Friday, 31 July 2015

Book notes #11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 24 July 2015

Book notes #10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Gallows | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More details here.

Book notes #9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 July 2015

Book notes #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 July 2015

Book notes #7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 June 2015

Book notes #6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 June 2015

Jurassic World | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, Indominus rex escapes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 June 2015

Book notes #5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 June 2015

Book notes #4

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

Captain Marvel, Vol. 1: In Pursuit of Flight (Marvel) by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Ms. Marvel aka Warbird aka Carol Danvers drops her swimsuit costume for a more practical outfit, adopts the name Captain Marvel, starts wearing her hair in an odd combover, and takes a flight in her idol’s aeroplane to try and beat a record. She gets thrown back in time and teams up with a band of grounded female pilots. The cover art led me astray: I expected art in the line of Frank Quitely, but it’s more like Dan Brereton. Good in itself, but not what I’d been looking forward to. Sending the character into the past at the beginning of a new series gives the impression of not knowing what to do with her in the present, but the feminism is welcome. The elephant in the room is that while Ms. Marvel is reluctant to take on the name of her predecessor, he nicked that name himself from the real Captain Marvel, the Big Red Cheese, Billy Batson. ***

Captain Ultimate (Monkeybrain) by Benjamin Bailey, Joey Esposito, Boy Akkerman and Ed Ryzowski. Amiable all-ages comic about an old-time superhero who returns to action at the behest of a little boy. I liked the way the Captain was depicted in old-fashioned four-colour dots, but apart from that it didn’t quite hit the spot for me. Likeable, but not quite funny enough. ***

Child of a Hidden Sea (Tor Books), by A.M. Dellamonica. Liked the book, loved the protagonist. A young woman is whisked off to a fantasy world that has the same moon as Earth, where magic works and her birth mother was part of a family of elite couriers. What I liked best was the way she’s keen to get photographs of the wildlife and things like that, and is careful to keep her camera charged. The idea of taking a solar powered charger to a fantasy world tickles me. Reviewed for Interzone #253. ***

Cloud Permutations (PS Publishing), by Lavie Tidhar. Terrific novella about a boy who wants to fly on a world where it isn’t allowed. ****

Criminal Macabre Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Dark Horse Books), by Steve Niles, Ben Templesmith and Kelley Jones. From the writer of 30 Days of Night. Cal McDonald is the American equivalent of John Constantine. He is drunker, druggier, more screwed-up, and prefers his friends dead to begin with so that they can’t get killed. Weird creatures seek him out and his job is usually to kill them. Stories involve ghouls, vampires, werewolves, a haunted car and a succubus. First half has impressionistic artwork by Ben Templesmith, and the second half has cartoonier art by Kelley Jones, which I think suits the OTT stories a bit better. ***

Deadpool Classic, Vol. 1 (Marvel) by Fabian Nicieza, Rob Liefeld, Mark Waid, Joe Kelly, Joe Madureira, Ian Churchill, Lee Weeks, Ken Lashley and Ed McGuinness. The early adventures of the mouthy mercenary, illustrated for the most part in ghastly Liefeldesque style. Marvel at its pre-Quesada worst. The book collects a pair of woeful four-issue miniseries which feature lots of shouting, contorted posing and bursting through walls, plus a couple of other issues. The final story, from the first issue of his monthly series, is an improvement. *

Doctor Who: Hunters of the Burning Stone (Panini UK Ltd), by Scott Gray, Martin Geraghty, Mike Collins. Eleventh Doctor adventures from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine. Sees the return of Ian and Barbara. ***

Doctor Who: Into the Nowhere (BBC Digital), by Jenny Colgan. Novella by Jenny Colgan about the eleventh Doctor and Clara, who end up on a rather nasty planet where skeletons have a tendency to rise up from the ground. An enjoyable little book, perfect for a rainy afternoon. Colgan captures the relationship of Clara and the Doctor rather well. Steven Moffat deliberately built lots of tie-in friendly gaps into their television adventures, so there’s plenty of scope for the two of them to travel together again. ***

Friday, 5 June 2015

Book notes #3

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

Bone and Jewel Creatures (Subterranean Press), by Elizabeth Bear. A superb novella about an elderly woman who takes in a feral child and fits it with a new arm made from jewels and the remains of its own original arm, while facing the challenge of an evil necromancer. It’s a Subterranean Press book, but the ebook was available at a very reasonable price via Weightless Books. ****

BPRD, Vol. 1: Hollow Earth and Other Stories (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola and friends. Collects one-shots and other stories about Abe Sapien and the other members of the BPRD, the organisation Hellboy works for. ***

BPRD, Vol. 2: The Soul of Venice and Other Stories (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola, Scott Allie, Michael Avon Oeming, Guy Davis and friends. More great stories about Hellboy’s friends and colleagues. ****

BPRD, Vol. 3: Plague of Frogs (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola, Guy Davis and Dave Stewart. The first BPRD volume to collect a single mini-series, this spins out from events in the first Hellboy book. I’d forgotten how much I loved Guy Davis’s art on Sandman Mystery Theatre; it’s brilliant here. ****

BPRD: Hell on Earth, Vol. 1: New World (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis and Dave Stewart. Some time after the events that began in Plague of Frogs reached their conclusion, the BPRD are working for the UN and investigating the matters the UN wants investigating. Abe Sapien heads off to the woods and encounters an old friend and a demon baby and its giant-sized twin. I enjoyed this a lot. I really like Abe, more even than Hellboy. ****

BPRD: Vampire (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie. A member of BPRD has had a pair of vampire souls trapped within him (I think) and he wants to find out more about the creatures. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but it looked terrific. I’ll probably need to re-read all these Hellboy books and spin-offs in order once I have them all. ***

Bravest Warriors, Vol. 1 (KaBOOM!), by Joey Comeau, Mike Holmes, Pendleton Ward and Ryan Pequin. Based on the new science fiction cartoon from the creator of Adventure Time, and just as much fun. ****

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Vol. 6: Retreat (Dark Horse Books), by Jane Espenson, Georges Jeanty and Joss Whedon. I can’t hate any Buffy comic, but didn’t enjoy this as much as hoped. ***

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Vol. 7: Twilight (Dark Horse Books), by Brad Meltzer, Georges Jeanty and Joss Whedon. The series gets a bit wobbly. **

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Vol. 8: Last Gleaming (Dark Horse Books), by Joss Whedon, Georges Jeanty and Scott Allie. A disappointing end to a series that had begun so promisingly. ***

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9, Vol. 1: Freefall (Dark Horse Books), by Joss Whedon, Andrew Chambliss, Georges Jeanty and Karl Moline. An improvement on Season 8, which by the end I’d gone off so much that I would never have bought this if the Kindle edition hadn’t been on sale. ***

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9, Vol. 2: On Your Own (Dark Horse Books), by Andrew Chambliss, Scott Allie, Georges Jeanty and Cliff Richards. Feels more like a continuation of the TV series. ****

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9, Vol. 3: Guarded (Dark Horse Books), by Andrew Chambliss, Jane Espenson, Drew Z. Greenberg, Georges Jeanty, Karl Moline and Joss Whedon. Buffy has a go at being a bodyguard, but can she put work before her true calling? Enjoyable but the emphasis on how easy the zompires (zombie vampires, created after Buffy’s world was sealed off from magic) are to kill is making them feel like a negligible threat. ***

Captain America, Vol. 1: Castaway in Dimension Z (Marvel) by Rick Remender, John Romita Jr, Klaus Janson, Tom Palmer, Scott Hanna, Dean White, Lee Loughridge and Dan Brown. A thrilling book where Captain America is taken to another dimension for a lengthy stay, a dimension of monsters ruled by Arnim Zola and his horrible experiments. The spirit of Kirby is strong in this one. ****

Monday, 1 June 2015

Poltergeist | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Rockwell’s performance shines in otherwise blasé remake

Advertisements for the Poltergeist remake feature a malicious-looking clown, a black background, and the hashtag #WhatAreYouAfraidOf. It looks scary, and it’s a smart way to link one of the most enduring images from the 1982 original with contemporary lingo. Too bad strong ads aren’t predictors of strong films.

The first Poltergeist was a big deal. The supernatural extravaganza struck fear into the hearts of kids and paved the way for many horror films. The 2015 rehash offers a similar storyline embellished with a few technological adornments (to show it’s contemporary): a teen texting, iPads, a video drumming game, and even a droid.

Sadly, Poltergeist’s resurrection, despite its respect for the original and a competent performance by male lead Sam Rockwell, comes up a bit flimsy. This one isn’t going to make it onto many people’s #WhatAreYouAfraidOf list, especially when it’s compared to recent haunted house films like Paranormal Activity (2007), Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013), and The Babadook (2014). Even the hyped up clown plays a minuscule role and the preview gives away its chief scare.

After getting laid off, Eric Bowen moves his family to a more affordable Illinois suburb. Unfortunately, the foreclosure-ridden neighborhood sits atop a former Indian burial ground. As the family attempts to settle in, strange things start happening… with toys, trees, electricity, and appliances. Then, you know the words. Come on… sing along! The supernatural entities get angrier, the threats increase, the paranormal investigators show, the family members undertake heroic efforts to save their loved ones. There’s the weird little boy, the ball moving on its own, and the stay-at-home mom who has it in her to be a great artist (in this case it’s a writer) if only she wasn’t tied down by her kids.

The only novel technique this film employs involves flying a drone through the house and into the transdimensional portal. However, it doesn’t really add anything to the film.

Most of the film’s attempts at humour fall short. I hoped that Jared Harris’s take on TV celebrity/spiritual medium Carrigan Burke would transcend the norm. Alas, plopping an Irish accent on what has become a cookie cutter paranormal investigator doesn’t do the trick. One relationship that could have been played up was that between Burke and his nerdy but endearing ex-wife Dr Brooke Powell. The film’s funniest scene involves a minor character: a young investigator who loses his drill on the other side of the closet wall as he tries to install a monitoring device. When the spirits on the other side use the young man’s drill to “screw” with him, it’s hard to keep from laughing.

All’s Well with Rockwell
Sam Rockwell all but carries this film. In a genre in which the male lead is often unmemorable at best, Rockwell injects verve and individuality into a character who would be easily forgotten in less capable hands. Eric Bowen, victim of the corporate juggernaut, is down-to-earth and humorous, yet flawed… the kind of guy you’d like as your next-door neighbour. Bowen gives his kids high fives, plays with his wife, eats chicken nugget covered pizza, talks while chewing, and pretends he’s getting attacked by a killer squirrel. When the tears well as Bowen says all he wants is for his daughter’s safe return, Rockwell is, despite the absurdity of the situation, believable. That’s the sign of a good actor.

It’s entertaining to watch Bowen’s spendthrift leanings exacerbate the guilt he feels for his inability to be a provider. One night, he comes home with gifts for each family member. In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, Bowen tries to make light of the situation when his credit cards don’t work at a home improvement store.

One could argue that this film would have been much more interesting if all the supernatural hocus pocus were stripped away and instead it tightened the focus on the familial and financial challenges of this character.  

Frightening Doesn’t Strike Twice
Ultimately, this movie suffers from the requirement that it must pay homage to a film that made an impact thirty years ago. As time passes, social norms change. What was scary thirty years ago isn’t scary today.

One need look no further than the film’s most recognized line (“They’re here…”) to see the degradation that has occurred. The original Carol Anne’s utterance is cautionary, yet playful. Carol Anne’s 21st century reincarnation Madison treats the line in a way that’s best described as dispassionate.

Maybe, for this one, the spirit of the original is best left at rest. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Friday, 29 May 2015

Book notes #2

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

Axe Cop, Vol 2: Bad Guy Earth (Dark Horse Comics), by Malachai Nicolle and Ethan Nicolle. Nothing could ever be quite as hilarious as Axe Cop, Vol. 1, which made me laugh so much the sides of my eyes were sore for days from wiping away the tears, and this isn’t, but it comes pretty close. Axe Cop and friends have to battle two psychic bad guys who want to turn everyone on Earth into bad guys. Written by a little kid and drawn by his grown-up brother, this does a great job of harnessing the imaginative fireworks that go off whenever children start to rattle off stories. ****

Baltimore, Vol. 2: The Curse Bells (Dark Horse Books) by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden and Ben Stenbeck. A story in five chapters, which begins with a betrayal in Lucerne. Baltimore searches for the vampire Haigus, who he first encountered on the bloodstained fields of World War One. ***

Baltimore, Vol. 3: A Passing Stranger (Dark Horse Books) by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden and Ben Stenbeck. Lord Baltimore fights his way through five short stories, hunting for his hated enemy. ***

Batman: The Black Mirror (DC Comics), by Scott Snyder, Jock, Francesco Francavilla. Good story about Batman (Dick Grayson, who I think might be my favourite Batman) fighting a weird secret society. ***

Be a Sex-Writing Strumpet (self-published) by Stacia Kane. Reading this didn’t half make me blush. It compiles a series of blog posts on the subject of writing sex scenes, principally for erotic novels. I don’t often include that stuff in my writing, but I’d read some sensible blog posts on responding to reviews by the author and wanted to buy something of hers. And it was useful to me: much of what she says can be applied to other kinds of action. It’s good, though some readers may feel it could have used a rewrite to make it more bookish and less bloggy. ***

Billy’s Book (PS Publishing) by Terry Bisson. A short PS Publishing collection of deliberately fragmentary and repetitive stories about a boy who has odd stuff turn up at his house, like giant ants and wizards and unicorns. They’re okay, but it was a bit of a surprise at the end to see what starry venues they had originally appeared in. ***

Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction (University Press of Mississippi), by Isiah Lavender III (ed.). Interesting book of essays. Two about one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 are maybe a bit much, and given the title it seems odd that it doesn’t cover India, the country that might well come to lead the space race (the “Brown” section is more about South America), but I learnt a lot from it. Like any book of literary criticism, it can be dull, but that’s outweighed by the issues, authors and stories it works so carefully to bring to our attention. A few essays make great claims without much evidence, but all provide much to think about; it opens up the conversation, rather than having the last word. Walter Mosley is quoted inside as saying: “The power of science fiction is that it can tear down the walls and windows, the artifice and laws by changing the logic, empowering the disenfranchised or simply by asking, What if?” Black and Brown Planets shows how writers and critics are doing just that. Reviewed in full for Interzone #255. ****

Black Science, Vol. 1: How to Fall Forever (Image Comics), by Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera, Dean White. Begins with a pair of scientists dashing through a bizarre alien world, desperate to get back to the children who will die if they don’t get back in time. As the story goes on, it begins to feel a bit like Sliders or Primeval, one of those shows where characters pitch up in a place and have to get out again. It’s better than either of those so far, let’s hope that continues. The art is spectacular. ***

Friday, 22 May 2015

Book notes #1

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

Abe Sapien, Vol. 1: The Drowning (Dark Horse Books), by Mike Mignola, Mike Alexander and Jason Shawn. Moody and spooky story of Hellboy’s aquatic chum. ***

Adventure Time, Vol. 1: Playing With Fire (KaBOOM!), by Danielle Corsetto. A black and white Adventure Time graphic novel featuring the Flame Princess. ***

Adventure Time, Vol. 2: Pixel Princesses (KaBOOM!), by Danielle Corsetto and Zack Sterling. Another black and white graphic novel, this time featuring several of the princesses as they get stuck inside their computer pal. Bought for the children (possibly by the children with their pocket money) but I enjoyed it too. ***

Afterlife with Archie, Vol. 1: Escape from Riverdale (Archie Comics), by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla. Interesting alternative take on the gang. Shows real understanding of the characters. Doesn’t have a proper ending. ***

Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart. Collecting weird tales by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. The lead story is about a head who can screw himself into various bodies, and does so in order to help the President, Abraham Lincoln. ****

Amelia Cole and the Hidden War (Monkeybrain Comics), by Adam P. Knave, D.J. Kirkbride and Nick Brokenshire. Book two. Amelia works as the city’s magic sheriff while her predecessor fights in a magical war. ***

Amelia Cole and the Unknown World (Monkeybrain Comics), by Adam P. Knave, D.J. Kirkbride and Nick Brokenshire. Book one in a well-drawn and readable series about a young woman who can do magic. ***

American Elf 2009 (Top Shelf Productions), by James Kochalka. Kochalka’s daily comics from 2009. ***

American Elf 2010 (Top Shelf Productions), by James Kochalka. Kochalka’s daily comics from 2010. ***

American Elf 2011 (Top Shelf Productions), by James Kochalka. Kochalka’s daily comics from 2011. ****

American Elf 2012 (Top Shelf Productions), by James Kochalka. Conclusion of the wonderful autobiographical series. *****

Angel and Faith, Vol. 1: Live Through This (Dark Horse Books) by Christos Gage, Scott Allie, Rebekah Isaacs and Phil Noto. Vampire with a soul Angel did some stuff recently that he feels bad about, and he’s trying to put things right. Naughty vampire slayer Faith owes him one from back in the day so she’ll stick by his side, even though she thinks he’s making a mistake. The first story sees them tracking down the source of an elixir of life, and the second brings back Harmony, still the world’s most famous celebrity vampire. Enjoyable without being essential; I think Angel and Faith are both characters who benefit from a bit of offscreen time. Watch out for the spoiler for volume two in the artist’s notes at the back. ***

Asterix and the Magic Carpet (Orion), by Albert Uderzo. Asterix goes to India, in theory. It seems more like Arabia. ***

Asterix in Corsica (Orion), by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. Not the best in the series. ***

Asterix in Switzerland (Orion), by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. Very funny. Reminded me why I loved Asterix so much as a youngster. ****

Avengers Assemble (Marvel) by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley. Collecting a blockbuster mini-series where the Avengers team up with the Guardians of the Galaxy to take on Thanos, who’s got his hands on a new cosmic cube and an army of Badoon. It’s not too bad, and the artwork is good, but the story struggles to fill eight issues and Gamora wears an appallingly sexist outfit that looks like Borat’s swimming costume. ***

Monday, 18 May 2015

Ten tips for a happy marriage

I've been married for 19 years today. If one becomes an expert in something after 10,000 hours, then logically after 166,550 hours of marriage I am an expert in it 16 times over, so I feel entirely justified in offering my ten tips for a happy marriage:

1. Marry someone who already knows what a jerk you are.

2. If you have a row sleep at the opposite end of the bed rather than stomping off to sleep somewhere else. It's hard to be mad at someone's feet for what their mouth said.

3. Marry someone who likes the same TV programmes, because it's always going to be a cheap easy way to have fun together.

4. If possible, try to go to bed at the same time.

5. But get a Kindle with a built-in light so that you don't need to keep the lamp on.

6. Marry someone who thinks you're funny.

7. Be aware of their minimum expectations in the relationship and make sure you meet them.

8. Divide the household tasks up cleanly so that there's no arguing over whose turn it is to do something.

9. Never leave an empty toilet roll behind.

10. Be lucky.

If you've got any tips of your own, please let me have them in the comments! Our twentieth anniversary is now almost within reach and it would be a terrible shame if I fell at the last hurdle!

Avengers: Age of Ultron | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Sequel soars with Super Bowl style entertainment.

Our beloved heroes are back to decimate evil, attack our pocketbooks, decrease our IQ, and lavish us with non-stop action.

Avengers: Age of Ultron pumps up the adrenaline of the box office record-breaking Avengers Assemble (2012). The sequel stands as a treatise on the values of friendship and loyalty, as well as a commentary on the redemptive qualities of humanity. Plus it has lots of explosions.

Tony Stark (i.e. Iron Man) has a plan to bring peace to Earth through an artificial intelligence called Ultron. However, Ultron’s motives (and his take on humans) are a tad less charitable: he wants to destroy humanity. So Ultron makes himself a robotic body, enlists a couple of genetically modified twins (“He’s fast, she’s weird.”), and multiplies his army like “a Catholic rabbit” (Nick Fury’s words).

Despite all the biotechnological gobbledygook that passes between Stark and Dr Bruce Banner (the Hulk), the crew has a simple goal: stop Ultron. No matter our willingness to admit it, the reason we adults go to see these films is the same as that of the little boy: to see good guys trounce bad guys. And that’s what we get.

Though it’s penned by return director Joss Whedon, Avengers: Age of Ultron seems to have come together via a think tank of top advertising creatives intent on achieving a two-plus hour Super Bowl commercial. From the opening snowy battle scene to the rollicking conclusion, the film keeps the viewer hypnotized with its rock star cast and cartoonish fight sequences.

In this film, plot is peripheral to action. It’s best viewed on a big screen. A robot-propelled semitrailer floating above New York just isn’t the same on a small screen.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the attention span of the average American dropped 33% between 2000 and 2013. We’re at about eight seconds. The makers of Avengers: Age of Ultron got the memo.

Something for Everyone
The film appeals to many different ages and cinematic tastes.

Those who like humour are in for a treat. It’s hard to watch the film for longer than two minutes without finding something to at least chuckle at. It starts when Captain America reprimands Stark after he utters the film’s first word: “Shit.” Soon “Cap” lets slip a dirty word of his own. This becomes an ongoing joke.

The sense of boyish one-upmanship that permeates the film is best encapsulated at a party near the beginning. Thor and Iron Man strive to outbrag each other regarding the accomplishments of their women, Jane Foster and Pepper Potts. The heroes then engage in a strength contest by attempting to lift Mjölnir, Thor’s magical hammer. To top it off, Thor enhances the libations with some kind of magical elixir.

For romantics, there’s the blossoming relationship between Natasha Romanoff (i.e. Black Widow) and Bruce Banner. It’s particularly enjoyable to watch Mark Ruffalo’s reluctant, nearly submissive Banner squirm as Scarlett Johansson’s character makes clear her interest in him. Sure, Banner is concerned that his green alter ego could tear apart Romanoff, but he’s also contending with a much more incredulous possibility: that this vixen is actually interested in him despite his supreme nerdiness. Well played by Ruffalo.

For the youngster, especially the hysterical boy who likes to knock things down, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a dream come true. Colourful costumes. Robots. Weapons. Razed buildings. Standouts include Captain America’s completely unnecessary, though enthralling flips and Stark in a souped-up Iron Man getup attempting to stop a mentally altered Hulk’s – was it possible for him to get any angrier? – urban rampage.

The film achieves the ultimate in bombastic heroism when the Avengers, positioned in a circle, fight their adversaries as the camera moves around them in slow motion. Absurd. Juvenile. Love it!

Ultron – a Narcissistic Robot with Spunk
The villain that graces millions of bags of chips and cans of soda had better be as bad and as tantalizing as the products he touts. Ultron has the crunch and the fizz.

This bad guy combines the appearance of a more agile Terminator robot, the vocal distinctiveness of Heath Ledger’s Joker (The Dark Knight), and the tangential gems of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman (American Psycho).

James Spader’s voiceover shifts from philosophical ennui, to wisecracking commentaries on human frailties (e.g. “Everyone creates the thing they dread… People create… smaller people? Uhh… children! Lost the word there.”), to enraged disbelief at others questioning his superiority.

Get ready for a super-sized portion of crackling quotes from this one. After Steve Rogers/Captain America’s declaration that there is a way to achieve peace, Ultron says, “I can’t actually throw up in my mouth, but if I could I would do it!”

Tony Stark has met his match. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Read Douglas’s review of The Avengers.

Friday, 15 May 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies | review by Jacob Edwards

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to orc we go.

For many months I disavowed my ring finger’s insistent tingle to review
The Battle of the Five Armies. This was not because I hold J.R.R. Tolkien or Peter Jackson in any way sacred (although I do esteem The Frighteners), but rather because there seemed no way into the task. I felt, like Bilbo Baggins, too small to embark upon such an adventure. I hadn’t even read The Hobbit.

Yet, review the film I shall, though many others have set out before me, better prepared and more assured of purpose. (There’s even now in my possession a map marked here be dragons.) Review it I shall, even if this should require so foolhardy an act as to cross the streams, Ghostbusters-style, and write in the first person.

Someone once told me never to write non-fiction in the first person. It’s advice I’ve taken to heart even while retaining no memory of whom so impressed me with the tenet. Their face is gone and so too the voice, leaving nothing but Yoda pastiche. “Review. Or review not. There is no I.”

And why is this? Because there’s too much danger of slipping into memoir (or, heaven forbid, blogging). This is now inevitable. I apologise.

I came to The Battle of the Five Armies having seen and mostly enjoyed both the first two instalments of the Hobbit trilogy and also Peter Jackson’s three-pronged take on The Lord of the Rings. This latter was a book I had read, its three volumes bound together in one bitter pill and shoved down my throat at university as part of a feminism in electric sheep’s clothing degree. I remember a distended week of Tolkien, mitigated only by old Tom Bombadil singing ditties about himself in the third person. I remember the lecturer perched like Smaug atop her pedestal, steaming with self-importance. I remember scoring exactly the same as my brother across three pieces of assessment, but notching a lower grade because not all assignments are created equal and marks out of 100 are not fungible. You see? Memoir.

I tried, having watched it on the big screen, to then read The Hobbit, but I failed. Much though the imaginative elements were there, the prose itself seemed laboured. It was like going back to Enid Blyton, only without any childhood nostalgia to sweeten the journey. I just couldn’t abide all the descriptive repetition; the sameness of Tolkien’s firkydoodling.

What, then, to do?

Thinking back to my English degree, I distinctly recall the feeling of reprieve I experienced upon discovering Tess of the d’Urbervilles as an audiobook. Rather than read it myself, I could listen to Martin Shaw, with whom I was familiar primarily through The Professionals, but also by way of a more serious snippet of period drama I’d happened upon one night while channel surfing. East Lynne, perhaps? “I should like to take a stroll on the moor.” Hand to hip; britches and jacket. Something like that.

Martin Shaw made Tess of the d’Urbervilles bearable, and so I was pleased to learn in my more recent time of need that he could also be heard reading The Hobbit. Not every dwarf cloak is described – the audiobook is slightly abridged – but Shaw weaves his sonorous spell for a good six hours, narrating, putting on a plethora of voices and generally matching the film trilogy’s epic sense of adventure. Dating from 1993, Shaw’s virtuoso rendition of Gollum must surely have informed Andy Serkis’ now-iconic performance across Peter Jackson’s magnum opus.

And so, at last, to The Battle of the Five Armies.

Tolkien, it seems to me (speaking of his corpus of works rather than the man himself), is one of those rare literary phenomena where the story being told comes in some measure to be associated, either positively or negatively, with the circumstances by which it is read, heard or viewed. Preconceptions; personal experience; prior encounters with Middle-earth: everything goes into the mix and the film, in this case, either weaves its spell or it doesn’t. Objectivity itself becomes subjective.

Which is my excuse for spurning even the pretence of critical analysis, and offering instead merely a conscious stream of likes and didn’t-likes. Or rather, a list of especial likes and didn’t-likes, which heavily favours the latter. As much as I enjoyed the movie overall, the best part was still picking it apart afterwards…

Starting with the good, we have Billy Connolly as Thorin Oakenshield’s second cousin, Dáin Ironfoot, whose injection into proceedings adds some much-needed charisma to all the fighting. Regardless of whether or not Connolly would have tallied with Tolkien’s conception of Dwarf royalty, this for me was the highlight.

Moving on to good that segues into bad, we have Martin Freeman. When it was first announced that Freeman would play the role of Bilbo Baggins, my reaction was the same as when he was cast as Arthur Dent; namely, “Yes. Perfect.” Freeman brings tremendous nuance to the screen. He’s one of those actors who can do a lot with little; who can say a lot while not quite saying anything at all. In the same way that Eric Idle’s Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink sketch looks somewhat underwhelming in written form but comes alive in performance, Martin Freeman can take ordinary (or even quite trite) lines and make them thoroughly convincing.

Freeman, in short (hey, accidental pun), has bravura to burn. The only problem is that he’s hardly ever on screen. Too many battles, not enough Bilbo! The same could be said of Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown, but Freeman surely deserves more while playing the titular character. (Yes, I refer to the film by its subtitle, but all those armies aside, it’s still meant to be The Hobbit.) Peter Jackson in this respect has been perhaps too faithful to the book, going so far as to have Bilbo knocked unconscious and leaving everyone else to get on with it. Yes, that’s how Tolkien himself played it, but Tolkien also introduced Bard only minutes before Smaug was slain. Jackson saw no reason not to flesh out that character. Why then pay such little attention to poor old Bilbo? Presumably because…

…and here we move fully into the realm of bad points, The Battle of the Five Armies really is, by and large, just one big fight sequence. (And an excuse for Legolas to defy gravity; clearly he’s one of those elves who, if he found himself in a plummeting elevator, would jump up just before it hit the ground and so escape all harm.) There’s quite a bit of fighting in the book, too, but there’s also a lot of downtime, which Tolkien had the luxury of passing off in narrative voice. “They rested there for several weeks,” for instance, works better on the page than as a visual collage of dwarves sitting about the place, smoothing out their beards and generally recuperating. Peter Jackson omits such details and, cinematically speaking, this probably makes sense. The result is an uninterrupted narrative; but it’s one where time and space are outlandishly compressed. Everything happens all at once. Battles are fought. New armies appear. Middle-earth becomes somehow very small, as if you could take it all in just by standing atop the nearest hill. The whole scenario blossoms and dies like a sunflower in time-lapse.

And somewhere amongst it all, the hobbit aspect – the journey itself; Bilbo’s tookish adventure, reluctantly embraced and constantly at odds with his Baggins instincts – is lost, replaced by run-of-the-mill heroics and overplayed dramatic overtures.

And orcs. Orcs!

There are two types of orc: some are near enough indestructible; others die if you brush past them too quickly and cause a draught. And remember what I said about Jackson being too faithful to the book? I take that back. Yes, Tolkien had orcs. They appeared towards the end and were fought against in a great battle. Jolly good. But Jackson has made his trilogy about orcs. They’re everywhere, growling and snarling and chasing and dying, just to add excitement (so-called) where film laboratory chemicals have eaten away all the subtlety. If Peter Jackson were filming the siege of Troy, he wouldn’t use a giant wooden horse. He’d have orcs. Multitudes of orcs, crawling over the screen like maggots on a dead hobbit.

But enough grumbling. Suffice it to say that my personal journey to Middle-earth was made in the company of two Martins, and that my enjoyment of The Battle of the Five Armies – for such it was, mostly – would have been enhanced had Peter Jackson opted for a more Shaw-footed or Freemannered, not so heavily orc-castrated, production.

Okay, well that’s just dire wordplay. I should rub that out. Replace it with CGI.

Oh, look: some more orcs.