Friday, 3 July 2020

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

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

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

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

Monday, 29 June 2020

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Questions and Answers, 28 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you reading?Reading Glasses Facebook group

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

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

Babylon 5.

What are your favorite book adaptations?NetGalley

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Friday, 26 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Angel Heart | review by Rafe McGregor

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

Hellishly hardboiled detection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Questions and Answers, 21 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 June 2020

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

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

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Questions and Answers, 14 June 2020

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

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

I Know My Middle Name Is William.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 June 2020

The Cabin at the End of the World, by Paul Tremblay (Bolinda Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

Rather like Terminator 2 from Miles Dyson’s point of view, crossed with Vacationland by John Hodgman. What do you do if people show up at your isolated home and ask you to do crazy stuff to save the world? This starts well and expertly ratchets up the tension, but then starts to run in circles, with people talking over the same issues again and again, and like series one of Big Brother it gets less interesting the fewer people are left. Many readers will find the conclusion frustrating. Amy Landon does a fine job of reading it. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 8 June 2020

The Lonely Dark, by Ren Warom (Fox Spirit Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Ingmar has agreed to become one of the pilots of a new spaceship, along with a chap called Yuri. Or you could say that they have actually become the spaceships, their bodies left in suspended animation while their consciousnesses fill the ship. The reason for this arrangement is that the previous pilots, artificial intelligences, started to go mad, culminating in an incident fifteen years before where a ship ejected all its passengers into space. Ingmar and Yuri take it in turns to be conscious and in charge while the other rests.

Unfortunately, the two of them begin to have terrible, disconcerting experiences during their rest periods, where what were meant to be reassuring memories are transmuted into terrifying dreams. Since they can’t speak directly to each other in transit, they leave each other messages, so what seems at first like a spaceship adventure turns into an epistolary horror story, their isolation only heightened by their bodies lying side-by-side in suspended animation. It’s a nightmarish scenario, and the book puts the reader right in it.

I wasn’t clear on why Ingmar couldn’t speak to any staff on board the ship. Even if only caterers had been on board, they could have provided her with a welcome reality check. And the ending was a bit unsatisfying, in the sense that Ingmar didn’t seem to progress much further into the mystery than others had done before her. But to write a story of such complete interiority and keep the reader interested throughout is impressive, and it helped that Ingmar was a character with lots of interesting things on her mind. Stephen Theaker ***

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Questions and Answers, 7 June 2020

There's only one question this week.

Is J.K. Rowling transphobic?Twitter, passim

No, of course not, don't be silly. She hasn't said a single word that is transphobic.

And it shows how far off-course the American left has gone, that it is more agitated about a feminist saying sex is real and relevant to the lives of women (which it is, obviously), than about the sexist, highly gendered abuse she receives hourly for having said it.

I've been reading the replies to her this weekend, and I imagine that this is what it would be like to watch Scientologists go after a suppressive personality in real time. It's been especially dismaying to see the homophobia and transphobia directed at the gay and trans people who agree with her.

And the replies have proved her point, that some people do regard any reference to sex as transphobic. She said biological sex is real, not what she thinks the particular policy consequences of that should be. And yet her interlocutors jumped from "sex is real" to "she hates trans people" and "she denies the existence of trans people", both of which are entirely nonsensical and, in my view, libellous.

The insistence of some Americans that trans rights must be grounded in sex denialism is sexist, dehumanising and, indeed, transphobic. We don't need to deny reality or demand that others deny reality in order to support the rights of people who wish they were the other sex to live, so far as possible, as if they were.

And if your policy position is that all male people in England and Wales, all thirty million of us, should have the unquestionable right to enter women's spaces, then you should not be surprised that women expect to get a say in that.

It's been particularly odd to see writers piling on her for saying that biological sex is real, as if this is at all controversial. And yet, when you read their books, their protagonists invariably meet strangers and can tell, somehow, whether that person is a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. Maybe there are more psychics in fiction than I realised. Or maybe they are just hypocrites.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Terminator: Dark Fate | review by Jacob Edwards

The future’s so grim, I don’t even wear shades.

I don’t write many reviews nowadays. I don’t see many films. I’m time poor and fully committed to sparing the world my verbiage from on high.

But then another Terminator movie comes along and – well, here I am, contemplating the inevitability of it all while staring at a cinema ticket that reads:

__Cinema 1__

__Terminator: Dark Fat__

The truncation is apt. More than just evoking the globuled essence of a Rev-9 Terminator oozing back together, it speaks of a plot saturated with pointless action. It conjures the unhealthy craving for a worthy sequel to The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Terminator: Dark Fate purports to be this film. It brings back Linda Hamilton. It relegates all other 21st century Terminator productions to some alternative timeline and takes their place as third film in the trilogy.

But then it makes the same old mistakes. Improbable action sequences. A too-powerful but markedly ineffectual new model of Terminator. Dark Fate? Even the title suffers from filmmaking by committee. Muddled mediocrity ensues. False Hope would have been more accurate.

To give it its due, Dark Fate does some things well. The Rev-9, for instance, comes fitted with a nifty ghost skeleton to act as its wingman. Its adversary is not a Terminator at all but rather an enhanced human whose speed and relative vulnerability make for a more nuanced contest. The Mexican setting; the casting of South American actors; the narrative shift back to female empowerment: these are all positives.

The John Connor question is more open to debate. I don’t have a problem with his absence (although I don’t think the Guatemala scene needed to be shown). If we’re considering Dark Fate as a direct sequel to Judgement Day then it makes sense. For all that Skynet was focused on stopping John’s advent as leader of the resistance, Terminator and Terminator 2 were always about Sarah Connor. Thematically, Dark Fate is a natural continuation.

The problem is that Sarah’s journey – and just about everything else – becomes lost in the mix as director Tim Miller works his way through an inherited bucket list of James Cameron’s wet dream action scenes. High-speed bulldozers? Underwater Humvees? (And Reese help us, anything to do with planes.) Apart from the insult to logic, the preponderance of faux adrenaline rushes constitutes a damning tonal dissonance between Dark Fate and the original brace of films.

Whereas The Terminator and Judgement Day were in essence SF thrillers, albeit in the latter case with some spectacular set pieces, Dark Fate is merely action for action’s sake. Linda Hamilton is denied her weary swansong, pushed instead towards a reprise of her Judgement Day character. Schwarzenegger’s T-800 fares better but is likewise shunted. Boxed in by the action carnage, Dani Ramos is accelerated in half a script through an arc that took Sarah Connor all of The Terminator and subsequently seven years between productions (a decade within the story) to traverse.

The result is as banal as it is predictable. Jacob Edwards

Monday, 1 June 2020

Devil’s Road, by Gary Gibson (Brain in a Jar Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

After reading the heartbreaking If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, a book that began with a jailbreak was just the ticket. After five years in prison, Dutch McGuire is woken up by unexpected darkness in her cell block: the power is off and every door unlocks. She has no release date and so has little to lose by trying to escape. Unfortunately, some inmates are intent on using this time for revenge, and so Dutch finds herself assailed by cleaver-wielding Anna Dubayev, the Cannibal of the Steppes.

Should she survive this encounter, subsequent pages will find Dutch captured by those who enabled the breakout, and whisked away to Japan, where she will be required to take part in a race around the island of Teijouan, the domain of giant monsters ever since a portal opened there in 2035. Her new employers don’t want her to win the race, they want her to get to the portal. But before the race even begins there will be assassination attempts and the need to acquire a car that will give her a fighting chance in the race.

If it’s not already obvious, this is essentially Death Race taking place on Godzilla’s Monster Island, and it’s pretty much as fun as that combination sounds. Though the cover art attracted me to the book, I visualized the story as drawn by Carlos Ezquerra, because it reads like early 2000 AD. Like other characters in this subgenre, Dutch is not at all a good person – she used to run drugs for the mob – but she is fun to read about. The action is clear and exciting, there are some great monster encounters and excellent villains, and it’s all packed into 150 pages. Just the ticket. Stephen Theaker ***

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Questions and Answers, 31 May 2020

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

If you could have the possibility to have a drink with an author, dead or alive, who would it be?Teuta Metra

I wouldn't want to have a drink with someone who would feel their time was being wasted on me, though the authors I have met have all been very nice. I think I'd pick one of the many authors I've never met who have contributed to TQF, like Rafe McGregor, Jacob Edwards, Charles Wilkinson or Douglas Ogurek. Or maybe Ramsey Campbell, not just because of his writing, but because I worked with him for years on the British Fantasy Society Committee without ever having the nerve to speak to him in person.

Six books within reach.Facebook meme

The closest six to me right now: Hainish Tales, Vol. 1, Ursula Le Guin (52 cm), Zenith Phase One, Grant Morrison & Steve Yeovil (61 cm), Nancy's Mysterious Letter, Carolyn Keene (67 cm), Penguin Concise Dictionary (72 cm), New Oxford Spelling Dictionary (73 cm) and New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors (74 cm).

What have you been creating during lockdown?BBC Radio 6 Music

I recorded a song every day for a fortnight and made videos for them all too. My favourites were: Why Did the Chicken (Cross the Road)?, Terry's Theme, Rocking Giant, I Love Your Sad Face, He's Just a Baby! and Feel That Beat. And then to celebrate the Eurovision that never was I wrote another: I Want to Hear What You Think About Things.

Does anyone have tips on how to be better at reading longer books?Facebook group member

Whatever the length, it's the book's job to keep you interested and if it's failing to do that just ditch it. But if you have to read it for school or review or self-improvement or something, set a bearable number of pages to read each day and spend the rest of the time reading something else. Modern novels tend to be too long because that's the length of book the publisher wants to publish, rather than because the author had enough ideas to fill that many pages.

Does anyone know of websites to purchase ebooks for Kindle that aren't Amazon?Facebook group member

I can't think of anywhere other than some publishers' own websites that will be selling DRM-free copies of big new releases, but Weightless Books is good for indie publishers.

Do you have any weird grudges? Mine is against the Roman Empire.@inkasrain

The New York Bagel Co stopped pre-slicing their bagels because of customer feedback. I get angry at those customers every time I have to get the big knife out to slice some bagels. My fingers deserve to be safe.

The hardest you've ever cried in a movie/TV show. – Kevin L. Lee

Watching A.I. Artificial Intelligence in the cinema, when the mother leaves the android boy in the woods. I literally had to stick my fist in my mouth to stop myself wailing out loud. I think we had at that point been through a round or three of IVF which had not worked yet, and it's an emotional film anyway; it was all just too much. But what a big baby…

Anyone want to read an absolutely massive profile of/interview with Michael Moorcock, interwoven with a lot of personal stuff?David M. Barnett

Yes I do! Here it is if TQF readers would like to read it too.

I was reading a book this weekend, got 3/4 of the way into it and realized that I had already read it! Has this happened to anyone else before?Facebook group member

Yes, I spent the whole of Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg trying to remember what it reminded me of, and of course it reminded me of itself. I've also had quite a lot of sf books that were previously published under different titles, like Michael Moorcock's The Blood Red Game / The Sundered Worlds – it was always disappointing to start reading one of those and realise it wasn't new. Thanks to Goodreads and ISFDB for making such unhappy events much rarer.

Someone just told me that “Reading books in paperback format is idiotic because that’s what tablets are for now.” But I still read more paperbacks than ebooks (there’s nothing like the feel of a real book in my hands). What about you?Morgan Wright

I barely ever read paperbacks now. Maybe one or two a year, apart from comics and Penguin minis. I wouldn't say it's idiotic to read them, though! Just a hassle. I might feel differently if our house weren't so dim, and if I weren't mainly reading for review. Drives me mad trying to find particular passages I need in print books.

What is the hill you would die on? What is your cause?Dr Jessica Taylor

That lying is bad. It's caused me problems at work (not current work), in voluntary organisations, in all sorts of situations. I won't do it, I can't help pointing it out, and I can't bear it when other people do it.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi | review by Stephen Theaker

John Scalzi was by 2017 one of science fiction’s most famous living writers, and though some of that was down to his formidable and somewhat reassuring social media presence, the books played a substantial part too. While the 2013 Hugo award for Redshirts rewarded a book that wasn’t universally adored, it was a sign of how popular he had become with readers, and he subsequently signed a colossal thirteen-book publishing deal (as alluded to in this book’s dedication: “To Tom Doherty … here’s to the next decade”) of which The Collapsing Empire forms the opening salvo.

Cardenia is to be Emperox of the Holy Empire of the Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds, King of Hub and Associated Nations, continuing the Wu dynasty, which has ruled for a thousand years over forty-seven star systems. She never expected this. She knew her father was the emperox, but didn’t see him much. He had an imperial consort and the heir, Rennered, she had given him, while Cardenia lived with her mother, a professor of ancient languages. Then Cardenia’s princely half-brother crashed his race car, literally lost his head, and left her next in line for the throne.

Cardenia is likeable, intelligent and sensible, so the reader might at this point begin to anticipate the good, wise job she will do of running the empire – but then you remember the title…

There’s no faster-than-light travel in this universe, but by taking their own bubble of reality into the Flow – a “multidimensional brane-like metacosmological structure”, no less – ships can travel through alternate space-time all the way to another star. This discovery saved humanity after Earth was lost, the colonies thus able to share essential resources that none would have had on their own. Hub got its name because it’s the only planet with direct links to all other systems. No one would live there otherwise – it doesn’t spin, so one side is super-hot and the other is frozen, with humans living under the ground or in space stations.

While Cardenia waits on Hub for her father to die, the crew of the Tell Me Another One mutiny while the ship is in the Flow (without even completing the appropriate paperwork), and then things get even worse: they are dropped out of the Flow and back into normal space-time. It’s the beginning of the end for the empire. The streams through the flow are going to dry up, which will leave the interdependent systems in a really tight spot.

It’s a tricky problem for a new emperox to deal with, and a great premise for a science fiction novel. As the apparent villain of the piece Ghreni Nohamapetan says to sweary trader Kiva, whatever this is, “You’ll have a name for it soon.” A small bit of dialogue that says a lot. Another nice moment, made somehow more epic by its mundanity: when an undeniable report of the upcoming apocalypse is presented to humanity’s ruling class, it’s in a stapled paper handout.

About three quarters of the way through the reader will start to wonder whether the story will be finished by the end, and it’s fair to say that it isn’t, nothing like it. Certain plotlines are partly resolved, but unlike, say, Old Man’s War, which kicked off a series but was perfectly satisfying on its own, this feels like the first act of a longer novel divided up for publication. Fans who already know they’ll be reading the whole series won’t mind, but more casual readers may be frustrated.

The book never quite becomes the disaster movie on a galactic scale that early chapters promise, but it’s an easy-to-read, entertaining and commercial novel of the kind you could binge on all summer, similar in tone to the Miles Vorkosigan novels of Lois McMaster Bujold, for example. It has a faith in the power of revealing the truth to undo the villains that already seems quaint; not a surprise then to read that the author found it hard to write during the US election.

The acknowledgements mention the author’s film/tv agent and entertainment lawyer, and this seems cut out for television adaptation, with a plot that features sex and thrills but largely turns upon a series of intense conversations, and provides many excellent roles for women, from Cardenia and Kiva down to Captain Gineos, who appears only in the prologue but is so brilliantly capable that her mutineering crew asks her to resume control in a crisis. If you made a deliberate attempt to write an sf Game of Thrones or a modern Foundation, and had the necessary skills, this might well be the result. ****

This review originally appeared in Interzone #269.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Questions and Answers, 24 May 2020

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

Who's the first comic-book creator (writer, artist, inker, colorist, letterer, editor) you've ever met, and how did it go?Paul Renaud

I took my kids to an art event in our local park and John McCrea was there helping out. I was awestruck. He was very nice and gave my daughter some excellent advice.

Describe your favorite film in three words.The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Ramona's evil exes.

What’s YOUR favorite film from your least favorite genre?James Gunn

There are quite a few movie genres I don't really like, such as musicals, romance, CGI kids films, family drama, courtroom drama, melodrama, etc, but I would struggle to pick a favourite film from most of those. So I'll go for Westerns and The Hateful Eight. No, wait! I forgot evangelical movies, and the original Left Behind. Unlike the tedious remake, the original was great fun. And it tickles me that worshippers of a god would think a film where he kills a ton of children would be a useful recruiting tool.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Questions and Answers, 17 May 2020

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

We all have odd quirks what's some of yours?GingerNuts of Horror

I can't go to sleep in between books. If I've finished my book I have to choose a new one and I've stayed up two hours doing that before now.

Anyone else have family who doesn't read your books?Deborah Maroulis

My wife read my first novel but none since then. I don't blame her.

What's your best cinema memory?Danny Morgan

I couldn't choose between between three of them. During Django Unchained, a chap at the front of the cinema stood up when Jay-Z's rap came on and performed it for us in time with the film. He was escorted out shortly afterwards. Fast and Furious 6: The build-up to Jason Statham's appearance. Those who had seen Tokyo Drift were slack-jawed because we knew what was coming, while for the other half it all came as a complete shock. And Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor. The twelfth Doctor's eyebrows! I have never heard an audience react like that. It was like white noise. The sound of three hundred geeks exploding with happiness.

Your Twitter handle is now your job. What do you get paid to do?Carlos

First time I needed an internet handle I used the name of a character from a script I entered in a BBC screenwriting contest: Rolnikov. So I guess now my job is to travel from planet to planet having adventures that aren't quite funny enough to win comedy screenwriting competitions.

If band names were literal, what would be the scariest band to fight?Ian Karmel

Have you ever been in a darkened room? Nothing could be scarier than The Shadows. They wouldn't even kill you. They would just keep scaring you, over and over. You wouldn't be able to sleep. They'd always be at the corner of your eye. They'd follow you everywhere. Brrr.

If you could get ONE movie made, what would it be?@Dene71

Tom Hanks in an adaptation of Clifford Simak's novel Way Station. I've always thought that would be brilliant.

I want to know what you think is the best single episode of any television show ever and why.Ian Browne

As far as science fiction goes, I would lean towards "Kiksuya" in season two of Westworld. It's a wonderful example of conceptual breakthrough, as Akecheta slowly realises what he is, and discovers what his world is, and it's heartbreaking.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Questions and Answers, 10 May 2020

Here are my answers to the questions that the world has been asking this week. I wrote my answers over the course of the week so there may be contradictions (e.g. when it comes to the most recent tv show I watched). Feel free to supply your own answers in the comments below.

You are now the main character from the last TV show you watched. Who are you?Tor.com

Dolores from Westworld season three. Which is great because now I can divide my to-do list between five copies of myself, like she does.

Which sci-fi show's prediction of the future do you wish was true?Big Finish

Struggling to think of one that doesn't feature a cataclysm in the 21st century. So I'll go for Parks and Recreation, which skips into the future towards the end. Their future seems pretty nice. Who wouldn't take Leslie Knope or Ben Wyatt as president right now?

What was the first James Bond movie you saw on the big screen?Scott Mantz

Didn't see one in the cinema till Goldeneye. And since then just Die Another Day and Spectre. Mrs Theaker's not a fan. But she gets me them for Christmas and watches them with me on Boxing Day, so I can't complain.

What's a blurb word that makes you NOT want to read a book?Claire Dederer

Epic. Just means it's too long.

The last TV show you watched is now getting a crossover with the last videogame you played. What is the unholy abomination that has just been created?Alethea Kontis

Far Cry Into the Night. I can see that working.

Can men be feminists?la scapigliata

Maybe men can be feminists, theoretically, but in practice I think we have an insuperable conflict of interest. I used to think that saying I was a feminist was a useful thing to say to other men. But I came to think that, as far as saying it to women went, it was like saying I'm not racist to someone from an ethnic minority, i.e. for them to decide, not me. When I saw the way some self-proclaimed male feminists treat female feminists, that feeling hardened and I started to feel that it could be quite the red flag. So I gave away my John Scalzi-inspired "Hell yes I'm a feminist" t-shirt, which was a shame because it was very comfortable. I would say instead that I'm anti-sexism. And all too often the sexism that I need to be anti- is my own!

Friday, 8 May 2020

Fantastic Orgy by Carlton Mellick III | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Originality, succinctness and clarity reign in masterful short story collection 

One of the most common drawbacks of the contemporary short story, especially in genre fiction, is sameness. Carlton Mellick III’s Fantastic Orgy, like many of this bizarro author’s works, stands out as a refreshing exception. With his utterly original content and tight writing style, Mellick introduces a smorgasbord of characters, situations and ideas that the reader has likely never encountered. Whether Mellick is writing about a lollipop-headed musclebound stud sampling cheese, an inadvertent transvestite using her hair to combat berserk enemies, or a “fat lazy half-assed drummer” who’s constantly drunk, he keeps the reader engaged with stories that are humorous, fast-moving and at times poignant.

In some stories, Mellick’s protagonists have a clear goal (e.g. to obtain an STD, to score a “laydaaay”). In others, the characters don’t exactly know what they want, but they do achieve some realization. In either case, the reader will be transfixed by the story’s contents.

The collection opens with “Candy Coated”, in which a muscular young man who has a Tropical Sensation-flavored lollipop for a head goes to a cheesery, where he hopes to hook up with a woman. He just has to watch out for the many bearded truckers who are intent on licking his head. The story comments on the airiness of one-dimensional males looking to “score”.

In “Ear Cat”, more than ninety percent of the population suffers from agoraphobia. Anxiety-ridden protagonist Irene finds comfort in her collections of lamps, “curly horns” (as in the instrument), and expired Gen-cats. Then the Kitty of the Month club delivers ear cat, who has a human-like face and yes, a body covered in ears. After spending time with ear cat, along with a couple other intriguing Kitty of the Month deliveries, Irene starts to discover some things are not as important as she thought.

The titular story, a tour de force of creativity, humour and all-around wackiness, introduces a world where sexually transmitted diseases are desirable. Main character Tim, who has contracted “Dick Talk”, heads to Share Your STD Night at the Demon Seed Society. His goal is to obtain an STD called “Vibrator”. Even without the plot, Mellick’s STD inventions and cast of eccentric characters would be enough to keep the reader riveted.

A punk band with a hit song called “Glass Sandwiches” is the focus of “City Hobgoblins”, where dangerous creatures lurk outside. Things reach a crescendo when a strange object crashes through a window and the bass player narrator falls in love with a shark woman. The band’s discussions and fuck it all attitude are what make this selection particularly funny. Favourite characters include Ass Fort, a constantly inebriated drummer, and Lenny, an artist who insists on preserving all life.

“Porno in August” drops pornographic actors in the middle of the ocean for a film they expect to make, but the crew isn’t there and the characters’ memories are sketchy. Time becomes warped and they gradually discover something startling about themselves. Although the author’s notes playfully argue that he wasn’t trying to make a statement (e.g. commenting on the emptiness of the pornography industry), one has to wonder. Or maybe that’s just me trying to impose a meaning on this profoundly prolific author’s work.

If you’ve ever wondered what the winners of the Golden Ticket felt like when they entered Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, pick up Fantastic Orgy – it’s as close as you’ll get.—Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Monday, 4 May 2020

Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf (Collector’s Edition) by Joe Dever
Holmgard Press, hardback, £16.99, April 2020, ISBN 9781916268012

With the release of Trail of the Wolf to schedule, I must confess that my cautious optimism about Holmgard Press has matured into quiet confidence… to the extent that I’d be very surprised if the late Joe Dever’s whole Lone Wolf cycle (books 1 to 32) hasn’t been published by this time the year after next.  As I mentioned in my review of Lone Wolf 24: Rune War, I have never played books 25 and 26 so I was particularly pleased when this arrived very promptly in the post (from Holmgard Press’s website, at: www.magnamund.com).  Trail of the Wolf is the sequel to Rune War and although I provided a brief summary of the New Order series (books 20 to 32) in my review of Lone Wolf 22: The Buccaneers of Shadaki, it is worth drawing attention to the way in which the cycle has been constructed.  The Kai (books 1 to 5) and Magnakai (books 6 to 12) constitute a single quest (or “campaign”, in role-playing game terminology) with a single protagonist (“player character”), Lone Wolf. The Grand Master series (books 11 to 20) consists of ten standalone adventures, in which Lone Wolf plays the part of troubleshooter for the good gods Ishir and Kai, foiling the evil god Naar’s plots to extent his influence in Magnamund (the fantasy world in which all the gamebooks are set). The New Order series focuses on a new protagonist (whose name is randomly-generated, leaving me with “True Friend” for mine) and combines campaign and standalone adventures.  The standalone adventures are Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero (reviewed here) and Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain.  There are four separate campaigns: books 21 (reviewed here) and 22; books 24 and 25; books 27 and 28; and the final four books, beginning with Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai (29 and 30 are reviewed here and here; 31 and 32 have yet to be published).

In consequence, I don’t recommend playing Trail of the Wolf without playing Rune War first, although, such is the skill with which Dever created the series, that they can actually all be played as standalone adventures. Rune War saw the New Order of the Kai (the warrior elite of Sommerlund) pitted against Lord Vandyan of Eldenora.  Driven by his hubris, guided by Naar, fuelled by the power of the Runes of Agarash, and with an innumerable horde of Vorka (spawn of Agarash the Damned) at his disposal, Vandyan was in the process of conquering central Magnamund.  While Lone Wolf led the conventional crusade against Vandyan’s army, True Friend slipped inside Skull-Tor special forces style and destroyed the Runes, guaranteeing victory.  Naar managed to snatch his own victory from the jaws of defeat, however, sending Zorkaan the Soultaker, a powerful entity from the Plane of Darkness, to live up to his name and snatch Lone Wolf.  The destruction of the Runes appears to have trapped Zorkaan on Magnamund and Naar took advantage of the situation to place him under the control of the necromancer Xaol (a recurring villain in the New Order series).  Xaol is holding Lone Wolf prisoner in Gazad Helkona, a former Darklord fortress city (the Darklords were defeated by Lone Wolf in the initial campaign of the cycle, books 1 to 12), and True Friend’s mission is to rescue him. The plan is to deploy to the Shezar Hills in Guildmaster Banedon’s flying ship, yomp fifty miles across-country, infiltrate the city, locate Lone Wolf, and await a hot extraction atop one of the citadel’s towers… what could possibly go wrong?  As such, the game can be divided into four parts: a wilderness adventure in the Shezar Hills and the Dead Forest of Helkona; an urban infiltration into the fortress; and then two dungeon crawls, the first to find Lone Wolf and in the citadel and the second to escape to Darklord Chlanzor’s observatory dome and survive until Banedon arrives.

Regarding the mechanics of gameplay, the narrative is quite short, very deadly, and heavily reliant on luck (at the Random Number Table, the game’s equivalent of a decahedral die).  I found the adventure by far the toughest of the New Order series so far (i.e. books 21 to 24) with True Friend being killed three times, once by fall and then by Xaol and an Urgaroh (a reptilian humanoid I could do without) in two combats.  It doesn’t help that when you do find Lone Wolf, he is in no fit state to lend a sword-arm.  The following can all make the game a little less deadly and a less reliant on luck:
  1. Selecting either Spawnspite or Valiance as your Kai weapon.  
  2. Selecting Kai-screen as one of your Kai Grand Master Disciplines.  
  3. Not picking up a Black Amulet if you find one.  
  4. Selecting one of the following Kai Grand Master Disciplines: Grand Weaponmastery (while carrying a bow), Kai-alchemy, or Magi-magic.
As I’ve come to expect from Holmgard Press by now (this is their fifth publication), the production values of the gamebook are excellent.  I did, however, spot three minor typos: the illustration labelled ‘1’ is in fact of section 2; the illustration labelled ‘106’ is of section 105; and there is an unnecessary ‘=’ in the page number 100-101.

In keeping with all of the other Collector’s Editions (with the exception of Lone Wolf 1: Flight from the Dark), there is a bonus adventure, “Dire in the Dark”, which is written by August Hahn.  I usually play these and include brief comments in my review, but I'm writing this under the COVID-19 lockdown and probably won’t get the opportunity for some time. The player character is a Dire, a dead soldier who is now one of the Lifeless, denied death and doomed to walk Magnamund.  This is the fourth instalment of the character’s adventures, which are all authored by Hahn, began in the bonus adventure of Lone Wolf 14: The Captives of Kaag, and continued in Lone Wolf 16: The Legacy of Vashna and Lone Wolf 19: Wolf’s Bane.  My Lone Wolf library is eclectic with regard to editions and of these three I only have Wolf’s Bane in the Collector’s Edition, but I think I’ll play “Dire Straights” before I return to “Dire in the Dark”.  In summary, Trail of the Wolf is a great gamebook, well-worth the price, excellent on its own, but even better if played as part of the cycle.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Zombie Apocalypse: Acapulcalypse Now by Alison Littlewood | review by Stephen Theaker

Despite the painfully punning title, Zombie Apocalypse: Acapulcalypse Now (Robinson) is not a spoof, in fact it’s quite the gorefest, almost a paperback nasty. It takes place in the shared world created by editor Stephen Jones and his collaborators in the typographically inventive anthology or mosaic novel Zombie Apocalypse. Happily this one doesn’t have any difficult-to-read handwritten passages, though it does have lots of italics, for emphasising words, for thoughts, for Spanish phrases. The Monumento que Canta, an ancient ruin, has been plucked from its original location and placed on the top of an ersatz pyramid near Acapulco: a theme resort, the Hotel Baktun. As new staff and the first guests arrive, it’s not long before reports come in of serious problems back in London, of plague pits discovered under cemetaries and “members of the public reportedly biting and scratching each other”.

This isn’t a novel that messes about: by chapter nine of sixty-four the apocalypse is in full swing and by chapter fourteen death has reached the hotel, by way of the sea. First a swimmer disappears from the ocean and then a wonderfully-described man appears at the pool: “Ethan thought at once of fish, delicately nibbling, and he shifted his gaze to the man’s eyes. Undercooked eggs, he thought. The jelly of them.” This first zombie to arrive gets hold of a girl, and when he falls to the floor, “a shred of fabric came away with him. Then Ethan realised it wasn’t fabric but flesh, pale on one side, bloody on the other.” The poor lad then goes through the agony of being unable to persuade his mother to run from his infected father: a scenario typical of what this ruthless book puts its poor characters through.

It feels very much like the tie-in that it is, reminding me of the tight, fast-moving Doctor Who novels people like Mark Morris, Paul Cornell and Kate Orman would write. There’s nothing wrong with that – many authors made a name for themselves with those books, and a series like this could perform a similar role for new horror writers, as well as providing a playground for more experienced hands, a chance (as here) to step out of their usual territory. The difference in this tie-in is that no time traveller is coming to save anyone. They must rely on each other, and the book pushes them gleefully into ever more dangerous situations. As with other tie-ins, fans of the series will get the most out of it, but other horror readers should find it entertaining and efficient, whipping through the story like it has somewhere important to be and delivering plenty of shocks along the way.***

This review originally appeared in Black Static #60.