Wednesday, 29 June 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Prepare for what might be the most entertaining action scene that you’ve ever experienced.

I thought that these X-Men movies would start running out of gas, but they haven’t… and I don’t want them to. X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest installment in the longstanding series, keeps it moving full speed ahead. Director Bryan Singer serves up his fifth X-Men work with all the ingredients of a great action/adventure: humour, loss, vengeance, spectacular visuals, great music (ranging from Beethoven to Metallica), extreme character change, and of course, violence. Plus we find out how Ororo Munroe/Storm got white hair and how Professor Charles Xavier lost his hair. Bam!

And yes, the film rather blatantly jumps on the apocalypse bandwagon, but so what? If people like the prospect of a destroyed Earth, then give them that.

In an alternate 1983, En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse, the world’s first mutant, awakens in Cairo after a 5,500-year nap. The supervillain recruits four susceptible mutants (just like four horsemen, eh?), then sets out to conquer the world. A larger group of mutants, headed by younger versions of the ever peaceful Charles Xavier and the pre-antihuman Raven/Mystique, wants to stop them.

There are many fun tidbits sprinkled throughout the film. Following are a few examples:

  • Storm hurls lightning while screaming like a tennis player. 
  • Kurt Wagner/Nightstalker wears Michael Jackson’s famous red leather jacket. 
  • Jean Grey reveals her extreme power (and a little of her mental instability).
  • After two characters say that Mystique’s heroics changed their lives, Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver says, “Mine too. I mean, I still live in my mom’s basement, but pfft. Everything else is, uh… well, it’s pretty much the same. I’m a total loser.”

Acting ranges from satisfactory to great. It reaches its peak with Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. Since the havoc he wreaked in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Erik has retreated to a Polish village, started a family, and become a dependable blue collar worker. However, tragedy must strike to put this metal manipulator on the path to villainy. It’s difficult for an actor to convincingly convey grief in a superhero film, but Fassbender pulls it off.

Oscar Isaac delivers an enjoyably over-the-top bad guy in En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (aren’t the most ridiculous villains often the most entertaining?). He kills people by merging them into walls or the ground. His vocals shift between a whisper and a multi-voice roar: “Everything they’ve built will fall! And from the ashes of their world, we’ll build a better one!”

A Speedster and a Maniac
Even for those who think it’s time to put a big X over this franchise, it would be downright inhuman not to enjoy the two best scenes, which are really only peripherally connected to the plot. The first begins when the film speed slows, the camera focuses on a bee, and synthesizers kick off the Eurythmics’ eighties classic “Sweet Dreams”. Then the super-fast Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) steps into the scene. Prepare to laugh out loud and be awed as Peter attempts to save other mutants from an exploding building. Because it’s from his perspective, everything around him appears in slow motion. Watch him backtrack to save an airbound fish, then grimace as two youngsters lean in for a sloppy kiss. If you saw Peter’s talents displayed in a similar scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past, then you’re in for a treat: this one takes it to the next level. At the film’s end, the woman next to me said, “That was the best action scene I’ve ever seen.”

The second standout scene could be interpreted as a cameo trick to boost box office sales, but doesn’t everyone love a good trick? In it, a shirtless Wolverine goes on a rage-induced killing spree during which he uses his new adamantium claws to slice and impale his way through 40 or 50 men before running out into the snow. No talking. No magic. Just growling and slashing and killing. Raw power. As Wolverine retreats, a stunned Scott Summers/Cyclops can only say, “Hope that’s the last we’ve seen of that guy.”

In the Moment
Certainly there are things that the fussy moviegoer can pick apart. That’s partly because there’s so much chronological shifting in the X-Men series. So questions emerge: Shouldn’t character A and character B be closer in age? Didn’t character C first meet character D much later?

Moreover, the underdeveloped Raven/Mystique character didn’t require an actress of Jennifer Lawrence’s calibre, and the “adult” Mystique of earlier installments was more “mystiquey”.

Then there are the typical critic jabs (e.g. “tired”, “unimaginative”) that seem to come with any long-lasting series. Maybe they stepped out to sharpen their critical spears during the scenes with Quicksilver and Wolverine.

Here’s some advice for watching this film: enjoy it in the moment… – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

King Ted Reading Challenge: 50% done

My older daughter's school (nickname King Ted) sets the children a reading challenge, and I decided this year to do it too. The pupils are challenged to read two books in each of twenty categories, without counting any author more than once. I've added my own wrinkle, that a maximum of one book in each category can be from a male writer. And while the children do the challenge over the school year, I'm doing it over a calendar year (which gives me a bit longer). On schedule so far. New books in bold.

Short story zone
1. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Diane Williams. Bright yellow collection of super-short stories published by McSweeney's.
2. King Wolf, Steven Savile. Interesting short stories about a writer and his illustrator. Review in TQF55.

Mystery zone
1. Hunters & Collectors, M. Suddain. Science fiction novel about a celebrity food critic on a quest to eat at the exclusive restaurant of an elusive hotel. Review planned for Interzone #266.

History zone
1. The Silver Branch, Rosemary Sutcliff.

Thriller zone
1. Thieves Fall Out, Gore Vidal.

Diary zone

Witch Child by Celia Rees and review
2. [Counts as two books, if you write a review.]

Biography zone
1. Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgio Vasari. From the brilliant Penguin Little Black Classics box set. Also includes the stories of two other artists.

Science fiction zone
1. World of Water, James Lovegrove. Reviewed in Interzone #265. Follow-up to World of Fire. Enjoyed them so much I bought them both for my dad for Father's Day.

Horror zone
1. I Travel By Night, Robert McCammon.
2. Amityville Horrible, Kelley Armstrong. Subterranean Press novella about a real psychic pretending to be an ordinary (i.e. fake) psychic who goes on a reality ghosthunting show. Good but it had some very saucy bits.

Fantasy zone

Comedy zone
1. The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman.
2. Yes Please, Amy Poehler. Listened to the Audible version of this brilliant book. Funny, inspirational and very clever in the way it plays with the form, e.g. having other people read particular passages.

Romance zone
1. Come Close, Sappho.

Friends and family
1. Patchwerk, David Tallerman.

Classic zone
1. Mrs Rosie and the Priest, Giovanni Boccaccio.

Myths, fairy tales and legends from around the world

1. The Vor Game, Lois McMaster Bujold.

1. The Caped Crusade, Glen Weldon.
2. The Accidental Indexer, Nan Badgett. I have to do a tiny bit of indexing in my day-to-day work, and I felt it was somewhere I could level up my skills a bit. This is mainly about being an indexer, rather than doing the indexing, but there's some good advice and it's really helped me improve my work.

Adventure zone
1. Jacaranda, Cherie Priest.

Crime zone

Friends recommended
1. Stet, Diana Athill. A present from my co-editor John and his wonderful family! A fascinating book about an editor who worked with big names like V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, with scandalous stories about them all.
2. The Third Policeman, Flann O'Brien. Another present from John and co. Didn't get far into this before thinking it reminded me a lot of Lost – e.g. weird guys in an underground office taking measurements of reality, and a threatening ghostly figure in an abandoned house – and turns out that indeed this was referenced on the show.

So halfway through the year I'm halfway through the challenge. I'll post an updated version of the list when (or if) I get to 75% and 100%. I'm currently reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, only a decade after I bought it, which'll go into Fantasy, and A Hippo Banquet by Mary Kingsley, which'll go into Adventure.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Empowered: Unchained, Vol. 1, by Adam Warren and chums (Dark Horse Books) | review

Collects various one-shots about Empowered, most of them featuring a colour section drawn by a guest artist. One special is all about Maidman, who dresses as a maid and thus casts more fear into the hearts of criminals than anyone dressed as a bat would ever do. In others: a horny robot’s cyberfantasies run riot in a dump for the detritus of superhero battles; Ninjette explains the nine stages of her drunkenness; Empowered fights a gang of animal-themed superheroes, and explains how much more useful cars can be in battle if you don’t just throw them at your enemies; and Empowered and Ninjette take a fantastic voyage into an alien baby who is bigger on the inside. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 20 June 2016

Empowered, Vol. 8, by Adam Warren (Dark Horse Books) | review

Sistah Spooky is still devastated by the loss of her lover, and it’s made all the worse by her having kept their relationship secret during their time together. Emp is feeling terrible about it too, wondering if she could have done something different on the Superhomeys’ space station D10. So the two of them do something really stupid that involves using forbidden alien weaponry (forbidden because six years ago it created a new volcano in San Antonio) to batter at the gates of hell. We’ll learn lots more about Sistah Spooky and even a bit about Emp’s unfortunate tendency to get tied up by supervillains. This book keeps up the high standards of the series. From an unpromising beginning Emp has grown into one of the bravest, most admirable and most determined superheroes in comics. I may have only bought the whole series because it was on sale at Dark Horse Digital (it was Father’s Day and I deserved a treat!), but it’s now a solid favourite of mine. The stories take a while to bloom, but when they do you care because the roots go so deep. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 13 June 2016

Doctor Who: The Good Soldier, by Andrew Cartmel, Mike Collins and chums (Panini Comics) | review

A 128pp collection of strips from Doctor Who Magazine issues 164 to 179, plus a couple from specials, and a pair of text stories. This is the third collection of stories featuring the seventh Doctor, as played by Sylvester McCoy, not the easiest of Doctors to draw, and the twentieth Panini collection overall. As ever with this series of books, the reproduction of the artwork is flawless, as is the overall presentation. Unlike Nemesis of the Daleks, the previous seventh Doctor collection, this doesn’t include any sub-par strips from The Incredible Hulk Presents. It gets off to a great start with “Fellow Travellers”, illustrated by Arthur Ranson. “The Mark of Mandragora”, in which the malevolent and ancient intelligence manipulates the Doctor and the Tardis, has previously been collected in a Marvel graphic novel, but it’s not a patch on the title story, “The Good Soldier”, by Andrew Cartmel and Mike Collins, where the Doctor and Ace encounter the original Mondasian Cybermen on a trip to 1954 Nevada. In its look and feel it points towards how consistently ambitious the strip would become during the eighth Doctor’s tenure. The commentary section is as fascinating as ever. My very favourite panel of the book makes the writer of that story cringe! And did you know that Andrew Cartmel approached Alan Moore to write for the television programme? Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 6 June 2016

On a Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard (Nine Dragons River)

The Great Virtue Emperor is losing control of the star-spanning Dai Viet Empire. Rebels like Lord Soi are tearing it apart. Linh, the highly educated magistrate of the Twenty-Third Planet, was induced to flee before it fell to the war-kites of the rebel lords. The shame of that flight is bad enough, but she also sent a strongly-worded report on the civil war to the Emperor, which some might see as treasonous in its questioning of his leadership abilities. Le Thi Quyen is the administrator of Prosper Station, working with the Mind – the Honoured Ancestress – who controls its every function. As well as the arrival of Linh and all the danger that brings, she must investigate the apparent malfunctioning of the Honoured Ancestress and the betrayal of her own brother, Huu Hieu, who sold off the memory chips containing the thoughts of their revered ancestors. The station’s Mind helps its inhabitants to cope with the unnaturality of life in space, sharing their thoughts and cloaking the metal and rivets with poetry and decoration, but as she loses her strength, the comfort and connection she provides ebbs away, putting the lives of everyone on the station in the hands of Linh and Quyen, and at the mercy of their quarrel. This novella is imaginative and intense, each character stretched to their breaking point, many spouses missing in the war, now struggling to cope with current crises while knowing that worse is to come, fighting their own worst impulses when the wrong word at the wrong time could be fatal. Stephen Theaker ****

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Closing to submissions till December (except for the Unsplatterpunk Special!)

We've just closed to submissions for Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #56, and looking at what we have in hand already for that issue, and the additional submissions that have come in over the last month, and the pile of material produced by all of my hard-working pseudonyms, I think we have enough now for both #56 and #57, while #58 is a special issue (see below), so I've decided to close to regular submissions until December.

The exception would be reviews, which are always welcome, and further instalments in any of our ongoing serials, which we can always squeeze in.

Frustrated? Need another outlet for your literary genius? Turn your attention instead to #58, our upcoming Unsplatterpunk Special, edited by TQF regular Douglas Ogurek: submission guidelines here for that one!

By the way, apologies for the delay in publishing issue 55. It's all my fault. Our guest editor Howard Watts completed his work a while ago and it's been waiting for me to do my bit. It'll be with you soon, and it'll be worth the wait, I promise. Issue 56 will probably follow hard on its heels.

Monday, 30 May 2016

None of Our Yesterdays, by Vaughan Stanger | review

Two fine stories of alternative history in a nice little ebook. In “The Peace Criminal”, which first appeared in Postscripts, a television producer and his researcher interview a strange old man who remembers what happened in England after Germany won World War I. At first they think his story might make a good episode of Myths and Mysteries of the Twentieth Century for the History Channel, but his story is more disturbing than expected. “The Eyepatch Protocol” (which after reading the story one realises is a fantastic title) follows a bomber crew tasked with retaliation after the Cuban missile crisis leads Krushchev to launch his missiles. (Weird to remember how a phrase like “four-minute warning” haunted my childhood, when now I shout it to let the kids know their dinner is almost ready.) It’s shorter than the first story. but equally powerful. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 28 May 2016

TQF contributors: send us your news!

If you have ever contributed to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction, you'll probably know that we have a long-standing offer to run free advertisements for suitable projects in the magazine. And if you don't, sorry, it's because I forgot to say, but it still applies!

I thought it might be nice to collect smaller bits of news from contributors too, for a section in the magazine, maybe also for blog posts, if there were enough to make a blog post worthwhile.

So if you've been a contributor to the magazine, and have any news about what you're up to now, here's the link. Bookmark it and let us know whenever you've got something going on.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Sinclair ZX Spectrum: a Visual Compendium, by Sam Dyer and friends (Bitmap Books) | review

An attractive book that looks back over the lifetime of the immensely successful ZX Spectrum, which came out in 1982 and provoked an astonishing torrent of games. It has 304 pages, all as bright and colourful as the Spectrum itself. The focus is on graphics and artwork, so the interviews are mostly with artists rather than programmers. The text can be a little bit repetitive, the artists all having been asked the same questions, and giving very similar answers – graph paper and colour clash come up a lot. The company profiles are more interesting, but only five are covered: Ultimate, Beyond, Durell, Odin and Vortex. But as shown by the designer not the writer being identified as the author in the copyright notice, this is a book about the pictures, and they are great, lot of double page spreads of games that still look good today. I regret not having properly played games like Heavy on the Magick, Fairlight and Tau Ceti. There are also several nice pieces of painted artwork by the brilliant Crash cover artist Oliver Frey. Sadly, nothing appears from my absolute favourite Spectrum games, the Gollup brothers’ Rebelstar, Chaos and Laser Squad, though there’s a loading screen from their Lords of Chaos. One surprise was seeing games we had at home that none of my friends had ever heard of, like 3D Tanx, Wheelie and Harrier Attack! Another was realising how few of these games we actually bought, an initial C90 and C60 from a work friend of my dad giving me the trading power to build up a massive library of cassette copies. Tut, tut, young me! A third surprise was to see on the copyright page that the Sinclair name and brand is now owned by BSkyB – can’t imagine why they wanted it! Overall, it’s a very expensive book, so not one for casual fans. There are cheaper retro bookazines to be found in WH Smiths. But it’s very lovely to look at, and my money, at least, was well spent on it. Stephen Theaker ***

Captain America: Civil War reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

More heroes… more fights… more fun! 

Every time a new Avengers offering comes out, the filmmakers have to raise the bar for the easily distracted contemporary moviegoer ever poised to grow weary of today’s superhero blitz. The fast-paced and effects-packed Captain America: Civil War, directed by Anthony and Joe Rizzo, manages to keep the Avengers juggernaut barreling forward.

It’s the typical talk fight talk fight superhero formula. Our favorite egomaniac Tony Stark/Iron Man offers the most entertaining repartee, while the spirited battle action ranges from Natasha Romanoff’s/Black Widow’s acrobatics to the monumental airport battle that earns the film its name. These films just keep getting bigger, faster, and more intense.

Taking Sides
The action starts in Lagos, where Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch uses her psychokinetic powers to lift an active bomb out of harm’s way. However, it detonates before it gets to the top of a building and there are civilian casualties. This opens up an investigation into the many fatalities left in the wake of those thrilling Avengers battles. It also leads to the split that propels the film: in an uncharacteristic move, a guilt-ridden Stark encourages the Avengers to sign a UN-sanctioned accord that limits their previously unchecked authority. Conversely, Steve Rogers/Captain America, the hitherto obedient soldier, refuses to sign because he trusts in his own (and the Avengers’) superior morality and decision-making abilities.

Rogers has something else to worry about: protecting his mentally unstable WWII friend Bucky Barnes (aka Winter Soldier), the tenacious assassin of the last Captain America film. Bucky is a suspected terrorist and former Hydra pawn wanted by the same authorities that seek to limit the Avengers’ powers.

So Iron Man and Captain America each build a six-person army that leads to the airport conflagration. But none of this is all that original, is it? After all, we’ve seen this kind of freaks versus commoners and superhero infighting since X-Men (2000). However, what follows shows how Captain America: Civil War takes things in a new direction.

Battle Aftermath Exploration
For a couple decades, we’ve watched mutants, shapeshifting robots, and superheroes tear apart a variety of settings in their epic battles. However, as we chomped our popcorn, did we ever think about the toll that all this destruction takes on bystanders? In a brilliant “What if…” consideration, the makers of Captain America: Civil War pose this challenge to the heroes and in so doing, explore the pros and cons of utilitarianism.

It’s About the Conflict Within
Captain America: Civil War does have a minor villain (with a strong motivation). However, unlike X-Men, this film focuses on the conflict between our beloved heroes, and it’s a strategy that makes the logical viewer uncomfortable. It’s impossible to choose a side; they all think they’re doing the right thing. Every time Iron Man blasted away at Captain America, I cringed. Every time Captain America hammered away at Iron Man, I cringed.

Stark: “I’m trying to keep you from tearing the Avengers apart.” Rogers: “You did that when you signed.” Yikes!

New Characters
Note that the movie poster for Captain America: Civil War shows a faceoff between two sets of five characters, yet I said that each side has six. That’s because two characters new to the Avengers universe make an appearance. The filmmakers make it seem like these two characters are a secret, knowing full well that they will build buzz for the film. That’s a brilliant marketing strategy.

Scott Lang/Ant-Man enters the scene like a little boy, thrilled just to be asked to be part of Captain America’s team. Look for the film’s funniest quote when Ant-Man takes off his helmet after one skirmish.

A barely post-pubescent Peter Parker/Spider-Man takes a bit more convincing to join Stark’s side. Parker has homework, after all. In the film’s most entertaining talk scene, Stark drops in on the apartment of Parker and a refurbished (and much more attractive) Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Tom Holland’s Parker is an energetic and chatty “little guy” who adds some youthful zeal to the Avengers, like when he refers to “that really old movie Empire Strikes Back.”

“That Cat Guy” 
Do we really need the hero that one audience member referred to as “that cat guy?” Or was T’Challa/Black Panther, with his cat ears and metal claws, just thrown into the fray because the filmmakers couldn’t afford The Hulk or Thor and they needed a sixth man to round out Stark’s team? And how come this Black Panther, not genetically modified like Rogers or Bucky, can run fast enough to keep up with cars?

However, in Black Panther’s defense, he does bring a kind of peripheral motivation to the conflict: his singular goal is to kill Bucky.

This is a minor irritant in an otherwise absorbing film that offers everything from the clashing humor of Captain America driving a Volkswagen Beetle to the expression of virtue through action (or inaction). I am tempted to conclude this review with some witticism regarding the brilliance of this film. Alas, instead I resort to the comment of a boy: “those fights were awesome!” – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Check out Douglas’s reviews of The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

Monday, 16 May 2016

An Occupation of Angels, by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Publications) | review

Secret agent Killarney pursues a cryptographer, Dr Eldershott, across cold war Europe, fighting enemy agents on the Trans-Siberian Express and discovering secret bases carved out of rock. But this isn’t the world of James Bond. Thirty-five years ago the angels came, and now their obese bodies lounge within places like Notre Dame and Saint Paul’s while the angels extend their influence over human affairs. At least until the assassinations begin. Who is behind the killings, and what is the being that occupies Sophie Stockard’s body, and speaks in such a terrible voice? Killarney has some experience of angel-killing herself, but must stop this wave of deaths before the balance of power is broken and the cold war goes hot. Yet another good novella by Lavie Tidhar. The pace is fast, jumps in time making each chapter begin with a snap, and there are surprises and new ideas all the way through. Killarney herself seems to have secrets that are only hinted at here. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 9 May 2016

Vince Cosmos: Glam Rock Detective, by Paul Magrs (Bafflegab Productions) | review

January 1972, and Poppy Munday (played by Lauren Kellegher) moves down to London, where she feels at first like she’s living in a movie. She moves in with a friend, but then struggles to find work, and her favourite pop star is shot while playing live on radio. Things are getting a bit miserable before she gets a frantic call from her mum back home: Poppy has won a competition to attend the launch of Galactic Cinders, the new album by her favourite, Vince Cosmos. He’s a lot like Bowie/Ziggy, full of facets and wearing make-up and feeling the zeitgeist and talking about the cosmic godhead. Weirdly, the creepy, angry little man who lives in the flat above hers is at the launch too. Is he there to assassinate Vince? This two-part story feels like a pilot, in that we’re a long time into the story before we finally get to spend time with Vince himself. I expected to love Julian Rhind-Tutt in this – he was brilliant as a similarly foppish character in the highly underrated sitcom Hippies – but somehow it doesn’t quite work, maybe because it doesn’t feel like he believes the more pretentious Bowie-like utterances of his character. He’s knowing when he should be oblivious. He does a good job with Vince’s songs, though, and by the end I wished that he’d been in it more. I also enjoyed the links to a classic piece of sf literature, and to the Brenda and Effie stories: the ventriloquist’s fuzzy bat out of hell shows up here at a royal variety performance, still in his pomp. Stephen Theaker ***

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Freewrite: first impressions

Yesterday it finally happened! My Freewrite (originally known by the more distinctive name the Hemingwrite) arrived! Anyone who follows me on Twitter, or has not yet unfollowed me on Facebook, or indeed has stood next to me at a bus stop, is bound to have seen my excitement about this device.

It is basically an upgrade of the wonderful Alphasmart, which got me through the writing of a fair few novels, or going back even further the Sharp Fontwriter on which I bashed out Professor Challenger in Space: a dedicated writing device.

Where it scores over the Alphasmart is that it has a proper keyboard, and the files are backed up constantly to the web. I loved my Alphasmart (and still do, I'm not about to throw it away), but I would rarely have chosen to use it at home in preference to Scrivener and my Das Keyboard. The Freewrite shares the Alphasmart's portability, single purpose focus, and long battery life. To those it adds an e-ink screen that can be read outdoors. And where the Freewrite scores over the Sharp Fontwriter is that it doesn't have a big heavy printer built in!

So, what are my first impressions?

I like it a lot. I'm writing this blog post on it, and it's a really nice typing experience. The screen is easy to read whether I lean back or lean forward, and the keys aren't as noisy as I had expected – it's much quieter than my Das Keyboard, while being just as nice to type on. You probably wouldn't want to take it into a quiet meeting, but no one will hear it over the racket of a Nanowrimo write-in at a coffee shop.

(Oh, how sales of this device will soar once that crowd sets their eyes on it!)

The only big problem so far for me is that the device hasn't shipped with the promised Dvorak support in place, which reduces its usefulness dramatically for now. I can tap out a blog post or book review in Qwerty, but it'd be a pain doing a whole novel like that. Never mind, though, because the manufacturers have said it's coming soon, and you can understand why building and shipping the physical devices will have been their focus up till now.

Another slight niggle is that the frontlight, a last minute addition to the device, which is a great option to have, can't be turned off. It's not like the Kindle Ghostlight, which was totally spoilt by the permanent green tinge of its frontlight, but I'm glad that the option to turn it off is on the way.

Would I recommend the Freewrite?

That depends on how you go about your writing. If you like to start at the first word and keep typing till you reach the last word, like I do when I'm writing novels and my shorter TQF reviews, you'll like it, and probably adore it, if you can spare the cash. It'll fit the way I write to a tee.

If, however, you're the kind of writer who writes a line, then goes back to add something to the previous paragraph, then goes back to the beginning to tweak that, you'll find it practically useless, because there are no cursor keys. The only way of going back into the text is to use the backspace button. There are page up and page down buttons, but just for looking back over your text, not for editing. That suits me fine, it keeps me moving forward, but it's not for everyone, especially at this price.

Is it going to be the life-changing device I thought it would be when I bought it? Might be, once it has the Dvorak layout. Just knowing it's always there, always ready to be typed on, will be massive. What the Kindle is for books, I think this could be for writing, at least for me. Fingers crossed. Quite literally, since I'm typing this in Qwerty!

Friday, 6 May 2016

Elektrograd: Rusted Blood, by Warren Ellis (Summon Books) | review

A private eye with a habit of shaking down his clients has been murdered in Mekanoplatz, the northernmost district of Elektrograd, the city of the future, or at least it was, back in the early twentieth century. The idea was that it would be an experimental city, where new forms of architecture and living and work could be tried out. In Mekanoplatz the buildings can walk, reconfiguring themselves to meet new manufacturing needs. They’re in the middle of a change now, though homeless people remain where they are, living in the hollowed-out carcasses of abandoned construction robots. Even a beat this dead has a cop who cares: Detective Inspector Ervin Stross, driving an old car that could explode at any time, trailed by a rookie and an ambitious detective sergeant. Behind the murder lies a mystery, and it’s a mystery that doesn’t want to be uncovered. This is a good novella by a writer better known for his comics like Transmetropolitan and the immensely influential The Authority, but he spins a good story in prose too. This is like a science fiction version of a satisfying episode of Columbo or Luther. Warren Ellis’s original plan was to write a novella in each region – hope he finds time to write them. It would be great to see more of Strauss’s investigations in this fascinating city. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Huntsman: Winter’s War | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Angry, beautiful women with ostentatious wardrobes cast spells, voyeuristic tiny creatures hide in trees, and much more.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War, directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, gave me what I expected, and I’m good with that. This sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) isn’t mind-blowing. It doesn’t present anything staggeringly original, nor will it change your life with some profound message, but it will allow you to escape into a fantasy world rich in costumes, effects, atmosphere, and justice.

When jilted by her forbidden lover, Freya (Emily Blunt) discovers her ability to conjure and manipulate ice, then retreats to “the north” to build an empire. A reclusive ice queen? Hmm . . . that sounds a lot like Elsa from Frozen (2013). However, Freya’s blood runs much colder: her manipulative sister Ravenna (Charlize Theron), now trapped in Snow White’s famous mirror, is the spellbinding supervillain who fumed and enchanted her way through the first film.

Queen Freya seizes children to raise as an army of fierce warriors (the huntsmen), which she uses to expand her kingdom. She imposes only one rule on her adult “children”: no love allowed! But huntsmen standouts Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) aren’t having it. So Freya uses her sorcery to separate the lovers.

Years later, Eric and Sara reunite, albeit discordantly, on a quest to retrieve the now lost magic mirror before Freya gets it and catastrophe ensues. They are joined by four dwarves, highlighted by Nion (Nick Frost) and the feisty widow Mrs Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith).

Though Winter’s War advertisements exhibit the villainous sisters in all their regal splendor, the film offers a more traditional hero. Eric faces the dual challenge of finding that mirror (i.e. saving the world) and convincing Sara of his constancy. Our hero smiles, chuckles, and tosses around his machismo in typical Hemsworth fashion.

It’s Not Plot
And what will this band of likely and unlikely heroes do when it gets the mirror? Does it really matter? The mirror is really just a device holding things together. The strength of Winter’s War lies not in plot or concept, but in the special effects that, like the gold flakes around Ravenna’s eyes, sparkle throughout the film to create an atmosphere.

Besides the sisters’ conjurations—more on this later—the special effects engineers rise to the challenge with a collection of CGI creatures that populate this fairy tale world: too-small-to-see sprites that leave light trails in their wake, bright red squirrels, swarms of butterflies hitching a ride on a hedgehog, bling-wearing goblins that look and move like apes but have ram-like horns, and turtles and snakes with skin made out of grass. Then there are the voyeuristic, pint-size slender creatures that hide in vegetation and silently watch the adventurers. Creepy. Cool.

Winter’s War also offers several rousing fight scenes, especially the quarrels at the palace entry and tavern. The tension builds, the outnumbered heroes remain remarkably calm, the enemies assemble, and then the powerful Eric and acrobatic Sara deliver a beat down . . . or get beat up. The lack of music during these scenes adds to the intensity by emphasizing the thumping, crashing, and other skirmish sounds.

Sisters Sorcerous and Sexy 
Someone once said, “There’s nothing quite like angry, beautiful women in glittering regalia working magic.” Actually, I don’t think anyone said that, but there is some truth to it.

The film treats Freya and Ravenna with the reverence that royalty commands. For instance, the grandeur of the sisters’ costumes gets elevated by audio embellishments such as the chain-like slinking of Queen Freya’s train as she promenades toward her captives, or the metal finger claws that Ravenna taps and scrapes on various surfaces.

Freya is the subdued, though still highly dangerous version of her older sister. Her finery glistens like frost and offers a contrast of colourless austerity and glittering flamboyance much like the character. Example: she might tear up while she casts a spell that ruins a person’s life.

But don’t expect any tears from Ravenna, unless they’re tears of rage. The only criticism of Theron’s ruthless sorceress is that she isn’t on the screen more. Indulge in Theron’s mastery of her craft as she greets Eric after a long absence, slathers a supervillain laugh over her adversaries, and seduces her chess partner.

During the climax, the sisters use Freya’s royal hall to put on a rock concert of sorcery, their instruments being ice (Freya) and tar-like tentacles (Ravenna) that aim to impale.

When life’s pressures mount, mindless fantasy films like this one offer a much-needed respite. I’ve seen characters using magic powers to freeze stuff. I’ve seen goblins and dwarves. I’ve seen super clear distinctions between good and evil. And I don’t mind seeing it all again: that stuff’s therapeutic. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Friday, 29 April 2016

All-Star Section Eight, by Garth Ennis and John McCrea (DC Comics) | review

A six-issue spin-off from Hitman (the comic not the game) which was itself a spin-off from The Demon. Tommy Monaghan, the hitman with x-ray vision and a heart of gold, was introduced in the latter during one of DC’s dafter crossovers (invading aliens whose attacks gave some people superpowers). He once tried out for the JLA, but the funniest parts of his comic were usually when he ran into alcoholic Sixpack and his band of hopeless heroes, Section Eight, including characters like the Defenestrator, Dogwelder and the pervert Bueno Excellente. Here, at last, they get their own comic, or at least the survivors do, as Sixpack tries to get the team back together. After adding The Grapplah, the demon bartender Baytor, Powertool, Guts and a new Dogwelder (who found the previous guy’s outfit in a junk shop), he gets up to seven members, and then tries to persuade the stars of the (New 52) DC universe to fill the last slot. The Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman and Superman all show up; none seem likely to take the bait. It’s funny and gross, Sixpack’s snot, drool and wee depicted in repulsive detail, but also surprisingly moving, by the end reminding me of the classic Doctor Who strip by Scott Gray and Martin Geraghty, “The Land of Happy Endings”. Super-heroes may be dumb, but as Garth Ennis writes here, “As dreams go... Well. I suppose you could do worse.” This mini-series may not mean very much to people who didn’t love The Demon or Hitman, but it’s a must-read for those who did. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 25 April 2016

Doctor Who: Echoes of Grey, by John Dorney (Big Finish) | review

This sixty-seven minute play checks in with Zoe Heriot, now in her fifties after being returned to her own time by the Time Lords. They wiped her memories of her travels with the Doctor, leaving her with just the recollection of his visit to the Wheel in Space to fight the Cybermen, but she has an eidetic memory, and she can tell that there’s a discontinuity in her mind. It has made it difficult to form relationships; she feels like the ghost of herself. Then she meets Ally Monroe, whose life she apparently saved during one of the adventures she can’t remember. Ally thinks her alpha wave gadget will help, and slowly Zoe starts to remember the time she, Jamie and the second Doctor encountered the Achromatics, grey beings who declare their love for you while draining away your life. It’s a second Doctor story in the classic style, of slow-moving monsters in a confined space, with all the creepiness that brings. When they chase the Doctor around a room (he has a plan, but “no other ideas at all!”) it’s easy to imagine how it would have looked on screen. Wendy Padbury is as adept at voicing the Doctor and Jamie as when playing her younger self. The framing device is cleverly done, and by the time it ends the play’s title turns out to be clever too. It’s a good story, though its ramifications are potentially tragic: if Zoe and – as we’ve learned in other stories – Jamie have recovered some of their memories, did the Doctor make a terrible mistake in the Tomb of Rassilon? Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 18 April 2016

Doctor Who and the Ark in Space, by Ian Marter (BBC/Audible) | review

The fourth Doctor, only recently regenerated and accompanied by journalist Sarah Jane Smith and U.N.I.T. medic Harry Sullivan, lands the Tardis on the Nerva Beacon. It seems to be abandoned, but further investigation reveals slimy trails, as if of a giant slug, and then freeze-dried humans, packed away in storage for thousands of years to survive a stellar disaster. The first humans to wake up suspect the Tardis crew of sabotage, a fatal distraction from their true, hidden enemies: the Wirrn, a race of giant locust-like insects with a grudge against humanity, and a gruesome purpose for these survivors. “The Ark in Space” was originally a television story, and this is the Audible version of the Target novelisation from the eighties, written by the actor who played Harry Sullivan. He wasn’t in the Tardis long, sadly, having been cast as the Chestertonian man of action, an entirely redundant position after Tom Baker took the role of the Doctor. It is read by Dead Ringers star Jon Culshaw, who first became famous for his wonderful telephone impersonations of Tom Baker’s Doctor. That ability makes him perfect for this audiobook, though ironically this comes from a time when the fourth Doctor wasn’t particularly funny – for much of this story he’s indistinguishable from his previous, rather serious, incarnation. He narrates in his own reading voice, and keeps the tension high. For a children’s book it is surprisingly gory, with talk of suppurating stumps and smouldering bodies welded to panelling after being repeatedly shot, and in the audio version there’s no bubble wrap to break the spell. Sarah Jane’s long, arduous and essential crawl through a narrow duct is as stressful as ever, no matter how many times we’ve already seen her succeed. The fate of one human infected by the Wirrn bears repetition in full: “with a crack, like a gigantic seedpod bursting, his whole head split open. A fountain of green froth erupted and came sizzling down the radiation suit…” There’s a reason these were my favourites as a child: other books were, quite literally, bloodless in comparison. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 15 April 2016

Doctor Who Comic #7, by Robbie Morrison, Brian Williamson and chums (Titan Comics) | review

A wonderfully substantial publication that collects four issues of the ongoing US format comics, one each from the twelfth and tenth Doctors’ comics, and two from the eleventh Doctor’s title. In “The Fractures, Part 2”, by Robbie Morrison and Brian Williamson, the twelfth Doctor and Clara are trying to help a UNIT scientist from another dimension. His wife and daughters died in a car crash, and they live on here, but when he crossed the void between dimensions he attracted the attention of the Fractures. Visually it’s not up to the standards of the strips that appear in Doctor Who Magazine, but it’s enjoyable enough. The eleventh Doctor’s story “The Eternal Dogfight” (complete in this issue), by Rob Williams, Al Ewing and Warren Pleece, sees him accompanied by three new companions: a shape-changing alien, a depressed assistant librarian, and a chubby David Bowie type. An everlasting dogfight between two fleets of alien combatants has drifted into Earth’s vicinity, and if the Doctor and friends can’t bring it to an end there could be eight billion civilian casualties. All very entertaining, in thanks part to the intrigue of each new companion’s ongoing story, and the jolly artwork. It reminded me of the early Tom Baker strips in Doctor Who Weekly. The tenth Doctor is also joined by a new companion – Gabby, an American from New York – for his story, “The Weeping Angels of Mons, Part 2”, by Robbie Morrison and Daniel Indro. The statuesque monsters of the title are snatching soldiers from the trenches of World War I. It’s an interesting story, and the artwork (including the colouring by Slamet Mujiono) suits it perfectly, the expressions of the angels being as alarming as one would hope never to see. I liked each individual story, but it’s the cumulative effect of reading almost a hundred pages of new Doctor Who comics that makes it so rewarding. I subscribed before getting even halfway through it. Stephen Theaker ****