Friday, 31 July 2015

Book notes #11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 24 July 2015

Book notes #10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Gallows | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More details here.

Book notes #9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 July 2015

Book notes #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 July 2015

Book notes #7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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