Monday, 2 March 2015

Amazon Fire TV | review by Stephen Theaker

The Amazon Fire TV is a nifty little under-set box that connects to the internet and allows you to access various apps and bits and pieces of online content, much like Roku boxes. Its small remote control takes you up and down through the categories – currently including things like Prime Video, Movies, TV, Games, Apps, Music and Photos – while left and right take you into the contents of those categories. The remote also has a superpower: hold down the microphone button to summon your entertainment with surprisingly reliable voice controls. (Text Search is also available in a pinch.)

The voice search shows up one weakness of the device; while working well, it only takes you to Amazon content, and much of that needs paying for. Unlike similar searches on the Xbox 360, results from apps like Netflix and the BBC iPlayer are not presented, and voice search does not work within those apps. That’s a limitation that soon stops being a bother, as you get to know the situations in which voice search is worth trying. It helps of course if you have Amazon content to search for.

We began paying for Amazon Prime a few years ago to take the stress out of buying Christmas presents, and we would probably pay for it even without Prime Instant Video being included – but it is, and it is easily accessible on the Fire TV. People not paying for Prime will find the device much less useful, and will probably be irritated by its focus on Amazon video, but the selection is good, and getting better. Constantine may not be the classic we hoped for, but I’m glad we got to watch it each week on Prime, while the frequent Pilot Seasons of new shows are always a treat. It’s nice being able to watch episode one of a programme without feeling guilty about not watching the rest The selection of films is also good, though dig a bit and it still has the video store feel of the Lovefilm service it grew out of.

Prime Music isn’t available in the UK, unfortunately, but people who buy their albums from Amazon will find many of them available in the Music section of the device. This, for me, has been one of the greatest things about the Fire TV. Aside from a brief dalliance with, I’ve bought nearly all my albums from Amazon since I began working at home, and two hundred and three of them are available here. It’s been by far my favourite way yet of bringing digital music into the living room. Playing an album can be as simple as searching for that artist with a voice search and then picking the album. Playlists can also be set up – we have one for each family member of their own albums, plus one for quiet reading – though that must be done elsewhere, such as a PC or the Amazon music app. One slight glitch is that the music stops playing when the television turns off, but that might be down to the settings on my TV.

Games on the device have surprisingly good graphics, at perhaps the level of the Wii. However, there are limits: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, though very similar to the recent Xbox 360 re-release, requires most of its graphics sliders to be turned right down before it will run on the Fire TV – not to mention that its huge file size takes up so much of this device’s meagre space that it’s impractical to keep it on there for any significant length of time. Other games are mildly diverting, and tend to be cheap, but have the usual tendency of cheap app games to demand additional purchases and apply penalties to gameplay when they are not bought. Games can be played with the remote control, or with an optional games controller, which is a passable imitation of the 360’s. If I’m going to play games, I’m always going to turn on the 360 instead of this, but kids without consoles would appreciate the games.

Game and other apps bought in the Amazon App Store for Android devices or the Kindle Fire become available at no extra cost here, where a version compatible with the Fire TV is available.

Some apps are missing altogether, notably the BBC Radio Player, Now TV (reciprocally, Amazon Instant Video is unavailable on the Roku), Kindle and Audible. The last is presumably down to Audible being set up for downloads rather than streaming, but it was still a big disappointment. I’d hoped too for some kind of fun Kindle app – no one is going to read full novels on their television, but it’d be useful for family reading, exercise, and things like that. There is no Comixology app either – HD guided view on the TV would be great. NPR One and Spotify would also be good to have eventually.

YouTube is on there, and how much our household uses it shows one of the strengths of the Fire TV, that it is so quick to turn on and use. The 360 and TiVo have YouTube access, but going through the rigmarole involved in starting those up to watch a five minute video isn’t worth the effort. With the Fire TV, watching the latest Jimmy Fallon, SNL or Jimmy Kimmel clips has become a very pleasant part of our daily routine. That the remote control doesn’t need to be pointed at the device itself just adds to the convenience.

Any negatives other than those already mentioned? It lacks an on-off button, so crashes mean pulling out the power cord, Spectrum-style. For some reason, the film Tower Heist, having once been added to our watchlist, now refuses to be removed from it. And the option to remove a recommended film from display seems to only have a temporary effect. So let’s say, for the sake of argument, not from any personal experience or anything, that in a moment of weakness a fellow was to watch a certain kind of film from the seventies, its sleazy ilk would pop up in his recommendations over and over as if he were playing a game of whack-a-mole. The only solution is to watch enough wholesome items to take the recommendations in a less embarrassing direction.

Another problem, but again one that may be down to my inexpert adjustment of settings, is that since buying the device our wifi router needs rebooting at least once a day. Whether this is down to the device, or just down to it encouraging us to stream much more video wirelessly than usual, is yet to be investigated. I have seen reports of other users having similar problems, relating to its screensaver streaming photographs from the Amazon Cloud.

That feature has been popular in our household. Again, we could do that with various other devices and apps, but it works so well and so simply and so conveniently on the Fire TV. If we want to watch Netflix or Instant Video or iPlayer or YouTube, the Fire TV is the device we now use. If you have Prime and a good Auto-Rip collection, I’d recommend it heartily. If, however, your music was all bought in iTunes and you prefer Now TV to Netflix, it may not be the device for you. ****

Friday, 27 February 2015

Happy by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson | review by Stephen Theaker

With Happy (Image, pb, 112pp) it feels Grant Morrison has taken a step into Garth Ennis territory. It’s a violent mini-series, collected here in a book. Nick Sax is an ex-cop now working as a hitman. Hired to kill the Fratelli brothers, he hires them to come and kill him, figuring it’s the easiest way to get them all in a room together. Unfortunately an extra brother tags along and Nick is shot. Badly wounded, on his way to (he thinks) hospital, he starts having visions of a chatty blue flying donkey unicorn thing. It wants him out of hospital and off saving some kidnapped children.

Darick Robertson’s artwork is good, reminding me here more than elsewhere of Phil Jimenez. By Grant Morrison’s standards this is a quick and straightforward read, a fantasy-tinged adult thriller that’d make an ideal vehicle for Nic Cage at his demented best. It wasn’t a bad book, but if it were in my power to pick Grant Morrison’s next projects, a sequel to this would be a long way down my list, below Kill Your Boyfriend and just above Skrull Kill Krew. ***

Monday, 23 February 2015

Kindle Voyage | review by Stephen Theaker

I didn’t buy a Kindle Voyage right away. The initial reviews weren’t good, and those that were seemed to come from tech reviewers who didn’t give the impression that they would be using the things for reading anyway. The Kindle Paperwhite had been a huge disappointment to me. The touch screen worked better than the touchscreens on any other ebook readers I had, and made it a device you could hold in lots of different positions, but the name was an outright lie, the e-ink screen no whiter than that of the earlier grey Kindle with a keyboard. The backlight didn’t make it look paper white, it was a ghastly green, and could never be completely turned off.

And yet I used it a lot, because our house is fairly dim, even in daylight, and once I had an ebook reader with a backlight there was no way Mrs Theaker was going to let me have a bedside lamp on at night.

That made me keen for a replacement, but distrustful of marketing promises. I wanted to see one in action in a Waterstone’s before buying, but the Kindle table in our local branch has now been colonised by gift books. I might have gone without buying one at all if it hadn’t been for the recent Fire Phone offer, which I went for, then cancelled, leaving me with a bad case of emptor interruptus.

When it arrived, my first impression was that the Voyage is essentially an upgraded – fixed – Paperwhite. Both children upon seeing it asked, “What’s the difference?” The screen itself, when the backlight is off, is practically indistinguishable from the Paperwhite’s. The increase in resolution is difficult to spot – although comparing it to my very first Kindle, the big white one that had to be sent from the USA, the improvement is clear: the text on that one now looks fuzzy. There are no new fonts, sizes or margin settings in addition to those on the Paperwhite, except when reading pdfs, where you can now choose to slightly increase the margins.

With the backlight on, though, the improvement from the Paperwhite is obvious. The light is much more even, much nicer to look at; it glows rather than ghosts. I think we are supposed to keep the light of this one on all the time, since a new setting of Auto Brightness lets the device choose its own brightness over the course of the day. It likes itself rather brighter than I like it, and its fluctuations are often puzzling, but the effort is welcome. I’m torn between appreciating the light and regarding it as a cheat, an admission that these e-ink screens have reached their technical limits and are never going to become as white as the pages of a book.

However, the more I use the Kindle Voyage – and I’m using it a lot, my Paperwhite passed on without even a kiss goodbye – the more I come to appreciate its small improvements on its predecessor. It doesn’t have buttons for turning the page, but instead has a quartet of pressure sensors, two on each side. Two are a few centimetres long, for moving on to the next page, two are mere dots, for going back – the latter are very difficult to find when reading in the dark at night. These can all be set to issue a tiny feedback thud when pressed. The result is the most immersive reading experience I have ever had, being able to go from one page to the next with the slightest squeeze of the thumb. Even when reading in positions that make the sensors hard to reach – or reading in landscape mode, where for some reason they don’t work – the Voyage improves upon the Paperwhite. Its screen is flush with the sides of the device, making touchscreen swipes simpler, more effective, and less irksome when reading for long periods.

There are other slight changes. All progress info, when displayed, now appears on the bottom left. When opening a new book from the Kindle store, a new About the Book panel appears, providing info about the book and any series of which it is a part, and letting you know how long it generally takes people to read it. The power button is on the back rather than the bottom, which is handier. The device gets quite cold outdoors. It’s a bit lighter than the Paperwhite, and to enhance that I’ve made a conscious decision not to buy a case for it, because once the Paperwhite went into its excellent case it never really came out of it. I’ve gone back to the simple sleeve that came with the original Sony Reader.

Overall, then, I’m surprised by how much I like the Voyage, though its improvements over the Paperwhite are so hard to spot. It just fixes everything that needed fixing, and is very pleasant to read. If you’d told me when I bought that original Sony Reader that the top of the range ereader so many years later would see so few major improvements I’d have been surprised. Still no colour, pages still grey, battery power barely improved, music and audiobook playback lost… I’ll read dozens if not hundreds of books on this device, but it’ll take something special to make me buy another. (He says, knowing in his heart it isn't true.) ****

Friday, 20 February 2015

Jupiter Ascending | review by Stephen Theaker

Jupiter Ascending is another visually stimulating movie from the Wachowskis, directors of such outstandingly pretty films as The Matrix, Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas. Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, whose stargazing father died trying to stop robbers taking his telescope. She works as a cleaner with her mother and aunt, and they all live with her uncle’s family, which includes a shady cousin who persuades her to sell her eggs for money.

But the doctors aren’t after her eggs; they are sneaky little aliens in disguise, with orders to put her to death once her identity is confirmed. Luckily for Jupiter, just as she begins to lose consciousness a beefy guy with rocket boots enters the theatre, blasts the aliens, and carries her away: Channing Tatum, who spends much of the movie topless and glistening – for that alone this film will find many enthusiastic fans.

He plays Caine Wise, a splice of man and wolf, a flying soldier who had his wings clipped after chomping on the throat of an Entitled: one of the posh nobs who keep themselves young and beautiful by means of a regular “harvest”. Caine is now working as a hunter, a mercenary, but he begins to develop feelings for Jupiter. There is no future in their relationship – she doesn’t know it yet, but she is Entitled too.

After a spectacular battle among the skyscrapers of Chicago, he takes her to meet former colleague-in-arms Stinger Apini, played by Sean Bean, a human spliced with a bee, who lives in a house that’s part hive. Another battle later and Jupiter and Caine are off into space, where the film’s unusual structure will see her meet each of her three space children in turn. Well, they’re kind of her children. Everyone is after her because she has all the same genes in all the same order as their mother, a grand matriarch of the Entitled, who in her will left the planet Earth to any recurrence of herself. (What foresight!)

None of the matriarch’s children are particularly happy about her return, and as she passes through their hands Wise does his best to keep her safe, with the help of the Aegis, the space police, led by Captain Tsingh (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird, betrayer of Luther!) and the brilliantly named Phylo Percadium (Ramon Tikaram). Eddie Redmayne plays the most vicious of the three siblings, Balem Abrasax, spitting out his dialogue like Jeremy Irons with clothes pegs on his nipples. Before it’s all done there will be space battles, fights with flying dinosaurs, last minute rescues, and romantic kisses in the midst of glorious explosions.

Any film with space police is off to a flying start with me, and Jupiter Ascending has so much more to offer than that. It is a beautiful, stylish film from start to finish, with special effects the equal of anything in Guardians of the Galaxy and locations so gorgeous Elrond would be envious. Wise’s airskates are wonderful: it’s great fun to watch him scoot around a castle or jump out of a crashing spaceship and slide down the side of a building. Some elements of the story are extremely similar to Jodorowsky’s Megalex (see #50) and it does feel more like a French album than traditional American sf.

It could perhaps have done with being a bit funnier. What jokes there are tend to be underplayed. In the run-up to its release a lot of talk was about how daft it would be, thanks to Channing Tatum in elfish ears, but for me it could have safely gone much campier without going too far. Its locations and attention to detail may outshine Flash Gordon and The Fifth Element but it seems too anxious to avoid the giddiness and goofiness of those films, at least until its final, exhilarating scene.

I enjoyed Jupiter Ascending; it’s by no means the hot mess some people expected, but neither is it the instant classic I was hoping for – though the Wachowskis’ films do tend to grow on me. It took reading The Art of the Matrix for me to really appreciate that movie, and The Matrix Reloaded is now one of my favourite ever films, and would be for the highway sequence alone. Jupiter Ascending is a good film that looked fabulous, I can say that much for sure, and it’s a shame that sequels now seem unlikely. How much fun it would be to watch Jupiter and Caine fight side by side. ***

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Constantine, Season 1 | review by Stephen Theaker

John Constantine is an English magician, exorcist and supernatural con man who at the beginning of the series is still an inmate at Ravenscar, an American institution for the mentally unwell, following the unsuccessful exorcism of a little girl in Newcastle. As Constantine, Season 1 (and possibly the only season) continues, we meet others who were there that day and see what a state it left them in.

A supernatural visitation makes John realise that he must get back to work, and on the outside he soon hooks up with Zed, a weirdly-accented psychic on the run from a religious cult. With the help of hard-to-kill cabbie Chas and the advice of an angel, Manny, they must combat the rising tide of darkness. Monsters and demons are abroad, and their powers are waxing. (DC fans will be intrigued to see Eclipso among them.) They will find allies, like the pre-Spectre Jim Corrigan, though not all will survive the experience.

I wanted to like Constantine much more than I did. I’ve been waiting on tenterhooks for a TV series based on the comic Hellblazer ever since I saw the possibility floated in SFX #1. It is a natural fit for television, with so many meaty story arcs to exploit, a compelling central character who doesn’t need expensive special effects to get the job done, and relative novelty – it hasn’t been adapted to death already, the one film so distant from the source material that if it weren’t for the title no one would connect it to this.

Part of the problem is that it is so networky. It has that feel. John has a little gang around him all the time like a security blanket, and he has a nicely furnished base from which to work. Constantine isn’t the kind of guy to have a headquarters and regular colleagues, but that seems to be what you need for a network show. Giving him Zed to chat with makes sense, since it gives him an audience for the kind of speeches that in the comics would appear in voiceover captions, but he needs to be more exposed than this, more vulnerable.

Matt Ryan’s performance as Constantine is spot-on, though. It is eerie to see a fictional character brought so perfectly to life, although because he’s nearly always with his friends, he’s always performing, always on; it would be good, if the show continues, to see more quiet moments, more of what he’s like when he doesn’t have to convince anyone of anything. He is not yet seeing the ghosts of those who have died for him, but one feels it is coming.

The storylines draw from all over the character’s history. There are elements of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (albeit without Swamp Thing himself, as yet), much from Jamie Delano’s run on Hellblazer, and nods in the direction of Garth Ennis’s issues. The American setting – and the American Chas! – takes a bit of getting used to. Of course, that’s where Constantine first showed up in Swamp Thing, but a UK setting, even if it was just for an episode or two, would have gone an awfully long way towards giving the programme its own feel. At least Constantine himself is English, which is an improvement on the film.

Ryan’s performance isn’t the only thing to enjoy. The title sequence and theme music are excellent, and that’s half the battle with any programme. As DC characters crop up there are signs that this could become the supernatural equivalent of Arrow. It wouldn’t be a surprise to hear that the question of its renewal or cancellation rests in part on whether the creators can negotiate for the appearance of other DC characters – a second season featuring the Sandman or Swamp Thing or Etrigan the Demon would be hard to resist.

The best episodes are genuinely frightening, and none are truly terrible. I enjoyed it much more than Grimm, though it hasn’t yet found its feet. I hope there will be a second season, but if there isn’t I’ll be disappointed rather than gutted. As it accumulates characters, and as those characters build a history, the stories gain weight, and eventually that could lead to this becoming a fantastic programme. The problem with a thirteen episode run is that it puts you in mind of how much better it could have been on a US cable channel or the BBC. And why the heck didn’t they call it Hellblazer? It’s a much better name. ***

Monday, 16 February 2015

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie | review by Stephen Theaker

Young Yarvi becomes king after his father and brother are killed. He was born with one bad hand, and is no great shakes as a swordsman. He hasn’t even practised it for years – he was in training instead to become his brother’s adviser. He doesn’t fit the mould of a great warrior king, and on a raid to punish the supposed murderers, unhappy at the resulting carnage, he is himself betrayed. He survives, only to become a slave among strangers, an oarsman on a trading boat captained by a fabulous grotesque who constantly chides herself for her soft heart. Will his knowledge and cleverness be enough to keep him alive in a violent world? And if he can stay alive, can he get his vengeance? What compromises and sacrifices is he willing to make?

This is Half a King (Harper Audio, digital audiobook, 9 hrs 26 mins), an audiobook written by Joe Abercrombie and read by Ben Elliott. The reading is good, though after hearing Steven Pacey’s work on other books by Joe Abercrombie you can’t help missing it here. It’s much shorter than some of the author’s other novels; the audiobook of The Heroes lasts twenty-three hours. That the book sticks with Yarvi’s point of view makes it perfect for audio, because it’s always easy to pick up where you are. It’s not a work of great originality, but it’s well done, and I enjoyed it, and people who have enjoyed this kind of story before will probably enjoy it once again. It will go down a storm in school libraries.

It asks interesting questions about the workings of its own plot, the things we might take for granted: that the deposed king must fight his way back to power, and that we should support him as he does. Yarvi’s actions could cause the deaths of his own people, and in the end, for what? That he should be king instead of someone else? Really, it’s revenge, he’s made a vow, and there’s a strong sense that everyone else would have been better off if he hadn’t. The plot is very well worked, with motivations clicking into place at the end. The twists are excellent, and even if this was planned as the first of a trilogy it works well as a standalone novel; little is left up in the air except the pleasant possibility of future conflicts and revenges. ***

Friday, 13 February 2015

Doctor Who: Engines of War by George Mann | review by Stephen Theaker

For a long time people assumed that the eighth Doctor (played on television by Paul McGann) had fought in the Time War, that the Doctor we saw in “Rose” was freshly regenerated. However, the notes in the last of the four eighth Doctor collections from Doctor Who Magazine popped a hole in that idea, making it clear that (in Russell T Davies’ head at least) it was the Doctor after McGann who had fought. Davies had been willing to let the magazine handle the regeneration, and have them send the ninth Doctor on his way, ready to fight the Time War.

On-screen events didn’t work out too differently. The eighth Doctor did his best to stay out of the war, before regenerating into a Doctor who would fight. If Christopher Eccleston had signed up for “The Day of the Doctor”, presumably that would have been him. He’d have got hold of the Moment, and stepped into the Tardis at the end, about to forget that he didn’t use it. As it was, we got the War Doctor instead, as played by John Hurt, who came between eight and nine and lived long enough to age from a young man to an elderly one.

Doctor Who: Engines of War by George Mann comes from the latter stages of his battle with the Daleks. This is what everyone wanted: the Time War! As it turns out, though we’re told that it has consumed him, the Doctor’s way of going about things during the Time War isn’t all that different to how he went about things at other times. There are still no weapons on the Tardis, though he uses it as a battering ram. He kills Daleks, but then so do most of the other Doctors at one time or another. He is still the conscience of the Time Lords, still risking everything to do the right thing.

This particular adventure stems from the plans of the Time Lords, led by Rassilon, to destroy the Tantalus Eye, an area of “temporal murmurations” surrounded by conquered human colonies. It’s where the Daleks are building a weapon that will wipe Gallifrey off the spatio-temporal map forever. So the Doctor has to stop the Daleks, he has to stop the Time Lords, and he has to do it all while keeping an eye on Cinder, a resistance fighter from the world of Moldox who joins him in the Tardis.

No book could ever live up to the Time War that lives in every fan’s imagination, but this comes pretty close, with space/time battles between military Tardises and armadas of Dalek stealth ships, Dalek progenitors being seeded through the dark corners of history, and the Doctor having to admit he once had the chance to wipe the Daleks out and didn’t do it. Strands from the programme’s history are woven together, nicely intertwining the original and current runs of the show.

The serious tone is similar to Target adaptations like Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks and Doctor Who and the Planet of the Daleks – the War Doctor is not too different from the third Doctor on a bad day. I often found myself wondering why he hadn’t asked Ace to join him in battle, given her excellent Dalek-fighting skills, but it’s made clear that this Doctor doesn’t want companions, doesn’t want to put them at risk, even if he misses having them along. He’s still the same guy, really. Bit of a grump, heart of gold.

Russell Davies and Steven Moffat have both been generous in leaving spaces between their stories for new adventures to take place. The War Doctor is the best example yet – like the eighth Doctor, his life is wide open, and there are surely more adventures to come, more battles for him to fight. John Hurt’s casting is a gift to anyone writing novels in this space – though he only appeared in two episodes, we know the actor well enough to imagine him saying the dialogue and striding over ruined Moldox. This novel harnesses that to a satisfying Dalek war story, which I would recommend to any fan.

My only criticism is that the Doctor felt too much like the Doctor, making you wonder why he gave up the name. I’m not sure any of the other Doctors would have acted all that differently in the course of these events, and some of them would have been surprised at his restraint. They may have forgotten what happened with the Moment, but if they remember adventures like this they would know that the War Doctor wasn’t a bad sort at all. ****

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Book of Iod: Ten Cthulhu Stories by Henry Kuttner | review by Stephen Theaker

What a surprise: if I ever knew that Henry Kuttner had written Cthulhu mythos stories, I had forgotten it long before seeing this book. What mad nightmares could spring from the imagination that brought us “The Last Mimzy”? Unfortunately, Book of Iod: Ten Cthulhu Stories (Diversion Books, ebook, 2187ll) is slightly mistitled, since Cthulhu (bless his name!) is only mentioned in passing twice. “The Invaders” is the most traditional mythos story, about a writer whose drug-assisted time-travelling for inspiration has opened the way for things that shouldn’t be here. Kuttner’s stories differ from Lovecraft’s, though: Cthulhu here is almost the hero of Earth, having fought off these things before, a bit like Godzilla. Not many mythos stories end with a human saying, “I felt a wave of reassurance. Suddenly all fear left me.”

“The Secret of Kralitz” has a mere mention of the mythos. The new Baron Kralitz learns the dark secret of his family, in the course of carousing with his reanimated ancestors. “Spawn of Dagon” is a REHesque adventure where a pair of quarrelling adventurers are sent to kill a wizard, who turns out to have been protecting Atlantis all along. “The Eater of Souls” is a rather groovy story about the Sindara, the ruler of Bel-Yarnak, who goes to face a dweller in an abyss, while “The Jest of Droom-avista” describes the final fate of Bel-Yarnak. “Hydra” is about an experiment in astral travelling that goes horribly wrong, leaving an unfortunate expert without a head. The final image is one of the best in the book, but, as so often in this book, this is a story where, if you’re clever enough, there is a way out.

Witches are a common theme. “The Salem Horror” is about a writer who finally finds the perfect place to write: a hidden room in a house that once belonged to a witch. The mysterious markings on the floor simply add to the atmosphere! In “The Frog” an artist wants the “witch stone” removed from the garden of his rented place. This foolishness lets out the witch buried there, who in the centuries of being buried has come to resemble her master (see title for details). Turns out that giant frogs are surprisingly scary.

“Bells of Horror” tells us of “the lost bells of Mission San Xavier”. They are found in California and ringing them again causes all kinds of trouble. The most alarming part of this story is a toad that has worn away its own eye, scraping it against a rock to ease the supernatural irritation. Once again “the quick actions of one man … saved the world”. “The Hunt” is about Alvin Doyle, who wants to kill his cousin to gain himself an inheritance. His cousin has a cabin, and you can probably guess what kind of thing he has been doing there. Yes, “calling up an entity which mankind worshiped years ago as – Iod. Iod, the Hunter.” The Dimension Prowler!

I think the present popularity of Lovecraft’s work has little to do with his prose or actual stories and more to do with creating a shared universe in his stories, a relatively fresh alternative to the Christian, Greek and Viking myths, and then throwing it open to others to use. Sometimes, like here, his mythology is used in ways that don’t much resemble Lovecraft’s work, except on the surface. I wasn’t crazy about this book, and the stories felt oddly optimistic, but I read it quickly enough and wouldn’t have minded reading another in the same vein. Not the best Cthulhu stories I’ve read, not the best Henry Kuttner stories I’ve read, but still interesting to see the two interact. ***

Friday, 6 February 2015

Borderlands the Pre-Sequel | review by Howard Watts

Borderlands the Pre-Sequel sits chronologically between the original Borderlands game and Borderlands 2. The developers (2K Australia) have managed to write a fairly convincing partner to the first two games, even though their appointment caused some concern within the gaming community. Many players and journos alike feared the move from 2K’s Texas outfit to 2K Australia was perhaps a cost cutting move that would impact quality and continuity. Others commented the Texans had perhaps farmed the pre-sequel out, as they didn’t want to be associated with it, for whatever reason or reasons undisclosed, or had other projects to develop of more importance. Let’s be fair, considering the huge sales generated by the first two games and their various DLC, it was all too obvious BTPS wouldn’t sit on the virtual shelves of pre-order retailers.

I couldn’t wait for its release, having watched a few trailers on YouTube. The thought of playing in a low gravity environment, blasting away at space-suited adversaries, was a huge attraction to me – not only from a gaming POV, but also from an SF gaming perspective in general. Lasers! They have laser guns! Sadly, eviscerating an opponent is not on the cards, slicing off limbs and or even halving opponents cannot be done. This was a little disappointing, as I really enjoyed corroding a shoulder joint to which a bot’s gun arm was attached in Borderlands 2, a wonderful way of disarming (if you’ll pardon the pun) bot combatants.

More of the game play and my expectations later. For now, a brief overview of the story.

BTPS shoehorns itself into the overall Borderlands mythos. A great deal of thought has gone into expanding the plot, character origins and motivations from the first game, working these up so they segue (almost) seamlessly into Borderlands 2. If you’re a fan of the first two games, some of the explanations given here for various characters’ behaviour and origins will make you smile, nod in recognition or gasp, “Oh, so that’s why so and so did such and such, that makes sense now, brilliant!” For the most part, these explanations work, others are a little contrived and feel forced, as if the shoehorn doesn’t match the size of the foot or the shape of the shoe. Yes, amid the frenetic combat there are moments of sheer brilliance as we play our way up towards the events of the superb B2, but sometimes it’s impossible not to groan and wonder “WTF?” Furthermore, a few key characters from B1 and B2 are noticeably absent from this outta space outing, three or four of which I must admit are my favourites, and are sadly missed along with their backstories. There are instances mentioned in B2 that, at the time of playing the game, I wished I could witness, and that these are sadly not seen during BTPS is a drop the ball moment for 2K. This aside, there are many more new characters added to this saga, again, some effective, others cardboard walk-ons serving to further your main and side quests, or simply get in the way.

Essentially, this is Jack’s story, how he came to be handsome, and absolutely crazy. This is worked up perfectly, and we can feel Jack’s determination to achieve his goals as he slowly grows into a psychotic madman before us. Voice acting is wonderful, you really can feel for the character as time and again he loses it in the face of stupidity. Familiar faces from B1 and B2 witness this, and you’ll be surprised at the original relationships between these characters. But again, I cannot help feeling something is missing here. Perhaps it’s all to do with the sheer number of characters from the previous games – impossible to cater for them all? I don’t know, and I don’t think 2K did either – obviously there’s a point where you have to (as a developer) say “No more, enough is enough there’s no more room.” This is where the problem lies I think, there’s just too much “story” to figure out from the previous outings, and then make it all work in such a short game. Okay, prequels seem to be in vogue at the moment, but releasing the second part of a (now) trilogy is a momentous task in any genre. BTPS has a lovely narrative from familiar voices, but be warned, playing the story missions only to complete the game will remove these comments and observations once the story is complete – leaving you with a gap in the soundscape as you play the side missions.

From a technical POV, the game looks identical to B2, all the inventory screen layouts exactly the same – so it’s an easy task to just jump from playing B2 to BTPS. There have been a few tweaks – you can now order weapons by value which is cool when it comes to selling off unwanted items, but usually the rare items enjoy the highest value anyway. These games have always been about the millions of weapons, shields, grenades the game code generates, and this game is no different. In fact, it builds upon the first two games by adding freeze and laser weapons. The former can be great fun, freezing an enemy and them hitting them so they shatter into tiny pieces. But to be fair, this does become a little tiresome after a while as it’s all about the guns. When you’re running around the lunar surface you have to keep an eye on your oxygen level, but killing an adversary causes them to drop oxygen canisters, and this, along with patches of terrain that vent oxygen for you to replenish your tank, means this “threat” quickly becomes a “meh” moment of little consequence.

There’s a neat new machine called the Grinder. It allows you (after much trial and error) to place three weapons into the machine and “grind” them together – essentially combining their attributes and receiving a new weapon of higher ability in exchange. This is great fun, and the same technique can be used for shields and grenades. However, nine times out of ten the machine informs you your three offered weapons cannot be ground together – it seems to be a bit hit and miss and frustrating. Couple this with the machine moaning at you to hurry up just as you scroll through your inventory for suitable objects to grind, and it all gets irritating quite rapidly. Bloody annoying #1. Unfortunately, the game is not without its playability problems. It feels a little “heavy” with the controller, not as smooth as B2, not as fluid. I have made numerous kills while in “Fight for your life” mode that have gone undetected, thus ending my life when it should have been saved. I’ve had a few collision detection problems where a shot has not registered even though it was clearly on target. On one occasion I stepped out of my vehicle to land beneath the actual floor level, unable to jump to another area – essentially “glitching out”. There’s also a noticeable lag to some places, the frame rate dropping off causing all kinds of combat problems – bloody annoying #2.

Saying this, the game is, well, a game – and it’s a great deal of fun! Perhaps some missions and areas are a little too much fun rather than serious, considering the storyline, as it certainly has an Australian humorous edge or flavour. If you’re familiar with Australian humour, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Strictly Ballroom and Bad Boy Bubba spring to mind here as cinematic examples of how off the wall this humour can be – sometimes hitting the mark, other times way off target. At times the Australian influence is repetitive and irritating, as character after character fall into parody (even the oxygen canister’s label, originally to be marked as “O2” is explained in the story as being printed badly, making the label appear to read “0Z” – ouch!). Sure, it was made in Australia – my wife’s favourite country in the world, having lived and worked there for just over a year – yeah why shouldn’t they introduce a little of their culture into the game? But even my wife raised a critical eyebrow at the Australian archetypes inhabiting Pandora’s moon, Elpis. You have the drunk, talking gibberish about billabongs and fair dinkum, cobber, and you begin to believe that Elpis is somehow representing a NuAustralia, a kind of new world in space. Other characters are equally annoying, and this aspect distracts from the overall Borderlands experience we’re so used to. There’s the little cockney kid that speaks in cockney rhyming slang – although he doesn’t, because after he’s spoken the slang he drops in the actual word the slang refers to. “Mind the apples and pears, stairs, mister.” I was expecting him to mention Mary Poppins at some stage. Pointless and bloody annoying #3. Another character points the finger at colonialism – the intrepid upper crust Englishman replete with handlebar moustache and monocle, staking a claim on Pandora’s moon on behalf of the king. As the player, all you have to do is hoist the flag and protect him as he salutes it, humming along to a national anthem, and fetch a broom to support his arm as he grows tired saluting. A comment along the lines of “Why do they all sound Australian?” from one of the familiar narrator characters that pops into the soundscape now and again for a critical or amusing comment would have taken the edge of this – but hey, Mr Torgue still has a few amusing and bleeped out lines, and thank goodness for him.

From a visual standpoint the game’s various environments are beautifully rendered. One level in particular took my breath – a huge space station partly completed. It was wonderful to jump around this place, assisted by jump pads – small illuminated chevrons that boost your jump height and distance from one area to another. Exteriors are extremely colourful and boast a plethora of interesting natural plants, objects and indigenous life forms. There are a few hidden areas that provide tough bosses – these are essential as they allow you to farm upgraded loot, again, essential to complete the entire story mission, but somehow the majority of these areas seem truncated compared to B2.

The game took me two weeks to complete – playing a couple of hours perhaps four or five days a week. I’m now on my second play through, but have capped my level out at 50, so completing the remaining missions will not afford any more experience points and therefore upgrades. I’m certain there will be a downloadable upgrade allowing you to play other areas and gain more XP, much in the same way B2 did some time ago, but for now – I find it pointless to continue playing. BTPS’s length sits between its predecessors, being a little longer than B1, but much shorter than B2. So perhaps this is the issue for me, as replaying the missions still so fresh in my memory and for no reward other than doing so seems somewhat pointless.

If you’re a Borderlands vet, you’ll have to play this – that’s a given. But I think you’ll soon tire of it during the second play though as it’s very tough and unforgiving – glitches aside – although there are another three characters to play (four if you include the Handsome Jack add-on available for purchase) to keep you busy and feeling as though you have value for money. Today I found my mind wandering as I played, and loaded up B2. The difference between the two played back to back is startling.

If you’re not familiar with the Borderlands games, then for heaven’s sake buy number 1 first, then number 2, and when you’ve completed them and their add-ons, BTPS will probably be available for around a fiver, representing excellent value for money.

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Leftovers, Season 1 | review by Stephen Theaker

It has been three years since 2% of humanity disappeared, all at once, and still no one knows why, or how to deal with it. Justin Theroux gives an intense performance as Kevin Garvey, the troubled new chief of police of Mapleton, New York, a town which lost a lot of people that day. The previous chief, his father, was locked up after becoming violent. His wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman, giving a brilliant, mostly non-speaking performance) has left him to join the chain-smoking silent cultists known as the Guilty Remnant, who don’t want to let anyone move on from what happened. His son is in the compound of another cult (its leader, Holy Wayne, played by a terrific Patterson Joseph) when it is stormed by the authorities. His daughter Jill is still at home, but she is pretty miserable too.

This first ten-episode season apparently uses up the material from Tom Perrotta’s original novel, and if they had decided to end it here, without revealing why everyone disappeared, that would have been fine. This isn’t Lost, where finding out that kind of answer was so important. The mysteries here are how people carry on after something so awful, and why it’s hit these particular people so hard, and those are fully, gruellingly, explored. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like future episodes to look into the disappearance itself. Indeed, my favourite parts were those that suggested supernatural agencies at work, and hinted at wider conspiracies, and if, as has been reported, season two expands beyond this one town, I hope we’ll see more of that too, as well as all the other things the programme does so well. ****

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #50 is now available for free download!

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

Welcome to Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #50!

This three hundred and twenty-four page issue – our longest ever! – features fiction from many of our previous contributors, who have returned to help us celebrate fifty issues and ten years of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction: Antonella Coriander, David Tallerman, Douglas J. Ogurek, Howard Phillips, Howard Watts, John Greenwood, Matthew Amundsen, Michael Wyndham Thomas, Mitchell Edgeworth, Rafe McGregor and Walt Brunston!

Plus reviews from Douglas J. Ogurek, Howard Watts, Jacob Edwards and Stephen Theaker. Stephen and members of the reviews team answer your questions in “Ask Theaker’s”! Cover artist Howard Watts takes us through his process in “Artful Theakering”! And there’s a round-up of everything Stephen Theaker read last year but didn’t have time to review! Happy fiftieth to us!

  • Fifty Issues! Stephen Theaker
  • Artful Theakering, Howard Watts
  • The Wrong Doctor, Rafe McGregor
  • The House That Cordone Built, David Tallerman
  • Dodge Sidestep’s Second Dastardly Plan, Howard Watts
  • One Is One, Michael Wyndham Thomas
  • Save the Dog, Douglas J. Ogurek
  • Heritage, Mitchell Edgeworth
  • A Murder in Heaven, Matthew Amundsen
  • A Mare’s Nest, John Greenwood
  • The Morning of Seventeen Suns, Walt Brunston
  • Love at First Sight, Howard Phillips
  • Crystal Castle Crashers, Antonella Coriander
  • Ask Theaker’s! with answers from Stephen Theaker, Douglas J. Ogurek, Howard Watts and Jacob Edwards
  • The Quarterly Review, by Stephen Theaker, Jacob Edwards, Douglas J. Ogurek, and Howard Watts, including reviews of As Above, So Below, Borderlands the Pre-Sequel, Doctor Who: Engines of War, Gatchaman, Happy, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, In the Broken Birdcage of Kathleen Fair, Interstellar, Invincible, Vol. 17: What’s Happening, Megalex: The Complete Story, Tusk and The X-Files: Season 10, Vol. 1, plus ratings for everything else Stephen read in 2014
  • Also Received, But Not Yet Reviewed
  • Forthcoming Attractions

Here are the contributors to this grandest of issues:

Antonella Coriander’s story in this issue, “Crystal Castle Crashers”, is the fourth consecutive episode of her ongoing Oulippean serial.

David Tallerman writes “The House That Cordone Built”, which follows “Imaginary Prisons” (TQF29), “Friendly” (TQF31, “Glass Houses” (TQF34) and “Devilry at the Hanging Tree Inn” (TQF37). Angry Robot Books published his acclaimed Easie Damasco trilogy: Giant Thief, Crown Thief and Prince Thief. His excellent blog is called Writing on the Moon, and it’s highly recommended.

Douglas J. Ogurek lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their five pets. This time he reviews the films As Above, So Below, The Hunger Games: Mockinjay, Part 1 and Tusk, answers question in “Ask Theaker’s!”, and supplies a story too: “Save the Dog”, a sequel of sorts to “NON” (TQF33). See

Howard Phillips is a dissolute poet whose contributions to this zine have ranged from the mediocre to the abysmal. In this issue he begins a follow-up to the still unfinished Saturation Point Saga: “Love at First Sight” is the first episode of A Dim Star Is Born.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the cover art for this issue, “Artful Theakering” (an article on his covers for us to date), a story (“Dodge Sidestep’s Second Dastardly Plan”), and a review of Borderlands the Pre-Sequel, as well as contributing to “Ask Theaker’s!”.

Jacob Edwards reviews Gatchman and Interstellar in this issue, and contributes to “Ask Theaker’s!”. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at, his Facebook page at

John Greenwood, co-editor and guiding ethical light, supplies this issue with the story “A Mare’s Nest”.

Matthew Amundsen follows up “House of Nowhere” (TQF35) with a new novella, “A Murder in Heaven”. He has written extensive literary and music criticism for various alternative weeklies. He now lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and daughter.

Michael Wyndham Thomas writes “One Is One”. We previously published his novels The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon, extracts from both of which are sprinkled through our zine’s history, beginning all the way back in TQF8.

Mitchell Edgeworth writes “Heritage”, sixth in the Black Swan series of stories, following “Homecoming” (TQF40), “Drydock” (TQF42), “Flight” (TQF43) and “Customs” (TQF46) and “Abandon” (TQF47). He keeps a blog at

Rafe McGregor provides this issue with “The Wrong Doctor”, which follows “Murder in the Minster” (TQF25), “The Chapel on the Headland” (TQF34) and “The Last Testament” (TQF37). Rafe is the author of over sixty short stories, novellas, magazine articles, and journal papers. His work includes crime fiction, weird tales, military history, and academic philosophy. This is Roderick Langham's fourth outing and takes place twenty-eight years after the misadventure in the Himalayas with which regular readers of TQF may be familiar.

Stephen Theaker lives with three slightly smaller Theakers. In this issue he reviews Engines of War, Happy, In the Broken Birdcage of Kathleen Fair, Invincible, Vol. 17, Megalex and The X-Files: Season 10, Vol. 1, and rounds up everything else he read this year.

Walt Brunston, follows his adaptation of a Space University Trent episode (TQF13) – we still miss that show! – with “The Morning of Seventeen Suns”, the first astounding adventure of the Two Husbands.

Bonus! To celebrate our semi-centenary, all our Amazon exclusive ebooks will be absolutely free this week: Professor Challenger in Space, Quiet, the Tin Can Brains Are Hunting!, The Fear Man, His Nerves Extruded, The Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta, The Day the Moon Wept Blood, The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon.

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

Friday, 30 January 2015

Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress / review by Stephen Theaker

Dr Marianne Jenner has discovered the thirty-first group of humans sharing a haplogroup of mitochondrial DNA, and though she’s very pleased to have done so it’s hardly the sort of thing that would explain her invitation to the Embassy, the mysterious home to the unseen aliens recently arrived on Earth. She’ll find out that the people of both planets share a common enemy, and potentially a common doom, and have much more in common besides. A major theme of Yesterday’s Kin (Tachyon Publications, pb, 192pp) is family, and Jenner has plenty of trouble with hers. Her husband died fifteen years ago, her three children are at loggerheads with each other and her. The youngest, Noah, habitual user of mind-swapping drug sugarcane, will also end up on the Embassy, though that’ll do little to bring mother and child any closer together. This is the kind of novel I thought they didn’t make any more. Short, but complete in itself, giving clever scientists an intractable problem and an impossible deadline. A fascinating alien culture, psychological insight into our own. And what seems like (to this non-scientist, at least) real science. It’s not a horror story, or a western, or a war story dressed in space clothes, but proper full-blooded science fiction, and I loved it. I get the feeling that I will be reading many more books by Nancy Kress.  ****

Monday, 26 January 2015

Supernatural, Season 9 / review by Stephen Theaker

The ninth season of this long-running series about a pair of monster fighters begins with the boys – well, men now! – suffering the after-effects of their attempt to close the gates of hell in season eight. Sam is in a hospital bed, in a coma, and the outlook isn’t good. The other consequence of season eight’s conclusion was that all the angels fell from heaven, wings burning, thanks to Metatron’s betrayal. One of those angels approaches Dean with an offer. He’ll enter Sam’s body and fix it from the inside, but there’s a catch: Dean mustn’t tell Sam. And so the two brothers are back to keeping secrets again.

The world needs the Winchesters as much as ever. A resurrected Knight of Hell is challenging cuddly old Crowley for the crown. Many angels died in the fall, but the survivors are not getting along and are looking for host bodies – evangelists are only too happy to help, even if half of those thus possessed simply explode.

This is another good season of a reliable show. I sometimes wish it’d move on from the angels and demons storylines, but when this season also features a Wicked Witch from Oz, werewolves preparing for Ragnarok, a guy who is experimenting with combinations of animal powers, and the return of Cain (played wonderfully by Psych’s Timothy Omundson), the first murderer, you can’t complain too much about the variety.

Part of the programme’s longevity must be down to its ability to contain within itself a wide range of moods, from tortured guilt and gut-wrenching horror to postmodern games (would-be god Metatron lecturing the viewer on story structure) and daft humour (Dean learning to speak dog, and in the process coming to appreciate a good game of fetch).

The one duff episode this season is “Bloodlines”, a backdoor pilot for a proposed spin-off that didn’t get off the ground. Showing the lives and loves of the warring monster families of Chicago, it seems like an attempt to do Gossip Girl within the Supernatural universe. That may sound daft but Arrow seems to have done well with a similarly unpromising premise. I won’t mourn the spin-off, especially since Supernatural itself has just been renewed for an eleventh series, so no one’s jobs are on the line.

Not sure how long it’ll be before we get to see season 10 – E4 have just picked up the show, but aren’t known for their timeliness – but I’m sure we’ll wolf it down as quickly as we did this one. That’s pretty much unprecedented for me with an American drama that has gone on for so long. Even NCIS (which has a similar knack of combining humour and high drama) fell off our radar eventually. But we’ll keep watching Supernatural as long as they keep making it with this much verve and imagination. ****

Friday, 23 January 2015

World of Fire by James Lovegrove / review by Stephen Theaker

Dev Harmer has a new body, not for the first time: this one is heavyset and muscular, with nocturnal vision and hyper-efficient thermoregulation. Dev is a troubleshooter, sent by Interstellar Security Solutions wherever needed to combat the sneaky attacks of the machines. The overt war is over, but the covert one continues, as atheist Earth battles the religious AIs of Polis+ for control of vital resources. Dev died in that war, but his consciousness was saved and now this is his life, hopping from one body to another in hopes of eventually earning a new one to call his own.

This time Dev has been sent to Calder’s Edge, a sweltering hot mining colony on Alighieri – hence the body modifications – and as soon as he arrives someone tries to blow him up. From then on it’s one thrill after another as he tries to uncover the cause of the earthquakes that are making the miners and colonists think about leaving for safer working environments. There are giant man-eating worms, brainwashed scientists, runaway trains and a local chief of police, Captain Kahlo, who won’t give him the time of day till he proves he’s not just another one of her problems.

I read this on holiday and it was perfect for kicking back. It’s something of a throwback to the likes of Dumarest and James Bond, where a tough dude gets chucked into a tough new situation and fights his way out of it, albeit with a more enlightened approach to its female characters. I’m guessing a story arc will develop over the series (as it did in Dumarest), but if in the unlikely event I never read another of Dev’s adventures this one was completely satisfying on its own.  ****

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Things making me happy in January 2015

A few small things that are currently making me happy.

Penguin Little Black Books: I love small books. I only read about twenty to thirty full length books a year, so the little Penguin books of the past have let me try a much wider range of authors that I would otherwise have got around to. And Penguin are about to do a new series of eighty-page classics for 80p each. I’m going to buy them all, no doubt about that. The only question is whether to buy the print copies, or the slightly cheaper ebooks, or to wait for April for the box set.

The return of Psych: I also love Psych, the US show about an extremely sharp-eyed doofus who pretends to be a psychic to help the police and his long-suffering best friend. The eighth season is at last being shown on UK TV. At some point this’ll be picked up for daytime BBC1 and become the hit it should have been, but for now it’s on Universal at 7pm on Sunday nights.

Betty White’s birthday flashmob: To celebrate Betty White’s 93rd birthday the cast and crew and staff of Hot in Cleveland threw her a flashmob. That’s another show that seems to have made no impact at all in the UK, but at its best it’s among the funniest programmes on television. The kind of spirit and affection you can see in the flashmob video are there in the programme too.

Our new living room table: It may sound daft, but having a big round table in our living room has been making me very happy. I resisted it for many years, but on Boxing Day Mrs Theaker gave me bacon butties for lunch and ginger beer all afternoon, and we watched The Expendables 3, You Only Live Twice and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and I was ready to buy anything she wanted. In the end, I love it. It’s great having somewhere I can sit and comfortably write, without going to a different room or turning my back on the children.

The Hemingwrite has been fully funded: Still on writing, I backed the Hemingwrite on Kickstarter, the first thing I’ve ever backed on there. Perhaps I should have started with something a bit cheaper, but in this case I thought the risk was worth it. It’s a writing device with a proper keyboard, an e-ink screen, long battery life, and cloud backup. So, basically, an expensive upgrade to the Alphasmart which I still dust off every November. What it doesn’t have is cursor keys. It’s not going to let you move around in the text to add bits in or delete them. You can’t cut and paste. At first that put me off, and I assumed it was just down to the technical limitations of an e-ink screen. That is a factor, but the creators of the Hemingwrite have argued quite persuasively that this isn’t a replacement for your word processor, it’s more like your journal, somewhere that you just write and write without looking back. I find that very appealing. It’s how I write my novels each November. I wrote my first novel, Professor Challenger in Space, on a Sharp Fontwriter where the refresh rate was so slow that I might as well have been writing blind. When writing for long sessions on my PC, I unplug the mouse and put it away to stop myself straying from the text to other programs. Even writing reviews, more than once I’ve been stumped on a review with a deadline looming and then bashed out the basics of it in a single pomodoro splurge. So I’m really happy to have backed the Hemingwrite, I think it’ll really suit the way I work. It’s due to be delivered next September. I’m guessing they’ve chosen that date because a lot of people will, like me, be hoping to use it for next year’s Nanowrimo novel in November. Fingers crossed they come through. It’s going to be a long wait!

Markdown and Multimarkdown: One side-effect of backing the Hemingwrite is that I got interested in the possibilities of using markdown and multimarkdown, a simple way of marking up plain text writing so that formatting can be applied later. I’ve been using it for lots of stuff ever since, like writing blog posts and reviews, and compiling the email bulletins I produce at work and for the BFS. It makes it so easy to add hyperlinks and headings, but best of all it makes my writing totally independent of the apps and programs that I’m using to do the writing. I’m writing this particular blog post in the excellent iOS app Editorial, but I could just as easily be writing it in Notepad++, Word, Google Docs, Simplenote, Scrivener, the iOS Notes app or anything else, because I can copy and paste the text from one to another as necessary without losing or messing up the formatting. To turn the plain text into neat html I use the compile mmd to html option in Scrivener.

The Logitech k480 keyboard: This darling device has a dial that lets you switch between three attached devices, and buttons for connecting to new ones, which is such an improvement on the last Bluetooth keyboard I had: the Apple one, that wouldn’t connect to anything new unless everything else it had ever connected to was entirely switched off. Plus the k480 has a brilliant groove for holding tablets or phones in place. It’s given a new lease of life to my series one iPad, and made writing on other devices much, much easier. Recommended.

And that is what’s making me happy this month.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Forever Watch by David Ramirez / review by Jacob Edwards

First up, the funambulist.

Entrenched within the Noah, an unimaginably vast city-spaceship, the remnants of mankind trek obdurately through space en route to a new home-world. Adults labour for the common cause, enduring whatever stringencies are necessary. Children are raised by the state, the course of their lives determined by aptitude tests and the latent strength of their psychic abilities. Hundreds of generations pass. The mission is everything. Yet, for all she has been indoctrinated to believe that species survival is paramount, telekinesist Hana Dempsey, suddenly at odds with the power-elite who run the ship, finds herself embroiled in an unsanctioned hunt for a serial killer who shouldn’t exist but whose grisly touch ghosts across the Noah’s Nth Web, hinting at a conspiracy beyond nightmare.

In terms of concept, debut novelist David Ramirez with The Forever Watch sets out to walk a tightrope. Stylistically, he does so without a safety net. There are some wobbles along the way, yet by the end of the book there can be little doubt that, should he be able to repeat and build on the performance, he will garner sufficient reputation to secure a future in the profession.

The Forever Watch is written in the present tense, which from the outset puts it in an odd minority. The shift in perspective requires a degree of acclimatisation – from both reader and writer; Ramirez sways woozily on a few occasions when shuffling from absolute to relative tense – but soon ceases to be a distraction. There is a sense of immediacy to eyewitness accounts presented in this way, particularly as Ramirez favours short sentences; the story is told through small blocks of thought, almost as if unfolding in real time.

Further to the boldness of making a novel-length foray in the present tense, Ramirez transplants his authorial voice into a female protagonist for the first person narrative. Male writers have been (collectively) accused of underrepresenting women in science fiction. Ramirez therefore deserves credit for placing Hana Dempsey at the crux of his world; but of course, in doing so he lays himself open to all manner of possible criticisms as to the fidelity of his depiction. The men in the story are themselves a mixed bag: minor character Hennessy, for example, is given a certain depth, whereas Barrens (second billed behind Dempsey) is somewhat stereotyped to cyberpunk preconceptions and speaks in a jarring, unwarrantable pulp-detective patois. The characterisation of Hana serves perfectly well in the gender-neutral sense of moving the plot forwards; for some readers, however, judgment of The Forever Watch may ultimately come down to a verdict on whether Ramirez’s portrayal of her is closer to creditable or culpable.

One undeniable strength of Ramirez’s work is his imagining of the Noah’s insular, pseudo-totalitarian society, the basic framework of which is established via an adroit series of flashbacks to earlier in Hana’s life (still written in the present tense) and then fleshed out as events unfold in the here and now. The world of The Forever Watch is vividly realised and integral to Ramirez’s story, yet has been unobtrusively (though very deliberately) brought to life. What is most impressive about this is not so much the creative vision but Ramirez’s commitment to what he has put in place; rather than preserve his setting for possible sequels, he instead allows the scenario to play out in full, affording scope not only for a symbiosis between action and locale but also for a novel that is unusual in its high level of self-containment.

Having set off across the tightrope, Ramirez does falter slightly at about the quarter-way mark (there is a lull in impetus, which many will find off-putting), but he then takes a deep breath and forges ahead, letting the balancing act play out come what may. For all that each step follows the previous, the shadowy endpoint he reaches is considerably removed both from where Hana and Barrens started and from where we might have expected their investigation to lead. In what is a darkly satisfying, uncompromising debut, The Forever Watch sends an exotic, visceral shiver through the dystopian genre, and in doing so flags Ramirez as an author to be kept under close observation.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Theakerly thoughts: resolutions, controllers and page sizes

Thought 1. The first in a new series: questions I have been asked by the radio. What resolutions have you made for 2015? Thanks for asking, radio, but none this year. There are things I’d like to do, like writing and publishing reviews more quickly after reading books. I’d like to get back onto my “small plate diet”, once the Christmas goodies have run out. I’d like to say no to more things, so that I can take the time to enjoy doing the things I choose to do. But no resolutions this time.

Thought 2. Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #50 is far too long. It’s taking me forever to get it done, and I got distracted for a while last year by helping out on the BFS Journal again. But it’s on the way, don’t worry. Proofs should be with all contributors this weekend.

Thought 3. I have been having great fun of late after hooking a wired Xbox controller up to my PC and using Xpadder to interpret its commands, e.g. using the triggers to page up and page down when proofreading. It’s very groovy in Word, where I’ve hooked up the controller face buttons to my favourite editing macros. For example, pressing Y highlights the next word and adds a “Look up and check!” comment to it.

Thought 4. I’ve been struck lately by the weirdness of doing so much on-screen editing work on an A4 page, when pretty much nothing I work on in Word ever gets printed out from there. (I’m not a fan of Normal view.) So when reading subs now I change them to a landscape 13 cm x 29 cm page to snugly fit my screen, and working on other stuff I default to A5. Free your mind, dude!

Thought 5. One day I’d like to meet a doorstep evangelist who doesn’t condone the killing of everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah. #kickmurderoutofreligion

Thought 6. A few years ago I had an email chat with an author who admitted using Fiverr to pay for reviews of her book, All My Love, Detrick. She told me that everyone makes mistakes, and the important thing is to learn from them. Well, the book is now up to 296 five-star reviews and 105 four-star reviews. Wonder how that happened?

Friday, 16 January 2015

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar / review by Tim Atkinson

What’s the point of a text-only graphic novel?

I’ve enjoyed a few superhero stories in recent years – Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible being a good example. Yet I find they share a common problem: they try to tell the Pop Art tales of their greatest influences with solid but conservative prose. Competing with comics on comics’ terms, they’re always bound to pull up short.

And this is speculative fiction we’re talking about here – chock full of mind-melting ideas and techniques half-inched from serious literature, underway well before Superman was a twinkle in Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s eyes.

A good superhero novel should then draw strength from the novelistic tradition at least as much as from its forebears in the funny papers. Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century goes at least some way towards demonstrating this point.

Central to the novel is the idea that, while American costumed crime-fighters, Nazi Ubermenschen and Soviet champions of the proletariat clashed in public, Britain trained its special talents instead as secret agents and players in the great game of espionage.

As the novel opens in the present, Fogg, a telekinetic British operative long since retired, is recalled by an old comrade for one final debrief on an unresolved matter dating back to the end of WW2. His interrogation frames stories of adventure, horror, love and collusion across enemy lines from the past – each revealing more of the real reason for his summons.

Since it draws on war stories and Cold War thrillers more than it does Marvel and DC, The Violent Century sidesteps the anxiety of influence affecting previous superhero novels. Despite a few sly references to Stan Lee and Siegel and Shuster, it’s confidently its own work.

While reading the novel is an intensely visual experience, the movie in your head is less Avengers Assemble, more Inglourious Basterds. Tidhar shows himself to be master of the tone needed, writing vignette after vignette from the battlefields of Europe.

Using the tropes of spy novels also allows an altogether more pessimistic take on the uses and abuses of power than you’d normally find in a four-colour universe. As you might expect, Fogg and his fellow British spies owe more to George Smiley than to Nick Fury, but the costumed heroes with which they coexist are not one whit less morally compromised.

Beating the Nazis and the Soviets – the book suggests – comes at the cost of gradually sacrificing one’s own principles.

Does The Violent Century make the case for the superhero novel as something with real merit in its own right? For me, it’s a resounding maybe; since the book makes most sense as a stylistic exercise, a playful what-if, rather than something with serious intent behind it, in practice it lends support to either view.

Yet while it might not be the return favour that superhero comics still owes literature for Watchmen, it is fun, fast and deeply atmospheric. I’m glad that The Violent Century exists as a novel, rather than being confined to panels and speech bubbles.

And that, at least, is progress.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Zenith: Phase One by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell / review by Stephen Theaker

1987. Zenith is a pop star superhero who has never bothered learning to fight; there are no super-villains, so why bother? His closest friend seems to be his agent, and his power levels are determined by his biorhythms, so they are careful to schedule public appearances for the right time of the month. The only cloud in his bright blue sky is that he doesn’t know what happened to his parents, Dr Beat and White Heat.

Or at least it was the only cloud, until the return of Masterman, the Nazi superman last seen when the US dropped an atomic bomb on Berlin in 1944. Turns out he wasn’t so much a superman as the vessel for a dark god come down from overspace, and the Order of the Black Sun have now prepared a new, even more powerful body for it. Zenith will need the help of what’s left of the last generation of superheroes to survive the coming battle.

This comics collection was previously published by Titan in the eighties but Zenith, like his close cousin Miracleman, then went out of print for a long time, there being questions over rights and ownership. That made it one of the few Grant Morrison stories that I hadn’t yet read in full, and I appreciate it being available even while hoping no one’s rights are being trampled. In the context of his career it can be seen as leading neatly into both the superhero work and the weirder stuff.

Steve Yeowell’s art is mostly in black and white, as was usual for 2000AD at the time this story appeared (progs 535 to 550), though one significant page towards the end appears in full colour to excellent effect. It’s not quite as good as his later art, but it tells the story well and excels when portraying the more otherworldly elements, like the creatures from beyond and the hallucinations of hero hippie turned Tory cabinet member Mandala. ***

Friday, 9 January 2015

Turbulence (audiobook) by Samit Basu / review by Stephen Theaker

Turbulence by Samit Basu (digital audiobook, Audible Ltd, 10 hrs 18 mins) is read by Ramon Tikaram, so, of course, having theoretically appeared in one of his sister’s music videos I was well disposed towards it from the off.

Vir Singh, a young Indian pilot, has acquired super-powers, and as the novel begins we meet him flying through the air on his way to interfere with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. He is not the only one with new powers. Everyone Uzma meets falls in love with her, and she hopes to parlay that into a film career. Aman, a young man who can interface directly with the internet; Narayan, a scientist who builds mad devices in his sleep; Tia, a duplicate-triplicate-infinite girl, and so on. (Apologies for any spelling mistakes – names are always tricky when reviewing an audiobook.) All must come together to fight Jai, a soldier who, like all the others, got exactly what he wanted, from whoever or whatever it was that gave them these powers: for Jai, that was to be the perfect soldier, powerful and indestructible.

Heroes feels like a big influence – of course Heroes borrowed its plots from a hundred different comic books itself (the writers even talked about how little work they got done on new comics day!) – but it’s the approach that feels so similar. With an audiobook it can sometimes be hard to tell if it’s the tone of the book that’s odd, or the tone of the reading: here, the mood seems to change from sentence to sentence – serious, quirky, foreboding, fun – making it hard to get a sense of the novel. Ramon Tikaram doesn’t seem to be taking it entirely seriously. The result is that, at least in audio form, it felt more cheesy blockbuster than serious science fiction. It’s okay, but still a bit of a disappointment.  ***