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.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Doctor Who: Solitaire (Big Finish) by John Dorney | mini-review

India Fisher plays Charley Pollard once again, for a story set during her time as companion to the eighth Doctor. He’s been turned into a puppet, and she doesn’t remember who he is anyway, or why she came into this toy shop in the first place. The owner, a toymaker, is creepy as heck, and a loud voice keeps shouting “PLAAAAY!” This is the twelfth story from series four of the Companion Chronicles, and is a play for two actors rather than the usual monologue by one (with other actors chipping in with their lines). David Bailie is marvellously ripe as the Celestial Toymaker, still smarting from previous defeats at the Doctor’s hands. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 9 November 2015

Goosebumps | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Classic Black over-the-top performance saves otherwise ho hum “house next door has a secret” film.

In the 2002 film Orange County, Jack Black plays the drug-addled Lance Brumder who, clad only in his briefs, wanders his wealthy parents’ home. The role epitomizes the take-it-as-it-comes, let-it-all-hang-out California attitude that Black injects into his characters. The strategy has resulted in everything from chummy teachers that appeal to families (School of Rock (2003)) to hell-bent rocker scumbags that appeal to young adults (Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny [2006]).

This time, Black reprises his penchant for exaggeration as a reclusive and mean-spirited R.L. Stine, the real-life author of the best-selling Goosebumps collection now 62 books strong, in a film of the same name.

True to the Stine canon, the PG-rated film, directed by Rob Letterman, threatens its young protagonists with monsters, but nobody gets seriously hurt. Even a young man pulled through the upper-level window of a gymnasium by a giant praying mantis will later appear in a neck brace.

Though the film foists on the viewer cliché after cliché, Black’s overly impassioned performance is enough to keep viewers engaged in this bubblegum horror/adventure version of Jumanji (1995).

Monster Mash
After the loss of his father, Zach and his mother move from New York City to the quiet suburb of Madison, Delaware. Here Zach meets love interest Hannah and her over-protective father (Black). “You see that fence? Stay on your side of it.”

When Zach believes Hannah’s father may be violent, he enlists new high school acquaintance and bumbling sidekick Champ (short for Champion) to help get to the bottom of it. The duo unwittingly unleashes a monster trapped in one of Stine’s manuscripts. This incident kicks off the action that drives the rest of the story.

The remainder of the film isn’t hard to predict. More monsters escape from their textual prisons. Stine and the kids try to stop a growing monster posse without being eaten, crushed, stabbed, clawed, etc. Meanwhile, Stine’s true intentions and vulnerabilities are revealed. The film culminates in a high school dance turned monster mash in a frenzy comparable to (though not quite as entertaining as) that in Pixels (2015).

Goosebumps also offers a cameo by the real author. Jack Black’s high school English teacher version of Stine introduces the true Stine as the drama teacher, Mr. Black.

The Black Side of Goosebumps
Without Black, Goosebumps would have been a dull rehash of the monsters and themes that we’ve seen a thousand times. Black’s performance is most enjoyable in the beginning: the camera zooms in on his bulldog-like face, which contrasts with the fifties-style thick-lensed glasses and the oiled hair. The thin-lipped mouth contortions and the affected super-professorial accent round out the impression.

Even when a gang of creepily animated porcelain gnomes attacks the heroes, Black’s cartoonish physicality entertains.

Though not much beyond Black tickles the funny bone in Goosebumps, it does have its moments, such as when Champ points out to Zach the massive scratch marks in a wall. I’m paraphrasing: “Did you see these scratch marks?” Zach’s sarcastic response: “No. I didn’t.”

The lead book-born bad guy is a dummy named Slappy, voiced by Black. Though Black’s voiceover is well-played, Slappy’s one-liners would make Freddy Krueger and the Crypt Keeper cringe. Moreover, despite his girlish screams, Champ’s antics grow a bit irritating. Nevertheless, I’ve seen excerpts of the child-directed television shows that my nieces watch and I’ve been tempted to knock myself out due to the painfully exuberant (and unfunny) performances of those show’s stars. Champ is consistent.

Though Goosebumps does not achieve the same level of humour and enduring charm as School of Rock, Black’s faulted character again grows from the younger players and vice-versa.

Jack Black brings a Bill Murray mentality to his projects. It’s as if they’re nudging the viewer and saying, “Hey, if you don’t take this film too seriously, then I won’t take this role too seriously. And we’ll have a good time together.” In Goosebumps, we do. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

The Violent Century (Hodder & Stoughton) by Lavie Tidhar | review

It’s a shame Patrick Stewart played Karla rather than Smiley in the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, because it deprives us of the perfect one-man illustration of The Violent Century: what if George Smiley and Professor Charles Xavier were one and the same man? In the Old Man’s world, Stanley Leiber (who adds another excellent cameo to his already impressive list), Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster are renowned experts on the superheroes, rather than their creators.

The divergence from our history takes place in 1932, when the German scientist Doktor Vomacht triggers the event that creates a breed of super-powered, ever-youthful humans. Our main interest is in Henry Fogg, who in keeping with the nominative determinism sometimes seen in such matters develops the ability to control fog, mist and smoke.

A seemingly trivial power, but one with deadly possibilities. There’s no better power for a spy than to have somewhere to hide wherever he goes, and so Fogg is in 1936 recruited by the Old Man, and taken not to Xavier’s School for the Gifted, but The Farm, a training camp in Devon for super-powered soldiers and spies.

There he develops a bond with Oblivion, a handsome fellow whose power is to make things disappear – another useful trick for a spy. Within five years they’re watching battles between the Union of Socialist Heroes and the rocket men of the Reich over Leningrad, and as the century passes it will take them to other wars, to Laos, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The title might suggest comparisons with a comic like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, which showed heroes living the length of the twentieth century, but in tone this is more reminiscent of Ed Brubaker’s superb run on Captain America, which similarly examined the intersection of war, spies and superheroes.

Comics aside, it covers similar ground to Declare by Tim Powers, albeit at a much quicker pace, and substituting Marvel and DC for that book’s Arabian Nights. Both novels tell their stories mostly in flashback, reflections prompted by the handler who makes contact again after a long period of silence.

The main difference between the two is perhaps the one slightly disappointing aspect of this book: Declare eventually moved past the flashbacks, while the present day events here prove to be little more than an epilogue.

One frequent problem with superhero fiction in prose is that it simply can’t keep up with the comics; it could take paragraphs, even pages, to fully describe the contents of even a single panel. Tidhar cleverly uses French dashes for dialogue, short sentences, short chapters (one hundred and sixty-four of them) and the present tense to close that gap: “Oblivion kicks his door open. Slides out. Fogg follows. Crouching. Looking up, shadow on the rooftop.”

He also has a particular way with a subtly devastating sentence. In his short story “Dark Continents”, from the post-colonial anthology We See a Different Frontier, would-be colonists consider a “land, empty but for its people”. Here, when Fogg is sent to eastern Europe and ends up joining local partisans on a suicide mission, he thinks: “Anything to justify this sojourn to the outer realms of the war, where nothing much happens but for the mass transportation of the Jews.”

The book’s engagement with historical events is serious-minded, past tragedies never reduced to a colourful backdrop to adventure or a playground for overgrown children. In the Marvel universe, Hitler survived, his consciousness transferred to a clone, and he became a super-villain: the Hate-Monger! There’s nothing daft like that here. Yes, Werhner Von Braun does build himself that squad of useless rocket-men, but his brief presence serves to connect the post-war rush to acquire superheroes to the similar scramble for rocket scientists that took place here on Earth-Prime.

When the Jewish hero Sabra leaps into the air to battle blond Schneesturm over the Warsaw Ghetto, it isn’t just cool – though it is that too, very cool – it’s desperate and moving. When Fogg’s fellow super-agent Tank is captured and taken to Auschwitz, the book knows we can bear to read about the pain of a tortured superhero, and uses that as a lever to force us into thinking about the real atrocities of that place.

Some of that might make the book rather gruelling, but there’s plenty of dry humour, and lots of action, such as fog giants battling ice giants in Paris, or “Dracul” versus the Wolfskommando in Transylvania. There’s even romance, as Fogg falls for the mysterious Sommertag and what she represents: she’s the one person who can step out of the war whenever she likes.

Coming hard on the heels of the equally good but stylistically very different Martian Sands, The Violent Century is an excellent novel that demonstrates, once again, the impressive versatility of its author. Stephen Theaker

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #249, back in 2013.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Doctor Who: Old Soldiers (Big Finish) by James Swallow | mini-review

The third story from series two of the Companion Chronicles is an hour-long adventure with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (played by Nicholas Courtney), who recalls an adventure that took place shortly after his decision to kill the Silurians, and perhaps explains his slightly less warlike approach in later stories. A UNIT base in Kriegeskind castle is plagued by the ghosts of ancient soldiers, who still have the power to kill. The Brigadier calls in the third Doctor, who parachutes into the place to help out. A bit reminiscent of The Ghosts of N-Space, but much better. Stephen Theaker ***

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Interzone #261: coming soon!

Interzone #261 will be out soon, and it features my review of If Then by Matthew De Abaitua, plus lots, lots more that you can read about here.

I've also been putting together BFS Horizons #2, which features among many other things a cover from our own Howard Watts. The only way to be sure of getting a print copy of that is to join the society before the issue goes to press, but, if you can't join right now, ebook versions will be available in the society's archive.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Child of a Hidden Sea (Tor) by A.M. Dellamonica | review

Sophie Hansa wants to know why her birth parents put her up for adoption as a baby, twenty-four years ago. She wants to establish a relationship with them. She has a lovely home life, and she adores her adoptive parents and her super smart brother Bram, and maybe it wouldn’t seem so urgent right now if she wasn’t trying to avoid defending her PhD thesis, but she’s got her heart set on it and that’s going to get her, and everyone else, into a lot of trouble.

Stormwrack as a watery planet, even in comparison to our own. The common language is Fleetspeak, spoken by the seagoing folk of two hundred and fifty island nations who gather together in the great Fleet. Things have been quite peaceful for the last century, thanks in part to Temperance, a ship so powerfully magical that its captain can sink any other ship simply by saying its name. You can see how that might bother people with plans of world domination.

These worlds collide after Sophie traces her birth mother Beatrice Vanko to San Francisco. The reunion goes badly. Beatrice wants nothing to do with her and is horrified by the mention of her father. Sophie doesn’t give up. Maybe her spider-sense is tingling, maybe she’s just avoiding that viva, but she stakes out her mother’s house for three days, sleeping in her car, and she’s there when her Aunt Gale gets stabbed by two men.

Leaping to assist, Sophie is dragged in a whirlwind to Stormwrack. That’s where her mum was born, as she’ll soon find out, but her first priority is keeping her aunt alive while swimming a mile to the nearest fishing grounds. And her second priority is to start studying the animals in this odd new world. Giant moths migrating over the ocean and seagoing bats (one of which sits on her head while chomping on a moth) are just the beginning of the treasures Stormwrack offers the curious biologist.

Through accident and inheritance Sophie has to investigate the attack on her aunt, who was a Fleet Courier. Well, she doesn’t have to, exactly. In fact, everyone would rather prefer it if she returned to Erstwhile (as they call our planet/time/dimension) and leave her half-sister to claim the mantle of Fleet Courier and get on with the investigation. Yes, she has a sister, and she has as little time for Sophie as their mother. Sophie sympathises, but staying home would mean giving up the chance to see Stormwrack.

Sophie is a likeable character on whom to hang a novel. She’s endlessly curious, physically brave, capable and clever. She can climb mountain cliffs, scuba dive, and work her way through a legal argument. She's the polar opposite of all those fantasy whiners who ever found their way to a magical land and didn’t stop moaning till they got back to their mundane lives. She embraces the opportunity, can’t wait to see what’s out there, and she’s always thinking.

When she does get sent home to San Francisco, she tells Bram all about it. He’s not totally convinced by her blurry photo of a sailboat, but she doesn’t get into a huff about it - she understands that it’s just a matter of evidence. So she prepares to return. She maxes out her credit cards to buy a video camera, a top of the range phone, a solar-powered charger, and diving equipment. Later on, she finds a way to smuggle her phone back to Earth - to sync her data!

You can’t blame her for wanting to take lots of photos, because Stormwrack is a cool place to visit, even if she does have to deal with some nasty villains. They are using weapons from Erstwhile, which gives her a slight edge - unlike her new friends, she knows grenades are dangerous. But the bad guys are also using magic, and she has a lot to learn about that. Names are the thing when it comes to magic in Stormwrack, and like many a middle school child she has made the mistake of revealing her middle name.

Of course the attack on Aunt Gale was part of a deeper plot, and as Sophia dives to the bottom of that she kicks up trouble for her own family. There’s a reason she was given up for adoption, and it wasn’t that mum and dad couldn’t afford to keep her. But despite the marital problems, the monsters and the mayhem, this is on the whole a jolly book about a rootworthy protagonist, with a good-looking supporting cast and a balmy setting that give it a holiday feel. Just the thing for reading during a rainy British summer! Stephen Theaker

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #253, back in 2014.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Gone till (the end of) November

As ever, I'll be even quieter than usual on here and on social media for the next month while I work on my new epic novel (working title: Holding Hands Among the Stars). But I've scheduled five of my reviews from back issues of Black Static and Interzone on the Mondays, so you can look forward to those!

I'll also apologise now for Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #53 not being out yet. I haven't even replied to submissions, which is shocking. Once again I've been helping out the British Fantasy Society after their publishing schedule ran into trouble, but I'll try to have the issue finished by the end of this month, and I'll be replying to all submissions this week.

By the way, we're going to put back the deadline for the themed issue back to the end of the year, and the stories from that will go into issue 55 instead of issue 54.

Finally, good luck to any of you who are taking part in Nanowrimo this year! I'm sure your novels won't be as brilliant as mine, but don't let that stop you trying! I don't have any additional words of wisdom this year, but click here for previous articles.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Doctor Who: Mother Russia (Big Finish) by Marc Platt | mini-review

The first story in season two of the Companion Chronicles. Peter Purves returns to the role of Steven, space pilot companion to the first Doctor. In this adventure the two of them and Dodo land in Russia, just as Napoleon prepares to invade, and a rogue alien complicates affairs. The plot requires Steven to be a bit dopey, but the Russia of 1812 is a fascinating setting and overall this really does have the feel of an authentic story from the Hartnell period. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 23 October 2015

Doctor Who: Helicon Prime (Big Finish) by Jake Elliott | review

Story two in the second series of Companion Chronicles. Frazer Hines plays Jamie McCrimmon, who shouldn’t remember anything of his adventures with the second Doctor, but for some reason he does, and he’s telling someone all about one of them. While Victoria is off studying graphology, the Doctor and Jamie land by accident on Helicon Prime, a luxury resort, booked up decades in advance and parked in a bit of space that keeps everyone unnaturally nice and peaceful. (It was moved there after visiting couples had shown a tendency, once they had a chance to relax and really think about things, to realise their mutual loathing and murder each other.) But someone must be immune, because there is a mysterious death, and then another, and now the Doctor’s got a real job on his hands. This story had some lovely incidental music that combined with the aliens and ambassadors to remind me quite a bit of Mass Effect. We get to hear how Jamie feels when the Doctor keeps him in the dark, and how he decides what to do in those situations. One dialogue exchange is as good as anything from the television series: “What are you thinking?” asks Jamie. “I don’t know, Jamie,” says the Doctor, “I haven’t finished thinking it yet.” Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 16 October 2015

Doctor Who: The Catalyst (Big Finish) by Nigel Fairs | review

Louise Jameson returns to the role of Leela, the fourth Doctor’s second female companion. They visit Lord Douglas, who turns out to have travelled with a previous incarnation of the Doctor for several years and now has a secret trophy room full of mementos. His reasons for leaving the Tardis play an important role in the story. After initial frostiness, Leela warms up to Lord Douglas’s daughter, Jessica, who likes Rudyard Kipling and speaks with admiring horror of the suffragettes, and they discover that there is yet another secret within the trophy room, a secret with golden hair and wide, glistening eyes… The Doctor has taught Leela not to judge by appearances, but it’s a lesson Jessica may not get the chance to learn. This is the fourth story of the second series of the Companion Chronicles, and after listening to several of these in a row it’s hard not to feel the contrivance behind the various interviews and interrogations each companion must undergo. We’re grown-ups, could we not just agree to accept that Leela is telling us a story without a framing device? It’s also odd to hear a companion doing impressions. Sometimes it works well, but, as Louise Jameson acknowledges in an interview postscript to the story, her approximation of Tom Baker doesn’t quite work, sounding a bit like William Hague with a sore throat. Her Leela, though, is still fantastic, and the story gives her some full-blooded villains to chew on. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 9 October 2015

Doctor Who: The Blue Tooth (Big Finish) by Nigel Fairs | mini-review

Third in the Companion Chronicles, from back in 2007. Liz Shaw (played by Caroline John, as on television) recounts an adventure that took place during her brief spell with UNIT. A chum is late for a meeting so Liz pops round to her house: the friend is missing and her cat is dead. There is a befuddled cyberman on the loose, and it’ll take Liz and the third Doctor four short episodes to sort it out. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Green Inferno | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Eli Roth devises perfect film for family movie night or corporate team building event… if your house or office happens to be in hell.

It was literary giant Anton Chekhov, I believe, who said, “If you show in the first act images of female genital mutilation (FGM) during a university lecture, in the second or third act you absolutely must move toward the cutting.” Or was that guns he was talking about?

FGM is a real-world atrocity that splatter master Eli Roth holds over the victims (and audience) in The Green Inferno, a limb-hacking, skin-slicing tale of good intentions turned cannibalistic nightmare.

With The Green Inferno, Roth takes to new lows the depravity he so adroitly captured in Hostel (2005) and Hostel: Part II (2007). Once again, he traps young adults far away from home in a horrific environment occupied by depraved individuals, but this time, the collective antagonist shifts from psychotic plutocrats in a ravaged Slovakian cityscape to cold-blooded cannibals in a Peruvian rainforest.

A group of university activists travels to the Amazon with hopes of stopping developers from killing off a remote tribe and destroying its land. Protagonist Justine, daughter of a United Nations lawyer, gets pressured into going by Alejandro, the group’s snarky leader. The plane goes down, the group gets caged, and then the barbarity begins.

A Rocky Start Redeemed
The film’s beginning, which builds up to Justine’s decision to join the group, is dull and at times amateurish. Justine and her sickly-looking, smug roommate Kaycee wander around campus and engage in mindless chatter. Perhaps this was Roth’s attempt to show average kids in College Town, USA. Regardless, it took too long to get the characters into the enemy’s clutches.

However, once the viewer experiences these savages (in every sense of the word), the film’s early shortcomings can be forgiven. Eli Roth, who so enthusiastically bashed in the head of a Nazi officer as Sgt. Donny Donowitz in Inglorious Basterds (2009), is not about characters. Roth is about creating worlds where violence, gore, and victimization reign supreme. The Green Inferno exceeds expectations on all accounts.

The Mob and the Matriarch
One of the film’s key strengths is the way it conveys the tribe’s maliciousness, ranging from the overall portrayal of the group to the behavior of twisted individuals. The scene during which the tribe ushers the students to a cage exemplifies the former. The natives sway and chant and paw at their terrified prisoners. With their red body paint, the tribe members seem to shed their humanity and coagulate into a many-tentacled Lovecraftian monstrosity. The shifting, chaotic nature of Roth’s filming immerses the viewer in the danger.

Nobody embodies the tribe’s malice more than its wrinkled matriarch, whose piercings, yellow face paint, and milky eye suggest the literary lovechild of Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe. She sizes up her captives as she limps predatorily across the screen. She oozes potential violence as she uses a claw to examine their hair, faces, and (in the case of females) nether regions with the patience of a connoisseur at a delicatessen.

Raise the Bar for Bad
Films often show the chief antagonist commit a particularly heinous initial act to show just how bad he or she is. In the case of The Green Inferno, it’s the matriarch who fulfills this role, and in so doing, achieves the height of gore with a genuine showstopper of slaughter.

The reader may recall the wood chipper scene that earned Fargo’s (1996) Gaear Grimsrud a reputation for dispassionate brutality. The tribal matriarch, however, injects a Broadway-worthy flamboyance to her key scene, which makes Fargo look like Sesame Street. That scene kicks off what quickly becomes a smorgasbord of psychological terror (who’s going to be next?) and sumptuously over-the-top gore (e.g. children trying on flaps of skin as if at a fashion store).

The Green Inferno offers a lawless world where good isn’t necessarily rewarded, nor bad punished. Suffering is random, based on the whim of an antagonist whose motives are impossible to comprehend. The film raises some questions on benevolence versus self-preservation, and on the treacherousness of humans in contrast to the necessities of animals.

Kudos to Eli Roth for serving up a new classic in goreography and for continuing to slice apart Hollywood conventions. ***** Douglas J. Ogurek

Friday, 2 October 2015

Doctor Who: The Beautiful People (Big Finish) by Jonathan Morris | mini-review

The fourth story from the first series of the Companion Chronicles is an hour-long adventure for the fourth Doctor, K9 and the second Romana, recounted in character by Lalla Ward. The three of them arrive in a beauty spa where the treatments are somewhat extreme. The story ends up offering a positive message towards those of us tipping the scales in the wrong direction, but there’s a fair bit of fat description before we get there, and it sounds a bit odd coming from Romana. Stephen Theaker **

Friday, 25 September 2015

The Brenda and Effie Mysteries: Bat Out of Hull (Bafflegab) by Paul Magrs | mini-review

Brenda, the former bride of Frankenstein, continues her new life in Whitby, getting tangled up in mysteries with new friend and neighbour Effie. In this second story the entanglement is literal, as Tolstoy, a ventriloquist’s felt bat puppet with the uncanny ability to fly on its own, gets stuck in her famous beehive during a performance at the Christmas Hotel. The weirdness with the bat may be connected to the discovery of a toyshop, supposedly established in 1818, though Effie’s never heard of it. The music is perfect, the performances excellent, the story a good one. Never mind Radio 4, this would make perfect Sunday night television. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 21 September 2015

The Visit | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Pop Pop and Nana go gaga as Shyamalan adds another gem to his trove.

Don’t cast teens as protagonists. Stay away from twists. Don’t try to weave in a message. And please, for the love of all things cinematic, do not use the found footage technique. Such is the advice a critic might bestow upon the director of a contemporary horror film.

Despite ignoring each of these presumed precautions in The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan manages to prove his directorial ingenuity once again. The film offers equal parts humour and horror, topped off with Shyamalan’s ever-present moral message. And it’s all steeped in the scenario that this generation’s Hitchcock has mastered: strange things happen to engaging characters in remote and unglamorous locations.

No Cookies and Cocoa
Fifteen-year-old Becca and her peppy younger (by two years) brother Tyler, self-dubbed T-Diamond Stylus, set out to spend a week on their grandparents’ Pennsylvanian farm. Becca, a budding director, wants to film a documentary that explores the longstanding rift between her mom and her grandparents.

The story, unfolding through Becca’s cameras, quickly reveals that “Pop Pop” and “Nana” are a far cry from the cookies and cocoa grandparents that many of us envision . . . especially when the sun sets. Their behaviour grows more erratic and more eccentric. The tight-lipped Pop Pop, prone to bursts of violence, retreats to his shed and makes the most of his incontinence. Nana obsesses over the cleanliness of her oven and engages in a variety of nocturnal oddities. Employees of the local hospital stop by and express concern that the couple has stopped coming to volunteer as counsellors.

By the film’s end, the viewer will get gobs of what Shyamalan does best, such as funny dialogue, the goosebump-inciting twist, and the evocation of contrasting emotions. For instance, sequences in which the siblings debate whether to investigate the strange sounds just outside their door merge humour and tension. The film’s climax, in which both protagonists confront their weaknesses, brings to mind the intensity of that in There Will Be Blood.

From Gen Z to Cra-zy
Films with kids who act beyond their years can be supremely annoying (think Home Alone), yet in The Visit, as with other Shyamalan films, it somehow works. Teens Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) stand as fully developed characters with an innocence and sense of wonder that contrasts with the typical horror film teen so quick to shed clothes and crack open beers. The siblings also represent Generation Z. These are the kids who’ve grown up with the instant access to unlimited information that today’s technology affords. They’re perceptive. They’re intuitive. They’re sensitive.

While Becca is the voice of reason, Tyler is the primary source of humour. His vibrancy, curiosity, and even charisma more than make up for his misogynous (Becca’s word) impromptu rapping that grows a bit tedious. In one of the funniest scenes, Tyler’s bright green jacket rebels against the bleak winter setting as he imitates Nana’s antics.

Though The Visit has many strengths, its true jewel is Nana, who bangs and scratches her way through the film. Chicagoan Deanna Dunagan achieves an unpredictability on par with Heath Ledger’s Joker: one never knows whether Nana will laugh hysterically or burst into tears and start hitting herself. This instability is especially effective during sit-down interviews when Becca attempts to coax from her grandmother details about the falling out with Becca’s mother.

The Revisit
Critics have been unjustifiably harsh with Shyamalan’s films. Consequently, it’s quite possible that with this latest film about the making of a documentary, Shyamalan is, in a sense, revisiting those critical slings and arrows.

Just as Becca seeks an “elixir” that will heal the wounds between her mother and her grandparents, Shyamalan points to an elixir that could bridge the gap between his oeuvre and its attackers. However, is it possible to find such an elixir? More important, can Pop Pop, Nana, and those critics be trusted? ***** Douglas J. Ogurek

Friday, 18 September 2015

The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited (Maximum Fun Network) by the McElroys | mini-review

An excellent podcast where three brothers play Dungeons & Dragons with their dad. In this campaign their three daft adventurers are on a non-stop train to Neverwinter, and must pull off a heist and find a murderer before they get there. Their in-character interactions with NPCs like Angus the boy detective (“That’s a really good goof, guys!”) are what really make it for me. When I was a teenager playing Warhammer or Paranoia or whatever with my fellow school librarians, I used to laugh so much I couldn’t speak. This takes me back to that happy place. Stephen Theaker *****