Monday, 28 July 2014

The Buried Life by Carrie Patel, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In The Buried Life (Angry Robot, ebook, 4443ll) Carrie Patel tells the story of two women. Jane Lin is a laundry woman trusted by the height of high society to deal with their dirtiest and daintiest unmentionables. Liesl Malone is a police officer, currently getting used to a new partner with a theatrical background. They are brought together by a series of murders: Malone is shut out of the investigation – at least officially – but won’t let that stop her getting at the truth, while Jane is knocked unconscious after literally stumbling across the body of a Mr Fitzhugh during a late night laundry run. A conspiracy is afoot!

Mystery builds. Death will strike again. People scurry in the dark after curfew. Secret pasts abound. Motivations emerge from the shadows. Orphans discover how their parents died &c. Jane stays involved in all this at the prompting of Malone, who has no other way in to this world, but also on account of her own attraction, despite herself, to surly, sexy Roman Arnault, reputedly a button man for the council. He takes a shine to her, and literally sweeps her off her feet at a dance before saying, “I could show you who I am, what I do, and why they run. But will you like what you find?”

Roman is the kind of melodramatic anti-hero that seems to be all over fantasy at the moment, thanks maybe to the commercial success of Cullen and Grey, though of course they’re part of a long tradition of literary gits, going back through Mr. Darcy and Pamela’s Mr. B. Whether you find that type appealing may affect your enjoyment of the book. Jane has it bad – “Something in her chest fluttered as she watched him unnoticed” – but he didn’t do much for me. By the end he seems rather less significant and interesting than at first, and rather too many mysteries are resolved by him deciding to explain, just because at last he feels like it.

So far you might think this a Victorian novel, and it rather felt like one. However, it is set in the future, hundreds of years after a disaster. Far enough ahead for time to rub away most of the letters on a copper plaque, but close enough that paper books have survived and can still be read. Events take place, for the most part, in the underground city of Recoletta, but these people aren’t mutated – physically or psychologically – by the centuries underground. This isn’t, say The Caves of Steel: when Malone visits the surface she’s awed by the big sky, but not so much that it stops her climbing on the roof of a moving train.

There is nothing like the sense we get in City of Ember that keeping an underground city going might be difficult – though we do hear briefly about “orphans and unfortunates … working twelve-hour shifts on factory machines and assembly lines” – nor is there any shocking reality-shifting revelation upon emergence like the one in The Hero of Downways. Recoletta felt to me like Victorian London with a roof, its most unusual feature a ruling class who grow their nails slightly long because they can. The discoveries on the surface will feel old hat even to people who haven’t seen Logan’s Run or read Kamandi. It’s hard not to groan at the cheesiness of Roman revealing the collected Shakespeare he keeps in a hidden compartment.

For me, a hurdle the book struggled to clear was its initial similarity to City of Stairs, which also begins with the murder of an academic but heads off in more appealingly fantastical directions. The Buried Life doesn’t have any new science fiction ideas to offer, and for the most part it stays stubbornly away from anyone playing an active role in events. Yet for all that it was an enjoyable enough novel. I had a good time reading it and found the characters appealing. I worried about the danger they were in, hoped they would make it out alive, and was sad when some didn’t. I probably wouldn’t read a sequel, and I don’t expect this one to stick with me, but I’d look out for other books from the same author to see if they had a more interesting premise.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Injustice: Gods Among Us, Ultimate Edition, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Injustice: Gods Among Us (Xbox 360) begins in the aftermath of the nuclear destruction of Metropolis by the Joker. He’s in custody, being roughed up by Batman, when Superman turns up and gets uncharacteristically rougher. Then we cut to a scene of the Justice League fighting various villains, and, if we didn’t already know, we discover at last what kind of game this is: a 2D fighter, like The Way of the Exploding Fist without the tranquil backdrops. Each chapter of story mode lets us fight a few bouts as a well-known character, as “our” JLA is thrown into the dark dimension now ruled by a dictatorial Superman.

Fighting games are not usually my bag: I can’t be bothered to stick with one combatant to learn all their moves, which makes for more variety in the short term but holds your skills back. Injustice asked way too much from my fingers – I wasn’t fast enough to pull off many of the special moves – but button mashing produces entertaining results. The main appeal of this game for me was in the variety of DC characters involved, including a decent selection of female heroes and villains. It is always pleasant to see Green Lantern pound Doomsday with a green hammer, and to be at the controls when it happens.

Drawing on the DLC that followed the original game, this Ultimate Edition adds six new characters to the roster: Lobo, Batgirl, General Zod, Martian Manhunter, Zatanna and Mortal Kombat’s Scorpion (I think Injustice is built on the architecture of the recent MK revamp). It also includes lots of special missions – mini-games in which you have to pull off certain moves or achieve special objectives, like blasting asteroids or winning a battle without being hit – and many extra skins, based on classic stories like Superman: Red Son and The Killing Joke.

It’s everything I wanted from a DC universe fighting game, and as well as being a good game it tells a good story, as reflected perhaps in the success of the tie-in comics. The return of voice actors from the DC animated universe was a treat, and though I generally skip cut scenes, those here are well done. It seems daft at first to see Harley Quinn fight Doomsday without being instantly killed, but this is explained in the story mode: a gift from the evil Superman to his lieutenants. Local multiplayer works well, allowing logged-in players to swap in and out with no problems. It’s all good fun. Grim, dark fun.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Winds of Gath by E.C. Tubb (audiobook), reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Winds of Gath (4 hrs 55, Wildside Press, Audible edition) is the first book in the long-running Dumarest Saga by E.C. Tubb. This is a new audio version produced by Wildside Press, and read by Rish Outfield. It could, however, have been book six or seven just as easily, since when we join Dumarest for this first time he is already an adult, already searching for Earth, already tested by circumstance and hardened by experience. This first novel is the most derivative of those I’ve read – it copies Dune very closely, with its own Bene Gesserit (the Matriarchs of Kund), mentats (the Cybers), a duel with a beautifully sculpted muscle man, a bedroom encounter with a flying assassin, etc. But it’s much shorter than Dune, much less portentous, and subsequent volumes do head off in new directions.

Elements that seemed dated and sexist reading an old paperback are even more striking when appearing in a new audiobook: “Dyne had his cold predictions, based on known data and logical extrapolation, but she had better than that. She had the age-old intuition of her sex, which could confound all logic.” E.C. Tubb writes men well, women less so. A lonely, dangerous brooder who is good at violence but tries to avoid it, Dumarest is worshipped and feared by men, irresistible to women. He’s not far away from being the hero of a romance novel, though here he once again suffers the indignity of an unflattering cover portrait, albeit one not quite as bad as those that (dis)graced the Arrow paperbacks.

It took me a little while to get used to the American narration, by Rish Outfield – I’d always imagined these stories being told in the voice of a stern English headmaster! – but these books were I think originally written for the US market, so it makes some sense. There are a number of long conversations in the book, and Outfield handles the range of characters required very well. The simpering of Seena at the beginning may be a barrier for some listeners, but it’s fair to say that Outfield’s performance fairly reflects the book’s portrayal of her as rather a ninny. The audio production seems a bit inconsistent, as if the reader changes position between chapters, or parts were recorded in different studios, but that doesn’t spoil it: I only read this book a couple of years ago, and listening to it again so soon on audio was still a pleasure.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Deliver Us from Evil, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Demonic possession/police procedural mash-up delivers, but doesn’t stand among most hallowed horror films

A mysterious hooded figure hanging out at a zoo coaxes a woman into attempting to kill her child. So begins an investigation that will call into question Bronx cop Ralph Sarchie’s (Eric Bana) faith (or lack thereof) and sanity. 

Deliver Us from Evil (2014), directed by Scott Derrickson, adds a police procedural twist to levitate the film to above par status in the overdone demonic possession subgenre. During Sarchie’s journey, the viewer encounters a horde of proven scare tactics: disturbing video footage, creepy wall text and symbols, basement explorations, toys moving on their own, faces and bodies popping onto the screen, and sinister noises.

Sarchie begins to link the zoo incident footage (which calls to mind M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008)) to three Iraq War veterans. As Sarchie navigates “the sewer” of his precinct, his findings take a toll. His relationship with his wife and child worsens. He starts to see and hear things that others cannot. An event from his past begins to surface. Then there is the more immediate threat of the hooded figure, who grows more dangerous as Sarchie gets closer to the truth.

Eric Bana, known to many as “the first Hulk” (Hulk, 2003), proves a wise casting choice. He offers a hardened cop with a believable lack of introspection. Sarchie’s raw protestations against the supernatural add a bit of humor. I’m paraphrasing here: “I hate it when people blame little fairies for all the bad shit they do,” or “She didn’t try to kill her kid because she’s possessed. She tried to kill her kid because she’s fuckin’ crazy.” The concerned expression that Bana has perfected and his New York accent are bonuses.

Funny man Joel McHale of the TV series Community plays Sarchie’s wise-cracking sidekick Butler. He’s the type of guy who wears a Boston Red Sox hat in Yankees territory to see how people will react. One would expect a little more depth from him. 

Possessed by Possession Tropes

There really isn’t anything groundbreaking about Deliver Us from Evil. Still, like a slew of other recent horror films, especially James Wan films like Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), it effectively packages horror film tropes. I was engaged throughout.

One of Deliver Us from Evil’s greatest strengths is its use of sound. For instance, there are times when Sarchie’s flashlight searches—remember, he’s a cop so there’s a justification for doing so—go silent to ratchet up the tension. Additionally, a leitmotif of static and children’s laughter builds and connects with an incident from Sarchie’s past.

An invisible entity likes to make noises in Sarchie’s daughter’s room. Though they are not adequately explained, the loud scratching and her toy owl’s unprompted “haha hoo haha hoo” are admirably nerve-racking. And no matter how many times we hear it, the “Pop Goes the Weasel” song that accompanies the jack-in-the-box continues to build tension.

The inevitable exorcism in this film is theatrical and a bit lengthy, yet entertaining in a “how far will they take this?” kind of way. There’s even humor: a cop, viewing the event through one-way glass, occasionally makes overly dramatic comments rife with profanity.

Deliver Us from Evil gives a fix to horror aficionados, but they will find its scares short-lived. So continues the quest to outdo the abiding terror that Paranormal Activity brought in 2007. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Friday, 11 July 2014

Terra Obscura: S.M.A.S.H. of Two Worlds, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Terra Obscura: S.M.A.S.H. of Two Worlds (Vertigo, tpb, 336pp), written by Peter Hogan, collects two mini-series set on Earth, though not our Earth, nor the Earth of Tom Strong, although he has visited. He dubbed this Terra Obscura. It mimics his home in many ways, and provides a home to super-heroes from the forties who have fallen out of copyright and trade mark protection, like the atomic-powered American Crusader, The Liberator, The Woman in Red, The Green Ghost and the Scarab.

Some of these characters were familiar to me from the use to which other publishers have put them, for example Project Superpowers, supervised by Alex Ross, which gave the characters their own comics universe to inhabit. That was a more serious, epic book in the vein of Kingdom Come, but this pulpier take was fun too. These stories focus mainly on Carol, the daughter of the Fighting Yank, frustrated by the loss of her powers since her father’s death, and Ms Masque, who had no powers in the first place.

The first story picks up some time after Tom Strong’s most recent visit. A field which nullifies electrical devices is expanding from a canyon near Vegas, with refugees pouring out of the zone “babbling nonsense about monsters and demons”. Surviving members of S.M.A.S.H. (the Society of Major American Science Heroes) are sent to investigate. In the second story timeslips are being caused across the world by the return of long-lost hero Captain Future and his bizarrely distorted spaceship.

The background to both stories is the rising influence of the Terror: a dead Batman survived by a potentially malign copy of his intelligence and a half-mad Robin.

The artwork by Yanick Paquette is bold and attractive throughout – maybe too much so in some distractingly cheesecakey panels! – and the colours are a treat. A clever feature of Tom Strong is the way letterer Todd Klein makes Strong’s dialogue a bit bigger than everyone else’s, subtly enhancing his heroic aura, a trick repeated here for Tom Strange. If I were a comics artist, this would be a dream assignment: cool stuff happens on every page. This art team makes it look every bit as cool as it should.

Peter Hogan’s foreword explains how DC declined to publish the first mini-series unless Alan Moore was involved, but Hogan wrote the actual scripts, and I’m much keener now to read the two Tom Strong mini-series he has written. This book clearly sets up future series that did not materialise, but the stories stand well enough alone that this doesn’t spoil things. This may not be the very best work pubished in the America’s Best Comics setting, but it’s a good chunky read, in page count and story content, and it was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Monday, 7 July 2014

A.B.C. Warriors: The Mek Files 01, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The stories in A.B.C. Warriors: The Mek Files 01 (Rebellion, tpb, 308pp) are all written by Pat Mills, with artwork from a superstar cast of artists that includes Kevin O’Neill (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), Brendan McCarthy, Mick McMahon, Carlos Ezquerra, Brett Ewins, and Simon Bisley (the only one I hadn’t heard of before is the mysterious S.M.S.). With a line-up like that you’d expect the book to be much better than it is, but it’s still pretty good.

The first batch of stories, drawn in a relatively straightforward and readable style, date from 2000AD’s early days – issues 119 to 139, from 1979. Here we see a group of eccentric robots joining Sergeant Hammer-stein for a special mission: Happy Shrapnel, Joe Pineapples, Deadlock (Grand Wizard of the Knights Martial), immense, vengeful Mongrol, reprogrammed Volgan war criminal General Blackblood, and molten monster The Mess. It’s gleefully violent: you wouldn’t give it to a child nowadays without asking a parent first. Once the team are assembled, they are packed off to tame Mars, the devil planet! The premise sets them up for a long run, but after dealing with cyboons, mutants, the red death, robot tyrannosaurs, and big George with five brains (none of which work properly), it wraps up very suddenly with a declaration that “we’ve straightened out this side of Mars now”. I enjoyed all of these stories, though they’re not so memorable that I didn’t realise until later that I’d already read them in the 2002 Titan collection The Mek-Nificent Seven.

The strip returned to 2000AD in 1988, nine years and four hundred issues later, the long gap perhaps explained by the problems that had “plagued the strip from beginning to end” (according to Kevin O’Neill, speaking in a reprint volume from 1983): “Group stories are like breaking rocks for writer and artist alike. Pat Mills broke the biggest rocks and the splinters flew off in all directions.”

The new setting – the future Earth known as Termight – suggests that in the interval the warriors have been involved in the adventures of Nemesis the Warlock. Joined by Ro-Jaws, Hammer-stein’s old friend from the Ro-Busters, and then Terri, a human who thinks of herself as a robot, the team battles foes including The Monad, the quintessence of human evil from the end of the world, who causes havoc after escaping into the time wastes. The art in this half of the book by Simon Bisley and S.M.S. is admirable in many ways – it’s challenging, energetic and expressive – but it’s difficult to tell what is going on, especially when events take place in one tunnel after another, with backgrounds often entirely white or entirely black. It’s trying very hard to be grown up and significant, and though the stories are still being written by Pat Mills, these aren’t half as much fun. I would probably pass on volume 02 if it took the same approach.

But even though the two parts are so different that it’s like reading a book that’s half Curt Swan, half recent Frank Miller, I liked it overall. Its best ideas are brilliant – poor old George staggering across the surface of Mars while his hands and feet argue with his head! – and it still comes as a surprise to see robot heroes killing humans, when mainstream entertainment so often goes out of its way to give human heroes zombies or robots to murder. I wouldn’t say that appealed, exactly (you’d worry about me if it did), but it still feels fresh and honest.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Justice League of America, Vol. 1, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Justice League of America, Vol. 1 (DC Comics, tpb, 192pp) is mostly written by Geoff Johns, with most art by David Finch. It presents us with an all-new JLA B-team in the post-Flashpoint DC Universe, where, on the evidence of this book at least, continuity has quickly become as knotty as it was in the old one. The team is led by Steve Trevor, apparently fresh from romantic disentanglement with Wonder Woman, and also features Green Arrow, Katana, Vibe, Martian Manhunter, Stargirl, Hawkman, a ludicrously undressed Catwoman and a new (to me) Green Lantern.

Aside from Grant Morrison’s batbooks (which seem to pretty much ignore the universal continuity change) and the first few issues of Justice League Dark, I haven’t read much of the New 52, but it was easy enough to jump in. Green Arrow hasn’t grown his beard yet, the Martian Manhunter isn’t munching on Oreo cookies, and it seems that Hawkman hasn’t yet found his Hawkgirl, but most comic readers, even those who no longer read them month to month, are so used to alternate worlds and elseworlds and what-ifs that a whole new universe doesn’t take much getting used to.

The biggest surprise here, given that the introduction of the New 52 was the point at which DC went day-and-date digital, is that absolutely no consideration has been given in the comic to making it suitable for reading in digital formats, with double-page spreads used as enthusiastically as ever. No one expects every comic to be arranged in nine-panel grids like the Baxter format Legion of Super-Heroes, but that’d be a lot easier to read in guided view than any of this.

This review is based on an pre-release pdf, so the final edition may have changed to some extent, but this book is rather a mess. It begins reasonably enough with a story of the new Justice League of substitute heroes being formed by Amanda Waller (who has lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw her) and Steve Trevor, and then going on their first adventure: fighting Professor Ivo’s android versions of the real Justice League.

It’s not very good, but at least I understood what was going on. Then we seem to be thrown into the back end of a crossover, with some crucial events skipped over, and I was reminded why I don’t read many DC Comics these days. The next chapter is something called Trinity War Chapter Four with no information about the content of chapters one to three – and then that story will be continued in Justice League Dark!

A missed opportunity. Digital comics encourage asynchronous reading – people now, more than ever, will plough through an individual series rather than reading several comics that happen to be out in a particular month. On this showing, DC are still so focused on monthly sales, on crossovers and events, that the comics are hobbled. There was a glimmer of something good here, and these are characters I like and have been reading for thirty years, but I didn’t enjoy this enough to want to read volume two.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Maleficent, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Mistress of All Evil repackaged as multidimensional heroine

Excepting the horror genre, not many films are named after a villain. Villainesses are even rarer. Moreover, it’s hard to find a fully developed hero in a contemporary special effects-heavy blockbuster.

Maleficent (2014), directed by Robert Stromberg, fills these gaps exquisitely by recasting the iconic Mistress of All Evil as a fairy born into a privileged, human-free life of gallivanting amid an idyllic forest filled with magical inhabitants. Then she meets the boy Stefan, who ultimately betrays her to assume the throne. Jilted lover Maleficent slaps a curse on King Stefan’s daughter: before her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel needle and fall into an eternal sleep, lest she be awakened by true love’s kiss.

The king orders the elimination of all spinning wheels and dispatches his daughter to a remote cottage, where Maleficent immediately finds her.

The majority of the film juxtaposes King Stefan’s self-destructive search for the evasive “villainess” and Maleficent’s relationship with the unsuspecting Aurora.

Initially, the film seems to move toward an eco-tale in the vein of Avatar (2009) when the child Maleficent chides a human intruder for stealing a precious stone from her forest. However, Maleficent veers from this direction and instead focuses on an unlikely relationship between a Goody Two-shoes and a shadowy sorceress. The film offers a moving, if predictable climax and healthy doses of what the best fairy tales deliver: justice and triumph.

A Jolie Good Performance
Having borne Charlize Theron’s overly dramatic portrayal of Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)—the actress made the most of a poorly scripted character—I was concerned that Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent would follow in her footsteps. Fortunately, Jolie, armed with those unmistakable horns and some vicious cheekbones, rises to the occasion.

There are times when Jolie rages. When Maleficent discovers that she has been betrayed, for instance, she conveys first shock with her quiet realization, then shrieking outrage. Fortunately, she avoids the Hollywood cliché of extending her arms and screaming at the sky.

But what truly makes Jolie’s performance a pleasure to watch are her moments of restraint. When Maleficent tells Aurora that “there is evil in this world, hatred and revenge,” one senses both forced constraint and self-castigation in her tone. When people speak to her, Maleficent may stare at them for a couple seconds before responding. Her reserved nature, coupled with her economy of movement and rigid posture, rebels against a real world that never stops talking and moving.

In one of the most endearing scenes, a mud fight breaks out between Aurora and the forest creatures. When a stray splotch of mud hits Maleficent, the revelers look worried and quiet pervades the scene, with one exception: Diaval, Maleficent’s shapeshifting henchman, bursts into laughter. A torrent of mud slams him in the face and as the laughing resumes, Maleficent smiles…slightly.

Go Forth Fearlessly

Disney’s revamp of the villainess joins other blockbusters like the The Hunger Games and Divergent series in the ongoing dialogue about the role of contemporary women both within and beyond the silver screen.

Once, the childless recluse with an unorthodox sense of fashion was restricted to desolate outposts and gloomy alcoves. Now Maleficent has stepped out unabashed. There is something liberating about plopping a gaunt-faced villainess in flowing black robes into a sunny, verdant landscape where a blonde frolics.

“I am not afraid,” Maleficent tells Aurora, who embodies the old-fashioned notion of what a woman should be. Maybe, Maleficent hints, a woman’s success lies not in being whisked away or saved by a man, but rather in her own ingenuity. Maybe they should have named this film Femaleficent. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Would save if my house burned down: Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer #bookaday

Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer (subtitled Pseudoscience, Superstition and Other Confusions of Our Time), is the book I would save if my house burned down, without a doubt. Not because it's a terrific book, although of course it is – chapter three in particular should be taught in schools - but because it is one of the first books on the first bookcase when you enter our house, on a shelf at chest height, and it sticks out from the other books on there.

Because if my house was on fire, I wouldn't give a stuff about my paper books. They're only possessions. I'd get by with the books in my Kindle archive, or the eARCs in my Dropbox. But The Borough Press, who set this challenge, presumably plan to be there, to make sure I don't leave without a book, perhaps even forcing me to go back inside! In those circumstances I would go for the easiest to grab: Why People Believe Weird Things.

I got off to a slow start with this series of #bookaday posts, so here’s a quick catch-up on the four I missed at the beginning.

Favourite book from childhood: The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. So many lands to visit! The slippery slide! The Saucepan Man! Silkie! (My second literary crush.) It gave me the most amazing dreams and the most terrifying nightmares. I tried reading the modern bowdlerized version of this to our children but it was painful. The sexism of the original is deplorable, but the modern version replaces it with a pathetic vagueness. And Fanny and Dick were always funny names, that was half the fun!

Best bargain. Nearly all my books were bargains. For my first twenty-three years I could only afford secondhand books, and by the time I could afford new books I had so many secondhand books that there wasn’t much room for much else. I could pick something like The Best of McSweeney’s Deluxe, where I pre-ordered it and the price went up by twenty quid before publication. There was a nice time when sterling/dollar exchange rates were such that Marvel’s hardback deluxe collections of things like New X-Men and Runaways were only fifteen quid each. Three quarters of my collection of 2000AD graphic novels (the Hamlyn and Titan editions) came from places like The Works and Leicester Book Clearance. My pick, though, would be the two carrier bags full of Doctor Who books I bought on one glorious day in Sutton Coldfield, back in 1998 or 1999. It was a popup shop that seemed to be gone in a week, so thank goodness I had plenty of money in the bank that day. They had pretty much the full range of Virgin New Adventures and Missing Adventures, plus loads of the non-fiction and hardbacks, and even, I think, collections of comics. I bought everything I didn’t already have, spending a hundred and fifty quid or so and coming away with forty or fifty books.

One with a blue cover: Selected Stories by Fritz Leiber. This is the Night Shade edition, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Charles N. Brown. This was a kind gift at FantasyCon from someone I had helped out that year with my awesome publishing skills. Here it is on the overloaded coffee table in my office.



Least favourite book by favourite author: Monsters in Orbit by Jack Vance. An early undistinguished work. I don’t remember much about it, except the disappointment!

So that's it for this #bookaday series of blog posts. It's been a fun experiment, and tomorrow I'll probably be back to blogging as infrequently as ever. (Although I do have almost thirty reviews half-finished – time for a review a day?) I love that this got me to root around in my stupidly huge book collection, which was a great way of bringing it back to life. For example I found a bunch of unread books by people like Clifford Simak, James Tiptree Jr, Leigh Brackett and Henry Kuttner that had previously been lost to double-shelving.



Must find time to read those soon.

Anyway, thanks for reading!

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The one I have reread most often: The Slings & Arrows Comic Guide #bookaday

Doctor Who: The Television Companion by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker was my first thought here. I must have read it all a dozen times over, bit by bit. You start by looking up a transmission date, then begin reading the analysis, and next thing you know it's time to go to bed and you're wondering where the day has gone.


Other Doctor Who books were contenders too - Planet of the Daleks, The Discontinuity Guide, The Claws of Axos (which I got in exchange for some marbles at middle school), Day of the Daleks (77p at Millers), and Image of the Fendahl (borrowed from the town library three or four times and read in a single night each time).

Then I thought about novels, like Planets for Sale by A.E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull (which led me to read loads of tedious A.E. van Vogt books before realising I should probably have been looking for E. Mayne Hull books), The Duelling Machine by Ben Bova, The Time Trip by Rob Swigart, The Stainless Steel Rat for President by Harry Harrison, or Biggles in France by Captain W.E. Johns.

But no, it had to be the second edition of The Slings & Arrows Comic Guide, edited by Frank Plowright, a wonderful series of critical essays surveying American comics from the 1930s to the present day. The other books I've read several times, but this book I've never stopped reading. It was published in 2003, over 3800 days ago, and I'd estimate I've read from this book on at least three quarters of those days.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Bought at my fave indie bookshop: Bone and Jewel Creatures at Weightless Books #bookaday

Millers in Keighley was my favourite independent bookshop as long as I lived there. It had a great mix of new and secondhand titles at a wide range of prices. It fed my hunger for science fiction for years. I would walk into town to save my bus fare so that I could afford to buy a 15p comic or three 5p books from the discard box. I bought loads of books there – lots of Moorcock, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Sword of Shannara. Their new books had often been sitting on the shelves a while so they still had old prices on, making them more affordable than in other shops.

However, I’ll always hold against them that they took my entire collection of Doctor Who books and gave me just £5.50 for it, most of which I spent on one book, a tie-in to the TV show Murder in Space. Easily the worst decision I have ever made. Not really their fault, but they made no effort to talk me out of it! So they can’t be my favourite. Too much pain! It’s made me reluctant now to ever throw anything away, for fear of future regrets, to the point that I’ve had to put “throw something away” on my to-do list for every Saturday, to counter my hoarding tendencies.

I spend more money on books at Amazon than anywhere else by a long, long way, but does it count as an indie bookshop? I don’t think they are owned by anyone except themselves. But still. If I had chosen them, I’d have gone for one of the many books that would have been too expensive for me to buy anywhere else, like my box set of Penguin Mini Moderns.

I’ll pick instead Weightless Books, who are doing a great job of making ebooks available from the small press, without DRM, at reasonable prices, and in a variety of formats. I like the books put out by people like Subterranean Press, but I don’t have the money or shelf space for buying collectable hardbacks. The particular book I’ll pick is Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear. The vampire books I bought from the same shop at the same time by the same author were very enjoyable, so I’m looking forward to reading her more fantastical work.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Her, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Love bytes.

The Goodies episode “2001 and a bit” (1976) is perhaps the most fantastically offbeat of all the Goodies satires, extrapolating a violent yet progressive, absurdist future from the social mores and concerns of the mid-1970s. Each Goodie plays the lookalike son of one of the others – they were equally fond of Raquel (Welch, the picture from One Million Years B.C. would suggest), so when triplets came along they guessed and took one each – and in revealing whatever it was that became of Graeme, Tim confesses that, “He was put away for having an unnatural relationship [half-pause] with his computer.” Never mind that such an affair already had been the subject of “Women’s Lib” (1971), one memorable scene of which sees Graeme and his desk-sized desktop skipping hand-in-hand through the woods. In 1976 the idea still was ludicrous enough to power a good one-liner.

Fast-forward to the year 2013 (and a bit), and writer/director Spike Jonze has brought us Her – a movie in which the human/computer relationship is taken not as the subject of a throwaway guffaw or outlandish thought experiment, but rather as a foregone social trend whereby insular digital natives such as Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) quite naturally will bond and form intimate relationships with their AIs. The computer romance idea is by no means new to cinema – nearly thirty years have passed since Electric Dreams (1984) had its fling with the silver screen – but Jonze’s take is both disquietingly stark and unnervingly serious (notwithstanding that a few uneasy chuckles served somehow to earn the film two spurious Golden Globe nominations in the comedy genre). Her, as the title might suggest, is no mere conceit around which to structure a plot, but rather a reasoned, often uncomfortable extrapolation wherein the once-unimaginable has become an acceptable and inevitable reality, burgeoning yet manifest, from which necessarily there must be both repercussions to face and truths to learn. What is human? What is love? Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is in many ways no less real to the audience than is the metrosexually liberated Twombly with his Tom Selleck throwback moustache and his unselfconscious inversion of the seventies swinger lifestyle. Samantha does not exist to drive the narrative; she is the central yet unseen feature around which it flows. As both Twombly and the audience project onto her their expectations, desires and ideals, well might there be some deeper truth lurking beneath the revelation that, beyond the fleeting yet ultimately intangible bond of interaction, we don’t really know her at all.

Aside from his cinematic treatment of Where the Wild Things Are (2009), Spike Jonze is best known for directing the cleverly eccentric turned bizarre and disturbing Charlie Kaufman-scripted films Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002). Although Kaufman made no direct contribution to Her, his rampantly, unabashedly obtuse Synecdoche, New York (2008) has been cited by Jonze as an inspiration;[1] and while it may be said with some cause that neither Kaufman nor Jonze is quite the same without the other to complement him, nevertheless Her presents as very much of the Kaufman/Jonze oeuvre, taking a quirky idea and playing it not for laughs but rather for dark and gritty (sur)realism. There’s great honesty in this approach, but also the inherent danger that it can produce a high-quality movie of low-enjoyment; a film where nothing can be faulted, per se, yet where the viewer is left ever-so-slightly dissociated throughout, and will exit the cinema possessed in vague combination of feelings perturbed, unfulfilled and off-kilter. Her walks this line, trembling with a certain aplomb through an engrossing yet not particularly easy to watch two-hour traversing of a feature length tightrope (which reputedly was a wobbling half-hour longer before Jonze sought advice from fellow filmmaker Steven Soderbergh on how possibly to cut it back).[2] Phoenix inhabits his character with a sorrowful, lonely truthfulness, as does Amy Adams playing Twombly’s similarly sequestered, alone-in-a-crowd neighbour. The hollowness of the emotional world in which they live is craftily hidden beneath a technologically slick facade – a tragic yin and yang embrace that Jonze stitches together seamlessly and to great effect – and if Twombly’s job as a ghost-writer of personal correspondence were not unsettling enough in its own right, then his detached aptitude serves to bring home the point, the emotional forgery of scripting other people’s happiness falling like drizzled vinegar upon the limp lettuce of Theodore Twombly’s own private life. All in all, it’s a gleaming but downbeat near-future dystopia; terribly good in its own claustrophobic way, yet nonetheless an immersive depiction from which, at journey’s end, one might quickly seek to escape, if not with considerable relief then at least without undue regret.

If to Her we might ascribe a flaw – beyond that of not compromising the filmmakers’ artistic integrity to within maintenance parameters of an audience comfort zone (if indeed some critics might find this problematic) – then it is the inescapable shortcoming of the movie’s having pinned its dénouement, its thematic closure and telling twist of perspective, on a character whose depth, development and growing self-determinism are revealed but sparingly and only ever with directional reference to Twombly’s more overt character journey. Granted, it would be nigh impossible for filmgoers to experience with any sort of fidelity either such thoughts as must be driven by Samantha’s superhuman processing power, or for that matter the unfathomable intricacies of the AI’s multitasking or her lightning-quick capacity for growth – perhaps this keening lack of viewer/subject compatibility even constitutes in some measure the movie’s forlorn raison d’être – but no matter whether it be judged warranted, or of solipsimal necessity, still this remains a shortcoming that lessens the film’s capacity to pass meaningful comment on its central themes of what constitutes love and life. As such, Jonze’s brainchild is born into our world as a yearning future depiction of where the here and now may take us. She sparks briefly, lighting up a murky unknown, then is gone, our relationship with Her revealed at barb’s end as having been not only unnatural but in fact unattainable. Theodore Twombly will move on, as must we all, leaving everything and nothing behind, save for an odd not-quite-resonance and a strange feeling that whensoever next we shall encounter Scarlett Johansson, she’ll have a very particular, almost conspiratorial look directed at each and every one of us.

1. Michael, Chris, “Spike Jonze on letting Her rip and Being John Malkovich”, theguardian.com, posted September 10, 2013 [http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2013/sep/09/spike-jonze-her-scarlett-johansson]

2. Harris, Mark, “Him and Her: How Spike Jonze Made the Weirdest, Most Timely Romance of the Year,” vulture.com, posted October 7, 2013 [http://www.vulture.com/2013/10/spike-jonze-on-making-her.html]

Want to be one of the characters: Plague Ship by Andre Norton #bookaday

For day twenty-seven of #bookaday we are asked for a book where we would want to be one of the characters. After rolling this around for a while I came up with Plague Ship by Andre Norton, and the other books in the Solar Queen series, Sargasso of Space and Postmarked the Stars.


I bought the pictured copy of Sargasso of Space this month in a secondhand bookshop on a seaside trip, got a chapter or two into it on the way home before realising I’d read it, and carried on anyway. Not sure where my Plague Ship is (I think it’s an ex-library yellow Gollancz edition) but I’ll add a photo if it turns up.

I love stories about science fiction traders, have done ever since playing Elite for the first time on a BBC Micro and reading Robert Holdstock’s tie-in novella The Dark Wheel. (Plug: see the Black Swan series by Mitchell Edgeworth in recent issues of TQF for another fine example of the type!)

The crew of the Solar Queen are capable and hard-working, and if I was forced to live in a place as dangerous as the interior of a novel, they'd be good people to be around. They understand the importance of good training and procedures, come up with good ideas, and are always ready to take advantage of a lucky break.

I considered James White’s Hospital Station and the Sector General series for similar reasons (plus it’d be nice to live in a galaxy like that where all problems have solutions), but the Solar Queen won out. I'd struggle with the pleasant bedside manner, and no one expects that of a space trader.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Should have sold more copies: Giant Thief by David Tallerman #bookaday

In doing this series of blog posts it seems polite to avoid promoting our own work, so I won’t pick The Mercury Annual, Pilgrims at the White Horizon, Five Forgotten Stories or any of our other titles, all of which should have sold more than the handful they did, and almost certainly would have if they had been published by a more active publisher!

So I’m going to pick instead Giant Thief by David Tallerman, the story of a thief who steals a giant and sets off on the world’s most exciting piggyback. I’ve no idea how well or otherwise it did, although two sequels were released. But it stands here for all the interesting books that Angry Robot have been publishing over the last few years.

Unfortunately, Angry Robot has run into a bit of trouble this month, forced into closing two of its offshoots: YA imprint Strange Chemistry and crime imprint Exhibit A. The approach of Angry Robot seems to have been to throw a lot of books at the wall to see which ones stuck. Not all of those books were brilliant, but I didn't read any that were boring.

Their enthusiastic approach means they have given lots of new authors a crack at mainstream publishing, and they’ve also been a home to more experienced writers with good books still to write. Long before NetGalley, they sent ebooks to reviewers. If they disappear, they'll be missed. But Angry Robot have come through rough times before, let’s hope they do again.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Never finished it: Edge of Light by Robert Silverberg #bookaday

Today the #bookaday request is for a book you've not finished.

As you can see below, I had quite a lot to choose from. I'll get around to finishing all one hundred and thirty-six of them eventually, but I've gone for Edge of Light by Robert Silverberg as my book of the day.

It's an omnibus of five novels. I read the first two, and they were brilliant, but I never read the other three. (I've read a lot of his other books in the meantime, just not those ones.)

I love an omnibus, but as shown below I hardly ever finish them. Many of these are books I'm very fond of, like Songs of the Dying Earth.

(Titles and credits are from Goodreads and not checked; only first credited contributor listed; apologies for any errors in titles or attribution.)

  • 52: Companion, Grant Morrison
  • A Journey: My Political Life, Tony Blair
  • A Logic Named Joe, Murray Leinster
  • A Long Night at Abu Simbel, Penelope Lively
  • A Pair From Space, James Blish
  • Army of Darkness Omnibus, Volume 1, Sam Raimi
  • Avant l'Incal (l'intégrale), Alejandro Jodorowsky
  • Barnacle Bill The Spacer, And Other Stories, Lucius Shepard
  • Be a Sex-Writing Strumpet, Stacia Kane
  • BFS Journal Spring 2011, Allen Ashley
  • BFS Journal Autumn 2011, Peter Coleborn
  • BFS Journal Autumn 2012, Ian Hunter
  • BFS Journal Spring 2012, Lou Morgan
  • BFS Journal Summer 2011, Peter Coleborn
  • BFS Journal Winter 2010, Sam Stone
  • BFS Journal Winter 2011/2012, Peter Coleborn
  • Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, C.L. Moore
  • Book of Prefaces, Alasdair Gray
  • Bull Running for Girls, Allyson Bird
  • Carmen et autres nouvelles, Prosper Mérimée
  • Cities In Dust (Wasteland, #1), Antony Johnston
  • Citizen Rex, Mario Hernandez
  • Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady, Samuel Richardson
  • Colomba et autres nouvelles, Prosper Mérimée
  • Complete Stories, Rudy Rucker
  • Darkness, Mist And Shadows: Volume 1 And 2: The Collected Macabre Tales Of Basil Copper, Basil Copper
  • Do Not Pass Go, Joel Lane
  • Doctor Who: The Child of Time, Jonathan Morris
  • Doctor Who: Vanishing Point, Stephen Cole
  • Don Juan, George Gordon Byron
  • Don Quixote de La Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  • Edge of Light: The Robert Silverberg Omnibus, Robert Silverberg
  • Empire Star / The Tree Lord of Imeten, Samuel R. Delany
  • Essential Killraven, Vol. 1, Neal Adams
  • Essential Punisher, Vol. 1, Gerry Conway
  • Essential Works of Foucault (1954-1984), Volume 3: Power, Michel Foucault
  • Fever Dream And Other Fantasies, Robert Bloch
  • Filboid Studge, The Story Of A Mouse That Helped, Saki
  • Four Gothic Novels: The Castle of Otranto; Vathek; The Monk; Frankenstein, Horace Walpole
  • Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas R. Hofstadter
  • Gotrek & Felix: The First Omnibus, William King
  • Great Stories of Crime and Detection Volume II (The Twenties and Thirties), Various
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Harry Potter, #7), J.K. Rowling
  • How I Escaped My Certain Fate, Stewart Lee
  • Isis Unbound, Allyson Bird
  • La Compagnie des glaces 1, Georges-Jean Arnaud
  • Let the Galaxy Burn, Marc Gascoigne
  • Lieut. Gulliver Jones: His Vacation, Edwin Lester Arnold
  • Lion Time In Timbuctoo (The Collected Stories, Volume 6), Robert Silverberg
  • Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon
  • May We Borrow Your Husband & Other Comedies of the Sexual Life, Graham Greene
  • McSweeney's #10, Michael Chabon
  • McSweeney's #27, Dave Eggers
  • McSweeney's #45, Dave Eggers
  • Mrs. Pepperpot Stories, Alf Proysen
  • Nancy Drew Files: #66,96, Carolyn Keene
  • Night Watch (Discworld, #29), Terry Pratchett
  • Noddy: A Classic Treasury, Enid Blyton
  • NOS4A2: A Novel, Joe Hill
  • Odyssey, William Shatner
  • Postscripts 14, Nick Gevers
  • Ragmop, Rob Walton
  • Rain, Conrad Williams
  • Rainbow Six, Tom Clancy
  • Rising Stars Compendium, J. Michael Straczynski
  • Rupert: A Collection Of Favourite Stories, Alfred Bestall
  • Rustblind and Silverbright - A Slipstream Anthology of Railway Stories, David Rix
  • Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories, Leigh Brackett
  • Selected Stories of Rudyard Kipling, Andrew Rutherford
  • Showcase Presents: Ambush Bug, Keith Giffen
  • Showcase Presents: Green Arrow, Jack Kirby
  • Showcase Presents: Jonah Hex, Vol. 1, John Albano
  • Showcase Presents: Justice League of America, Vol. 2, Gardner F. Fox
  • Showcase Presents: Phantom Stranger, Vol. 1, Robert Kanigher
  • Showcase Presents: The House of Mystery, Vol. 1, Len Wein
  • Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier, Vol. 1, Joe Kubert
  • Showcase Presents: The War That Time Forgot, Vol. 1, Robert Kanigher
  • Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honour of Jack Vance, George R.R. Martin
  • Space War (Professor Jameson Space Adventure #3), Neil R. Jones
  • Star Trek: Logs 7–10, Alan Dean Foster
  • Starstruck Deluxe Edition, Elaine Lee
  • Stonewielder, Ian C. Esslemont
  • Teatro Grottesco, Thomas Ligotti
  • Test Pattern: Jonathan Hickman Collection, Volume 1, Jonathan Hickman
  • The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3), Philip Pullman
  • The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories, John Kessel
  • The Best American Comics 2011, Alison Bechdel
  • The Best Of Fritz Leiber, Fritz Leiber
  • The Best of McSweeney's, Dave Eggers
  • The Book of the Thousand and One Nights. Volume 1, Anonymous
  • The Burning Circus, Johnny Mains
  • The Carl Hiaasen Omnibus: Tourist Season, Double Whammy And Skin Tight, Carl Hiaasen
  • The Centauri Device, M. John Harrison
  • The Chandler Collection: Volume 1, Raymond Chandler
  • The Collected Stories, Katherine Mansfield
  • The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, Elmore Leonard
  • The Dark is Rising Sequence, Susan Cooper
  • The Dirty Dozen: The Best 12 Commando Books Ever!. Edited by George Low, George Low
  • The Drawing of the Three (The Dark Tower, #2), Stephen King
  • The Dudley Smith Trio, James Ellroy
  • The Ends of the Earth, Lucius Shepard
  • The Expelled (Penguin Mini Modern Classics), Samuel Beckett
  • The Finder Library, Volume 1, Carla Speed McNeil
  • The Five Great Novels Of James M. Cain., James M. Cain
  • The Halfling: And Other Stories, Leigh Brackett
  • The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus, John Franklin Bardin
  • The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 19, Stephen Jones
  • The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 16, Gardner R. Dozois
  • The Mammoth Book of Contemporary SF Masters, Gardner R. Dozois
  • The Matrix Comics Vol 1, Geof Darrow
  • The New Avengers Vol. 1, Brian Michael Bendis
  • The New Nature of the Catastrophe (Tale of the Eternal Champion, #9), Michael Moorcock
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  • The Planet of the Double Sun (Professor Jameson #1), Neil R. Jones
  • The Polish Officer, Alan Furst
  • The Richard Laymon Collection, Volume 4: Beware / Dark Mountain, Richard Laymon
  • The Sam Gunn Omnibus, Ben Bova
  • The Savage Sword of Conan, Volume 3, Roy Thomas
  • The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner
  • The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Stories (Penguin Classics), Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Very Best of Gene Wolfe, Gene Wolfe
  • The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Fictions, Ann VanderMeer
  • The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics, Timothy Ferris
  • Them: Adventures with Extremists, Jon Ronson
  • Time Patrol, Poul Anderson
  • Un Lun Dun, China Miéville
  • Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks
  • Unexpected Journeys, Juliet E. McKenna
  • Unlikely Stories, Mostly, Alasdair Gray
  • Valérian et Laureline l'Intégrale, volume 2, Pierre Christin
  • Voice of the Fire, Alan Moore
  • War and Peace (Konemann Classics), Leo Tolstoy
  • Warlock, Andre Norton
  • Yesterday's Tomorrows, Rian Hughes
  • Young Miles (Vorkosigan Omnibus, #2), Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Zombies in New York and Other Bloody Jottings, Sam Stone

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Hooked me into reading: Star Trek 10 by James Blish #bookaday

Today I have to choose a book that hooked me into reading.

I could have gone for the Peter and Jane books, or the works of Enid Blyton, particularly The Enchanted Wood, The Magic Faraway Tree and The Wishing Chair. Or the Target Doctor Who books. They all played a huge part in giving me a love of reading and teaching me how to do it.

But I decided instead to highlight Star Trek 10 by James Blish, a true watershed book: the first book I got out from the big library!

When I was little, the children's library was a separate building with a separate entrance. It backed on to the grown-up library and behind the scenes I doubt there was much of a distinction. But going into the big library was a big deal for a kid.

I had learned how to use the library's microfiche catalogue to see which Doctor Who books it was worth searching for. From that I discovered that a copy of Star Trek 10 was in the grown-up library next door.

I asked a librarian, and was told I was indeed allowed to get books out from the big library. Imagine my excitement! So I went next door, found the book on the sf shelf, and took it to the counter - which I could barely reach.

The book scared the heck out of me and gave me nightmares for years. It contained "The Empath", in which I think Bones get stuffed into a giant test tube. And then (spoiler) the Empath takes all his appalling wounds onto herself, which was heartbreaking.

But I had crossed the threshold into reading grown-up books. I was a reader for life!

The Blish adaptations are still my favourite version of Star Trek. And I still find them frightening.

Monday, 23 June 2014

True Detective, Season 1, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Is True Detective, Season 1 (Sky Atlantic, TV, 8 episodes) a crime programme or a supernatural programme? Even by the end I wasn’t entirely sure, though I suppose the title is a clue. I’ll hedge my bets and call it horror.

The series tells the story of two police officers in Louisiana working together for the first time. Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) is a family man cheating on his wife (Michelle Monaghan). Rust Cohle, played by an incandescent Matthew McConaughey, is a loner with a bare apartment who cribs his bleak philosophy of life from the likes of Thomas Ligotti. They don’t get on – a shame given how much time they’ll spend stuck in a car together.

They catch a disturbing homicide, a young woman posed nude by a tree in the middle of a field with a crown of antlers. Investigations reveal she was a girl went missing a long time ago, and soon Marty and Rust are falling into a rabbit hole of abducted children, cover-ups, abandoned schools and churches, secret societies and conspiracies. That’s all happening in the mid-nineties, but their investigation is framed by interviews in 2012 with a portly Marty and an unhinged Rust.

Both lead actors give what I’d be tempted to call career best performances if I ignored how many of their performances I haven’t yet seen. Marty is funny when getting riled by Rust, but behaves like an utter jerk towards his wife, and worse towards his girlfriend. Woody Harrelson makes every cruel comment feel in character, never holding back to preserve a good-guy image. Marty’s ruining his own life, and he knows it.

McConaughey deserves all the awards that don’t go to Harrelson. He (with help from the costume, make-up and hair departments, of course) creates a stunning contrast between the handsome young Rust, looking like he stepped out of a Paul Grist comic, just about keeping it together despite a miserable spell undercover for the DEA, and the dishevelled, ruined guy he becomes – but you never doubt that it’s the same guy.

Though the programme comes close to perfection, it doesn’t quite get there. The exploitative female nudity in some episodes is crass and embarrassing, as sexy as the contractual obligation to HBO one suspects it to have been. The final episode doesn’t quite live up to the heights that precede it, and features a cringeworthy spiritual discussion that felt shoehorned in to satisfy the needs of the actor who delivers it.

But step over those things and you’ll find a stunning piece of work. Nic Pizzolatto writes all eight episodes, and Cary Joji Fukunaga directs them all, which gives it, whether in quiet reflection or thrilling action, an unusual degree of creative consistency – though of course that’s only a good thing because it’s consistently excellent. I’d call it an eight-hour film, but this is television so compelling it puts cinema to shame.

The assumption seems to be that season two will feature a new pair of detectives. If that’s been confirmed offscreen, it seems a shame. Rust and Marty worked together for several years, and for many of those they thought this case was over. What else did they investigate in that time? And what happens next? I would love to find out.

Made to read at school: Les Mains Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre #bookaday

Not many books could be said to have truly changed my life, but my pick for day 23 of #bookaday is one. Unlike John, I wasn't very good at French, but when we studied Les Mains Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre I (a) loved it and (b) got straight As for my GCSE essays about it.

As a result of this surprising development I took French at A-Level, and after that at degree level, which is bizarre given that I was never any good at understanding or speaking the language. The oral exam for my degree went so badly that bellows of laughter broke out as I left the room! I used English words at one point!

The mistake I'd made after the great scores for those GCSE essays about Les Mains Sales was thinking I was good at French, whereas in fact it was the literature bit I liked. And because of that mistake I took a literature degree in a foreign language, with all the inconvenience one might expect from such a course of action.

But credit to Les Mains Sales: it got me studying literature, which had never been part of my plan, and the literature degree helped get me into publishing, and I'm doing okay in my quiet little way. For one thing, I've been able to work from home for the first decade of our having children, and I feel incredibly fortunate for that.

So thanks Les Mains Sales. I wish you hadn't derailed my education, but thanks for getting me into reading books in French, and thanks for getting me where I am today!

Honourable mentions: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Pinballs by Betsy Byars, and A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Out of print: Philip Jose Farmer conquiert l'univers #bookaday

Day 22 of #bookaday, and we're supposed to name a book that's out of print. This one probably is: Philip Jose Farmer conquiert l'univers by Francois Mottier.

I found this on a secondhand bookstall in Tourcoing, near Lille, while spending a year there as a teaching assistant. I was terrible at it. Never have so many pupils played so many games of hangman.

The idea here is that it's a tribute to PJF in the same way that PJF's Venus on the Half-Shell, published under the name Kilgore Trout, was a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut.

It's a bit like The Stone God Awakens mixed with To Your Scattered Bodies Go - a statue of Farmer is imbued with his spirit and dashes around the future having sexy adventures.

I don't remember much of it, as you can tell from that summary, and I've no idea if it was good or not. I probably skipped the hard words, because I hadn't been reading French books long in those days.

I always enjoy books with real authors as characters. See also Michael Bishop's Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas or Richard Lupoff's Lovecraft's Book. They have a weird and groovy vibe.


Saturday, 21 June 2014

Summer read: The Best of Archie Comics #bookaday

Day 21 of #bookaday (though I only started on day 4 and began blogging about it on day 5) is for naming summer reads. When I'm on holiday I try to avoid reading anything that gives me work to do, i.e. books I'll owe a review. It's a time for reading magazines, Doctor Who books, Penguin 60s and mini moderns, non-fiction, humour, and most of all: comics.

So my pick today is The Best of Archie Comics, a cheap four-hundred page collection of stories about everyone's favourite two-timer and his chums.

Archie comics are bright and cheerful and require absolutely no thought or effort - perfect for holidays. They are available in vast quantities at cheap prices, which is exactly how I like my comics. And best of all, our children often buy them with their own pocket money. Sometimes these even make me laugh out loud, usually when Jughead is involved. How does he keep his figure?