Thursday 16 October 2008

Vacation, Deb Olin Unferth

Vacation (Mcsweeneys)This book is typeset, designed and manufactured with wonderful skill and attention to detail. The paper's so soft you could use it to upgrade your baby's bottom. Holding the book in your hands feels luxurious; reading from it is a privilege.

In comparison, the novel itself was just okay. It's nicely written, if a bit bland. The narration is arch and distanced, which suits the subject matter but becomes a bit dull after a while. It jumps around in time quite a bit, often from one paragraph to the next - as a result it gives away the ending long before you get there, making the rest of the book a bit of a chore. Maybe that's too strong a word, because the rest is still fairly enjoyable to read, but from about halfway in you stop learning anything new about anything that's going on, other than the minor details; you're just watching things play out in more or less the way you expected, and my enthusiasm for the book waned the longer it took to get there.

The other main problem is that the plot relies upon the characters being stupid, and not just normal everyday people stupid, but Neighbours stupid. By that I mean the type of plot where a character is angry or suspicious about something their partner is up to, but they don't just try to clear things up - purely because that would short-circuit the plot. Instead, they decide their partner would have told them already if they really loved them, and stew about it until their partner leaves them for being such a grump. The entire plot of this novel derives from such dopiness. Maybe it makes sense for these characters to not talk to each other - the author gives them reasons for not doing so - but over the course of years it's hard to believe no one ever got drunk and said something like, "So, you've been following this guy around?" or "Tell me about the time you jumped out of a window."

The story makes a bit more sense to me when considered as a metaphor, or a fable, and the characters as symbols, of what we do in life, for questions of leaving and staying, and so on. There's something being said about relationships, and following each other, and routes not taken, and that kind of thing. But I'm not sure I agree with what is being said. The worst that can happen to a married couple in this book is to sit and watch television together, and then talk about it. That really didn't seem so bad to me: in fact, the characters could really have done with watching a few daft sitcoms to remind themselves what laughter felt like. Almost every character in the book was utterly humourless; to the point of inhumanity, even.

If Vacation had been a film by Wes Anderson, perhaps I would have loved it; if it had an appropriate soundtrack to put me in the right frame of mind; if the characters had been played by actors I like and trust enough to follow on a strange journey; if the foreign locations had been shot in living beauty by a master cinematographer. It had a lot in common with The Darjeeling Limited: both feature characters questing in exotic foreign lands, and both are meticulously crafted, deliberate, and confident of their own worth. But where The Darjeeling Limited instantly became one of my all-time favourite films, Vacation was just that little bit underwhelming.

But take everything I say with a handful of salt: any book lacking aliens or spaceships will struggle to make me totally happy. (I only got through David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia by pretending it was set on Arrakis.) That I even finished this book, despite its shortcomings in the extraterrestrial department, shows it must have been pretty good. All credit to McSweeney's Book Club for getting me to try something new. If I've focused on the negative, it's only because those things preoccupied me while I was reading it: others may find much to love in this book.

Vacation, Deb Olin Unferth, McSweeney's, hb, 240pp.

Sunday 5 October 2008

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #25

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Happy Days!

"Stephen, you’re absolutely correct. Reading any part of your work is indeed an embarrassment."

When someone said that to me recently, it happened to be a case of mistaken identity, but anyone who has read past issues of TQF will know that the comments are, by some strange cosmic coincidence, entirely accurate!

That’s one of the things that makes this issue so great – there is less Theaker than ever! In fact, looking back, only one issue of TQF out of the previous seven has had any of my fiction in. Bad for me, but good for the magazine, I think, even if it means it is straying distressingly far from its original purpose.

My goal here was always to put together a makeshift magazine, one in which I would do every job until someone better came along to do it instead. And so it began with my fiction, my illustrations, my reviews and so on. The first thing to be replaced was my fiction, as my ramshackle efforts were replaced by real live contributors. In recent issues we’ve seen what proper reviews look like, thanks to the pen of Rafe McGregor. Now we’re just waiting for someone to relieve us all from the agony of seeing my illustrations in most issues! This issue I’ve dug into my box of Corel clipart to find lots of lovely photos, but I'm going to run out of avoidance tactics soon.

My ultimate dream is to be displaced as editor. Nothing would make me happier than to see Theaker’s Quarterly continued by other hands while I enjoy my dotage!

Coming up soon is National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo. I think I’ll probably be writing novels in November as long as I live, regardless of whether the actual event is still going on. It's such a wonderful idea, and one that suits my approach to (and reasons for) writing perfectly. This magazine wouldn't exist without it. But I’m not an ML (a local organiser) this year: I stepped down last December. It’s been many years since I’ve taken part without being an ML, and I’m looking forward to it a lot. Let someone else worry about where to hold events; I’ll just worry about where to put my characters!

This year’s ML’s Guide to Life says: “MLs are ambassadors for the Office of Letters and Light in the forums. … We’ve had a few instances, however, where MLs have used the forums as a battleground, squabbling with participants or belittling other MLs and decisions made by staff.”

I couldn’t help wondering if they meant me (though for all I know that comment might have been in there for years), and I was a tiny bit hurt by the thought – most particularly because I thought such criticism would probably be fair! I got into a couple of fairly frisky arguments when moderating the Rules & Regulations forum for a couple of years, and I might even have described it as a battleground at one point: it certainly felt like one.

It takes a lot of patience to deal with the type of person who turns up in the rules forum of a novel-writing event to ask if it’s okay to knit a scarf or learn to juggle instead of writing a novel, and I wasn't too bad at that. What I wasn’t really prepared for, in my first spell as a moderator on a forum, was the astonishing anger of some people when someone says something is against the rules. What really baffled me was that they were never happy to just do their own thing and ignore the rules: they really needed someone to say, “You’re eating a pie a day instead of writing a novel? Well, of course that’s okay.” What kind of rebel asks for permission?

This year there’s a NaNo Rebels section of the NaNoWriMo forum, which is a great idea. But of course it’s full to bursting of people saying things like, “I’m glad they’ve changed the rules” or “I’m hula hooping this November, but that’s not against the rules” or, even more annoyingly, “I’m writing a novel about cats, which breaks all the rules ‘cos I’m crazy”. My favourite post so far was by someone who said something along the lines of, “I’m glad they opened this forum, because I wanted to sign up for this event but I hate writing fiction.” If you hate writing fiction, what attracted you to a novel-writing challenge? Jeepers.

I wonder if the 24 hour comics challenge is besieged by people who want to make films, darn socks and train monkeys…

I’ve just returned from Fantasycon 2008, organised by the British Fantasy Society, which was great fun. I wish I hadn’t had to go on my own, but it’s hard to find babysitters for an entire weekend. Still, everyone was very, very friendly. Going to an editorial panel involving the likes of Jo Fletcher from Victor Gollancz and Pete Crowther from PS Publishing was both an education and a sheer pleasure, while listening to people like Ian Watson and Dave McKean talk was marvellous. Plans are already afoot to make next year’s event even bigger and better, and I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone.



  • Happy Days, by Stephen Theaker
  • Contributors

News & Comment

  • Dave McKean and Grant Morrison Might Work Together Again, Maybe, One Day, If We’re Lucky
  • Death to Our Rivals!
  • New Elric Novels – in French?
  • Comics Exhibition at Harrods


  • Jack, by Bob Lock
  • Strangers Wear Masks of Your Face, by Ralph Robert Moore
  • Mississippi Sunshine, by J.R. Parks
  • In the Vale of Pnath, by John Hall


  • Murder in the Minster, by Rafe McGregor
  • Naked Before Mine Enemies: a Tale of Tiana, by Richard K Lyon & Andrew J Offutt

Science Fiction

  • Newton Braddell and His Inconclusive Researches into the Unknown: In the Mountain of Sanity; Bombshells; and The Start of a Long Descent, by John Greenwood

The Quarterly Review


  • All Known Metal Bands
  • Anno Dracula
  • Fear of Music: 261 Albums
  • Ghosts in Baker Street
  • The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
  • The Man in the Picture: a Ghost Story
  • Seagalogy
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union


  • Aliens vs. Predator Omnibus Vol. 2
  • The Authority: The Magnificent Kevin
  • Conan: The Tower of the Elephant and Other Stories (Vol. 3)
  • Doctor Who: The World Shapers
  • Fruits Basket (Volume 3)
  • Hellblazer: Papa Midnite
  • Hellboy: The Troll Witch (Vol. 7)
  • Hellboy Junior
  • Hellboy: Weird Tales, Vol. 2
  • JLA: Rules of Engagement (Vol. 13)
  • JLA: Syndicate Rules (Vol. 17)
  • JSA: Savage Times (Vol. 6)
  • JSA: Lost (Vol. 9)
  • JSA: Black Vengeance (Vol. 10)
  • The Lost Colony: Snodgrass Conspiracy
  • The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 1
  • Starman: A Starry Knight (Vol. 7)
  • Stone Island
  • Superman: Red Son
  • Terminator Omnibus Volume 2
  • Ultimate Galactus Trilogy
  • Vertigo: First Cut
  • War Stories, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2
  • Zot! 1987–1991


  • McSweeney’s 28


Allow us to introduce this issue's willing victims…

Ralph Robert Moore’s fiction has been published in America, England, Ireland and Australia, and translated into Lithuanian. He has been anthologised in the nineteenth edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow; Ten Years of the Best of Sign O’ the Times; Darkness Rising; Revelation III; Dark Distortions; and Read By Dawn (edited by Ramsey Campbell). An interview with him, as well as a bibliography and new story, is in the seventh issue of Midnight Street (edited by Trevor Denyer, famous – of course! – for his contributions to our own New Words). His story "The Machine of a Religious Man" was nominated as Best Story of the Year in the 2006 British Fantasy Society Awards. Other magazines that have published his fiction include Albedo One, Collages and Bricolages, ChiZine, fugue, Lullaby Hearse, Lunatic Chameleon, Porcupine Literary Arts Magazine, Redsine, Revelation, Roadworks, Sein Und Werden, Sign O’ the Times, Songs of Innocence (and Experience), Space and Time, The Los Angeles Times Calendar Magazine and Thirteen. His novel Father Figure was published in 2003. He recently completed his first play, Duck Eggs. His website SENTENCE features a wide selection of his writings.

J.R. Parks is a professional writer of children’s graphic novels. His works of fiction and poetry have been published in such anthologies as The Northridge Review, I Am This Meat, The Bandersnatch Vol. II, Centres of Expression, Parade of Phantoms, San Jose Zine, and others. He is also the author of Machine Town: Flight of the Sky Captain, as well as a graphic novel adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Two of his pieces have been professionally recorded into audio editions, and can be heard on his website (

John Greenwood has made contributions to most issues of TQF following his return from a round-the-world trip, and was ultimately made co-editor in recognition of his efforts. To this issue he contributes an astonishing three episodes in the life of the Newton Braddell!

Rafe McGregor is a crime fiction author who spends far too much of his time rereading the work of H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James. He lives with his wife in a village near York. More details can be found on his website ( To this issue he has contributed both a short story, "Murder in the Minster", and a number of reviews.

John Hall is best known as a Sherlockian scholar, and a member of the International Pipe Smokers’ Hall of Fame. His numerous literary interests include Raffles (this one, not this one) and Sexton Blake, and he shares with his friend Rafe McGregor a keen interest in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James. He is the author of Special Commission, a medieval murder mystery. A previous story by John, "Shaggai", appeared in TQF#23.

Bob Lock is a Welsh writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror, whose debut novel Flames of Herakleitos was published in March 2007 by Screaming Dreams. His work has also appeared in Cold Cuts 1 & 2, and Cone Zero, edited by D.F. Lewis, and online at Whispers of Wickedness, Sfcrowsnest, Scifi UK Review, Alienskin, Sams Dot Publishing, Fiction Online, Sffworld and his very own Bob Lock blog. To this issue he contributed a short Halloween tale by the name of "Jack".

Richard K Lyon is a semi-retired research scientist/inventor whose hobbies include collecting pulp SF magazines and writing. He has also published numerous short stories and novelettes. A collection of the latter, Tales From The Lyonheart, is available from Barnes and Noble, etc. In collaboration with Andrew J Offutt, famed author of My Lord Barbarian, he wrote the Tiana trilogy (Demon in the Mirror, The Eyes of Sarsis and Web of the Spider), and Rails Across the Galaxy for Analog. To our magazine they have contributed "The Iron Mercenary" (TQF#19), "Arachnis" (TQF#22), "Devil on My Stomach" (TQF#23), "The Hungry Apples" (TQF#24) and, this issue, "Naked Before Mine Enemies".

Saturday 4 October 2008

Zot! The Complete Black-and-White Stories: 1987–1991, by Scott McCloud – reviewed

The modern Superman comes in for quite a bit of criticism for being a bit of a wimpy new man, but the Superman of the 1950s was as much a product of his time, with his gratingly patriarchal attitude.

Zot, on the other hand, is like a Superman out of time, free of the need to appear in twenty comic books a month or to maintain a status quo. He’s happy, comfortable with his powers, accepting of the things he can’t change, determined to change the things he can. He has no hang-ups, but is understanding of the hang-ups of others. He’s everything Superman has the potential to be.

This superb and substantial book contains nearly all of his adventures in black and white (leaving out backup strips and a couple of issues drawn by Chuck Austen – though Scott McCloud’s layouts for those issues are included). The stories are light-hearted, funny and exciting, with a bit of soap opera to keep you going from issue to issue. McCloud’s approach to super-heroics and super-villainy is imaginative and innovative.

If the book has one flaw it’s that the author’s notes, which appear at the end of each story, might have been better collected at the end of the book. They are fascinating, but it feels sometimes as if the author is trying to overdetermine the reader’s response, in particular in his attitude to the later issues, which take place almost entirely on Earth.

He obviously loved those issues (as did a lot of readers), but after reading so many notes about how much better the comic is without the superhero stuff, I found those issues rather underwhelming. I much preferred the bulk of the book, in which the relationship stuff is just one element among many.

The art is astounding from start to finish. McCloud uses a variety of approaches to create various effects, but his main mode is a clear line style similar to that seen in Tintin, with a dash of manga expressionism.

All in all, a joy to read, and a feast for the eyes!

Zot! The Complete Black-and-White Stories: 1987–1991, Scott McCloud, Harper, pb, 384pp.

Anno Dracula, Kim Newman – reviewed

I hadn’t read any fiction by Kim Newman before, though I’ve always enjoyed his film reviews for Empire. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t read Dracula either, though I’ve seen plenty of film versions of it, so I came to this novel in a state of literary ignorance. Luckily, Newman held my head and told me that everything was going to be… absolutely horrible!

The twin premise here is that Dracula was not defeated at the end of Bram Stoker’s novel, and that he existed in the same world as many other fictional characters.

It’s hard to mention that second bit without thinking of Alan Moore’s later League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There are other similarities, too, in that both authors have penned sequels taking their stories into the twentieth century. Earlier books in a similar vein include Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold-Newton books (credited here by Kim Newman), and of course just about every comic published since the 1940s.

Part of me wishes that Newman had limited himself to the characters from Dracula – occasionally the book drives you off to Wikipedia to look characters up, rather than drawing you in to its plot – but you can’t begrudge an author his enthusiasms, and in general he carries it off very well. Indeed, one of the book’s most interesting ideas is that each family of vampires has its own abilities, mentalities and power relationships, as seen in all the different vampire novels that preceded this one. Because he died before turning, Dracula’s line is said to be tainted by the rot of the grave: damaged, and more demented than most.

For most of the novel Dracula himself is an offstage, pernicious presence. When he does take centre stage, the wait was worthwhile – Newman’s Dracula is utterly terrifying, and utterly malevolent.

Overall, this is a much more plot-driven book than you might expect, and, though the mood of fear, oppression and decay is kept at a high pitch, every word compels the reader to keep turning the pages. The literary games are always subservient to the storytelling. Similarly, Dracula’s far-from-bloodless coup has serious consequences for Britain’s society, from its class system to its political organisations and its foreign policy, but we only learn about those things as they become relevant to the story.

A brilliant book.

Anno Dracula, Kim Newman, Avon Books, pb, 416pp.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon

I took one edition of this book out from the library a while ago, then half-way through got entranced by the bulging biceps and voluptuous maidens of Savage Sword of Conan, Volume 1. Soon my time with the book was up, and another had already placed a reservation, so I had to return it unfinished – always heartbreaking. Second time around, I had to settle for a large print edition from W.F. Howes Ltd, which rather embarrassingly for that company announces itself as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union on the cover. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I’m glad I didn’t make it.

So, having finished with Conan and his savage sword, and resisting the temptation to move onto volume two, I returned with excitement to Jewish Alaska. Large print turned out to be a boon – I felt like a reading wunderkind as I flashed through the pages, and it was ideal for reading late at night by lamplight. Having taken a month to read the first twenty-four chapters (more or less one each night), it took me an evening and a morning to read the rest.

So that’s how I got to the end. Briefly, to remind myself in future years of the plot, this is where it begins: a rumpled policeman gets beaten up a lot (often by inanimate objects) as he investigates a murder in the weeks leading up to the abolition of a Jewish settlement in Alaska.

This is an alternative history novel in the tradition of Kingley Amis’s The Alteration, Keith Roberts’ Pavane and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I won’t go into the details of the differences from our world, because they are seeded through the book like little alarm clocks, but they don’t seem to stem from one single change. The main difference is that the nation of Israel did not survive, and a temporary settlement in Alaska was established instead.

The story works well as a detective story. There’s a lot going on, but Chabon has a knack of having his characters gather their thoughts just as you think you’re about to lose the thread. It also works well as alternative history – everything is plausible, but more to the point it shows how even in a world quite different to our own similar pressures would still exist. They would just be applied in different locations.

It was very reminiscent of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, another fine literary detective novel, what with the snow, and the crimes, and the slight fantastical twist. It added to those things a narration in the present tense, which made me groan as I read the first page, but won me over pretty quickly. It served a purpose – throwing you into the events and feeling them in the here and now, rather than relegating them to a distant irrelevant past.

Having finally finished it, I’m in a rather giddy mood today, so here’s the movie tagline I came up with last night: Even when everything’s different, some things stay the same. The Coen Brothers can have that for free…

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon, Fourth Estate, hb, 432pp