Saturday, 1 August 2020

The End of the Day by Claire North | review by Stephen Theaker

The beautiful goth Death of The Sandman and the stern DEATH of Discworld are extremely popular with fantasy fans, while the versions of Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal) and Piers Anthony (On a Pale Horse) are also influential. Here we have a new book (Orbit hb, 416pp, £16.99) about the one we all meet at the end of the day. Drawing on previous portrayals, this Death changes its appearance and gender depending on the circumstances. But it is, along with its fellow horsepeople of the apocalypse, just a supporting character in this story.

Our lead is Charlie, the Harbinger of Death, its Silver Surfer, the one who comes before. Unlike poor Norrin Radd, Charlie applied for this job, had to pass an aptitude test to get it, and could resign at any time. (His predecessor is thoroughly enjoying her retirement.) He gets paid, he claims expenses. It's a regular job, albeit one that's harder than most to explain on a date. When Death is coming, Charlie is occasionally (rather than always, as the book's marketing suggests) sent by the Milton Keynes office to meet the imminently deceased.

He never knows why. Sometimes there's a chance to avert an accident; he's allowed to nudge people off-course if he can. He might be sent to hear a language spoken before its last living speaker passes away, or to see a multi-faith orchestra perform before a riot forces it out of action. Sometimes he's sent to pay tribute to a good life, or to mark the passing of an idea. Some people are glad to see him, others angry, and a few hope to bargain. He brings each of them a gift from his employer, not knowing what it means; the effect is always profound.

Perhaps that's enough for you to know whether or not this is a book you would find interesting. I'd had enough by about a third of the way in. Its short, unhappy chapters put me in mind of watching a series of balloons deflate, and it was always hard to summon the enthusiasm to read another. Having said that, it was clear fairly quickly what kind of book it was going to be – a guided tour of the world's most miserable situations, with little in the way of plot beyond the effect it all has on Charlie – and in those circumstances it's perhaps unfair to blame the book if you choose to keep reading.

If anything, I liked it a little more after that point. The book takes us through a period where Charlie starts to struggle with the demands of the job, physically and mentally, and not just because he gets beaten up a lot. He gets involved in increasingly dangerous situations, as criminals and law enforcement agencies begin to take an interest in his destinations, sometimes forcing Death itself to take a hand in protecting him.

But it's hard to understand why, in a world where everyone knows about Charlie's job, this kind of thing hasn't been happening since his first day on the job. You'd expect him to be followed by a news crew at all times. This isn't a book that's interested in exploring the societal ramifications of its central idea, or showing the systems at work in its world, as opposed to ours. Eventually Charlie gets a travelling companion, a chap who wants to return to New York to see his long-lost brother, and that was when I came closest to enjoying the book.

At times it reminded me of Martin Millar's urban fantasies, which raised some similar issues, but it lacked their fun and energy. It feels the weight of its social conscience, and strains so hard for relevance it hurts itself. Chapters often begin with snatches of unattributed dialogue (“I don’t want to generalise, but Mexicans are criminals”, “The schools can’t cope, the hospitals can’t cope”), that hope to give it a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, but it starts to feel like the High School Theatre Show sketch on SNL, where well-meaning teenagers perform their buzzwordy school plays.

Readers I respect have liked the book a lot, so don't necessarily be put off, but for me this was a trudge, a sit down for a few hours and force yourself to finish it kind of book, a four hundred page Observer editorial about everything that's wrong with the world. I think it's the book it wants to be: a sensitive, thoughtful, serious novel with an admirable grasp of the big issues, about how gruelling it must be for those working close to death: doctors, police officers, environmental scientists. I just didn't enjoy reading it. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #270.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Archival Quality, by Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz (Oni Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

Because I read this 280pp graphic novel without reading the back cover first (“a surprisingly vulnerable, intricate look at mental health”, says Kate Leth), I thought it was going to be the story of someone who discovers weird things going on in a library. That does indeed happen, but this is really about someone who is depressed and doesn’t like the way her boyfriend handles it. For me that was somewhat disappointing, but other readers may feel differently.

Celeste Walden lost her previous job as a library assistant after being overwhelmed by her mental health issues (variously diagnosed by doctors as anxiety, bipolar disorder and depression), when she stopped taking her medication. We find out later that she didn’t graduate from college, perhaps for similar reasons.

She finds a new position as an image archivist at the Logan Museum, which was once a psychiatric hospital. Her new boss, Abayomi Abiola, is good-looking but cold and secretive, while her direct supervisor, Holly the head librarian, seems nice. Celeste has to work through the night, and lives in an apartment on site, where she begins to have strange dreams of a woman who had a procedure in the hospital long ago.

I quite enjoyed reading this, though it was a long and drawn-out way to tell what in the end is a short and simple story. The art is nice enough, cartoonish and chunky, even if it felt a little odd to have an adult woman drawn as if she were a toddler. Perhaps that was to reflect how she felt.

The most off-putting thing for me was how she treats her long-term boyfriend. I don’t think we are supposed to like him – the first time we meet him he calls her a loser, as a joke at just the wrong time – but I found him a much more sympathetic character than Celeste, doing his best to patiently encourage and support her, while she treats him terribly. That might be a realistic portrayal of how people with mental health issues sometimes treat the people who love them, but the way the story rewards her treatment of him with a new romantic interest felt way off.

I wouldn’t queue up for a sequel, but it may find its fans. Stephen Theaker ***

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Fear the Walking Dead, Season 5 | review by Stephen Theaker

Previous seasons of Fear the Walking Dead reminded me of the Fallout games, but this one really goes for it.

This is a show that never met a status quo it liked, and so the situation established at the end of season four is immediately gone: some of the characters have crashed their plane in a new area and all the roads out are blocked. It feels like a typical Fallout DLC adventure, a self-contained location where they have a few situations to resolve before they can escape.

What makes it even more like Fallout is that some areas are dangerous because of high levels of radiation, there are radioactive zombies, and we (briefly) meet some people who seem very much like the Brotherhood of Steel. The second half of the season finds them back where they were at the end of season four, more or less, but their convoy is gathering steam. This storyline introduces an evil version of the Minutemen from Fallout 4.

The zombies in this season really were extraordinarily useless. They flail around ineffectively like the zombies in a children’s programme and (spoiler incoming) we do not see them bite, let alone eat, a single person in the entire sixteen episodes. They do manage to eat a horse at one point. We meet a new guy who got bitten before we meet him. And in a flashback we hear them get a character we never met over the radio. It’s hard to feel fear when the zombies offer so little threat to the protagonists.

Another funny thing is that at one point some kids use zombies to turn a wheel and everyone is like, haha very clever, and then they go back to fighting about petrol, not realising that the kids have created a perpetual motion machine! It could change the world! (It does raise the question of where the energy comes from if the zombies aren’t eating anything. Perhaps they feed on the bugs that crawl into their mouths. Or maybe they start to photosynthesize. Someone should do an experiment to see if zombies lose body mass when they exercise.)

The characters in this programme have always driven me up the wall with their terrible decision-making, and it’s no different this season, where everyone gets a bad case of the fates and faiths and why are we heres and this is our purposes. They do some utterly idiotic things, like wandering off to paint trees while leaving their most important resources virtually unprotected. They make a video of themselves, leave it everywhere for people to watch, and then are completely baffled to discover that their enemies now know their names and weaknesses.

But for all its flaws I loved watching it, like I do every year – I bought it outright because I couldn’t wait for it to appear on Amazon Prime Video for free. I had got to the point where I didn’t want to watch anything else till I had watched it. And after seeing how some people have behaved during the Covid-19 crisis, can we still criticise television characters for stupid, self-defeating behaviour during a crisis? Can I complain about them standing right next to zombies when everyone here seems to think a two-metre distance means two steps away?

And there were some things I liked about this season, such as Morgan’s determination to be a force for good in the world, even if he went on about it a bit too much. I admire Althea’s determination to create a visual record of what has been happening. The relationship between John Dorie and June is genuinely sweet. Colby Hollman and Karen David are very good as newcomers Wes and Grace, and Colman Domingo never met a line he couldn’t deliver in an interesting way. Not a vintage season, then, but still a show I love to watch. Can’t wait to see what communities they leave devastated in season six. Stephen Theaker ***

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain (Collector’s Edition) by Joe Dever
Holmgard Press, hardback, £16.99, July 2020, ISBN 9781916268029


In my review of Lone Wolf 24: Rune War, I mentioned that I’d never played books 25 and 26 and although I’ve used Project Aon (see: www.projectaon.org) to play books 27 and 28, it’s particularly gratifying to be able to play 26 using Holmgard Press Collector’s Edition hardback (available at: www.magnamund.com). Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain is the sixth (of twelve) in the New Order series of the Lone Wolf cycle. I won’t bore regular readers with details of either the cycle or its publication as they are described at length in my reviews of books 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 29, and 30, all of which are available on this blog. The New Order series turns away from protagonist Lone Wolf to focus on a new member of the Kai order, Sommerlund’s warrior elite, combining standalone with campaign adventures. The two standalone adventures are books 23 and 26. Interestingly, anyone who played the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons will probably notice a strong correlation between the shape of these two adventures and the Wilderness Survival Guide (1986) and Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986) respectively. The latter was the supplement that introduced the Underdark, a subterranean world consisting of a vast interconnected network of caverns, tunnels, and shafts, as a campaign setting. In the world of Magnamund, the Dwarven Kingdom of Bor has a foot both on and under the earth and the action of The Fall of Blood Mountain takes place in the latter.

The greed of one of King Ryvin’s sons, Prince Leomin, led him to ignore the received wisdom of the Drodarin and mine too deep, releasing an ancient horror called the Shom’zaa. Leomin and his brother, Prince Torfan, are now beneath the capital of Boradon defending the Throne of Andarin against the Shom’zaa and its horde. The Kai have been approached to send a champion to destroy the Shom’zaa with a Sun-crystal while the King leads his army to relieve the siege of the Throne chamber and rescue his sons. Grand Master True Friend (of randomly-generated-name-fame) is assigned the mission by Lone Wolf and the adventure begins with him hitching a ride on a skycraft bound for Bor. King Ryvin offers True Friend the captain of the Royal War-thanes, Vagel, as a guide and the two soon find themselves deep in the Underdark. For a royal champion, Vagel is surprisingly fragile and doesn’t last very long at all, leaving True Friend to complete the mission by means of his wits, Kaistar (his magic sword), and the New Order Kai Grand Master Disciplines (supernatural abilities granted by the gods Kai and Ishir).

The game is quite short in length compared to other New Order adventures and has a curious narrative structure, divided into three unequal parts. The first and longest (about three-fifths of the game) is composed of True Friend’s journey to the Throne chamber. The second and shortest (about a sixth of the game) involves True Friend hunting and killing the Shom’zaa with the aid of a remorseful Prince Leomin. The final part (about a quarter of the game) is concerned with True Friend’s return to assist Prince Torfan in defence of the Throne, which is still under attack from the horde. It would be unfair to say that the structure is anticlimactic because the battle in the Throne chamber provides the most harrowing combat, but the confrontation with the Shom’zaa – and indeed the whole middle section – is disappointing. The anticipation, tension, and ‘pleasing terror’ of the Shom’zaa starts with the cover, the illustration on the front and the blurb on the back, and builds as the game progresses. The revelation that the Shom’zaa is one of the weaker antagonists of the series and that its death has little impact on the game (the most difficult part of which is still to come) makes for an unfortunate dip in the excitement of play. My second criticism is that there wasn’t much description of Drodarin customs, culture, and technology, which is a pity as the Drodarin are the only dwarves on Magnamund, the only society to have mastered the use of gunpowder.

Regarding gameplay, The Fall of Blood Mountain is probably the easiest of the New Order series so far. The combination of this feature with its status as a standalone rather than campaign adventure means that it is probably the only one to date that I would recommend playing on its own. It is, of course, better if you’ve played books 21 to 25 (and even better if you’ve played 1 to 25), but book 26 is an entry into the cycle that is both enjoyable and survivable. For players of the series, no guidance is necessary; if this is your first Lone Wolf adventure you might want to consider choosing Illuminatus (a broadsword) as your Kai weapon and selecting either Elementalism or Kai-alchemy as one of your Grand Master Disciplines. This is Holmgard Press’s sixth publication and maintains the high standard of production values begun with Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai. I did, however, come across four typos, all in the bonus adventure but none so serious as to detract from gameplay (one on the page immediately before section 1, two in section 32, and one in section 124).

The bonus adventure is ‘Destiny Most Dire’, written by August Hahn and especially noteworthy in concluding his Dire mini-series, the only series to run through the bonus adventures. The player character is a Dire, a dead soldier who is now one of the Lifeless, denied death and doomed to walk Magnamund. This is the fifth and final adventure of the character, the previous instalments of which were: ‘Darkness Most Dire’ (in Lone Wolf 14: The Captives of Kaag), ‘A Long and Dire Road’ (in Lone Wolf 16: The Legacy of Vashna), ‘Dire Straights’ (in Lone Wolf 19: Wolf’s Bane), and ‘Dire in the Dark’ (Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf). ‘The Story So Far…’ opening recaps the entire mini-campaign in detail so the player does not have to seek out the previous instalments to understand the trajectory of the mini-series, which constitutes its own campaign. Although the game has 125 sections as opposed to the standard 350 of Lone Wolf, it has a substantial feel to it and is very well-paced. Hahn writes with flair and proficiency, providing a near-perfect balance of world-building and action throughout the narrative. There are also some interesting and innovative variations on standard combat, which spices up gameplay for regulars. In sum, ‘Destiny Most Dire’ is excellent, a fitting end to the mini-series campaign. As such, there is a sense in which the bonus adventure completes the Collector’s Edition, providing a counterbalance to what is one of the weaker Lone Wolf adventures.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #67: now out in paperback and ebook!

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

Welcome to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #67, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood.

This issue features three science fiction stories. In "A Gift for the Young" by Elaine Graham-Leigh, a visitor from Chi!me visits a divided world. "The King of Nod" by Harris Coverley lets us join an extraction team on their way to retrieve a criminal, who was sent long ago to prepare a world for colonisation. And "Broken" by A.T. Sayre introduces us to some robots with significant issues.

In a thirty-page review section Stephen Theaker, Rafe McGregor and Douglas J. Ogurek consider books by Carlton Mellick III, Jessica Rydill, Joe Dever, Kim Stanley Robinson and Joel Cornah.

Plus comics by Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz; Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook; Zep, Lewis Trondheim and Dominique Bertail; Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col and Andy Belanger; Sarah Graley; Mike Mignola and Ben Stenbeck; Mike Butterworth and Don Lawrence; Mark Millar and Matteo Scalera; and Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard.

And the films Angel Heart, The Invisible Man and A Rainy Day in New York, and the television programmes Castle Rock season two, Fear the Walking Dead season five and Westworld season three.

This issue's cover features a gouache painting by a 19th century Tibetan artist, of a Tibetan demon devouring a human, from the Europeana Collections (CC BY 4.0).


Here are the tremendous contributors to this issue.

Harris Coverley has short fiction published or forthcoming in Curiosities, Planet Scumm, Horror Magazine and The J.J. Outré Review. He is also a Rhysling-nominated poet and member of the Weird Poets Society, with verse most recently accepted for Star*Line, Utopia Science Fiction, Awen, New Reader Magazine, Clover & White and The Oddville Press, amongst others. He lives in Manchester, England.

Elaine Graham-Leigh is a writer and campaigner based in London. When not bringing down the system from within, she writes speculative fiction and has had previous stories published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Jupiter SF, Bewildering Stories and The Harrow. Her website can be found at www.redpuffin.co.uk. Her first novel, The Caduca, is planned for publication by the Conrad Press in autumn 2020.

A.T. Sayre has been writing in some form or other for over three-quarters of his life, ever since he was ten years old. His work has previously appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and StarShipSofa. A more detailed list of his publications can be found at www.atsayre.com/fiction. Born in Kansas City, raised in New Hampshire, he lives in Brooklyn and likes to read in coffeehouses.

Rafe McGregor lectures at Edge Hill University. He is the author of two monographs, two novels, six collections of short fiction, and two hundred articles, essays, and reviews. His most recent work of fiction is The Adventures of Roderick Langham, a collection of occult detective stories.

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in more than fifty Earth publications. Douglas’s website can be found at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com and his Twitter account is at www.twitter.com/unsplatter.

Stephen Theaker is known for his watertight style and flamboyant plumbing.


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

Monday, 20 July 2020

A Princess of the Linear Jungle, by Paul Di Filippo (PS Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

This novella begins with a quotation from A Princess of Mars (a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs), mentions in passing an exhibit called The Diaries of Cadwal Throy (referencing Jack Vance) and the lead character is called Merritt Abraham (a nod, as you might guess, to Abraham Merritt), which gives the reader an idea of what to expect.

It begins with Merritt, aged twenty-two, on a two-masted sailing boat, upon a river which runs parallel to a very long city. On the boat with her are a small group of colourful characters who are all sleeping with each other whenever they can lay claim to a quiet spot. Merritt has left her home in Stagwitz to start work at Swazeycape University.

She would rather be studying polypolisology there, but can’t afford it. She will at least be able to audit classes (attend without gaining a qualification). Unfortunately, this leads her into a relationship with louche Professor Arturo Scoria, who is planning an expedition into Vayavirunga, a borough that was over-run by plant life, walled off, and best left that way.

The ebook, which is currently available on Kindle Unlimited, as well as directly from the publisher, features some confusing errors that weren’t in the original (and sold-out) print version, such as “then on-threatening” suitor, or “my parent son the River”. There are also places where it seems like both options in a tracked changes document have been typeset.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the story of this clearly doomed (as one can tell from them taking a nightclub singer along to pose for photographs!) expedition. The Linear City seems to be an ideal setting for fantastical stories, and the strange Pompatics that float above it lead the story in some startling directions. A strange and vivid book. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 13 July 2020

Joanna Russ, by Gwyneth Jones (University of Illinois Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

A new entry in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction covers the life and work of Joanna Russ in seven fascinating chapters. It also includes thirteen pages of interviews, a useful ten-page bibliography of her work, and an index (not available in the review copy, as is generally the case).

It provides context for the writing, telling us about her life, and doesn’t generally fall into the trap of assuming that there must be a direct connection between the two, though a clear motive is sometimes assigned to negative reviews, both those she wrote and those she received.

The book sensitively addresses some elements of Russ’s work that might prove sticky for present-day readers, such as underage sexuality in The Female Man and And Chaos Died, and what is read as a cure for homosexuality in the latter.

Where it perhaps sets a foot wrong is in asking about The Female Man, “How do you design an ideal, female-ordered world, when all the models of utopia are manmade?” Whileaway is a place where women must spend so much of their adult lives working that there is no time for art. Surely that’s not being put forward as an ideal?

That aside, this will be gold dust for any student planning to write an essay on Joanna Russ or any of her books. It’s the kind of overview that makes your eyes light up when you find it in the library, that helps you properly understand the book you’re studying, and alerts you to other works you should be looking at too.

And of course it is also useful for those of us who have read a few of Joanna Russ’s books and not necessarily felt confident of having grasped their meaning. It encouraged me to read more of her work, though unfortunately much of it is out of print in the UK.

To get The Adventures of Alyx and Extra (Ordinary) People, I had to buy tea-stained secondhand copies of the same Women’s Press editions my mum had when I was a child. Russ didn’t write a colossal amount of science fiction. A Library of America edition gathering it all together would be just the ticket. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 10 July 2020

The Art of the Tingle, by Chuck Tingle (self-published) | review by Stephen Theaker

A collection of book covers and plot summaries from the world’s leading purveyor of post-modern, metatextual, magical realist erotic literature for homosexual gentlemen. With titles like My Billionaire Triceratops Craves Gay Ass, Pounded in the Butt By My Own Butt, I’m Gay for My Living Billionaire Jet Plane and Angry Man Pounded By the Fear of His Latent Gayness Over a Dinosaur Transitioning into a Unicorn, and hilarious covers to match, this book is joyful and hilarious throughout. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 6 July 2020

My Boyfriend Is a Bear, by Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris (Oni Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

A woman falls in love with a 230 kg American black bear and he moves in to live with her. He doesn’t say much, but he’s cute, strong, huggable, and a good listener, and however much of her stuff he breaks, he doesn’t break her heart. But what happens when it’s time for him to hibernate? This sweet, romantic book reflects and models how people who are very different can get along in a relationship, dealing with roadbumps and individual needs. The art by Cat Farris is marvellously expressive. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Questions and Answers, 5 July 2020

Here are Stephen's answers to the less urgent questions that the world has been asking this week. Feel free to supply your own answers in the comments!

You've been given the power to instantly greenlight any sequel you want… What are you choosing?Fandom

So many to choose from. Bacurau 2. Annie Hall 2. Blade 4. Tron 3. John Carter 2. Riddick 4. Charlie's Angels 3. Assassin's Creed 2. The Thing (2021), which would be a sequel to both The Thing (1982) and The Thing (2011). But, if I could only pick one, it would be Spider-Girl, as a sequel to the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst returning as Peter Parker and Mary Jane.

How often would you say you fall asleep while reading?A Facebook user

Reading Washington Square by Henry James I fell asleep every forty pages, on the dot. It was bizarre. During the daytime, didn't dislike the book, it just made me sleepy! And if I'm listening to an audiobook and not doing anything else I'll be asleep within ten minutes.

Pick up the book nearest to you. Add 'Harry Potter and' as a prefix to the title of the book.Various Jams

Harry Potter and Why Women Are Blamed for Everything. Seems quite appropriate! Really was the nearest book to me – still on my desk after opening the parcel and reading the prelims. Runner-up would be Harry Potter and the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors.

Describe your own novel in as boring a way as possible.Nikesh Shukla

The one I'm currently writing: an assistant realises that his boss is still alive. Rolnikov the God, coming to TQF in about three years time at our current rate of publishing my novels!

If you could genetically weaponise one part of yourself (Hanna-style), what skill would you pick?Amazon Prime Video UK

I would want the power of Batroc the Leaper, to jump on things very hard. I have an idea for a more original superpower, but that one is staying in my file of story ideas.

Can you describe your favourite movie as boring as possible?Romina

A dog gets sick at night-time.

Are you the same person in real life as you are on Twitter?Super Mark

I would have said yes about myself, more or less, but then I created a private Twitter account for making review notes and the contrast made it obvious how polite (relatively) I am on Twitter about the stuff I don't like.

Shall we do our first official #TrueReadingName since reopening? Using your current book: AUTHOR'S SURNAME, followed by FIRST WORD OF THE TITLE (ignore 'the', 'a' etc).Waterstones Swansea

Dworkin Pornography? I think not. Far too disrespectful! It's a good book, though.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood | review by Stephen Theaker

The Hidden People (Jo Fletcher Books) is in my view Littlewood’s best novel yet [mid-2017]. While her earlier books from this publisher seemed to be aimed in part at the thriller market, this is a sustained and convincing work of traditional gothic horror. Posh Albie, who ran into his attractive cousin Elizabeth Thurlston at the Great Exhibition of 1851, is floored years later to hear that she has been murdered by her lower-class husband, and not murdered in any ordinary way, but roasted over an open fire, in the belief that she was a changeling and cooking the creature would bring back his wife. Albie travels to Halfoak (“our folk”) in Yorkshire to attend her funeral, and then, angered by the lack of respect he sees, stays to investigate her death, making the peculiar decision to live in her cottage while her husband and murderer sits in prison.

Albie might have married Lizzie himself if she hadn’t been of a slightly lower class, and he thoroughly regrets it. Such class differences play a major role in the book: telling the story in the first person, he obsessively apostrophizes each time an interlocutor fails to enunciate a letter, and upon eventually reading Lizzie’s hidden journal, he has “some small gratitude that although she may have neglected in life to pronounce her aitches, she had not forgotten to write them”. On the train to Halfoak, he ruminates on “the unease … between progress and country, rationalism and superstition”, and the book is all about his attitude to those superstitions, how beneath him these ideas (and these people) are, even as he arrives step by step at believing them himself. This creates a maddening tension in him, and when his wife comes to join him at the cottage, things only get worse.

One of the book’s most terrifying scenes shows him dashing frantically around the cottage on a stormy night, stuffing pages torn from her copy of Wuthering Heights into every nook and cranny in hopes of stopping “the hidden folk” from entering. We feel his fear, but we also know how much the book means to his wife, and for all we know he might be ripping it up for nothing. By this point he has become an unreliable narrator, and the book refuses to confirm for us whether Albie lives in a supernatural universe or not, so readers are forced into the same situation as him, unable to know what has really happened, not knowing who can be trusted, and not knowing the right decision.****

This review originally appeared in Black Static #60.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Always North, by Vicki Jarrett (Unsung Stories) | review by Stephen Theaker

In the year 2025, Isobel is on board the Polar Horizon, a ship surveying for oil at the north pole. A nuclear-powered icebreaker joins them, to force a way through what ice remains. This first part of the book is exciting and tense, the atmosphere rather like The Thing on a boat, with a similarly characterful crew, and with a highly focused polar bear as the threat. It feels very grounded in reality, albeit with references to Where the Wild Things Are: “We’ll sail off through night and day, in and out of weeks for almost over a year. Only this time there will be no nights.”

Then something big and devastating happens, and we move into a new phase of the book, showing the consequences of a story we only half-know and taking us to some weirder places. Eventually the book returns to telling the original story, but in a more fractured way, and it’s a little bit frustrating – as if someone cracked the television screen halfway through watching a film. Another consequence is that from this point on the reader has reason to doubt what we are being told is happening, which inevitably places a barrier between the story and our emotions. But it’s still a good story, even told this way.

The ending was disappointing at first, then a bit less disappointing after thinking about what it meant for earlier parts of the book, and then disappointing again when I started to ask myself what the plan was ever meant to be. But as a warning of environmental catastrophe, the book is very effective, and its portrayal of social breakdown is convincing. And I loved its depiction of the high-pressure situation on board the Polar Horizon, the effect that loneliness, lack of sleep, secrets, money and sex would have on people spending far too long together in close quarters. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 29 June 2020

The Señor 105 Adventure Book, by Joe Curreri (Manleigh Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Señor 105 is a Mexican wrestler and an international man of mystery, whose various elemental masks grant him special powers. He is also reputedly a botanist, a scientist, a stuntman, a magician and an escape artist. His colleagues are a sentient balloon named Sheila and Officer Lori Flaherty of the Canadian Mounted Police. He is distantly related to the Doctor Who franchise, having I think originated in stories about Iris Wyldthyme (imagine a cross between Mrs Cornelius and River Song; she may well have partly inspired the latter), a creation of Paul Magrs who appeared in several fine Doctor Who novels. This book was part of an ebook-only series, the Periodical Adventures of Señor 105, and is still available from the Obverse Books website.

It is a book of two halves. The first is described with a wink as Stories for Her and is entitled “Ciao, Fantastique!” For the most part this takes the point of view of Officer Flaherty, who gets involved with Fantastique, a Diabolik-style thief in a white rubber costume, whose uncles are trapped in a painting. The Stories for Him half of the book is from the point of view of a villain, who is very fond of the frogmen he sends out to pillage. He tells us about his disastrous encounters with Señor 105 and his allies. These are “The Iguana Diaries”.

It’s worth acknowledging that a few years have passed since the book was first sent in for review, and the goal posts have moved: one could imagine the book being eviscerated today by reviewers who would have lauded its diversity a few years ago. But I enjoyed it very much. What I love about the Señor 105 stories (and similar titles from Obverse Books, Manleigh Books being their ebook imprint) is their immense sense of fun, their high spirits, their anything goes energy, and that’s all abundant in this book too. The answer to what happens next is always the same: whatever would be most interesting. Stephen Theaker ***

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Questions and Answers, 28 June 2020

Here are my answers to the less urgent questions that the world has been asking this week. Feel free to supply your own answers in the comments!

What is a pop-culture reference you assume everyone else gets but you find yourself repeatedly having to explain?Duncan Jones

"I know what goes where, and why" — Gene Wilder in Silver Streak.

What do you think about lower than 5-star reviews? Would you be happy with 4 stars or 3?Ulane V.

I'm happy with one star, as long as they've read it. When your novels are as little-read as mine, you celebrate even when people are hate-reading them!

When I'm rating books myself, three stars is my default rating for a book that was good, and my most common rating by far. Four stars is for something special. Five stars for all-time favourites. Two stars for sub-par books. One star for terrible books (and sometimes that might mean well-written but morally repugnant). Or to put it another way: bad, not very good, good, very good, excellent.

I've only given one star to 27 books in my life. 435 books got five stars from me, 1574 books got four stars, 1857 books got three stars, 270 got two stars, and there are 179 books I haven't rated, usually because I worked on them, or because they weren't out yet when I marked them as read.

In general, I love star ratings. As a reader, I like them because they stop reviewers who don't like a book from dodging the most important question (is it good?) because they don't want to upset their social group.

And as a reviewer, it frees me to spend the review talking about what I liked, or what I didn't like, without worrying that I'll be misunderstood as to how good I think the book is. I once saw a chap on Twitter complaining about a book he thought I had raved about in an Interzone review, but I had just said what I liked about it. So now I'll sometimes work the words "a three-star book" into my reviews for venues that don't have star ratings, to avoid that kind of confusion. I can have lots of positive things to say about a book without thinking, overall, that it's an all-time classic.

I don't insist on other reviewers using them in TQF, though, and I don't tell the ones who do use them what scale they should use. The rating is just one aspect of the review as a whole, and if the review as a whole conveys their honest response to the work in question, I'm not fussed if they use that particular tool or not.

Buying books as gifts, reading them and then regifting 'as new' is acceptable, according to @WhichPennySmith. We're conflicted. Please advise.Scala Radio

It's a bit like when you buy a CD for someone and receive the Amazon Auto-Rip MP3s yourself. I think it only counts as half a present…

What are you reading?Reading Glasses Facebook group

Driftwood by Marie Brennan, about a place where what seem to be the ghosts of dead planets cluster before disappearing forever. Very good.

What's the best TV show with the worst pilot episode?Amazon Prime Video UK

Babylon 5.

What are your favorite book adaptations?NetGalley

The Thing. Dune. Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit. Starship Troopers. Blade Runner. The Godfather. The Silence of the Lambs. Bosch. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I'll watch any Stephen King miniseries. I am really looking forward to Foundation. Least favourite adaptation: maybe the Riverworld tv movie? Talk about wasting a great premise.

What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen in theaters?Chris

I won't say any of those I walked out of, like Thunderbirds or Sweet November, because that wouldn't be fair. I didn't see them to the end and they might have improved. I asked to leave The Age of Innocence but Mrs Theaker wasn't having it. And was it as excruciatingly boring as I remember, or was that feeling caused by the two people whispering behind us and a projector problem that made my eyes ache every time the camera panned? There are lots of other things that I'm less keen on now, like Batman and Robin and Lost in Space, but I didn't hate them at the time. I think it's got to be The Nut Job, one of many, many unremarkable CGI films I watched with the children over the last decade.

If you had 6 minutes left to live, what's the last song you'd listen to?Fred the Fish

My choice would be Time to Pretend by MGMT. It's one of my favourite songs, I'll never tire of hearing that keyboard riff, and it's always felt like an apocalyptic goodbye song to me. It's a big influence on the novels of Howard Phillips.


What's the longest amount of time past publication date you've taken to read and review a NetGalley ARC?Roxanne Michelle

Just reviewed Kim Reaper and Archival Quality, both from March 2018. The oldest book still on my list is from 2013, Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes. I've reviewed several of his other books, though. My worst example is Bitch Planet Triple Feature, which I think was from Edelweiss. I sat down to review it a week or two ago, and realised it had been 837 days since I read it. I'm going to read it again before trying to write a review.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: The Musical Drama, by H.G. Wells (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

Do we really need a new version of The War of the Worlds, one might ask? Do we really need a new version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, one might also ask? After remixes and live shows and re-recorded versions of what remains one of my favourite albums ever, I thought not. If only Jeff Wayne would do a new album in the same vein instead. Even Spartacus had its moments!

But once I began to listen to this version (adapted by Doreen Wayne, Richard Curtie and Bev Doyle), I came around very quickly. Because what could be better than a two-hour musical version of The War of the Worlds? A five-hour version! Starring Michael Sheen! He is, as ever, perfectly brilliant as the journalist, giving his voice here some rich, deep notes that make him sound rather like Tom Baker at times. Taron Egerton of Rocketman is good too, as the artilleryman.

Unfortunately neither of them get to sing. The music is instrumental, extended versions of the tracks from the original album. There are ull-ahs, of course. And some dubstep elements! There are great sound effects, and the whole effect is much more dramatic and less cheesy than I expected. Much more of the original story is included, and that the narrative follows the journalist’s wife Carrie (played by Anna-Marie Wayne) as well as the narrator is very welcome.

It’s all very well done, and I’ll be certain to listen to it more than once. What could possibly be better than a book you can dance to? Stephen Theaker *****

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Angel Heart | review by Rafe McGregor

Angel Heart, by Alan Parker (Tri-Star Pictures)

Hellishly hardboiled detection.

The story of the occult detective is the tale of a turn of two centuries.  In the late nineteenth century, magazine contributors on both sides of the Atlantic began to explore ways in which the relatively new and incredibly popular figure of the private detective could be merged with the much older but still entertaining milieu of the ghost story.  One of the progenitors of this exploration was Sheridan Le Fanu (1872), with Dr Martin Hesselius.  The combination of detective protagonist and ghostly setting saw the initial blossoming of the subgenre of ghost-finders, paranormal physicians, and occult psychologists with notable contributions by Arthur Machen (1894) with Mr Dyson, L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace (1898) with John Bell, E. and H. Heron (1899) with Flaxman Low, Algernon Blackwood (1908) with Dr John Silence, William Hope Hodgson (1913) with Thomas Carnacki, and Aleister Crowley (1917) with Simon Iff.  The occult detective became a staple of the cheaper weekly and monthly magazines of the Golden Age of the Pulp era, particularly Cassell’s Magazine and Weird Tales.  The first female occult detective was most likely Ella Scrymsour’s (1920) Sheila Crerar, whose adventures appeared in The Blue Magazine.  As the pulp era came to an end, interest in the subgenre waned, being sustained through the nineteen fifties, sixties, and seventies by three main sources: Dennis Wheatley’s series of eleven novels featuring the Duke De Richleau (published from 1933 to 1970 and including The Devil Rides Out in 1934); the dogged persistence of short story writers such as Seabury Quinn, whose Jules de Grandin appeared in Weird Tales from 1925 (“The Horror on the Links”) to 1951 (“The Ring of Bastet”) and were frequently reprinted and collected during the nineteen sixties and seventies; and the successful migration from short story to small screen evinced by the popularity of Adam Adamant Lives! (1966–1967), Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969–1971, remade in 2000–2001), and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–1975).

The revival of interest in the occult detective at the end of the twentieth century was heavily influenced by migration to another medium, the graphic novel.  Precursors to this revival included William Hjortsberg’s (1978) Harry Angel, Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently (1987), and Tiziano Sclavi and Angelo Stano’s Dylan Dog (a comic series that began in 1986).  The revival came with the publication of the Hellblazer and Hellboy comic series, the first created by Jamie Delano, based on Alan Moore's Swamp Thing character John Constantine, (from 1988 to 2013) and the second created by Mike Mignola and featuring the eponymous half-demon investigator (from 1994 to 2019).  The last decade of the twentieth century saw the subgenre regain some of its mainstream appeal, appearing in the most popular contemporary literary form, the serial novel.  Notable occult detectives include Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake (twenty-six novels from 1993 to 2018), Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins (fifteen novels from 1998 to 2019), Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden (fifteen novels from 2000 to 2015), and Kim Harrison’s (actually Dawn Cook) Rachel Morgan (thirteen novels from 2004 to 2014).  Several of these series have been adapted for television, with popular series such as Supernatural (fifteen seasons from 2005 to 2019) and Penny Dreadful (three seasons from 2014 to 2016) being created exclusively for the medium.  While the occult detective has traditionally held no official status, there has been a recent interest in police detectives in a combination of the police procedural with the ghost story that can be traced back to Fox’s The X-Files (eleven seasons from 1993 to 2018), for example Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant (beginning in 2011), Grimm’s Nick Burkhardt (played by David Giuntoli, beginning in 2011), Paul Cornell’s James Quill (beginning in 2013), and Paul Crilley’s Gideon Tau (beginning in 2016).

The essence of occult detective fiction has remained largely unchanged since its initial popularity, the combination of a crime fiction character with a horror fiction setting.  This combination creates an immediate narrative tension because ever since Edgar Allan Poe introduced C. Auguste Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), the detective has been the man or woman of reason, a rational agent who restores the moral and social order following its disruption by harm or crime.  Poe referred to all three of Dupin’s cases as “tales of ratiocination” and the same could be said of the cases of Dupin’s most illustrious descendants, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.  In contrast, the setting of horror fiction may be more or less like the real world, but there is at least one aspect of that world into which the irrational in the form of the divine, the supernatural, or the paranormal intrudes.  One may only catch the briefest of glimpses of it, as in M.R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), or it may be supervenient upon science, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s revelation that the monsters in his Cthulhu Mythos stories were actually aliens in At the Mountains of Madness (1936), but the divine, supernatural, or paranormal is always in excess of human reason, rationality, and ratiocination.  One of the advantages of occult detective fiction is that creators can introduce an additional layer of suspense in having the detective investigate both criminal and supernatural cases and Hodgson employed this device with Carnacki very successfully.  The world of the occult detective must nonetheless be one in which the supernatural intrudes into the natural in some way, whether or not that intrusion is revealed in every case.

In Hjortsberg’s gripping and innovative novel, Falling Angel, Angel is hired to find a missing person and framed for a series of murders by his client.  Alan Parker’s brilliant and inventive adaptation (he wrote the screenplay as well as directed), the feature film Angel Heart (1987), takes Hjortsberg’s novel a step further, a step that could perhaps only be taken on the screen (as opposed to the page).  In this respect, I am reminded of Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), where it seems highly unlikely that the three simultaneous realities being experienced by the protagonist – suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, spending an afterlife in hell, or being in a coma – could be sustained with equal conviction for the full length of the narrative.  Parker’s adaptation is ingenious, superior to the novel, and I recommend that first-time viewers watch the film before reading the novel as the similarities are sufficient for each to spoil the other.  Angel Heart is one hundred and ten minutes long from opening credits to end credits and set in and around New York and New Orleans in 1955. Angel (played by Mickey Rourke) is a thirtysomething private investigator who has spent his whole life in Brooklyn, except for a brief period of military service in North Africa during the Second World War.  He is a somewhat stereotypical private eye, chain-smoking, gum-chewing, unshaven, untidy, and unambitious, but well-known and well-liked in his neighbourhood.  He is single, with no apparent family or close friends, and prone to lasciviousness, albeit charming enough for women to find his lechery flattering rather than predatory.  Angel was both physically and mentally wounded in the war.  He recovered from the former with the aid of reconstructive surgery, but not the latter, his “shellshock” resulting in an early discharge, in consequence of which he was one of the first combat veterans to return to America, at the end of 1942.  Angel seems to have overcome his post-traumatic stress disorder in the intervening years, although he refuses to “get involved in anything really heavy”, intending to keep out of harm’s way for the rest of his life.  The majority of his work is for insurance companies and suspicious spouses.

Angel Heart opens with Angel being contacted by Herman Winesap (played by Dann Florek) of Winesap and Mackintosh attorneys with a job offer.  He meets Winesap’s client, Monsieur Louis Cyphre (played by Robert De Niro), who hires him to find Johnathan Liebling, a singer with the stage name of Johnny Favorite, who was also wounded in the war but never recovered.  Angel goes to the hospital where Liebling has spent the last twelve years and finds that he has been missing for some time.  He breaks into Liebling’s doctor’s house, discovers that Albert Fowler (played by Michael Higgins) is a morphine addict, and questions him.  Fowler tells him that Liebling left the hospital in December 1943.  Angel thinks he is concealing information so he locks Fowler in his bedroom in the hope that he will be more truthful after a few hours of morphine withdrawal.  As Angel walks to a nearby diner, there is a strange sequence, variations of which will be repeated four more times, and which signify the intrusion of the occult into Angel’s world, which otherwise appears to be entirely historically accurate.  These sequences involve shots of a lift descending and the sound of a beating heart combined with either shots of a fan, a veiled woman in black, or both.  Viewers who are able to decode Parker’s sequence will be able to work out the occult intrusion and penetrate to the secret at the core of the narrative – which is highly unlikely until its fourth occurrence, in the final fifteen minutes of the film.  Parker makes expert use of these sequences as well as his other cinematic clues, meeting the detective story ideal of misdirection without deceit.  Ideally, the dénouement of a murder mystery should come as a surprise to most of the audience, but they should not feel cheated.  Agatha Christie was famously accused of cheating her readers in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and while I disagree with this assessment any reader who has a basic knowledge of gunshot wounds (which, it seems, Christie did not) will feel cheated by And Then There Were None (1939), her bestselling novel (and, I suspect, the bestselling novel of all time).  On the other hand, readers do not want to be able to work out the identity of the killer too soon or the murder mystery will end in an anticlimax, which is true of Christie’s weaker works, such as Lord Edgware Dies (1933) and Cat Among the Pigeons (1959).  In other words, as readers or viewers we want to feel that sufficient clues were made available to us by the author or director and that if we had only been that little bit more astute, we could have solved the case.  When Angel returns to Fowler’s house, he finds him murdered, his death faked to look like suicide.  

Angel meets Cyphre and resigns, but is persuaded to continue with a five thousand dollar bonus.  He learns that Liebling was engaged to Margaret Krusemark (played by Charlotte Rampling), a wealthy socialite, while having an affair with Evangeline Proudfoot, the African American proprietor of Mammy Carter’s Herb Store.  Margaret has moved to New Orleans and Angel leaves New York for New Orleans, where the remaining two-thirds of the film is set.  He interviews Margaret, who tells him that Liebling died in 1943.  He finds another herb store of the same name and interviews Evangeline’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Epiphany (played by Lisa Bonet), who tells him that her mother died in 1947.  Angel then interviews Toots Sweet (played by Brownie McGhee), who was in Liebling’s band and is still working as a musician.  When Sweet refuses to talk, Angel follows him to a Louisiana Voodoo ceremony in which Epiphany takes the lead and then ambushes him when he returns home.  Sweet informs him that Epiphany has been a “mambo”, a powerful priestess, since she was thirteen, but insists that he hasn’t seen Liebling since before the war.  As Angel walks down the stairs, the strange sequence begins again and the remainder of the narrative is best summarised by Angel himself, in his third and final meeting with Cyphre: “there’s a lot of religion going around with this thing, it’s very weird… and I don’t understand it; it’s ugly.”  Ugly indeed, but a great work of cinema and possibly unique in succeeding as both a sinister murder mystery and an erudite horror story.  But why the interest now, thirty-three years later?  I first saw the film on video a few years after its release and have never really lost interest, as will be obvious to anyone who has read the third story in my occult detective collection, The Adventures of Roderick Langham (2017).  Recently, however, I discovered that No Exit Press is due to publish Angel’s Inferno, a sequel to Falling Angel, in October this year.  This came as a surprise for two reasons.  First, I have read as much as I could find about Hjortsberg, who died in 2017, online and all of his novels and screenplays were standalones.  Second, Falling Angel (unlike Angel Heart) ends with Angel being arrested for a murder that he did not commit, but for which there is conclusive evidence of his guilt and for which the arresting officers are seeking the death sentence.  Angel is stoic and resigned to his fate, hardly fertile ground for a sequel.  If that sequel is any good, then I’ll be returning to these pages; if not, then we still have Hjortsberg’s original and Parker’s adaptation, both of which are five-star fare.*****               

Monday, 22 June 2020

Rogue Protocol, by Martha Wells (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker

Third in the Murderbot series, and like the first two I enjoyed it very much. The SecUnit is a Droid with No Name (“I’d given myself a name, but it was private”) who just wants to watch its favourite shows, but can’t help returning to the fight when needed. It’s a wonderfully fun character to spend time with, with a self-deprecating sense of humour and a great line in bracketed asides.

In this book the SecUnit is trying to reach a place called Milu, where a failed terraforming operation has been abandoned by the dodgy GrayCris company in mysterious circumstances. Sneaking aboard a ship heading there, and then slipping unnoticed onto the facility, the SecUnit meets Miki, a bot treated like a friend or a pet by its owner Don Abene, and the SecUnit barely has time to get jealous before killer robots attack the humans.

The SecUnit has a tendency to throw itself headlong into danger that is ideal for action stories: “That’s how SecUnits are taught to fight: throw your body at the target and kill the shit out of it, and hope they can fix you in a repair cubicle.” When the action comes, it happens at high speed. The combat is imaginative but always clear to the reader, and there is always a solid sense of place and space.

It’s more expensive than most Tor.com novellas: I’d have bought every volume of this forever at three pounds, but at seven I’d probably wait for a sale. And it will be interesting to see if the longer books later in the series keep up the momentum – reading the Dumarest series, I never found myself wishing that E.C. Tubb would make them twice as long. But whatever the price and whatever happens next, I’d recommend Rogue Protocol to any fan of sf action. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Questions and Answers, 21 June 2020

Here are Stephen's answers to the less important questions that the world has been asking this week. Feel free to supply your own answers in the comments.

Which videogame character would you most like to be your friend/partner in real life?David Murray

They all get into too much bother. I like a quiet life. So I'll say Socrates: it felt like such a privilege to meet him in Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and to then take part in a Socratic dialogue with him… Wow! One of my favourite ever videogame moments.

What I tend to do is put my actual partner in every videogame I can. She was my pilot in Elite, my lieutenant in Dynasty Warriors, my trooper in X-Com, and my avatar in everything that let me customise my character: Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Saint's Row, Far Cry 5, etc. Better to spend 50 hours watching my wife on screen than 50 hours watching myself.

What is the best book you ever read for school?Francesca Niewiadomski

Les Mains Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre. Led to me doing a French degree so I could read more of the same. A mistake, perhaps, since I never got the hang of speaking it.

What's the least "date" movie you've seen on a date?Film4

The Silence of the Lambs. And for some reason I thought it was a good moment to say "I love you". It was not. I was a silly little boy. She dumped me soon after and that was a good thing for both of us.

Talk to us, this is a safe space… which TV show would you give a different ending?Amazon Prime Video UK

Battlestar Galactica. It began as a tough show about real people in an impossible situation and ended with a load of spiritual blather. And Quatermass. Don't kill him off, please. Make some more stories.

What's new in your reading life this week?Reading Glasses Facebook group

Only Imagine, by Kathleen Stock, a book of literary philosophy based on the idea that a fictional text is a series of instructions to the reader as to what we should imagine. Hard to get my head around but thought-provoking. It's a bit like being on the monkey bars in a park: I grasp one thing, then swing around for a bit, then grasp another bit and try to connect it to the previous bit I thought I understood. D.F. Lewis is also reading it.

I've also been reading The Hair Carpet Weavers by Andreas Eschbach, a mosaic novel/book of short stories in the new Penguin Classics sf series. Plus of course stories for our next issue!

Friday, 19 June 2020

Empire of Sand, by Tasha Suri (Little Brown) | review by Stephen Theaker

Mehr is the governor’s daughter, but she’s inherited the powers of her mother’s nomadic people. When the emperor’s chief mystic learns of her, she is coerced into an arranged marriage with an angry young man. This was one of the dullest books I’ve ever read or listened to, all rumination and repetition, every step in the story swaddled in endless bloviation. Soneela Nankani’s narration tries hard to rouse interest in the reader, but in doing so only emphasises how little of interest is happening in each sentence. I frequently found myself saying out loud in exasperation, “I know, you’ve already told us that!” That the novel won the British Fantasy Award for best newcomer, against much better books, genuinely makes me wonder whether the audiobook was based on an earlier version of the manuscript. Stephen Theaker **

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Questions and Answers, 14 June 2020

Here are my answers to the less urgent questions that the world has been asking this week.

Hilary Mantel’s new essay collection is called MANTEL PIECES. What’s yours?Susanna Forrest

I Know My Middle Name Is William.

What do you do with physical ARCs when you’ve read and reviewed them?@meringutang

They mostly go in the recycling, once the review has been published and it looks like no one is going to demand I justify myself. Charity shops can't sell them and authors and publishers don't want unfinished versions of the book in circulation, especially when the literary scene is as judgmental and febrile as it has been in recent years, plus they'll be covered in my scribbled notes, highlights and foldings. I'll usually have broken the spines, and some I'll even have torn in half along the spine for more convenient reading (see photo). Finished books I'll pass on to friends or charity shops. But I've stopped accepting print copies for review now (except when assigned by Interzone), because it takes me so much longer to read them, so if all of that fills you with horror, rest assured I'm not doing it very often now.

If you are old enough to have played in an arcade, let’s say you have £20.00 of tokens in your pocket. What is the first game you ran to without hesitation?Danny Deraney

Space Harrier. I loved the game and the chair moved around, but it was very expensive so I stuck to playing the brilliant ZX Spectrum version.

Who is your high school's most famous alumni?Ben Upton

I wasn't aware of any, but I looked it up on Wikipedia and Captain Tom Moore, who raised all that money for the NHS, went there, a year or fifty before me. And Robert Westall was a teacher there! They never told us that when we were reading his books.

Kate Dickie especially is quite extraordinary as a Sleaford Mod [in this video]. She’s now on my list of who I’d want if I ever made a film.Julie Travis

Making is a film is hard, so I'd want actors I could trust to have my back. Like Dave Bautista. I love how he stood up for and stood by James Gunn and rallied the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy cast to do the same. Not all actors would have the guts to put their careers on the line like that, as we've seen this week. (Daniel Radcliffe would not be on my list.) Same for Scarlett Johansson, who has been forthright about working with Woody Allen because she thinks he is innocent (which on the evidence he does seem to be), while other actors distance themselves in an unforgivably cowardly way, even though they surely think he is innocent too – why else would they have been willing to work with him? And Jamie Bell. In the "making of" Jumper he's like, "Well, it's day 924 of the shoot and the director has decided to reshoot everything from scratch with an almost entirely new cast on a different continent," and he's still smiling and giving it everything.

What's a movie you've watched 5 or more times?Eric Alper

Just Go With It, Jack and Jill, The Wedding Singer, The Master of Disguise, The Thing, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home: Star Trek IV, Flash Gordon, The Thing, Superman II and III, Big Trouble in Little China, Return of the Living Dead, Poltergeist, Halloween, An American Werewolf in London. Weird that I could think of so many, because I don't generally like watching films twice.