversation.
“Beyond Grimdark” (“Is the trend for mud, misery and moral bankruptcy on the wane in SFF, and if so, what’s next?”) featured a certain amount of eyerolling on the panel as one panellist explained why his novel really did need a rape scene, because it was an integral part of his female character’s story.

“She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Sister” was I think my least favourite event of the convention, with the moderator and one panellist talking at length between themselves, even to the point of leaning back to literally talk behind the back of the panellist sitting in the middle. It didn’t feel well-prepared, the moderator not having many questions, and the panellists unable to offer many examples of female friendships in fantasy and seeming to assume they don’t exist.

All seemed a bit odd to me, given that my television had been tuned by the children to the “female friendships in fantasy” channel for the whole of the school holidays: Winx Club, Monster High, Ever After High, the Tinker Bell movies, The Wizards of Waverley Place, Aquamarine, H20: Mako Mermaids, Rainbow Magic, Every Witch Way, etc.

I haven’t read any books by guest of honour Kate Elliott yet, but listening to her in conversation was enough to make me want to change that. (The forthcoming Very Best of… looks like a good place to start.)

I left the panel “Who’s Missing?”, a discussion about authors you should be reading, fairly soon after it began, because my stomach was threatening to drown out the panellists. After eating, I arrived late for “Tea and Jeopardy” with Toby Whithouse, and entrance was denied (or at least discouraged) because it was so full. A shame for me, but good that the event was so popular. I suppose if you asked the three hundred or so people at FantasyCon for their favourite writers, you’d get hundreds of different replies, but podcasts are more like television and films, in that they are not so numerous and there’s more commonality.

Latimer, the butler from Tea and Jeopardy, stayed on to be scoremaster for my favourite part of FantasyCon, “Just a Minute”, hosted by Paul Cornell. The guests were Kate Elliott, Stephen Gallagher, Gillian Redfearn and Frances Hardinge, and what made it so enjoyable is that this year they played it for real, with challenges flying thick and fast. Stephen Gallagher’s win was well-deserved.

If my fellow Theakers had been there, the FantasyCon Disco (sponsored by Gollancz) might have been another highlight of the convention. As it was, I looked on with a frown for a few seconds and scarpered upstairs.

That took me to the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, a long, free-form event at which I felt rather like an intruder. At the beginning, everyone sat in a circle and took turns to say who they were, receiving a round of applause in return. It felt a bit culty, a bit happy-clappy, but it was a good event to have at FantasyCon, because it got lot of people talking and gave anyone (like me) who didn’t fancy the bar scene a chilled-out, friendly place to go. The interview with Gollancz’s Simon Spanton was fascinating, with readings from Laura Lam and Edward Cox being warmly received. The latter talked about how his novel had been completely rewritten to make it more commercial.

By the second break in SRFC I was pretty worn out and approaching a certain level of grumpiness, and I had the AGM in the morning, so I headed back to the hotel and watched Solomon Kane on TV. (Not a great movie, but better than expected.)


Sunday morning we had a short meeting of the BFS committee in the bar, and it was good to meet the people I’ve been working with for the last year. The AGM (on a bit later this year, at 11 a.m.) was rather less fun, because I refused to change one of my proposals to suit everyone else, leading one attendee to yell, “They’re not your awards, Stephen!” No, but it was my proposal and I’m glad I didn’t change it, even if that meant it failed! I’d rather have the proposal I wanted fail than have a proposal I didn’t want go through in my name.

The awards ceremony was in the afternoon, after the banquet. I missed the beginning of the banquet, because I was gluing the names of the award-winners onto the awards – which were still a bit sticky. Next year we’ll know to get them unpacked sooner so that they have time to dry. But I soon caught up and the food was the best I’ve had at a FantasyCon banquet. The ceremony itself went a bit haywire at first, with the PowerPoint setup getting muddled up – at one point thumbnails of all the slides appeared on screen at once. But host Paul Cornell handled it all with grace and aplomb.

I had to go on stage to accept the prize for best comic or graphic novel, on behalf of Becky Cloonan for Demeter. Slight panic in that Paul, when reading out the nominees, did not say the name Demeter in the way I’ve said it all my life. What to do? Say it his way or mine? I assumed he was right and said it his way, but felt my inner nine-year-old scowling at my capitulation. He knows I’m always right, even when I’m wrong.

So that was my FantasyCon. I’m not really a convention person, I think. I’m not a pub person either, and the social side of a convention feels like a big pub to me. But there were lots of interesting panels to attend, lots of interesting panels I didn’t have time to attend, and a very pleasant, welcoming atmosphere. It was good to see so many new faces on the panels. Elsewhere, I was constantly amazed at how generous people were with their time (and how often talking to people would garner choice nuggets of gossip!). It’s not really my thing, socially, but approached as a work convention for my publishing hobby I found it very useful.

I was right about one thing, the Very Best of Kate Elliott was a very good place to start – I recommend it highly! FantasyCon 2015 will take place 23–25 October 2015, at the East Midlands Conference Centre and Orchard Hotel, Nottingham, UK. FantasyCon is one of the cheapest conventions around, especially for BFS members, and even more so if you book early. Even now, tickets are only £55 for BFS members. Join the convention here.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Future Fire fundraiser!

Our similarly-abbreviated chums over at The Future Fire are planning a special anniversary anthology, The Future Fire 10 (TFFX for short), to celebrate the tenth year since they began publishing. It will feature reprints of some of their best material to date and new material to match, plus illustrations of a similar standard.

Because they have the funny idea that it's nice to pay contributors rather than extracting their publishing rights in late-night games of Cluedo or keeping them shackled in the dungeons until their writing hands have wilted, they are running a crowdfunding project at

The stretch goals include increased pay for their forthcoming horror anthology, Fae Visions of the Mediterranean, and increased pay for magazine contributors for twelve months. (They'll give the small press a good name if they aren't careful.)

You can pre-order the anthology, or pick up ebook or paperback copies of their previous and forthcoming books, plus other perks like story critiques, custom art, and personalised knitted undead dolls. For just $12 you can get the ebooks of TFFX and The Lowest Heaven (from Jurassic London), which is a definite bargain.

Here's the link again. Click it!

Monday, 10 August 2015

Pixels | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Alien invasion comedy resurrects classic video games in all their pixelated glory

Centipede. Donkey Kong. Asteroids. Pac-Man. Most of us who grew up in the eighties did battle with these icons. The video games, with their graphic primitiveness and single screen action, reflect a simpler time . . . a time of striped socks pulled up to the knees, big hair bands with mind-numbing lyrics, and backyard or field-down-the-road sports.

Pixels, directed by Chris Columbus, brings the ultimate eighties intellect (i.e., Adam Sandler) to the screen with a straightforward objective (i.e., save the world), a plot as simple as a yellow circle munching dots, and an outcome as predictable as the first level in a classic video game. It has a middle school mentality, and it’s a blast!

Aliens vs. Nerds
1982 world video game champion hopeful Sam Brenner (Sandler) has become a disillusioned employee (“I’m just a loser who was good at old video games”) of the Nerd Brigade, a technology installation/repair company that forces its employees to wear humiliating orange uniforms. His life seems a disappointment, until aliens threaten the earth with gigantic versions of those beloved eighties video game characters. How’s that for a concept?!

The aliens, using modified video footage of eighties legends ranging from Daryl Hall and John Oates to Fantasy Island’s Mr. Roarke and Tattoo, challenge earthlings to a series of video game competitions.

Lifelong friend Will Cooper (Kevin James), now the charmingly bumbling President (of the United States!) pleads with Brenner to reboot his long-dormant gaming skills to resist the aliens. So Brenner and a couple of cartoonish sidekicks set out to save the world. They will fall in love, take outrageous risks, and best of all, lavish the viewer with the triumphant feeling that comes when nerds prevail.

Adam Sandler typically plays one of two roles: the lovable goofball (e.g., The Waterboy, Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison) or the down-to-earth good guy (e.g., Mr. Deeds, 50 First Dates). In Pixels, it’s the latter, and it makes sense with an “event film” like this. Moreover, Brenner’s “Arcader” allies are more than enough to compensate for Sandler’s toned down lead.

First, there’s “Wonder Boy” Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), a conspiracy theorist who lives with his grandmother and longs to win the love of blonde bombshell Lady Lisa. Ludlow has his work cut out for him, since Lady Lisa is a video game character. Then there’s Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage), a supremely narcissistic former world video game champion serving time for tech crimes. Rounding out the team are the fun-loving President Cooper and Brenner’s love interest Violet (Michelle Monaghan).

Playing the Patterns
Pixels repeatedly references the importance of recognizing and acting on the “patterns” within classic video games. Similarly, the film’s makers capitalize on recent alien invasion successes: the destruction of universally recognized monuments, the Independence Day recklessness of tossing the U.S. President into the fray, the aliens dropping from a mother ship for Avengers/Transformers-style all-out urban chaos. Pixels, in essence, plays the patterns, and it wins.

Game challenges pair special effects—ironic, considering the film’s graphically archaic muses—with late seventies/early eighties rock anthems. Brenner and Ludlow, accompanied by Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend,” blast up at glowing centipedes. Queen’s “We Will Rock You” stomps away as Donkey Kong rolls and hurls his digital barrels toward the Arcaders.

Go Guts
When he meets Violet’s son Matty, Brenner sarcastically contrasts eighties and contemporary video game experiences. I’m paraphrasing here: “We used to leave the house and go to these things called arcades. We got together and had fun.”

What an apt statement for today’s tech-enslaved youth . . . and adults. Pixels, for all its absurdity, encourages viewers to get together and get silly.

In the eighties, our parents didn’t enroll us in a dozen different activities. We had to invent our own fun within the confines of our neighbofrhoods. And we didn’t have Rotten Tomatoes telling us whether or not we should like a film. All we had were our own guts, and with Pixels, my gut tells me I want to play again.

Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Apologies for neglecting you, dear readers!

Sorry that it has been so quiet on here of late, and that Theaker’s 52 is so tardy. It’ll finally be out this Friday – honestly, it will, the blog post is written and the files are all with Amazon for approval! – though I’m afraid you’ll have to wait till issue 53 for the next instalments from Mitch Edgeworth and Antonella Coriander’s science fiction sagas, both bumped with great regret from this issue because I ran out of time to proofread them. They’ll be worth the wait, I promise.

The main reason I’ve been so pressed for time has been that my freelance work has been going remarkably well (and my co-editor John has been even busier than me with work), though late night sessions of the lovably reprehensible Saints Row IV: Re-Elected have played a tiny part too, and the end of the summer term meant a whirlwind of end-of-year shows and awards nights and governors’ meetings. (Our oldest daughter even appeared in a play at The Rep, playing Angry Teacher No. 2!) I spoke successfully in favour of a school planning permission application at the city council, which was a fascinating experience – and will lead to the local children getting a brilliant new sports hall. I’ve also been running the British Fantasy Awards, which are currently in a busy phase. The nominees have been announced and I’ve been arranging for the jurors to be supplied with reading copies.

Not many of my reviews have appeared on the TQF blog this year, but I’ve kept up with writing reviews for Interzone. I looked at The Very Best of Kate Elliott in #257, The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord and The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock in #258, and The Great Bazaar and Brayan’s Gold by Peter Brett in #259. If all goes according to plan my review of Armada by Ernest Cline will be in #260. It’s a privilege to appear in those pages. It can sometimes be quite a challenge to write eight hundred words about a novel while avoiding spoilers and grand claims, especially for an author I haven’t read before, but it’s a challenge I enjoy.

My mistake has been to aim for a similar style with my TQF reviews, when there’s a limit to how often I can spend a whole day or so working on a review. But I have begin to write new reviews for TQF as well, and the fruits of that should begin to appear in issue 53, for which I have twenty or thirty reviews lined up. They are a bit shorter than my reviews have been of late, and written in a looser style, more quickly, but I’m quite happy with how they’ve turned out. I’ve created a neat little Google form for inputting the reviews, and some clever functions in the responses spreadsheet that organise the reviews into sections and alphabetical order and add all the typesetting coding required, meaning the TQF review section will take about ten minutes to typeset from now on.

I realised that the same techniques could also be applied to the irregularly produced ezine I compile for the BFS from the reviews that have already appeared on its website, and so Shelflings #5 emerged at the beginning of this month after a long time away, like Rip van Winkle emerging from a cave! For the BFS I’ve also worked out a nifty way of sending out renewal notices and new member welcome letters, building them into the production of our brilliant monthly members-only bulletin, which with luck will save our membership secretaries a good deal of work. If you’re not a member of the BFS, join now so that we can enter this new golden age together!

Anyway, that’s all my excuses for now. Come back tomorrow for the world's first good review of *Pixels*! And on Friday for issue 52!

Friday, 7 August 2015

Book notes #12

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review for TQF. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

Transit (Image Comics) by Ted McKeever. Street punks, down-and-outs, religious and political fatcats, and assassins. Spud is in a subway station when a murder happens. Quite challenging. Archetypically eighties in style and subject matter. ***

Umbrella Academy, Vol.1: The Apocalypse Suite (Dark Horse Books) by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba. A bunch of former child heroes reunite as jaded adults. I would not have expected a comic by the singer in a rock band (even one who invited Grant Morrison into his videos) to be as good as this. Reminiscent of Doom Patrol with friendlier art. ****

Usagi Yojimbo, Vol. 13: Grey Shadows (Dark Horse Books) by Stan Sakai. The rabbit ronin travels to collect the bounty for Hosoku the Bandit on behalf of a friend, and while waiting for the money helps Inspector Ishida to investigate murders and corruption in a series of connected short stories. Great stories, and the artwork is clear, detailed and full of character. ****

Valérian et Laureline l’Intégrale, Vol. 2 (Dargaud) by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières. Volume two of the complete Valérian and Laureline, which collects Le Pays sans Étoile, Bienvenue sur Alflolol and Les Oiseaux du Maitre. They’re a pair of space agents who get embroiled in a different adventure on each planet. Can’t pretend I understood every word, but that didn’t stop me enjoying them. I like how Laureline does exactly what she wants, however irksome that may be for Valérian. ****

Werewolves of Montpellier (Fantagraphics), by Jason. A thief who dresses as a werewolf on the job attracts the attention of the real thing. ****

Willful Child (Tor Books), by Steven Erikson. Star Trek in the style of Archer. Reviewed for Interzone #256. ***

Winter Well: Speculative Novellas About Older Women (Crossed Genres), by Kay T. Holt (ed.). A decent book collecting four novellas, including “Copper” by Minerva Zimmerman, “The Other World” by Anna Caro, and “To the Edges” by M. Fenn, which begins with an older woman being fired from her job on the day of a terrorist atrocity. “The Second Wife” by Marissa James was for me the best story here. It’s a fantasy or science fantasy story about a second wife whose husband is killed by a conqueror who marries her for her magic. Before he can really set her to work, visitors come from the south, one of whom burns brightly in her mystical visions. Reminiscent in some ways of the Darkover series, but much better. The story has a mature approach to transgender issues. ***

X-Men: The Complete Age of Apocalypse Epic, Book 1 (Marvel), by Scott Lobdell, John Francis Moore, Howard Mackie, Brian K. Vaughan, Ralph Macchio, Terry Kavanagh and Judd Winick. A barely readable muddle set in an alternative X-Men universe. **

Yuki vs Panda, Vol. 1: Revenge. Lust. Karaoke (Duskleaf Media), by Graham Misiurak, Nick Dunec and A.L. Jones. Short and not very good graphic novel about a girl whose nemesis is a panda. **

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Balancing chakras on your backside (or, your right to review stuff that isn't in your wheelhouse)

Dawn Cano's post, "Delicate Sensibilities, an Author’s Responsibility, and Common Sense", on the Ginger Nuts of Horror blog, talks about people saying in reviews of horror books that they were too gory, or sweary, or obscene, etc. For example the blog post says things like:
"If you buy a horror novel, especially one with a trigger warning written on the cover, and take offence to it, you absolutely forfeit your right to complain…"
Do you really? Surely one of the fundamental rights of the reader (even if Daniel Pennac forgot to include it in his list) is to talk about our own reactions to a book, to read the book as ourselves. Also:
"What absolutely needs to change is people leaving bad reviews based on content. When a reader gets his feelings hurt by a book, then slams it in a review, it’s not helpful to anyone, especially the author."
"don’t ruin an author’s livelihood and reputation or spoil the book for other readers just because you have delicate sensibilities."
I don't really agree with very much of the post, but especially these bits. The comments the blog is concerned with aren't calls to have books banned or anything like that, but consumer reviews on places like Amazon.

Reviews help other readers to know if they'll like a book or not, and a review that says a book was too violent for their liking will be helpful to other readers that would find it too violent as well – while alerting readers who do like violence that it might be the right book for them. The effect on the writer's career doesn't come into it. You put a book out there, it's going to get reviewed and rated by fans, casual readers and people who read it because they ran out of books on holiday.

The overall argument in the blog post comes pretty close to saying that you should only review the kind of books that you know you'll like, but I don't think that's true, and I don't think authors should be told to expect that. Fans of a genre may well find reviews from other fans of that genre more useful, and uninformed reviews can be amusing, but people can review whatever they want to.

I gave Crystals R For Kids (or Crystlas R For Kids as the spine would have it) one star on Goodreads recently. It's supposedly factual balderdash for children about using crystals to enhance their magical psychic powers. (It came into the house as a freebie with some gems one of the children wanted to buy.) The picture above is an illustration from the book, showing a boy balancing his chakras by balancing a crystal on his backside! And if you think that's stupid you should read the rest of the book.

This post suggests I was wrong to rate it because I knew in advance that I wouldn't like it. That doesn't make any sense to me. If we all did that, no one would ever read books that don't fit neatly into genre slots, and those slots would get ever smaller. As a reader and a reviewer, you have to sometimes take chances on things you might not like, and report back to other readers on what you find.

But also, in the case of Crystals R For Kids, I think I'm probably the best person to review it because fans of that nonsense will give it undeservedly high scores, despite the utter nonsense it aims to plant in children's heads. Reviews coming at a book from outside our favourite genre can defamiliarise that genre's conventions, make us think about them again.

We can chuckle at uninformed or naive reviews, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be written, and while fans may prefer to read reviews from other fans, outsider perspectives can be valuable. Mark Kermode hated the Entourage movie, and he got a lot of flak from fans of the television show saying that he shouldn't have reviewed it, but as a fan of the show myself I welcomed his perspective, as a reminder of how objectionable I might have found some elements if I hadn't got so used to them after eight years of watching it.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Book notes #11

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review for TQF. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

The Goon, Vol. 0: Rough Stuff (Dark Horse Comics), by Eric Powell. A mob enforcer is secretly also the mob boss, and his main rival is the leader of a zombie gang. These collect very early issues, from before Eric Powell was really happy with it, but it seemed pretty good to me. ***

The Goon, Vol. 1: Nothin’ But Misery (Dark Horse Comics), by Eric Powell and Robin Powell. More adventures of the Goon. It’s like a cartoonish, supernatural version of Sin City. ***

The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals (Cheeky Frawg Books), by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer. Brief but amusing book exploring whether various imaginary animals would be considered kosher or not, and how one might cook them. ***

The Last Demon (Penguin Books) by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Three excellent stories in a Penguin Mini Modern, two of them fantasy. “The Last Demon” is about a demon who relates his frustrating attempt to persuade a rabbi in the town of Tishevitz to sin. “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” is about a girl who wants to study the Torah rather than get married and darn socks, and the trouble into which that leads her. “The Cafeteria” is about a troubled woman who survived the Holocaust but now sees Hitler alive on the streets of New York. *****

The Last Rakosh (self-published) by F. Paul Wilson. Jack, an experienced monster hunter, spots a dangerous creature at the circus: a rakosh, a cross between a gorilla and a shark. This one is weak, because it’s being kept in an iron cage and isn’t being fed properly. One hearty human supper later it becomes a real problem. I’d heard good things about the Repairman Jack series, but this story didn’t quite sell it to me. We don’t see what makes him or the series special. He seems to be a typical tough guy, and the story is told in a straightforward way. ***

The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury: Time Runs Out (Archaia), by Brandon Thomas and Lee Ferguson. Space adventure. Enjoyable, but falls a bit short of its very high ambitions. ***

The Portent: Ashes (Dark Horse Books) by Peter Bergting. Warrior wood nymph Lin returns from the spirit realm to find much time has passed. Her wood has been razed to the ground, and the land is divided between three warring parties, two of whom she has a history with: her former mentors, a warrior wizard and a witch. Lovely art. ***

The Unquiet House (Jo Fletcher Books), by Alison Littlewood. A woman moves to a haunted house, and we travel back in time to find out who haunts it and why. Several terrifying scenes. Reviewed for Black Static #43. ***

The Very Best of Kate Elliott (Tachyon Publications) by Kate Elliott. Reviewed for Interzone #257; I enjoyed it a lot. I think it might be her complete short fiction rather than a selection of the best, but I wouldn’t have guessed from how good it all was. ****

Friday, 24 July 2015

Book notes #10

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review for TQF. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

The Beauty (Unsung Stories), by Aliya Whiteley. A very good novella. In a world without women, men embrace mushrooms. Reviewed for Interzone #254. ****

The Boys, Vol. 11: Over the Hill with the Swords of a Thousand Men (Dynamite Entertainment) by Garth Ennis and Russ Braun. Everything kicks off. Vought American take control of the White House. The Homelander makes his play. Black Noir is unmasked. And Butcher wades in with a crowbar. Very good fun. ****

The Boys, Vol. 12: The Bloody Doors Off (Dynamite Entertainment) by Garth Ennis, Russ Braun and Darick Robertson. After the climactic events of volume eleven Butcher gives the Boys a three-month holiday, but Wee Hughie figures that something is up. The end of another terrifically entertaining comic from Garth Ennis. Each book has been a treat. ***

The Change: Orbital (Endeavour Press) by Guy Adams. A novella by my former BFS boss about a young Howard Phillips (!) struggling to survive after a cosmic rip brings weirdness to the world. The main monster is great, a horrible mixture of man and machine. Looks like the book’s been pulled from sale now – the series is being relaunched with a new publisher. ***

The Darkness: Accursed, Vol. 2 (Top Cow Productions), by Phil Hester and friends. A colossal improvement on the original run, but disappointing compared to some of the things Phil Hester has been involved in before. (I adored his run as an artist on Swamp Thing.) ***

The Darkness: Accursed, Vol. 3 (Top Cow Productions), by Phil Hester and friends. More murky shenanigans. ***

The Darkness: Accursed, Vol. 4 (Top Cow Productions), by Phil Hester and friends. I should have read a Darkness book before buying so many in a sale. ***

The Death-Ray (Drawn and Quarterly) by Daniel Clowes. A short indie comics album, republishing a story that originally appeared in Eightball. After smoking his first cigarette a boy discovers that they give him super-strength; this turns out to have been the work of his father. He also comes into possession of a death-ray gun. Unfortunately his best friend is a very bad influence. ****

The Delicate Prey (Penguin Books), by Paul Bowles. One of the scariest books I read all year. One creepy story (“The Circular Valley”, about a haunted monastery) and two that are terrifying (“The Delicate Prey” and “A Distant Episode”, about desert travellers and a foolish professor). ****

The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (Icon Books), by Mark Forsyth. Fascinating wander through the nooks and crannies of English. Constantly amazing, which is why I liked reading it in bursts. You can only do so many double-takes a day before your neck gets tired. *****

The Gifts of War (Penguin Books), by Margaret Drabble. Two excellent stories by Margaret Drabble, editor of the equally excellent Oxford Companion to English Literature. The first is “The Gifts of War”, about a downtrodden mum who has been saving up to buy her child a special present, and a young anti-war protester who doesn’t think toyshops should sell a particular kind of toy. Each has their own half of the story, but it’s holding each in your mind at once that renders the story so devastating. The second story is “Hassan’s Tower”, about newlyweds having a terrible honeymoon in a hot country who climb the stairs of a random building. Like The Delicate Prey, the book is a Penguin Mini Modern. I’m grateful for how many wonderful writers that series has induced me to try for the first time. I bought the box set of them for myself as an expensive birthday present, and it was some of the best money I’ve ever spent. *****

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Gallows | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Funny. Tense. Amped up. Still the critics scoff. 

Recent critical response to mass market horror films (It Follows (2014) being the exception) has been abysmal. Last year, critics erred in bashing the thoroughly entertaining As Above, So Below. Once again, they’ve lambasted an engaging found footage film with a young adult cast. This time, it’s The Gallows, and once again, they got it wrong.

The Gallows, directed by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, traps four Nebraskan students in a haunted high school performing arts center. It keeps the viewer locked in from the appalling accident in the first scene until the final twist. At the end of the 81-minute film, I felt as if I’d downed a couple of energy drinks.

Reese has quit his high school football team to pursue the performing arts. His decision is driven solely by his secret crush on Pfeifer, whose acting (versus cheerleading) leanings make her forbidden by Reese’s ex-teammate and friend Ryan Shoos. Somehow, Reese has been cast in the male lead – he’s a terrible actor – beside Pfeifer in a play that bears the same title of this film.

But there is a far more dangerous threat to Reese: twenty years earlier, Charlie Grimille, slated to play the executioner in the same play, had to step in as the lead. A freak accident during a performance killed Charlie, who is rumoured to haunt the facility.

The loquacious Ryan convinces Reese that the way to avoid bombing his performance (and disappointing Pfeifer) is by destroying the set. Then Reese can swoop in and aid the ailing Pfeifer. So the two young men, accompanied by Reese’s snarky girlfriend Cassidy, sneak into the theatre at night, where they encounter Pfeifer. The foursome gets locked in, and thus begins their increasingly horrific escapade.

If you’re a “that could never happen” kind of person, perhaps this isn’t the film for you. For instance, you’ll have to overlook the unlikelihood that a school would repeat the same ill-fated play twenty years later (hey, I didn’t say this film was perfect). However, if you can suspend disbelief and stop thinking for an hour and twenty minutes, then go see The Gallows. Squirm as the camera lingers on dark passageways, passes through creepy shop rooms, or zooms in on strange objects. Breathe faster amid the creaks and bangs, and feel the tension as an unseen presence grows closer.

If you’re willing to plunk down the $10 to $15 to see this film in a cinema with a superior audio-visual system, do it. It adds to the authenticity of scenes, such as that during which the camera view moves along wooden ceiling slats and the thump of footsteps grows louder. During that moment, you are there with those students.

One way this film stands apart from other recent found footage entries is the level of humour, mainly at the beginning. It’s driven largely by egocentric and uber-chatty lead cameraman Ryan. In the funniest scene, Ryan steps out from behind the camera, then tosses a football that knocks over a classmate he refers to as “Stage Boy”.

Sure, this film probably has a short shelf life, but so does a good pair of running shoes. And who says a movie has to have a long shelf life to be enjoyable? – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Michael Wyndham Thomas on the shortlist of the Novella Award 2015!

Exciting news: Michael Wyndham Thomas has made the Novella Award Shortlist 2015! It's not for the two novels we published by him (The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon), but for a work that is as yet unpublished. Here is the full shortlist:

  • The Harlequin by Nina Allan
  • Motherland by Alix Christie
  • The Year of the Horse by Zoë Ranson
  • Mistakes by the Lake by Brian Petkash
  • When It Was Raining by Kevin Parry
  • Esp by Michael Wyndham Thomas
  • In Wolf Village by Penny Simpson

I bet the Nina Allan novella is good too, but all our luck must go to Michael!

The award is a partnership between the Screen School of Liverpool John Moores University and Manchester Metropolitan University’s Department of Contemporary Arts, who originally established The Novella Award. Sandstone Press, Time to Read, and NAWE are all partners of the award and work alongside it to encourage the publication of new writing.

The winner receives a £1,000 cash prize and their novella is published by Sandstone Press.

More details here.

Book notes #9

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review for TQF. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

Star Wars Tales, Vol. 1 (Dark Horse Books), by Jim Woodring and Dave Land. Entertaining anthology of non-canonical stories. ***

Star Wars Tales, Vol. 2 (Dark Horse Books) by Dave Land (ed.). Enjoyable series of short stories set in all periods and places and plotholes of the Star Wars universe. The adventures of Luke’s severed hand and Darth Vader’s encounter in Cloud City with C3PO were highlights for me, but it’s all pretty good. Shame that Dark Horse have lost the license, it looks like they were making the most of it. ***

Star Wars Tales, Vol. 3 (Dark Horse Books) by Dave Land (ed.). Includes two strips written by Garth Ennis: how Han Solo won the Millenium Falcon from Lando Calrissian, and the life story of the first stormtrooper sent on to the rebel ship in Episode IV. My favourite strip was Jay Stephen’s “The Rebel Four”, Star Wars in the style of Jack Kirby. ***

Star Wars Tales, Vol. 4 (Dark Horse Books) by Dave Land (ed.). Another good collection of out-of-continuity Star Wars stories, including some focusing on Mace Windu and, more interestingly, Darth Vader. ***

Star Wars Tales, Vol. 5 (Dark Horse Books) by Dave Land (ed.). Best in the series so far, including a set of stories from indie comics creators like Tony Millionaire, Jason, Peter Bagge and Gilbert Hernandez. I could have gone for much, much more than four pages of James Kochalka’s “Milton Fett”, the useless younger cousin. ****

Star Wars: Crimson Empire (Dark Horse Books) by Mike Richardson, Randy Stradley, Paul Gulacy, P. Craig Russell, Konot, Sean and Dave Dorman. A surviving member of the Imperial Guard goes after a traitor, bringing him into a temporary alliance with the new republic. Follows on from other expanded universe stories where the Emperor was resurrected in clone bodies; a bit confusing if you don’t know that. It’s okay. ***

Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Ghost Prison (Dark Horse Books) by W. Haden Blackman, Randy Stradley, Agustan Alessio and Dave Wilkins. A very good story about Darth Vader, a young cadet and another bad guy protecting the Emperor after an attack on Coruscant by Imperial rebels, by taking him to recover in a forgotten prison established by the jedi to house the prisoners of war captured by one Anakin Skywalker. Makes you think a Darth Vader film would be a really good idea. ****

Star Wars: Legacy, Vol. 1: Broken (Dark Horse Books) by John Ostrander, Jan Duursema, Dan Parsons and Adam Hughes. Set a century or so into the future of the Star Wars universe, when the Sith once more rule the empire. The previous emperor, who wasn’t a Sith, plots his return to the throne. Cade Skywalker works as a bounty hunter, and he plans to turn in the former emperor’s feisty daughter. Decent, not amazing. A bit depressing to think the new republic will fall so quickly. ***

Star Wars: Tag & Bink Were Here (Dark Horse Books) by Kevin Rubio and friends. A Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the Star Wars universe. Not quite as much fun or as clever as that sounds. ***

Steed and Mrs Peel, Vol. 2: The Secret History of Space (BOOM! Studios) by Yasmin Liang, Caleb Monroe and Will Sliney. Felt a bit straightforward after the wildness of the Grant Morrison volume. ***

Steed and Mrs Peel, Vol. 3: The Return of the Monster (BOOM! Studios) by Caleb Monroe and Yasmin Liang. Steed and Mrs Peel are faced with the return of an old foe from the TV series, at least I think so – I’ve only seen a handful of episodes. Readable without being remarkable. ***

Steed and Mrs. Peel: The Golden Game (BOOM! Studios), by Grant Morrison, Anne Caulfield and Ian Gibson. Liked it, but a problem with the colour separations made it difficult to read. ***

Suddenly, Zombies (self-published), by Amanda C. Davis. Quirky pair of short stories, one about zombies on a spaceship, the other about giant zombie gorillas. Cheap and cheerful. ***

Friday, 10 July 2015

Book notes #8

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review for TQF. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

Magnus Robot Fighter Archive, Vol. 2 (Dark Horse Comics), by Russ Manning and Philip Simon. Collection of old comics about a guy with super-strength who battles robots who go bad, and when necessary the people who control them. Notable for Russ Manning’s art and the way the bad robots shout “Squeee!” when he knocks off their heads. ***

Nemo: The Roses of Berlin (Top Shelf Productions), by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. These short Nemo books in the world of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are instant purchases for me. This one brings in characters from Metropolis and The Great Dictator. ****

Of Whimsies & Noubles (PS Publishing), by Matthew Hughes. Another fabulous Luff Imbry novella. In this one he is apprehended and sent to a prison world. ****

Planet of the Apes, Vol. 1: The Long War (BOOM! Studios), by Daryl Gregory. Set in the continuity (if you can call it that) of the original film series, this was okay but not much fun. ***

Rat Queens, Vol. 1: Sass & Sorcery (Image Comics), by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch. Funny comic about a group of adventurers whose world is modelled after our world’s roleplaying games. ****

Rebel at the End of Time (PS Publishing), by Steve Aylett and Michael Moorcock. A short novel which throws Leo Del Toro, a 21st century Che Guevera, into the bewildering world of Michael Moorcock’s brilliant Dancers at the End of Time trilogy, where he must battle his despair among people for whom action is meaningless, novelty everything. The difficulty of reading the story comes from the misunderstandings of the people of the future, which leads to surprises in every sentence. Aylett’s story is a great addition to the End of Time, in that it shows us (or speculates on) how a different type of protagonist would handle it. The great man himself Michael Moorcock contributes a twenty-page story to the book, “Sumptuous Dress”, which comes close to causing a meltdown in the space-time continuum by crossing the end of time with the equally confusing Second Ether, producing more bafflement than most readers will be able to bear in a single story ****

Secret Lives (Cheeky Frawg Books), by Jeff VanderMeer. A series of stories written for and about the people who bought the special edition of one of the author’s other books. Not at all as throwaway as their provenance might lead you to expect; some stories are downright excellent. ***

Showcase Presents: Superman Family, Vol. 3 (DC Comics) by Otto Binder, Robert Bernstein, Curt Swan, Stan Kaye, Ray Burnley, Kurt Schaffenberger, Wayne Boring, Dick Sprang, John Forte, Creig Flessel and Al Plastino. I could barely read a page of this without thinking, what the hell, Superman? The description of Descartes’ evil demon fits him perfectly: “as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading [Lois and Jimmy]”. Here are just a few examples. In “Lois Lane’s Super-Perfume” he proposes marriage to Lois – and then takes it back. It was a ruse to trap some swindlers! In “Three Nights at the Fortress of Solitude” he uses a robot to spank her so hard she can’t sit down the next day! And in “The Cry-Baby of Metropolis” he lets her go through the terror of reverting to a baby while pretending he doesn’t know she’s the baby, to teach her a lesson about inquisitiveness! Sometimes he’s astonishingly reckless: in “The Shocking Secret of Lois Lane” he throws two drill-saws at her head to remove a box she’s using as a mask! It’s so sexist: in “Lois Lane’s Signal Watch” Superman gives her an emergency watch just like Jimmy Olsen’s. She summons the Man of Steel to unstick the zipper on her purse… ***

Sin City, Vol. 3: The Big Fat Kill (Dark Horse Comics), by Frank Miller. The last book I read by Frank Miller was so bad that I’d almost forgotten how good he can be. ****

Sin City, Vol. 6: Booze, Broads & Bullets (Dark Horse Comics), by Frank Miller. Short stories collected from various Sin City one-shots. ***

Smiler’s Fair (Hodder & Stoughton), by Rebecca Levene. Slightly disappointing and unimaginative fantasy. Reviewed for Interzone #254. ***

Star Trek: New Visions (IDW Publishing), by John Byrne. Photo-stories based on the original TV series. Not as much fun as expected. Lots of recapping. **

Friday, 3 July 2015

Book notes #7

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review for TQF. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

Half a King (Audible), by Joe Abercrombie. Deposed boy king tries to survive on his wits. Good, especially in the way it reflects on whether fighting his way back to power benefits the country or just him. [I did finish my review of this eventually: here it is.] ***

Harley Quinn Vol. 1: Hot in the City (DC Comics), by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner. Ropey comic about the Joker’s girlfriend. Trying to be Deadpool or Hitman with added cheesecake, and doesn’t work. At the time of writing it’s only 50p or so on Kindle. I wouldn’t pay much more than that for it. **

Hellblazer: City of Demons (Vertigo), by Si Spencer and Sean Murphy. Very good miniseries about John Constantine’s half-demon blood being used to infect people in London. Excellent artwork. Would have loved a full run in this style. ****

Hellboy in Hell, Vol. 1: The Descent (Dark Horse Books), by Mike Mignola. Hellboy has been killed and gone to hell, where he wanders around and meets various demons, including (maybe) his dad. Gorgeous art, but it’s just the beginning of a story. ***

Hellboy, Vol. 2: Wake the Devil (Dark Horse Books) by Mike Mignola, James Sinclair and Pat Brosseau. Rasputin’s ghost gathers his followers to resurrect the vampire Giurescu, servant of Hecate, and in battling them all Hellboy finds out more about himself and the destiny others have in mind for him. Wonderful art and a great story. ****

How to Write Everything (Oberon Books), by David Quantick. Okay, with some good advice, but a bit thin, given how much experience he has. For example he says he’s written ten thousand reviews but only talks about it for half a page (and not all the advice is admirable: “If you are are going to make a review up, make it look convincing”). On interviewing, I got a lot more out of Jason Arnopp’s How to Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne and Everyone Else. ***

JLA, Vol. 1 (DC Comics) by Grant Morrison, Howard Porter, John Dell, Mark Millar, Oscar Jimenez, and many more. My favourite superhero comic of all time, I think. Grant Morrison gets such a great handle on all the big characters, while giving the outgoing cast an honourable, brave exit. Howard Porter’s artwork isn’t always anatomically perfect, but it’s always exciting, like a lightning bolt across the page. *****

Joe the Barbarian (Vertigo) by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy. A boy with diabetes trying to survive a serious hypoglycaemic attack has visions of a fantasy world where his toys are alive and in great danger. This was pretty good, but I found it hard going. I love Dave Stewart’s colouring on the Hellboy books, but coupled with Sean Murphy’s art style it created panels that were really tough to figure out. We return to reality too often for the fantasy to take hold. Still, the cameos from toys looking a lot like Master Chief, the Transformers, GI Joe, etc were good fun, as were the authorised appearances from Batman, Superman, Robin and John Constantine. And how long has it been since Grant Morrison last wrote for the Zoids? ***

Lagoon (Hodder & Stoughton), by Nnedi Okorafor. Aliens land in the ocean off Lagos, and one of them comes out and takes human form. The city isn’t ready for them. Reviewed for Interzone #252. ****

Lobster Johnson, Vol. 1: Iron Prometheus (Dark Horse Books), by Mike Mignola, Jason Armstrong and Dave Stewart. A superhero fighting Nazi spies in a spin-off from Hellboy and the BPRD. ***

Lobster Johnson, Vol. 2: The Burning Hand (Dark Horse Books) by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Tonci Zonjic, Dave Stewart and Scott Allie. Lobster Johnson and his team must protect a journalist; gangsters have recruited supernatural assistance. Terrific art and a great story. ****

Lobster Johnson, Vol. 3: Satan Smells a Rat (Dark Horse Books) by Mike Mignola, Tonci Zonjic and Scott Allie. A collection of smashing short stories with Lobster Johnson battling supernatural spies, gangsters and gods in the thirties. I love that his in-fight banter is simply a series of curt ejaculations. ****

Friday, 26 June 2015

Book notes #6

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

Fear Itself (Marvel), by Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen. An underwhelming crossover story. Odin has given up on Earth, but Thor and the Avengers think there is still hope. ***

G.I. Joe: Classics, Vol. 4 (IDW Publishing), by Larry Hama, Rod Whigham, Frank Springer, Mark Bright, Bob Camp and Rod Wigham. Collection of Marvel’s attempt to create decent comics based on the daft soldier toys. ***

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlepig (Beale-Williams Enterprise) by Tad Williams. A novella about an angel advocate trying to help out a werewolf client. ***

God’s War (Del Rey), by Kameron Hurley. Grimdark science fiction about an unlikeable mercenary and her gang. Nyx used to be a Bel Dame, sent by the government to take the heads of boys running away from the war, but now she’s freelance. Her world is one of strong religion and what seems to us like magic, where insect life is the basis for technology and wombs can be dropped off at organ banks to avoid putting them in any danger. It’s a bit of a grind, full of torture, misery, and characters who hate each other, but it was good. Reminded me of things like John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley. A bit like 2000AD if it were written by John Brunner instead of Pat Mills & co. ***

Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God (PS Publishing), by Lavie Tidhar. Not, as a previous issue of this magazine had it, Gorel and the Pot-Bellied Pig! This is, as its subtitle tells us, a guns and sorcery novella. Gorel was “cast out of Goliris”, “exiled to the harsh lands of Lower Kidron”, where he makes his way as a hired hand, riding an insectoid Graal, hoping always to return home to avenge his family and punish his betrayers. In this story he encounters the froggish falang and the god they worship. This novella dates back to 2011, and ever since this review has glared balefully at me, even while I’ve reviewed several of the author’s other books. That was just because I read it quickly in amongst a bunch of other books, not because I didn’t enjoy it enough to write a review. Far from it: I thought this was terrific, and began a run of Tidhar’s books that have made him one of my favourite authors. It’s an extremely interesting book, reminding me of Elric in the way it attacks the conventions of the genre. You read it assuming that Gorel is a Conan-type hero, but as he does bad things it’s almost as if the author is saying, this is your hero? He’s a drug addict, injecting himself with gods’ dust, and he’s still your hero? What about when he does this? Or this?! How bad can a badass hero get before the reader stops admiring them? ****

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1: Cosmic Avengers (Marvel) by Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven, Sara Pichelli, Michael Avon Oeming and many others. This shows up as a 350pp book on Comixology, so I was expecting an epic in the style of DC’s three-issue crossover Invasion. Sadly not; most of it is a series of single panel guided view strips; the real story is only ninety pages or so. Lacks the verve of the Abnett and Lanning series, but the art is nice. ***

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1: Legacy (Marvel), by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier. Inspiration for the film, with a similar spark. Here the new Guardians assemble in the aftermath of a galactic crisis. ***

Monday, 22 June 2015

Jurassic World | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Record-breaking, bone-crunching, message-bearing MONSTER of a film.

“No one’s impressed by dinosaurs anymore.” So says marketing executive Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) of Jurassic World, a theme park dedicated to giving its visitors the ultimate dinosaur experience. Here visitors navigate glass-enclosed gyrospheres amid brontosauri and triceratops, or get splashed by a gigantic sea creature that eats a shark carcass as if it were a Skittle.

Claire’s statement reverberates powerfully in a society whose members are constantly hankering for the newest gadget, the biggest thrill, or, dare I say, the latest blockbuster film. How many of those who helped Jurassic World, directed by Colin Trevorrow, claw and tear its way past The Avengers (2012) to achieve the highest-grossing opening weekend ($208.8 million U.S.) of all time were lured by the preview featuring that aquatic colossus?

Sure, tons of advertising and the strength of three previous films propelled Jurassic World’s box office blitzkrieg, but that doesn’t discount the film for what it is: an action-packed adventure and, to the more perceptive, a cautionary tale regarding mankind’s unceasing craving to control nature. Jurassic World comments on the potential catastrophic results of our collective quest to get the biggest and the best. By the way, try to see it in IMAX and 3-D.

The Rex Big Thrill
Though the Jurassic World theme park has achieved a ninety-plus percent satisfaction rate, market research reveals its visitors are still looking for the next big thrill. Thus, the scientists in this sprawling, corporation-owned campus cook up a genetically modified badass of a dinosaur and give it a name wrought with fear (and marketability): Indominus rex! It’s bigger and badder than the T-rex. And just imagine that name stretched across a 64-ounce cup of soda!

Of course, Indominus rex escapes.

The rest of the film unfolds entertainingly, if unsurprisingly. When the creature escapes, Claire’s nephews get stuck in the park. So she runs to Navy vet Owen (Chris Pratt), a kind of dinosaur trainer stationed on the Jurassic World grounds. Together, the prudish Claire (she never takes off her heels) and the gruff, yet sensitive and sagely Owen—think Patrick Swayze—set out to save the nephews and thwart the beast. The special bond that Owen has developed with four velociraptors (the roving thugs of previous Jurassic Park films) will come into play. Make no mistake: these things are still capable of tearing off Owen’s or anyone else’s face.

Jurassic World’s taut story and jaw-dropping special effects make it a pleasure to watch. However, between the roars, the screams, and the crunching of bones, the film does whisper an important message.

It’s About Control
There is a scene about two-thirds into the film—I’m not giving anything major away here—in which a group of commandos approach the island via helicopter. One of them sees a pterodactyl flying peacefully alongside the chopper, blows it away, and then smirks. It’s a jarring scene, and it begs further exploration.

Perhaps the bearded gunman is best viewed in light of an earlier, more touching scene in which Claire and Owen comfort a dying brontosaurus. Owen, surveying a landscape littered with dinosaur corpses, makes a conclusion about the escaped Indominus rex: “She’s killing for sport.” Thus, this destructive creature, made by man, has adapted a very human trait. We need only to look to the barbarian in the helicopter to see it played out.

The theme of Jurassic World is best summarized by the word “control”, which comes up often. The scientists exercise a fallible control as they Frankenstein the ultimate dinosaur, while Claire controls her perception of the beast as a means to strengthen the bottom line.

However, nobody lives up to the control label more than the chief bad guy Hoskins, played by the ever-cocksure Vincent D’Onofrio. Hoskins, eager to prove his theory that dinosaurs can be the ultimate war machines, repeatedly butts heads with Owen. After the chaos is unleashed, Hoskins stands on a platform overlooking the park and gleefully observes the dinosaur mutiny. What better way to test Hoskins’s theory than with Owen’s foursome of velociraptors?

Knuckleheaded Love
The romantic tension between Claire and Owen—their one date didn’t work out—will appeal to the inevitable knucklehead who needs a side order of love with his or her blockbuster. Claire is the uptight, childless professional. Dressed in a pristine, almost virginal white blouse, skirt, and heels, Claire is the statistic-spouting moneymaker whose soul has been sucked out by the corporation. What better match than the motorcycle-riding Navy vet with a Tarzan-like connection with the beasts? A great pairing on the silver screen. A catastrophe in real life.

Dr. Henry Wu, Jurassic World’s unscrupulous lead scientist, says, “To a mouse, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cats.” Perhaps this statement best explains Jurassic World’s strongest lure: MONSTERS!

The film exploits this fascination from the opening scene, which not only starts with the antagonist (typically a no-no), but also replaces the anticipated cute creature emerging from an egg with a menacing-looking black claw. With apocalyptic fiction all the rage, Jurassic World hatches at just the right time, perpetuating the man vs. nature mythos.

No one’s interested in dinosaurs? Au contraire. Jurassic World’s opening weekend has 208.8 million reasons to prove that we most certainly are. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday, 19 June 2015

Book notes #5

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

Doctor Who: Lights Out (Puffin), by Holly Black. The twelfth Doctor is buying coffee for Clara when another person in the queue falls down dead. Somehow manages to have a good handle on Peter Capaldi’s Doctor despite being written before his first full episodes were on. ***

Doctor Who: Something Borrowed (Puffin), by Richelle Mead. The sixth Doctor and Peri encounter an enemy, who is about to get married. Captures very well what came closest to being good about that period of the show. ***

Doctor Who: The Chains of Olympus (Panini UK Ltd), by Scott Gray, Mike Collins, Martin Geraghty, Dan McDaid. Eleventh Doctor adventures from Doctor Who Magazine. The Doctor meets the Greek gods. ***

Doctor Who: The Ripple Effect (Puffin), by Malorie Blackman. A nice little Doctor Who book. The seventh Doctor and Ace land on Skaro, centre of learning and peace, the Athens of space. Nice to read a Doctor Who book that is actually aimed at children. ***

Doctor Who: The Roots of Evil (Puffin) by Philip Reeve. The fourth Doctor and Leela land in a giant tree. That is a space station. That has been programmed to kill the Doctor. A neat premise, deftly handled. ***

Drunk with Blood – God’s Killings in the Bible (SAB Books), by Steve Wells. Eye-opening account of how many people get killed in the Bible, often for the silliest of reasons. At times you’d think it was the Master or Lex Luthor messing with history. The stuff in here makes the Red Wedding look like a pleasant family gathering. *****

Edison Rex, Vol. 1 (IDW Publishing) by Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver. This Lex Luthor type was right. His Superman was a dangerous alien with a hidden agenda, and Edison Rex managed to get rid of him. Now he wants to make the world a better place, but everyone still thinks he is a supervillain. A quick read. Text pages flesh it out a bit. ***

Edison Rex, Vol. 2: Heir Apparent (IDW Publishing) by Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver. Edison Rex is still trying to establish himself as a hero, but the former members of hero teams The Peacemakers and Teenpeace are suspicious, and he’s not keeping a close enough eye on his allies. Enjoyable, but a bit thin: of its 139 pages, 30 are single panels with white backgrounds of Edison talking to ROFL, this world’s Mister Mxyzptlk. ***

Fables, Vol. 16: Super Team (DC Comics) by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Terry Moore and Eric Shanower. Mister Dark attacks, and in response Pinocchio and Ozma create a super-team to fight him. Meanwhile the North Wind has resolved to kill one of the Big Bad Wolf’s children. This is the sixteenth book in the series, and I’ve only previously read the first couple, but it was easy enough to pick up. Good story, with excellent artwork. Shame about the repetitive borders on the main story, which take up a lot of screen space when reading it on a tablet. ***

Fantastic Four, Vol. 1: New Departure, New Arrivals (Marvel) by Matt Fraction, Mark Bagley and Mike Allred. Slightly muddled collection of two separate but related titles, as Reed Richards realises he is dying and takes the family off to find a cure – without telling them. Loved the pages with Mike Allred art. ***

Fatale, Vol. 1: Death Chases Me (Image Comics), by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Graphic novel written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Sean Phillips, who previously collaborated on several well-regarded crime comics. It is the story of Jo, an ageless, beautiful femme fatale (on double duty as this book’s McGuffin), and the men who enter her life. In the forties that was a US soldier, who has become by the fifties a corrupt, dying police officer who barely visits her any more, ashamed of his own ageing. Dominic Haines is a married journalist who meets her in the fifties. Nicolas Lash is Dominic’s inheritor, who discovers among his godfather’s papers an unpublished manuscript from 1957, “The Losing Side of Eternity”. But before he can read it weird guys with bowler hats, round glasses and guns pull up outside. “And I realised exactly how far out in the woods I actually was. And how far away the police would be.” Jo comes to the rescue (well, almost) and the convalescent Lash reads his godfather’s story, of black magic, cultists and Lovecraftian gods. Dave Stewart (presumably not the one with spiky headphones) does a wonderful job on colours, finding exactly the right tone. ****