Monday, 8 February 2016

The Brenda and Effie Mysteries: Spicy Tea and Sympathy, by Paul Magrs (Bafflegab Productions) | review


Brenda, former bride of Frankenstein, tells most of this third story while strapped to a table in the murky underground base of a villain. Her blood is being drained and infused with a special tea, in hopes of bringing a dried-up corpse back to life. The situation dredges from the depths of Brenda’s imperfect memory the events of a night in the fifties, when she worked as housemaid to Professor Tyler. He is one of the Smudglings, a group of fantasy writers much like the one frequented by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. One of their meetings was disturbed by the attack of a mummy, who made off with their best tea set and all of its contents. In the present day this is somehow connected with the Tipple teahouse (and massage parlour), owned by international traveller and explorer Professor Marius Keys, of whom Brenda says “everything about him speaks of quality and polish”, a phrase that would be even more apt in description of this series of audio plays. Anne Reid is terrific as Brenda, bringing both the sweetness and the toughness that the role requires, and the writing is a constant delight, full of detail, care, specificity, and ideas. Effie sounds uncannily like Sarah Millican, which makes me smile every time she speaks. From the moment the now familiar theme music plays, you know it’s going to be good. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Boy | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Just when you thought the creepy doll approach had run its course, along comes Brahms. 

Years ago, Mr. Heelshire, having imbibed one too many spirits, described his long-deceased son Brahms with a single word: “odd”. Such is the tone that characterizes The Boy, a film about a doll that may or may not embody the spirit of its namesake, who died in a fire at age eight.

Though it hit theatres in January, a month notorious for horror duds, The Boy is good. It’s better than good. Directed by William Brent Bell, the film offers a creepy antagonist and some genuinely freaky experiences. It’s less about jump scares—there are a few—and more about lingering unease.

Gretta Evans, fleeing an abusive ex-boyfriend back in the States, takes on a live-in nanny job at an English manor. It isn’t long before the property’s elderly owners (the Heelshires) reveal that their beloved son Brahms is a porcelain doll.

“If you’re good to Brahms, he’ll be good to you,” says Mr. Heelshire. “If you’re bad–” Mrs. Heelshire doesn’t let her husband finish. So the couple takes off, but not before the missus whispers to Gretta, “I’m so sorry.” Thanks for the vote of confidence!

Gretta, equipped only with her own skepticism and a list of “rules” ranging from “Never leave Brahms alone” to “Kiss goodnight”, throws a blanket over Brahms and calls it a day. She soon learns that something is definitely up with that doll.

Brahms’s antics begin with subtle mischief and gradually escalate, while Gretta’s human interactions are limited to calls with a friend back home and the occasional exchange with love interest Malcolm, the Heelshires’ “grocery boy”.

Is He Alive, or Isn’t He?
Doll antagonists like to go berserk. Think Chucky, or the even more extreme tribal doll from Trilogy of Terror (1975). Brahms, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach: he remains motionless. It’s when you can’t see him that Brahms does his thing. Thus, he achieves a much higher level of menace than his dynamic counterparts.

The Boy casts its spell by keeping us on the fence. Is Brahms endowed with supernatural powers? Or is he some elaborate hoax?

Then there’s the doll’s appearance. Brahms isn’t ugly, nor is he done up in vivid colours. Rather, with his pale complexion and deep brown eyes, Brahms represents the over-protected, shy schoolboy. He is proper . . . fragile even. He might also be champing at the bit to cause some mischief.

Often the camera lingers on the doll’s face to bring discomfort to the viewer. Is that thing going to blink? Will it move its little arm?

A Little Dickens
The Boy starts slow, lulling the viewer into a tea and biscuits (with some red herring) atmosphere. It reminds me of the quiet films that supported my high school and early college readings of nineteenth century British literature. There’s the manor with its classical architecture and ornate interior woodwork. There’s the garden and the statuary.

However, Brahms Heelshire plays a much different tune than the Brahms (Johannes) that was Dickens’s contemporary.

Whether the filmgoer approaches it with a “figure it out” or an “in the moment” mentality, The Boy offers an experience as memorable and unsettling as the “tink tink” of a finger tapping porcelain. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday, 25 January 2016

Terminator Genisys, by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier (Paramount) | review

Tirmynator Genisys: the best misspelling since slyced bred.

Yes, let’s start with the obvious gripe: Genisys. Originally the film was titled Genesis, then someone made the executive decision (absolute power corrupting absolutely) to change/distort/pervert it, presumably working under the delusion that misspelling something makes it stand out in a good way. One wonders how the original Terminator would have fared had Sarah Connor been misspelled in Skynet’s records. The T-1000 would have opened up the phone directory and had a meltdown. Where is S’air-a Conher? Target cannot be acquired. And why? (We bang our heads against the nearest busborne billboard.) Why subscribe to this wanton degradation of language? The only explanation that doesn’t leave the producers hanging their heads in shame is that the alphabetic disparity between Genesis and Genisys is intended to mirror the narrative disparity between the events of the first Terminator movie and their retrofitting in this latest offering. In which case, well played… but a propensity for randomising still seems the more likely cause! Watch out for Terminator 6, where Skynet, unable to destroy humanity by conventional means, sends a T-3000 back to 12 May 1754 to kill Samuel Johnson. Without his dictionary to unite them, the Resistance of the future is torn apart by wilful misspellings.

The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) were near perfect films, whose cult appeal gave rise to a cinematic catch-22: fans desperately craved more, yet no escalation was possible; the only way to avoid the disappointment of absence was to fill it with disappointment. Thus we were given Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and Terminator Salvation (2009), neither of which failed to float post-drowning to the surface of low expectations. For all that viewers might have hoped, thematically there was just nowhere for these sequels to go. Without any form of progression, all that remained was nostalgia. By the time the closing credits rolled, the verdict in both cases was that nostalgia could better be sought by re-watching the originals! Yet, the conundrum remained: how to satisfy the cult craving for more Terminator when the first two films already had achieved everything the genre could offer. Terminator Genisys supplies the obvious answer: change genres.

The movie begins as if it is nothing more than a remake of James Cameron’s first film, dumbed down slightly and slicked up to allow for thirty years’ worth of devolution within the industry. This, however, proves not to be the case. As 1984 is recreated and The Terminator begins to play out again, suddenly, playfully, the expected events are subverted and Terminator Genisys breaks free of its lineage, reinventing itself as an action comedy. It’s a creative decision that no doubt will outrage Terminator purists just as much as films three and four’s inability to recapture the emotional effect of their predecessors. Arnie had to be incorporated, so his iconic T-1000 is allowed to age like Schwarzenegger himself. The paradox element of Skynet versus John and Sarah Connor had become so complex as to evolve into an independent lifeform capable of defying both continuity and genuine fear for the future. Solution: treat this aspect with tongue-in-cheek flippancy. Thus, Terminators are no longer a source of nightmares; but what Genisys lacks in cold menace and the adrenaline of relentless pursuit, it makes up for (at least to some extent) by being enjoyable. This doesn’t make it a classic – there can never be another Terminator classic – but it does afford the movie a raison d’être, and hence a legitimacy, that Rise of the Machines and Salvation lacked. Yes, the camera has to be discreet in not showing up how short Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is compared to Linda Hamilton’s. True, there are motivations that defy reason and plot points left deliberately without explanation. But whereas this would demand censure in SF suspense (and from those who believe they should be watching such), in action comedy the deficiencies can be plastered over with humour.

Even within this genre, of course, Terminator Genisys is not without its faults. After all, we are living in a future where CGI technology came online and wiped out all but a handful of good filmmakers. Please, would somebody send a message back through time and warn them: any action sequence that could not be achieved without CGI is not going to be exciting with it, capisce? Computer game helicopters? Olympic gymnast buses? Nobody can be expected to take a Terminator seriously as a killing machine when anyone it sets its sights on immediately becomes impervious to injury by any other means. But at least this isn’t the crux of the film. Terminator Genisys really does play on the humorous potential of the scenario, and for those who might raise a sceptical eyebrow, look no further than J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Detective O’Brien, who as a rookie was caught up in the carnage of 1984 and thirty years on is still obsessing over what he witnessed, a subject of ridicule for his highflying, unimaginative young colleagues. Okay, that doesn’t actually sound particularly funny on paper, but on screen, in the moment, it works.

And if you buy into the film’s exuberance less as a critical advocate of Terminators I and II and more as someone who finds release in the madness (O’Brien: “I know what’s going on here has to be really, really complicated.” Sarah Connor: “We’re here to stop the end of the world.” O’Brien: “I can work with that.”) then so too does Terminator Genisys… regardless of how it’s spelt. Jacob Edwards

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Glorkian Warrior and the Mustache of Destiny, by James Kochalka (First Second) | review

The funniest idiot since Groo the Wanderer returns for his third “adventure”. That is to say, he has a nightmare about a giant moustache, decides that he has invented a talking coffee cup, gets headbutted by a bunch of armless baby would-be Glorkian Warriors, and falls down a big hole. Later, he falls down another hole and meets the book’s villain, Quackaboodle the Space God! (Although I have my qualms about the behaviour of the Glorkian Supergrandma too.) This is just as funny as the previous two books, the stupidity reaching absolutely glorious levels, e.g. the four baby Glorks saying, “Can Gonk do this?” and “Can Doonkies do thats?” and “May Crazy Face?” and then “Cans Bronk bronk bronk?” In context it’s funny, trust me, on this if nothing else. And while we’re talking about glorious, you should see the colours in this book. You know that nonsense about using 10% of your brain? The art in this book makes you feel like you’ve only been using 10% of your eyes. A thank you page at the end makes it sound like this may be the last in the series. Let’s hope not. I could keep reading these forever. It’s not out till March 2016, so don’t let your children grow up too fast. Stephen Theaker *****

Monday, 18 January 2016

Doctor Who: City of Death by Douglas Adams and James Goss (BBC Books) | review

The gamble with time – playing the odds of authorship.

Douglas Adams’ involvement with Doctor Who is… complicated. For many years the three scripts he wrote were lamented as being very good (City of Death), very bad (The Pirate Planet), very good and bad in a Schrödinger’s cat kind of way (the unfinished, unbroadcast Shada), and in all cases very much and quite pointedly so, unnovelised. Adams did write a fourth script, which was novelised, but that was Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, which upon being rejected by the Doctor Who production team eventually lost the Doctor and regenerated into Adams’ third Hitchhiker’s novel, Life, the Universe and Everything. In a similar vein, City of Death and Shada weren’t entirely unnovelised: significant portions of them found their way into Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. But these caveats aside, of all the authors whose stories could have disappeared into the time void, it was Adams alone (okay, and two of Eric Saward’s scripts; not such a great loss) whose Who output was destined not to line the bookshelves of fans most eager to devour it. Adams wouldn’t accept the pittance being offered by Target Books; nor, especially after he’d cherry-picked from them himself, would he allow his scripts to be novelised by someone else. End of story.

Well, not quite. A decade after Douglas Adams’ tragically premature death, his estate relented and gave permission for Gareth Roberts to work on Shada. The resulting novel, which is quite brilliantly executed, is probably the only fleck of silver in the dark cloud of Adams’ passing. It also paved the way for two more posthumous collaborations, with Roberts’ next assignment being City of Death. Which he now hasn’t written. Instead, the cover credits Douglas Adams and James Goss, from a story by David Fisher. Complicated? Just a little.

Upon broadcast, City of Death was ascribed to David Agnew, which was a BBC pseudonym used to cover up the similarly trifold mixed parentage of Adams, producer Graham Williams and the aforementioned David Fisher, who was unavailable when money was scrounged to film abroad and his original script (The Gamble With Time) needed a last-minute reworking to accommodate a location shoot in Paris. Adams, who as script editor was at least partly responsible for letting this potential crisis reach the eleventh hour, consequently was locked up over the course of a weekend and, with Williams now script-editing, rattled off City of Death. The resulting story, compared to, say, the analogously last-minute So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, was a triumph. David Fisher’s script provided the perfect framework for Adamsishness at its most piquant, to which was added the splendour of Paris, a certain bonhomie of performance by Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and guest stars, and also an ITV strike that ipso facto sent the BBC viewing figures skywards. From rather troubled beginnings, City of Death thus became officially (and in many eyes unofficially) the most popular Doctor Who story of the original series. Now, fast forward thirty-five years or so and—

Enter, James Goss, who, true to the spirit of the original penning (albeit perhaps lacking the panache to pull it off) was drafted in to write the novel when Gareth Roberts proved suddenly and unexpectedly unavailable. Notwithstanding the task still awaiting whomever is ordained worthy of bringing The Pirate Planet from screen to page, surely this must go down as the toughest if potentially most rewarding enterprise ever gifted a Who novelist. And the result? Well, it’s complicated…

Shada tells the story of Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth, who fell splintered through time when his spaceship exploded back at the dawn of Earth’s history, and has been working ever since to advance humanity to the point of civilisation whereby Count Scarlioni, the last of his personas, can invent a time machine and travel back to prevent himself from initiating the calamity in the first place. To fund his experiments, Scarlioni is planning to steal the Mona Lisa and then sell off the multiple copies he’s arranged an earlier fragment of himself to commission from Leonardo Da Vinci. The only people standing in his way are the Doctor and Romana, who have come to Paris for a holiday, and Duggan, a pugilistic detective whose fist-happy approach provides both a semi-satirical contrast to the Doctor’s methods and an unerring source of humorous material. Punches and bon mots abound. Unfortunately, in the novel, so does the unconscionable shrapnel of typographical mishap. The book, simply put, hasn’t been proofread, which is something of a recurring issue in the BBC range but exacerbated in this instance by the hasty composition. It’s a terrible shame for a glossy hardcover bearing Douglas Adams’ name. As to the writing itself…

James Goss starts with a chapter of jumbled vignettes, which ostensibly lend backstory to all the characters (however minor) who appear in the televised version of City of Death, but which serve also the purpose of obfuscating the reader’s connection to the original. This isn’t a bad idea — let the novel stand for itself, Goss says, not merely call to mind memories of what most readers will already have seen — yet he then presents a narrative that does, particularly in its descriptive elements, rely on that prior knowledge. For example: Douglas Adams contrived for John Cleese and Eleanor Bron to make a cameo appearance in the art gallery scene towards the end of episode four. This was loved by some viewers, criticised by others, but in either case was something of a throwaway. For Goss to have seeded this cameo with several other Cleese/Bron showings earlier in the novel is pointless at best and at worst tripping the light nonsensical for anyone approaching the book as a self-contained entity. Other characters are fleshed out more purposefully, adding at least to the overall mood, if not strictly speaking to the story itself, but the approach is patchy. Goss does afford more substance to the Doctor and Romana than is evident on screen, but even here, where the veneer of flippancy is peeled back to reveal more serious layers beneath, the effect is spoiled somewhat by an unkempt narrative glibness that comes and goes but overall seems hell-bent on crafting a Hitchhiker’s pastiche. This is something Gareth Roberts efficaciously avoided in Shada, whereas in City of Death the stylistic aping is not only evident but also unnervingly off-kilter; if Adams’ narrative voice were to have been evoked, the darker, more measured timbre of Dirk Gently would surely have been a better choice.

James Goss has obviously approached his task with diligence and enthusiasm, taking pains not only to bring the televised story to life but also to ascertain those of Adams’ intentions that didn’t make the transition from script to screen, and to work these into the finished product. Thus, for instance, Scarlioni’s gratuitous end-of-episode reveal as Scaroth is explained at last, as to some extent is the conjugal oddity by which the Countess Scarlioni has never quite noticed that her husband is (in every sense, but especially physically, albeit behind a mask) not human. Other inconsistencies remain the unexplored purview of dramatic licence; and perhaps rightly so, for to probe them more deeply would achieve nothing more than to detract from a tale fizzing with exuberance. Goss has had to strike a balance between presenting City of Death “as is” and remodelling it as something that more intricately wasn’t; between showing due reverence to the spirit of Douglas Adams and due respect to the need to look beyond him. Aforesaid misgivings aside, he’s managed the feat quite well; and although the James Goss novelisation might sit as third-placed iteration on the multiverse podium, below the gold and silver of those by Adams and Roberts, nevertheless it is a book worth slotting into what otherwise would remain just a wistfully set-aside space on the shelf. Jacob Edwards

Friday, 15 January 2016

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #53 is out now: free ebook, cheap in print

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

You have waited so long for this, but now the wait is over!

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #53 contains three fantastic stories. In “Restitution” Mitchell Edgeworth takes us back to the Black Swan, its crew double-crossed by the thief Nisha. In “Dodge Sidestep’s (and Martin’s) Final Dastardly Plan” regular TQF cover artist Howard Watts completes his absurdist musical trilogy. And “Rathfern’s Menagerie” is a bodyswapping science fantasy from Allen Ashley. The issue also contains fifty pages of reviews by Jacob Edwards, Douglas Ogurek and Stephen Theaker.

We review work by Adam Warren, Alastair Reynolds, Aliette de Bodard, Andrew Cartmel, Brian K. Vaughan, Cate Gardner, Disasterpeace, Geoff Johns, Greg Pak, Ian Edginton, Ian Marter, J.M. DeMatteis, James Goss, James Kochalka, Jean-Claude Forest, John Dorney, John Logan, Justin Richards, Keith Giffen, Kurt Busiek, Laeta Kalogridis, Lavie Tidhar, Mario Alberti, Paul Magrs, Rare, Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley, Simon Guerrier, Steve Yeowell, Vaughan Stanger, Volition Software and others.

We’re sorry again that it is so late, but here it is at last! Possibly the only publication in the world in which you can read positive reviews of not one but two of Adam Sandler’s recent films.



Here are the kindly contributors to this issue:

Allen Ashley works as a writer, poet, editor, critical reader, event host and writing tutor. He runs five creative writing groups in north London including the advanced group Clockhouse London Writers. His most recent books are as editor of Sensorama: Stories of the Senses (Eibonvale Press) and Creeping Crawlers (Shadow Publishing). He contributes a short story, “Rathfern’s Menagerie”, to this issue.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their pit bull Phlegmpus Bilesnot. Douglas’s website can be found at: http://www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com. In this issue he reviews The Gallows and Pixels.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who also provides both a story, “Dodge Sidestep’s (and Martin’s) Final Dastardly Plan”, and the cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his deviantart page: http://hswatts.deviantart.com. His novel The Master of Clouds is now available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at http://www.jacobedwards.id.au. He also has a Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/JacobEdwardsWriter, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity. Like him and follow him! In this issue he reviews Doctor Who: City of Death and Terminator Genisys.

Mitchell Edgeworth’s previous stories in the Black Swan series were “Homecoming” (TQF40), “Drydock” (TQF42), “Flight” (TQF43), “Customs” (TQF46), “Abandon” (TQF47) and “Heritage” (TQF50). This issue the saga continues with “Restitution”. He keeps a blog at http://www.grubstreethack.wordpress.com.

Stephen Theaker’s reviews have appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers, runs the British Fantasy Awards, and works in legal and medical publishing. In this issue he reviews work by Paul Magrs, Ian Marter, Lavie Tidhar, Cate Gardner, Vaughan Stanger, Aliette de Bodard, Alastair Reynolds, Adam Warren, James Kochalka and many more.



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

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Bureau of Them, by Cate Gardner (Spectral Press) | review

Glynn has been dead for thirteen months, twelve days, seven hours and some minutes, and Katy can’t stop missing him, can’t move on with her life. She doesn’t want to. He walked out in front of a coach, so there’s no doubt about his passing, but she thinks she sees him watching her, and these brief glimpses lead her to an abandoned office building, where dust and shadows move with uncanny life. Glynn has become part of this office of lost souls, the bureau of them, and they are looking for new recruits! As in previous books like In the Broken Birdcage of Kathleen Fair and Nowhere Hall Cate Gardner creates an eerie atmosphere that serves the story well, and Katy’s grief is painful to watch. For me it was a bit disappointing that there wasn’t more bureaucracy in the novella, the title conjuring up visions of weird, secret officialdom working behind the scenes of reality, and that isn’t really what it’s about, the office here being more of a base than where the work is done. (I’m trying to avoid giving too much away.) The novella’s spell is broken a bit by a couple of jarring production problems: “may” being used instead of “might” all the way through, and (in the ebook at least) unspaced hyphens being used in place of dashes, which leaves the reader trying to make sense of odd hyphenates (e.g. “Sounds echoed from within the cinema-tinny”). Definitely worth reading, though. No other writer I’ve read is producing books that remind me so very much of my own bad dreams. If Cate Gardner’s next book is about being lost in a spooky school without a timetable you’ll know she’s stolen my dream journal. Stephen Theaker ***

Favourites of 2016

Here are a few of my favourite fantastical things from last year, jotted down without too much thought and deliberation. If you reckon I've forgotten something, let me know in the comments! Additional categories may be added to the post at a later date.

Comic: The Glorkian Warrior and the Mustache of Destiny by James Kochalka. Delightful idiocy. (Out in March 2016.) [Link]


Television: Fargo, Season 2. There was so much great tv to watch last year, but I think this was my favourite. Not going to explain why it fits on this blog, you'll just need to watch it.


Game: Fallout 3. I finished the main mission ages ago, but last year I picked it up again and played through all the expansion packs. I also had a lot of fun with Saints Row: Re-Elected and Shadows of Mordor.


Book: Black Gods Kiss by Lavie Tidhar. Brilliant collection of fantasy novellas about a really shady guy. [Link]


Podcast: The Adventure Zone. Absolutely hilarious, and takes me right back to roleplaying as a teenager, when I would invariably end up laughing so much I couldn't play any more. [Link]


Film: I can't choose between Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road. No, you know what, I can, it's Star Wars. I just remembered the bit where the stormtroopers back away from Kylo Ren's tantrum.


Actor: A tie between Eva Green in Penny Dreadful and Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead. They add so much to those shows, portraying characters pushed beyond ordinary human limits.


Album: Central Belters by Mogwai. Yes, it's a compilation, but it's probably the best compilation ever. You won't find a better album to soundtrack your writing or reading.


Come on 2016. Let's see what you can do!

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

This one lives up to the fever.

An acquaintance of mine arrived at Star Wars: The Force Awakens while in the throes of a fever. Director J.J. Abrams had a daunting task: to cut through this individual’s nausea, back pain, and somewhat clouded mental capacity. Plus this acquaintance wasn’t the brightest lightsaber in the bunch; what kind of guy goes to the theatre sick?

When the film ended, he was still in pain. However, during the two-plus hours of space battles, lightsaber duels, inspiring music, and settings ranging from vast deserts to cramped spaceships, this fellow mostly forgot his condition and instead basked in the tonic powers (my words, not his) of a simple, yet highly entertaining story.

Impelled by my acquaintance’s recommendation, I saw the film. Kudos to Mr. Abrams!

When it comes to dumbed down one-word summaries of five-star films, there’s a big difference between “wow” and “cool”. “Wow” describes a consciousness-jarring work that embeds itself in the viewer for life. “Wow” is Titanic (1997), There Will Be Blood (2007), or, in the case of genre films, Signs (2002) or Paranormal Activity (2007).

“Cool”, on the other hand, provides a more in-the-moment experience. The “cool” film’s contents include the latest special effects, stimulating action sequences, and, often, clear distinctions between good and evil.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens undoubtedly falls into the “cool” category. There is nothing extraordinarily new or surprising about this seventh installment in the ultimate sci-fi series, yet it manages to capture the essence that made the prior episodes (apologies to haters of episodes I–III) so enchanting. The Force Awakens resurfaces all the things we love most about Star Wars, from TIE fighters and AT-AT walkers to alien bars and stylized scene wipes. And the Millennium Falcon is treated with as much reverence as if it were a character. The Force Awakens also offers plenty of melodrama; I suppose that’s why they call it “space opera”.

This film smartly latches onto the craze for crusader-heroines like Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games series) and Tris Prior (Divergent series). This time, it’s Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. Unlike her counterparts Everdeen and Prior roaming a dystopian future US, Rey lives on the desert planet of Jakku. Moreover, she isn’t encumbered by love interests or prone to teary indecision. Rey, an independent young woman with a difficult (if not very clear) past, scavenges to make her meagre earnings. Her journey begins when she meets BB-8, an R2-D2-like droid and, shortly thereafter, Finn, a Stormtrooper gone rogue.

Both the good guys (the Resistance) and the bad guys (the First Order) want the same thing: to find Luke Skywalker, who has gone into hiding after one of his Jedi Knight trainees went over to the dark side of the Force. The Resistance wants Luke to help revive the mostly dormant Force and help protect the galaxy, while the Nazi-like First Order wants to destroy Luke and conquer the galaxy.

One of the biggest shortcomings of The Force Awakens is the emotional disconnect between characters, which unfortunately transfers to the viewer. (But were we ever that close to these characters?) Also abrasive were some of the post explosion/destruction celebratory colloquialisms. “Did you see that?! Did you see that?!” This is supposed to be “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away”, not “today in the United States”.

Notable is that the new generation heroes are relatively unknown and retain a quiet, though strong presence consistent with Ewan McGregor’s performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi in episodes I–III. Adam Driver excels as Kylo Ren, a Darth Vader wannabe and kind of First Order roving bully who transitions from rage-induced lightsaber tantrums to tense one-on-one conversations. When Kylo Ren is masked, Driver’s thin frame and black cloak give him a Grim Reaper-like appearance. When the mask comes off during key scenes, his previous behaviour, doe-eyed expression, and Josh Groban hairstyle add to the mystery of whether Kylo Ren will go berserk or break into “O Holy Night”.

So take The Force Awakens, in sickness and in health; it will captivate unconditionally. It is cool. Definitely cool. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday, 1 January 2016

Book notes: The Chimpanzee Complex, The Whispering Swarm, and more

The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein (Subterranean Press) by Thomas Ligotti. Short-shorts that put alternative spins on well-known stories. ***

The Chimpanzee Complex: Paradox (Cinebook) by Richard Marazano and Jean-Michel Ponzio. An astronaut looking forward to reassignment, and spending more time with her daughter, is required back in space after the astronauts from Apollo 11 splash down – again. The year is 2035. The story is intriguing, reminding me of the first Quatermass Experiment. The art is a bit unusual, looking to me a bit like it’s been drawn over photographs, but I got to like it. ***

The Dirty Dozen: The Best 12 Commando Books Ever! (Carlton Publishing Group), edited by George Low. Took me a long time to finish this one. For our overseas readers who haven’t heard of Commando, it’s a small squarish comic of about sixty pages, with a couple of panels per page, telling lots of stories about World War Two, very much in the style of British war films. The stories in this collection are a mixed bag, some tedious, some thrilling. The highlight for me was “Battle-Wagon”, about the rivalry between two teams of supply truck drivers racing for the same destination. ***

The Great Bazaar & Brayan’s Gold (Tachyon Publications) by Peter V. Brett. A courier travels through mountains haunted by rock demons, and tries to recover precious pottery from a village abandoned to sand demons. Enjoyable enough. My review appeared in Interzone #259. ***

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Primary Phase (BBC Audio) by Douglas Adams. Audible edition collecting the Radio 4 series that started it all. Seems strange that I listened to this for the first time so long after watching the television series, reading the books, watching the the film and listening to the audiobook read by Stephen Fry, but the jokes still made me laugh. It had never clicked before that the extracts from the Guide had originally served as introductions and recaps for each episodes. Very much looking forward to the next three phases. *****

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate (Subterranean Press) by Ted Chiang. An alchemist tells a merchant a series of stories about the people who have used his magical gate – one side takes you into the past, the other into the future. It’s a stylish and clever take on the style of the Arabian Nights. ****

The Whispering Swarm (Tor Books) by Michael Moorcock. A character called Michael Moorcock becomes a professional writer, while cheating on his wife and making regular visits to an abbey connected to all time and space by way of the moonbeam road. It’s a fascinating book, but as a novel it slumps badly in the middle before ending well. Maybe they should have sold it as an autobiography and let the fantasy elements come as a surprise. Reviewed for Interzone #258. ***

Thorgal: The Guardian of the Keys (Cinebook) by Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme. Volsung of Nichor steals Thorgal’s identity and takes his place among the Vikings. Invincible, thanks to a belt cruelly stolen from the guardian of the keys (it’s the only bit of clothing she has!), he begins to murder his way to the kingship. ***

Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium (Subterranean Press) by Clive Barker. This collects short stories that originally appeared in the packaging of a series of action figures, so it’s a bit disjointed, but I liked the idea that on Sunday God, rather than resting, made all the monsters. ***

Trekker Omnibus (Dark Horse Books) by Ron Randalland Jim Gibbons. Decent series about a bounty hunter in very tight trousers. A mix of colour and black-and-white stories. ***

Usagi Yojimbo Saga, Vol. 1 (Dark Horse Books) by Stan Sakai. The adventures of a ronin – a masterless samurai – with a conscience. So brilliant even the appearance of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles couldn’t harm it. Poetry in every panel. *****

Welcome to Just a Minute! A Celebration of Britain’s Best-Loved Radio Comedy (Canongate Books) by Nicholas Parsons. Read in a single day! Fascinating anecdotes of tetchiness, bitchiness and no little affection among the Just a Minute regulars. Almost enough to make me forgive Parsons for the time we took the children to his supposedly PG-rated Edinburgh show. You can’t trust anyone these days! ****

Friday, 25 December 2015

Book notes: Star Wars Legacy and more

Star Wars Tales, Vol. 6 (Dark Horse Comics) by Jeremy Barlow. Last and weakest of the series. Too glum, too serious, and too little of the major characters, so that it could try to stay in continuity more. A lot less fun than any of the previous books. ***

Star Wars: Crimson Empire III: Empire Lost (Dark Horse Comics) by Mike Richardson, Randy Stradley, Paul Gulacy, Michael Bartolo and Dave Dorman. The third adventure of Kir Kanos, former guard to Emperor Palpatine, is the first to include Luke, Leia and Han (who seem rather tetchy), but it’s the usual story of imperial remnants fighting the new republic and each other. Often hard to tell what’s happening in action scenes. ***

Star Wars: Legacy, Vol. 10: Extremes (Dark Horse Comics) by John Ostrander, Jan Duursema, Brad Anderson and Sean Cooke. Takes the series up to its cancellation with issue 50, though volume 11 continues the story by collecting a mini-series. All the plotlines that have been running keep on running. Cade Skywalker continues to draw on the power of the dark side to fight his enemies and help his friends, while the Sith, former emperors and the remnants of the alliance jockey for galactic power. Readable without being all that exciting. ***

Star Wars: Legacy, Vol. 11: War (Dark Horse Comics) by John Ostrander, Jan Duursema and Dan Parsons. Burdened with much recapping in its early pages, the miniseries collected in this volume still does a surprisingly good job of roosting all the pigeons that flapped around in books one to ten. Cade Skywalker confronts the dark side of the force, the new alliance goes for broke, and the Sith reveal their terrible new weapon. I never grew to love this series, but I read one volume after another, and that tells its own story. It’s essentially a thousand-page Star Wars graphic novel. How could I not enjoy it, at least a bit? ***

Star Wars: Legacy, Vol. 5: The Hidden Temple (Dark Horse Comics) by John Ostrander, Jan Duursema and Dan Parsons. The story steps up a gear, but Cade is still an unpleasant protagonist with terrible hair and Darth Krayt seems more like a He-Man villain than something from Star Wars. I’ll keep reading, but only because I bought the whole series in one go. ***

Star Wars: Legacy, Vol. 7: Storms (Dark Horse Comics) by John Ostrander, Omar Fancia, Jan Duursema, Dan Parsons and Brad Anderson. More adventures in the post-Luke future of Star Wars. An imperial knight helps the Mon Calamari fight back against the Sith, underwater, and Cade Skywalker continues his aimless, charmless meanderings around the galaxy. ***

Star Wars: Legacy, Vol. 8: Tatooine (Dark Horse Comics) by John Ostrander, Jan Duursema, Dan Parsons and Brad Anderson. The most obnoxious brat in comics turns to ripping off pirates but they get wise to his force tricks and his stay on Tatooine ends up being longer than planned. Elsewhere in the galaxy far, far away we see how a Mandalorian (like Boba Fett) came to join Rogue Squadron, and what happens when his vengeful ex-wife finds him there. ***

Star Wars: Vector, Vol. 2 (Dark Horse Comics) by Rob Williams, John Ostrander, Dustin Weaver, Jan Duursema and Dan Parsons. The second half of a crossover between four ongoing Star Wars titles. This contains one story with Luke Skywalker set during the rebellion, and one set over a century later with Cade Skywalker. The connection is a long-lived former Jedi, Celeste Morne, who is bonded with the Muur talisman and the Sith consciousness within it. As well as volume two of Vector, this also stands as volume four of Rebellion and volume six of Legacy, a bizarre set-up that left me searching fruitlessly for the latter after having bought the other ten volumes in a sale. In this book Cade teams up with a trio of Imperial Knights and Celeste Morne to make an assassination attempt on Darth Krayt. It’s okay. ***

Merry Christmas everybody!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Krampus | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Killjoys beware: this holiday horror surprises with positive message, tender moments.

A colleague expressed reservations about Krampus. How could I, he wondered, want to see a horror movie that ostensibly spits in the face of the Christmas holiday spirit?

As it turns out, this individual is way off the mark. Yes, Krampus is billed as a horror film. Yes, the demonic title character is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the polar opposite of Santa Claus. At first glance, Krampus seems little more than sprinkling some red and green on the typical B/slasher film in which a savvy monster gradually picks off unlikable or shallow characters.

What a pleasant surprise, therefore, when the film demolishes that expectation by morphing into a warm and, at times, touching commentary on overcoming the burdens that threaten to deflate the Christmas spirit. Krampus cautions the viewer to embrace what’s most important about the holiday season: family and hope.

Rarely does a film offer the range of experiences that Krampus does. Among the gifts it stuffs into our experiential stockings are humor, terror, sadness, triumph, anger, empathy, and appreciation. What more could one ask for?

Whether your fancy is spiked drinks and fireplaces, characters in conflict, or monsters, Krampus has something for you. Where else can you find a film in which a massive mystical creature terrifies a teenage girl, a character gets his “ass kicked by a bunch of Christmas cookies”, and a presumed insensitive sap offers a heartfelt apology?

Krampus rivets the viewer from its humorous Black Friday opening sequence to its not bleak, though certainly not “happily ever after” conclusion.

A Problem Much Bigger Than a Feisty Squirrel
The film kicks off in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) fashion: the Engel family (parents Tom and Sarah and kids Beth and Max) welcome to their suburban home the much more eccentric brood of Sarah’s sister Linda. Standouts include patriarch Howard (played by David Koechner), a pair of sisters who’ve been raised like boys, and the hard-drinking, ultra-blunt Aunt Dorothy.

The tension starts the moment the visitors walk through the door, then carries over to an entertaining dinner scene rife with insults, embarrassment, and humour.

The film abruptly darkens when Max gives up his hope on Santa (and, to him, the spirit of the season). Forget the squirrel that troubles the Griswolds; here comes Krampus, the horned, cloven-hoofed demon!

In an artful story-within-a-story, Omi Engel, Tom’s German-speaking mother, shares the Krampus legend accompanied by what a twenty-something creative professional might call a “sick” computer-generated comic-like scene. “Krampus came not to reward,” says Omi, “but to punish. Not to give, but to take.”

Fuelled by Max’s hopelessness, Krampus and his minions spend the rest of the film terrorizing (but also bonding) the families.

Beyond Campy
What gives Krampus more depth than the typical comedy-horror is a series of tender moments that make you fall in love with the family. It happens between the adult sisters, but even more impressively between the fathers. Tom Engel’s attachment to his obviously white collar job has caused some rifts within his family. Conversely, Howard, a toned-down version of Eddie in Christmas Vacation, is a shotgun-toting Republican with no qualms about attacking Tom’s lack of manliness. When the stakes rise and force these two to put their heads together, we see some genuinely moving scenes.

Many campy horror movies present characters that viewers want to get killed. In Krampus, the feeling is different. Squabbles are put aside. Weaknesses are admitted. Sacrifices are made. Even characters portrayed as jerks begin to warm our hearts. Suddenly, you don’t want them to die.

The Chilling Side
Let’s not forget that Krampus is, above all, a horror movie. So the question is . . . does it hold its own as a horror? The answer is a resounding yes. Though the majority of the film’s horror falls into the “cute” or “humorous” categories, there are instances of oddity and outright hair-raising spectacle.

Krampus’s initial appearance stands as one of the most well-done horror action sequences this viewer has seen in the last couple of years. One character encounters him on a snowy suburban street. The screen only reveals Krampus’s hugeness and his horns, but the simultaneous fluidity and power of his movements would strike fear into the heart of anyone.

Moreover, Krampus’s minions offer a collection of scenes both funny and chilling. A few come to mind: a kind of fireplace fishing using a cookie as bait, a mysteriously growing collection of creepy-looking snowmen, bastardized elves and reindeer, and an attic scene brimming with Evil Dead-like threats.

Watch It
Krampus catches humanity on a precipice. As the holidays approach, will we embrace the spirit of the season? Or will we fall prey to the temptations of materialism and greed?

The leading monster is not totally evil, nor is he willing to give complete exemption to those seeking repentance. Krampus might be all about taking, but the one thing he surely gives is a great moviegoing experience. So . . . you better watch it. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday, 18 December 2015

Book notes: Nexus, JLA, Orbital and more

JLA, Vol. 5 (DC Comics) by Mark Waidand Bryan Hitch. A disappointment. I love the JLA, and Mark Waid has written some terrific comics, but this just doesn’t work. The stories lack decent villains, and the heroes have lost all the sharpness of the Grant Morrison run. I don’t know what went wrong here. **

Nexus Omnibus 4 (Dark Horse Comics) by Mike Baron, Steve Rude and chums. Much more fun than previous volumes. Nexus himself is far less tortured and conflicted, and heads back to the bowl-shaped world to find a god who might be able to prevent the collapse of Gravity Well, an unstable power station built on a black hole that could destroy the solar system. A band of youngsters from Ylum become huge rock stars, jockeying begins for the presidential elections, and the three girls who pledged vengeance after Nexus executed their father continue their search for enough power to kill him. The backup stories are now all about Judah the Hammer, a huge improvement. The artwork and design is as ambitious and colourful as the stories. My favourite Nexus book yet. ****

Nexus Omnibus 5 (Dark Horse Comics) by Mike Baron and chums. Horatio Hellpop has had enough of being Nexus, and leaves Ylum to find himself. So the insane alien Merk grants his power to other candidates, including three vengeful sisters and a musclebound professor. Les Dorscheid’s colouring maintains a consistent look despite a succession of guest artists, but with Steve Rude largely absent this book isn’t as stylish or distinctive as earlier collections. ****

Nexus Omnibus 6 (Dark Horse Comics) by Mike Baron, Hugh Haynes and chums. Alien taskmaster the Merk made Stanislaus Korivitsky the new Nexus, but it’s a poor choice: he likes the killing way too much, and when the Merk’s power runs out Stan will team up with the Bad Brains! Original Nexus Horatio Hellpop will have to come out of his retirement to take him down. The art on this one has some very shaky moments, but once Hugh Haynes becomes the regular penciller it settles down a bit. Reading these six omnibuses has been a terrific experience, watching Ylum develop into a full-blown society, inching its way forward, making mistakes, trying to balance the varied demands of a growing population. A great science fiction adventure. ****

Orbital, Vol. 1: Scars (Cinebook) by Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pellé. A pair of novice special space agents are despatched to Senestam, a moon of Upsall, to resolve the conflict between human colonists and the aliens of Upsall, who would quite like their moon back now that valuable minerals have been found there. Excellent art, and an interesting story, but it is bafflingly split across two slim volumes and the matte printing is unattractive. ***

Orbital, Vol. 2: Ruptures (Cinebook) by Sylvain Runbergand Serge Pellé. The story concludes. £7.99 seems like quite a lot for a 56pp comic. ***

Queen and Country: The Definitive Edition, Vol. 2 (Oni Press) by Greg Rucka, Jason Alexander and Carla Speed McNeil. Collects three excellent stories about spy Tara Chace and her fellow Minders in the SIS. Like the MI:6 equivalent of Spooks. *****

Friday, 11 December 2015

Book notes: Empowered, Alien Legion, All You Need Is Kill, and more

Alien Legion Omnibus, Vol. 2 (Dark Horse Comics) by Alan Zelenetz, Larry Stroman, Frank Cirocco and chums. An okay book of science fiction war stories, with an admirable tendency to kill off its cast and explore the effect that has on the others, but… high heels on the new female recruit’s battle armour? What were they thinking? And some of the poses she appears in are ludicrous. ***

All You Need Is Kill (Haikasoru) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. An sf take on Groundhog Day, it’s neat and thrilling without making tons of sense. Filmed as Edge of Tomorrow, where Tom Cruise plays a journalist who appears for just a second in the book. Here, it’s a soldier who keeps dying and waking up again, and gets better and better at fighting. ***

Black Hat Jack (Subterranean Press) by Joe R. Lansdale. Western adventure. ****

Elvenquest, Series 3 (BBC Audio) by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto. An Audible collection of the Radio 4 series. The questers continue to search for the fabled sword of Aznagar, and come pretty close to it a couple of times. Along the way they’ll meet a wizard who seems rather a lot like Tony Blair, meet the father of Dean the dwarf, and fight Lord Darkness in single combat to decide the fate of the realms (or at least one of them will, and not necessarily the best equipped for the job). Always very funny. ****

Empowered, Vol. 5 (Dark Horse Comics) by Adam Warren. Bondage-prone superhero Emp learns more about mysterious Mind—, who stays up in the D10 orbital station to avoid living with everyone’s thoughts. Still a very saucy comic, and of course that’s much of the appeal, but the superhero stuff gets better and better. ****

Empowered, Vol. 6 (Dark Horse Comics) by Adam Warren. Emp grows into her role as a superhero, getting used to her new clinging abilities and even showing some leadership potential after she learns the secret of what happens to dead heroes and their powers. Villain Deathmonger is gathering and enslaving their remnants. Very funny, except when it means to be serious, and it keeps improving. The caged Demonwolf who sits on Emp’s coffee table is my favourite tamed baddie since Baytor (“I am Baytor!”) in The Demon. ****

Empowered, Vol. 7 (Dark Horse Comics) by Adam Warren. Ninjette has to deal with a team of bounty-hunting ninjas who want to take her back to the clan she fled with good reason. The book skips about in time to show us the fight, and her training with Emp, and a bathtub conversation with the caged Demonwolf, who for once stops talking like an angry Stan Lee to tell her how he really feels. There is also karaoke. The ongoing storylines progress at a snail’s pace, but it’s still a great book. The friendship between Emp and Ninjette is as sincere and meaningful as any I’ve seen in superhero comics. ****

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Inspirational series closes with a fizzle.

In Mockingjay – Part 2, the fourth and final installment of the hitherto superb The Hunger Games series, something slips. The viewer feels disconnected from the characters. Their dialogue sounds contrived and melodramatic. The emotional investment in the fate of Panem seems tempered. When characters flee from life-threatening dangers, they appear to jog rather than sprint.

The primary suspect for this tepid conclusion is the decision to split the final episode in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of novels into two films (both directed by Francis Lawrence). It’s not impossible to do this successfully: the Twilight dynasty did it with Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2, and Peter Jackson segmented Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit into three phenomenal films.

Though Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014) held its own as a tense segue to a finale, Part 2 doesn’t follow through: too much time holed up in dark rooms watching televised updates. Too much chatter among humdrum characters. Too much filler and not enough substance.

Most of Mockingjay - Part 2 details protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and a small unit journeying on foot through a mostly abandoned Capitol. The group hangs back from the front line so its videographers can document Katniss, revered among rebels as the Mockingjay… the embodiment of their revolution. Katniss plays along with this charade so that she can pursue her ultimate goal of assassinating President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the Capitol’s Machiavellian leader.

On their way, the group must contend with “pods” that unleash deadly weapons and with the Capitol’s Stormtrooper-like Peacekeepers. Unfortunately, these challenges are far too scarce.

Katniss travels with competing love interests Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), but the intensity of their rivalry pales in comparison to that of, for instance, Twilight’s Jacob Black and Edward Cullen. Gale has all the personality of a robot, and Peeta’s struggle to keep himself from offing Katniss – he’s been brainwashed by the Capitol – grows tedious. One finds oneself saying, “Ah get over it, already!”

In my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), I stated the film may have achieved the rare distinction of outshining the book. This time around, the book has reclaimed its title.

Bright Spots
Mockingjay – Part 2 certainly was not a total failure. A couple of action sequences come to mind: one in which the group faces an oil flood in an enclosed space while Peeta goes cuckoo, and another in which Katniss and company engage in an underground battle with “muttations” (aka “mutts”) with no eyes and massive teeth.

The film’s climax manages to resurface the vibe of its predecessors. Despite thousands of spectators, drumbeats make the only sound as Katniss promenades toward an action that will shock Panem. It’s a sharp contrast to the cheering and screaming that accompanied her on the same walk in previous episodes.

The talents of the film’s true stars carry over. It’s a pleasure to watch Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin, the opportunistic and manipulative leader of the rebel army. She sees Katniss as a tool to aid her rise to power and eventual usurpation of President Snow. But just how far will Coin, with her lizard-like eyes, take her Macbethian ambition?

Another treat is Coin’s constantly smirking co-conspirator, the Gamemaker and public perception guru Plutarch Heavensby, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Rarely is a know-it-all so likable.

With President Snow, Donald Sutherland offers a nuanced supervillain who stays true to his character. Whether he’s sipping liqueur amid his panderers or facing an imminent threat, Snow simultaneously conveys repulsion toward and admiration for his chief adversary Katniss Everdeen.

In the film’s most moving scene, Jennifer Lawrence once again proves her Oscar worthiness as she mourns the loss of a loved one. It’s a rage- and grief-fuelled release that brings together all the injustice and pain that she’s suffered. Brilliant.

Dystopia Denied
During Katniss’s earlier Hunger Games exploits, her mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) repeatedly advises her to better relate to her television audience. This autonomous young lady, despite her heroic feats and eventual Mockingjay moniker, has trouble connecting with others. Lovey-dovey Katniss Everdeen is not.

Moreover, the hardships that Katniss endures throughout the series arguably make her less connected, perhaps even cold. This is war, and war leaves lifelong psychological scars.

Considering this, it was hugely disappointing to watch a rainbows and butterflies conclusion that abruptly supplants a dystopian world with that of a fairy tale. It’s an insult to the sombre tone that pervades these films and the books. Katniss Everdeen is not a caretaker. Katniss Everdeen is a survivor. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Read Douglas’s reviews for Catching Fire and Mockingjay - Part 1.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Lagoon (Hodder & Stoughton) by Nnedi Okorafor | review

Lagos was lazily named by Portuguese explorers in 1472, we are told: lagos means lagoon. Five hundred and thirty-eight years later, just after 11.55 pm on 8 January 2010, a huge alien craft plummets into the same lagoon. The ship has a transformative effect on the Nigerian ocean, “now so clean that a cup of its salty-sweet goodness will heal the worst human illnesses and cause a hundred more illnesses not yet known to humankind”. The swordfish we meet in the prologue triples in size, acquires retractable spines and golden armoured skin.

The aliens are more cautious on land, sending at first a single representative. It/she makes contact with three humans caught in the ten-foot wave thrown up by the ship’s arrival. Adaora is a marine biologist whose husband has just hit her for the first time. Anthony Dey Craze is a famous rapper from Ghana with a way of working magic with a beat. Agu is a soldier, still bleeding after a failed attempt to stop squadmates assaulting a woman. Each felt drawn to the beach.

Adaora asks their new friend to call herself Ayodele. There is “something both attractive and repellent about the woman”, who they discover is a shapeshifter. She is polite and pleasant, but quite clear on the fact that her people will not be leaving: “No. We stay.” The world has changed, and the question is how to adjust, how to survive, not how to put things back how they were. They take her back to Adaora’s home, but barely have time to talk before word gets out.

Adaora’s babysitter sends a video of the alien to her sketchy boyfriend Moziz, and he recruits friends to plan a kidnapping. One of them shows the video to the Black Nexus, a LGBT group of which he is secretly a member, and so on. Soon there is a huge and angry crowd outside the house. Meanwhile, the government, near paralysed by the absence of the president – secretly recovering from heart surgery in Saudi Arabia – does little to investigate what’s happening in the bay, or to protect the city and its inhabitants. As Lagos falls prey to riots and chaos, Adaora, Anthony and Agu realise what they must do.

The characters through whose eyes we see these events are likeable but not paragons, and always interesting to spend time with, especially the alien Ayodele, who is at first unthreatened and amused by the humans she encounters. “You people have your own… little inventions,” she says, upon seeing Adaora’s new computer; she giggles, “a creepy dovelike sound that raised the hairs on Adaora’s arms”. The grating noise that accompanies her transformations, “the sound of metal balls on glass”, reminds us to fear her.

The dialogue of some characters, in particular Moziz and his gang, is presented in Pidgin English, making it a bit difficult to understand at first. He says about the aliens: “Well, if dem get flying ship, wetin again dem get wey we no sabi?” But readers who persist will get the hang of it; even those who (like me) fail to realise there is a glossary at the back. In any case, science fiction readers shouldn’t be put off a book by a few sentences in an unfamiliar language.

Two thirds in, the book takes an unexpected turn. It would be unfair to give away its surprises, but these sequences provide some of its most frightening images, as the alien disruption of our reality intersects with another, older disruption – and it’s all being filmed on phones and uploaded to YouTube, which keeps it grounded. People in the most terrible danger are still pleased to see their hits piling up.

As the book approaches its conclusion, some readers may wonder sadly if the swordfish introduced in the prologue ever returns. Forget guns on mantelpieces, don’t put giant sea monsters in the first few pages unless they’ll be back to cause havoc. It does return eventually, and it does cause havoc, but don’t expect this book to spend very long at sea. It’s a story of the city, of the fragility of life in a city where some people live in extreme poverty and the government isn’t paying attention, where one well-meaning nudge can have disastrous consequences.

Lagoon delivers a compelling narrative, characters with interesting pasts, presents and futures, and intriguing alien technology and motivations. For British readers the Nigerian setting may be a novel one, the people we meet in Lagos not those we’ve read about a thousand times before, their perspectives on first contact not those we’re used to seeing. It’s an epic story told in a measured, focused way, that coolly resists the temptation to sprawl, and I liked it a lot. Stephen Theaker

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #252, back in 2014.

Friday, 27 November 2015

The Young Dictator (Pillar International Publishing) by Rhys Hughes | mini-review

Jenny Khan is a young English girl who decides to stand for MP of her town, and with the help of her nefarious gran rises to become dictator of Britain, then the galaxy, and even hell itself. It’s a book packed with the usual Rhys Hughes goofiness, invention and humour. To pick one non-spoilery example, the glossary at the end explains that the astronauts who landed on the moon discovered it has no atmosphere, “because they forgot to take beer and cakes and music”. Fun for all ages. The ebook lets the novel down a bit, though: there is a line space between each paragraph, the chapters aren’t set up properly, and there’s a stingy limit on the number of devices you can read it on. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Rabbit Back Literature Society (Pushkin Press) by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, trans. Lola M. Rogers | review

Rabbit Back is a small town in Finland. Its biggest celebrity is Laura White, the famous author of children’s fiction. Where Tove Jansson wrote about the Snork Maiden, Little My and Stinky, Laura White writes about Mother Snow, the Odd Critter and Dampish, who live in fear of the Emperor Rat. Decades ago, she formed the Rabbit Back Literature Society, to which she recruited local children with, in her opinion, the potential to be great writers. She was right. An isolated elite in childhood, they are now successful but unhappy adults, and, thanks to a particularly fine short story which caught White’s eye in the town newspaper, substitute teacher Ella Amanda Milana is about to join their ranks.

Before her new literary career commences, there are mysteries to be solved.

Someone has been tampering with the library books. In the versions held at the local library, Aslan bit off the White Witch’s head instead of sacrificing himself, and Josef K. helped Mersault escape from prison. Why does the librarian destroy these astonishing curiosities? What happened to the other child from the society, the one the others won’t talk about, and the notebook of ideas he carried everywhere? Dogs congregate in the front garden of Martti Winter, the overweight loner with whom Ella begins an odd relationship. Laura White went missing on the night of the big party at her house. Why is she now haunting everyone’s dreams, “her voice … the most awful thing, like rustling dry leaves”?

Most importantly, what is The Game these authors play, and what are its rules?

Ella, who makes it her business to discover all the answers, is an interestingly flawed, selfish and manipulative protagonist. She steals books, discloses secrets, breaks into houses and barely hesitates to apply Rule 21 of The Game – which allows torture – because “once you had the other person in your clutches, like a predator, it was easier to temporarily abandon common courtesy”. Her reason for using The Game to persuade society members to “spill” their secrets isn’t justice or truth, but her academic ambition. The question for her isn’t whether she should make their dirty linen public, it’s whether she has enough in hand yet to make it worthwhile.

The novel presents a sour view of writers as scavengers picking over the bones of the dead and living alike. Laura’s advice to her young protégés was to “learn to look at everything as if you weren’t even part of the human race”. In another passage Ella imagines her fellow writers perched on a store’s shelving, swooping down to catch their prey: “I don’t know if you noticed, but this woman has a very interesting way of talking to people,” says one. “I just had to have it. I’ll probably throw the rest away.”

What happens in The Game is a ruthless mining of each other’s psyches for unfiltered, utterly honest material. It is the secret of their success, but has left them raw and wounded. “Thinking might be fun at first, but then you got hooked on it. ... Excessive thinking was eating writers away from the inside out.” Contentment is described here as an evolutionary hiccup, Martti Winter believing that “the happiest people were the ones who existed as little more than dimly conscious food-ingestion devices that enjoyed the occasional orgasm”.

It is impossible to know how good a translation is without reading the original, but one can judge the translation as a piece of writing in English, and on that basis Lola M. Rogers has done a fine job. The book reads very well, aside from the use of the old-fashioned word “authoress” to describe Laura White, and passages reliant on grammar and punctuation, often tricky for translators, pass by without a hiccup – such as a mention of the subjunctive, and Ella’s mulling over the significance of an absent comma in the sentence, “It’s so nice to meet the new tenth member of the Society.

Not everyone enjoys stories about writers – is there a less inspiring, less inspired way for a short story to begin than with a writer at their desk? – and the way writers are shown here may feel self-importantly pompous or rather unpleasant to some readers, depending on their point of view. But readers who love stories about writers and writing, who like their mysteries with a dash of fantasy, will enjoy it immensely. If possible, read some Moomins first, to get a good sense of the adorably terrifying corners of the Finnish imagination being here explored; this fascinating novel will repay the effort.

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen has been described as “Finland’s best-kept literary secret”. Well, that secret has now been spilled. No torture required. Stephen Theaker

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #250, back in 2014.

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying (Ebury Digital) by Marie Kondo | review

I’ve mentioned before in TQF that I barely read prose books in print any more, and when I do they are generally review copies. And yet my house is full beyond full with them. Before I bought this terribly helpful book the piles of books on the coffee table in my office were almost a metre high. Kondo offers some excellent advice: hold the item in your hand, and see if it sparks any joy in you. That has made it much easier to triage my collection, and I’ve been throwing books out by the dozen ever since. I’d like to say the point is almost in sight where I can fit all of my remaining books on our bookcases, but I’m nowhere near. (Anyone who has read Kondo’s book will know that means I haven’t been following her advice to the letter – she says to do it all in one go.) But it has been nice to see the rubbishy books begin to disappear from my shelves to be replaced by books I truly treasure. There were at least a dozen historical fiction novels in my collection that I had rescued from the discard pile at our school library and carried around with me for a quarter of a century, with no real intention of ever reading them. Now gone! And it did make me sad. But I took photos of them, and if I ever develop the desire to read any of them I’m sure I’ll be able to track a new copy down. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 16 November 2015

The Unquiet House (Jo Fletcher Books) by Alison Littlewood | review

The Unquiet House (Jo Fletcher Books, pb, 304pp) is the third published novel by Alison Littlewood, and is at first reminiscent of the others: a modern setting, an unhappy woman who becomes isolated, a bit too much italicisation, short chapters, an accessible style of writing, and a sense from the off that things aren’t quite right and the protagonist is in danger. However, the middle of this book takes us into the past, and for me that’s where Littlewood’s writing really shines, her terrors perfectly suited to a world without the internet, mobile phones and cheap transport away from a dangerous situation – there’s no need to contrive their absence, she can just get on with scaring the life out of us.

But we begin in 2013 and Emma Dean has inherited Mire House, a big spooky place in Yorkshire. It came down to her from a distant relative she had never met, the elderly Clarence Mitchell. This happens five months after her parents died, which is of course the perfect time to move into an old house with too many rooms. She has a crack at decorating, with the help of Clarence’s grandson, Charlie, who turns up uninvited. He can’t be up to any good, we feel, especially when he rings in sick to work for her without being asked, but Emma’s glad of the company.

No wonder, given what Mire House is like – in a place like this you’d be glad if Piers Morgan turned up with a packet of biscuits and a cup of tea. A creepy old man in a worn-out suit stands at the foot of Emma’s bed, staring with doleful eyes and later telling her to leave. Muddy footprints appear on the floor, accompanied by the sound of children’s laughter. The rumpled suit in the wardrobe seems to rustle on its own, and finds its way back upstairs after Emma throws it out. A grim woman in black, her face veiled. Is it all supernatural, or is it Charlie messing with her, trying to force her out of a house that should have been his?

All these scenes are handled well, though it’s hard to get as engrossed as you’d like in such short chapters. The book truly takes off once we’re back in 1973, where we meet Frank, an eleven-year-old boy with a little brother, Mossy. They hang around with Jeff and his big brother Sam, a twelve-year-old lout with streaks of mean and chicken. Sam dares them to approach Mire House, where one old man lives alone, and later to go in. When Frank shows himself the bravest of the group it sparks a fury in Sam, a dangerous determination to teach Frank a lesson.

The chapters in this part become longer, excruciatingly so, since you won’t know if the boys are safe or not till the end of each one. The relationships between the boys are so believable, their interactions so miserable, the kind of dangers into which they got so familiar from my own childhood – though in my case the expedition was into a crack in the wall of an abandoned mill – that reading this part left me struggling with retrospective guilt and anxiety.

We then go back to 1939, the year when Aggie hopes to enter into service with Mrs Hollingworth, leaving behind the back-breaking work of her parents’ farm. But there is a disaster: Mrs Hollingworth’s pregnancy didn’t make it to term. She declares that the newly-built home will contain “no laughter, not light, no life” and “no children, not ever”. Later, Mr Hollingworth moves in, with a new wife, and they take in children displaced by the war. There for a party, Aggie gets to know the children; they can see a grim woman in black, standing in the church grounds, beckoning them to follow her towards the mire.

Thus we return to 2013 with a better idea of what has been happening to Emma, and fearing the worst if she stays.

There is nothing new about haunted houses, or indeed stories that show us the same place in different times, but the characters here, Frank and Aggie especially, are so well-drawn that their anguish and terror feels like your own. The scares are emotional, but also physical and tactile. Emma gets a push in the back at the top of the stairs, while Aggie runs into an unknown figure’s arms in the dark, in a scene that conveys perfectly just how dark and terrifying it can get in the thick of night on a country road. By about halfway in I had to start reading the novel by day because it was spoiling my sleep.

All of Littlewood’s novels have been good, but this is my favourite: I suspect a novel set entirely in the past would be even better. Just not about young brothers in Yorkshire in the seventies next time. A whole novel like that and I’d need therapy. Stephen Theaker

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Black Static #43, back in 2014.