Friday 30 December 2011

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #39 – now available for free download!

Merry Christmas and a happy new year! In this issue we have six more stories of Thornton Excelsior from the magnificent Rhys Hughes, mutant ultraviolence from Mike Sauve, and a science fiction tale from our dear friend Douglas Thompson. Ben Ludlam illustrates a Thornton adventure, and there are lots of reviews, from Jacob Edwards, Douglas Ogurek and me. Also, a mention for two people without whom I would have struggled to keep the magazine going these last two years: Howard Watts, who with his wonderful cover art has saved me from the quarterly hell of trying to create covers myself (TQF21’s awful, awful artwork still makes me shudder), and my co-editor John Greenwood, who has read virtually all the submissions this year.

In this issue we also have our very first interview! I found the interviews I did for the BFS’s Dark Horizons (with Brian Stableford, Lev Grossman and Allen Ashley) to be a fascinating challenge, and had wanted to initiate something similar here. I was in the middle of reading three brilliant books by Matthew Hughes (see Majestrum, Hespira and The Spiral Labyrinth in this issue’s review section) and so he seemed like the perfect choice. I hope such interviews will become a regular part of the magazine, but I will try to restrict myself to people for whom I can formulate at least semi-intelligent questions.

I made one big mistake with this issue, letting unfinished reviews build up and then trying to finish them all at the last minute. It’s delayed this issue by about a week, so to avoid that in future I’ve introduced a new Theaker rule: no starting a new book till I’ve finished a first draft review of the last one. (The most important Theaker rule is that having offered a cup of tea, you must make it.) A pile of yellow Silvine exercise books will assist in this plan.

But although it made us late, we did end up with lots of reviews: of books from Matthew Hughes and E.C. Tubb, audio adventures for Dick Barton and Doctor Who, and comics featuring Atomic Robo, Conan the Barbarian, Frank Miller's Holy Terror, Ian Churchill’s Marineman, the Incredible Change-Bots, Stan Nicholls' Orcs and many more. In games we look at Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition and Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team. In film and television we review MelancholiaParanormal Activity 3, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

One previous reading rule came a bit of a cropper this quarter: Even Stephens, my plan to review books by male and female writers alternately. It worked pretty well at first, but then got quite confusing when I read some books by male writers, but not for review, and then reviewed them anyway, and then had to hold them back while I tried to get some books by female writers reviewed to catch up. What a mess! But I’ll try to do better next time, perhaps by tweaking the rule so that instead of reviewing books by men and women alternately, I read books by men and women alternately. That’ll stop me getting into a muddle.

In 2012 we have to bring you more fantastic fiction, more reviews, more artwork, more features and interviews, and if we can persuade our ducks into a line, more books. We’ll continue to be quarterly—seems to be working well—with weekly (if not twice-weekly) reviews appearing on the blog, along with comment pieces and flagrant hit-bait. Let us know if there’s anything you think we should be doing, because, to be frank, your ideas are probably better than ours!

This 96pp issue is available in all the usual formats, all free except the print edition, which we’ve priced as cheaply as possible:

Paperback from Lulu
PDF of the paperback version (ideal for iPad – click on File and then Download Original)
Kindle (free)
Epub (ideal for Sony Reader)
TQF39 on Feedbooks

More about the sweet-toothed elves who have let us steal their candy sticks this Christmas…

Ben Ludlam is an artist from the wastelands of County Durham. See for more of his work.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the British Fantasy Society Journal, The Literary Review and Dark Things V (Pill Hill Press). He has also written over fifty articles about architectural planning and design. He contributes reviews of Paranormal Activity 3 and Breaking Dawn to this issue. He lives in Illinois with his wife and their six pets.

Howard Watts is an artist from Brighton who provides the Christmassy cover to this issue. He has previously provided covers for Pantechnicon, Dark Horizons and TQF.

Jacob Edwards is currently indentured to Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, as Jack of all Necessities (Deckchairs and Bendy Straws). To this issue he contributes a review of the film Melancholia. The website of this writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist is here:

Mike Sauve has written non-fiction for The National Post, The Toronto International Film Festival Group, Exclaim Magazine and other publications. His online fiction has appeared everywhere from Feathertale, Frost Writing and Rivets to university journals of moderate renown. Stories have also appeared in print in M-Brane, Black and White Journal, The Coe Review, Palimpsest 2010, and elsewhere.

Rhys Hughes has been a published writer for almost twenty years and in that time he has written six hundred stories, published twenty books and been translated into ten different languages. The Tellmenow Isitsöornot, a bumper ebook collection of one hundred stories, is available from Smashwords here:

Stephen Theaker is the eponymous co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and writes many of its reviews. His work has also appeared in otherwise respectable publications such as Prism, Black Static, Spark (a long, long time ago) and the BFS Journal.

All thirty-eight previous previous issues of our magazine are available for free download, and in print, from here.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Past contributors, new projects!

Some of our contributors have new projects out!

D. Harlan Wilson ("Houseguest", TQF33) and Douglas J. Ogurek ("NON", TQF33, and many, many reviews in recent issues) both appear in WTF?! from Pink Narcissus Press, which features "corrective surgery gone wrong, punk rockers abducted by aliens, zombie sharks, dead matadors, exploding ice cream factories, and dwarfs obsessed with pomegranates".

Alison Littlewood ("The Eagle and Child", DH53; "Day of the Bromeliads", TQF31; "Sarkless Kitty", DH55; "Off and On Again", TQF38) has a novel from Jo Fletcher Books about to hit the shelves, A Cold Seasonabout a young widow who takes her son back to the town she grew up in. I've read it, and let me tell you, that book is enough to give any freelancer nightmares for weeks. Especially if they're also a parent!

David Tallerman ("Imaginary Prisons", TQF29; "Friendly", TQF31; "Glass Houses", TQF34; "Devilry at the Hanging Tree Inn", TQF37) has a novel out from Angry Robot, Giant Thief, on February 2. I hope it's about someone who steals giants. That would be awesome. He'd have to take them to a giant fence, or possibly a giant launderer.

A reminder to any contributors to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction (or to Dark Horizons 53 to 57): we're always happy to run free adverts for you in the magazine, so do get in touch if you have a new project out.

(Thanks to ISFDB and its capable indexers for assistance in putting this blog post together!)

Monday 26 December 2011

Atomic Robo, Vol. 2: The Dogs of War – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Created by Nikola Tesla, Atomic Robo is a stout robot with big, expressive eyes who seems to have spent the twentieth century fighting evil and having adventures. There are similarities with Hellboy – his dry sass, the art style, his strength and toughness – and in some ways the comic does for science and adventure stories what the Hellboy comic does for supernatural tales and the weird. Unlike Hellboy, Atomic Robo wears trousers and shirts, which may seem a silly thing to note, but there’s no doubt that it’s part of the character’s appeal: it is visually intriguing to see a robot wearing clothes.

In volume one Atomic Robo fought mad Nazi scientists, giant ants and a pyramid advancing on Luxor, and accompanied the Viking probe to Mars (at Carl Sagan's request). Volume two, again written by Brian Klevinger (as are all volumes to date; the book feels very much like the work of contented creators), continues in a similar vein, with much light-hearted Nazi-smashing, though this time the action all takes place in World War II.

With the assistance of Atomic Robo's arch-enemy, Lord Heinrich von Helsingard, Nazi scientists have built Laufpanzers, walking tanks, and it's the hero robot's job to destroy them before they stymie the allied invasion of Sicily. If he can manage that, it's on to Guernsey where the Germans have built a second superweapon, a weather cannon that will “destroy England with a hurricane the size of England”. All it lacks is a power source…

The predominant mode is three or four stacked panels per page, the widescreen ratio thus gently created lending itself very well to Scott Wegener’s cinematic action. The reader drops through the panels at pace, but dawdlers are repaid in detail and character. The book looks fantastic on an iPad, Ronda Pattison's colours being particularly attractive when backlit, although the close-up approach taken by Guided View, presumably to make the book readable on smaller devices, soon annoys; iPad readers will revert to the full-page view.

The first five volumes of the comic are all currently available on Comixology for three pounds or so, but the two I've read so far would still be recommended at double the price. I like Captain America comics, but if you’ve ever thought they’d be better if Cap was pals with the Challengers of the Unknown and rather more of an atomic robot, this is the series for you. A quick but charming read with wide appeal.

Atomic Robo, Vol. 2: The Dogs of War, by Brian Klevinger, Scott Wegener and Ronda Pattison. Red 5, digital collection, 114pp. Available on Comixology.

Friday 23 December 2011

Kalin: The Dumarest Saga Book 4, by E.C. Tubb - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The format of the Dumarest books is perhaps ideal for a long-running series. Earl Dumarest is searching for Earth, travelling from one planet to another, sometimes in time-dilated luxury, the next in frozen popsicle coach. On each world he has two goals: to find clues to Earth’s location, and to raise enough money to buy a ticket for the next hop. Each planet has its own cast of characters, its own particular challenges. That means you can pick up any in the series without struggling to follow continuity: any of the four books I’ve read in the series could have stood as the first.

Having said that, Kalin is something of a format breaker, in that it sees Dumarest - and Kalin, his companion on this adventure - travelling between planets mid-book. It begins on Logis, with the Bloodtime imminent. Seeing an attractive girl chased by a “yammering, screaming mob” giving legal vent to a year’s frustrations, Dumarest dives into the fight, snaps some bones, buys her a ticket and gets her back to the apparent safety of the spaceship, where they begin to fall in love. A pair of saboteurs provide Dumarest with more opportunity for action, but ultimately cause our heroes to be stranded on a dead-end world.

Chron is Dumarest’s nightmare: a planet where there’s no chance of making enough money to leave. Will Dumarest’s courage, toughness and sense of honour be enough to save them? Well, there’s another couple of dozen books in the series, so what do you think? What’s more, he discovers the secret behind Kalin’s unearthly powers and does lots more good fighting (which is what these books are mainly about). He reveals a bit of a sexist streak (“Woman-like, she was indifferent to the comfort of others when a problem filled her mind”), but one imagines Kalin hardly cares about that when he’s working so hard to keep her alive.

Though at times this book surprised me, for example with its thoughts on living in poverty, and the choice between freedom and slavery, it wasn’t exactly brain food; it was exciting, unchallenging and straightforward, and that’s okay. It’s not the only kind of book I like to read, but there’s room for it in my life. The chances are good that I’ll go on to read the rest of the series, if they continue to offer the same kind of pleasures.

However, there was a huge problem with this edition: it was one of the shoddiest professionally released books I've ever read. It looks like it's been scanned in but not proofed. I won't give many examples, though two dozen are highlighted in my Kindle notes, because it feels wrong to offer free proofreading when the publisher has apparently not bothered to pay anyone to do it. There were two occasions on which characters smacked their hps after eating the last erf their food. If this is representative of the SF Gateway titles, I’ll regret the money I’ve already spent on them.

Kalin: The Dumarest Saga Book 4, by E.C. Tubb. SF Gateway, Kindle, 2747ll.

Monday 19 December 2011

Game of Thrones, Season 1 – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

To quote Andrew Collins, where did it all go right? Heroic fantasy on television should look shoddy and embarrassing, not as sumptuous as Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra. The dialogue should be stilted and silly, not as sharp, wise or venomous as the very best on television. The cast should be self-consciously slumming, not delivering – as Sean Bean does – what might be the best performances of their careers. If fantasy on television can be this brilliant, why were we so happy to have Hercules: the Legendary Journeys? And it’s from HBO, a channel whose dramas I traditionally enjoy for one or two episodes before drifting away. Cinematic television is a lovely idea, and I watched the first episode of Boardwalk Empire as if it were a movie, but was never quite in the mood for the sequel. Game of Thrones, however, is the most watchable, thrilling HBO drama since Band of Brothers, a million miles away from the elegant tedium of a Carnivale. Perhaps most astonishing yet is that for all the talk of how expensive it was, the budget of these ten incredible hours of television was reportedly less than half that of a film like Knight and Day.

To a viewer who has not read George R.R. Martin’s original novels, it’s striking that the story told here bears little resemblance structurally to fantasies like The Lord of the Rings and its imitators. It’s not a simple quest from A to B, nor a straightforward narrative of good versus evil – although there are the first signs of an overwhelming evil to come from the frozen north. This story of great houses battling for supremacy, of intrigues, betrayals and assassinations, reminded me of Dune more than any heroic fantasies I had read. (Early on I wondered if this was in fact science fiction rather than fantasy, the long but irregular winters suggesting an alien planet, but later developments establish that this is a magical setting.) And that structure makes it ideal for television, because it throws the characters repeatedly together, constantly in conflict, rather than dispersing them on interminable hiking trips. The balance of power jerks violently about, every episode a game-changer.

If it weren’t for the slightly over-enthusiastic use of female nudity, and its budget-led coyness about showing the actual battles, I would love Game of Thrones unreservedly. There are lots of fantastic programmes on television, and there are lots of fantasy programmes on television, but this is one of the rare, joyful occasions on which the two categories overlap. It’s a shame that Sky’s decision to show it on Sky Atlantic has blunted its impact a bit here in the UK, but if you’re not a satellite customer, don’t worry: this is one you’d want to own on DVD anyway.

 This review originally appeared in BFS Journal #4.

Friday 16 December 2011

Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

This twin stick shooter acts as an aperitif for the full price Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, but works in isolation. There are only five levels, all part of an assault upon an ork Kroozer, but each takes forty minutes or so to complete, and the different talents of the grunts provide a good deal of replayability. As a Sternguard Veteran the player mows the orks down the minute they pop out of their cauldrons; the melee weapons of the Librarian give them time to unholster their weapons, requiring more tactical play.

It's quite a tricky game in places, and not always intentionally. Set brightness to full for the best chance of spotting holes in the deck, and play the first level over a few times to unlock essential perks before proceeding. The camera is often a bit too distant from the action, this player frequently taking hits from nasty little guys he just hadn’t noticed.

The game's great weakness is its frustrating penultimate level, set inside the ork Cargo Teleporta facility, which among other things involves a lengthy set piece battle with a carnifex followed, without checkpoints, by an ambush that is very difficult to survive, making it necessary for less capable players to replay the carnifex four or five times too often.

Another part of that level advises you to get to a safe distance before detonating explosives, but prevents you from doing anything of the sort, forcing you to run helter-skelter across a poorly-defined network of walkways while they collapse, with sudden death on either side, the experience not enhanced by debris and pillars that obscure the player's line of sight.

The offline multiplayer mode is noisy fun, and features an interesting mechanic: sharing power-ups (including health potions) between players when they stand nearby. This means the better player doesn't need to hold off collecting power-ups, but is discouraged from running off on their own, creating a nice balance. A survival mode is good for a few minutes, but players are unlikely to return to it much once the achievement is gained.

Kill Team is a decent, cheap game, the sort of thing the XBLA is made for, but I can't help wishing someone would produce a turn-based Warhammer game featuring the proper tabletop rules. When the very similar characters of Gears of War are doing so well, it's obvious why there's an interest in creating W40K action games, but imagine how disappointed people would be if the only chess games you could buy featured the pieces running around and shooting each other in real time…

Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team. THQ Digital Studios UK. Xbox 360 (version reviewed), PS3.

Monday 12 December 2011

The Walking Dead, Season 1 - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Post-apocalyptic programmes don't tend to do very well. Jericho, Jeremiah, The Survivors (both versions), The Tripods, Three Moons Over Milford, etc – not many have made it past or even reached a third series. After all, just how miserable do you want to make yourself just before bedtime? But The Walking Dead is good enough that it might just buck the trend. The six-episode first season certainly looks great. Occasional shots of massed CG zombies are used sparingly, physical make-up being more frequent. The story follows young police officer Rick Grimes as he emerges from hospital and makes contact with other survivors. This Life’s Andrew Lincoln makes an excellent lead and the rest of the cast is just as good. In Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist, the programme has a showrunner to die (and then return from the grave) for.

Unusually, the writer of the comic, Robert Kirkman, is also on the writing team of the adaptation, and thus he gets the chance to do what you can't in a serial comic: have second thoughts, and go back and rewrite things. So interesting characters and relationships previously lost early on are given more time, and the last couple of episodes introduce a situation that wasn't in the comics I read; a good sign that readers won't simply be sitting around waiting for expected events to play out. One less welcome change, in my opinion, is that the series shows a character having premonitions. For once it would be nice to have a fantasy show that didn't rely on prophecies for lazy foreshadowing. One other unfortunate change from the comic is that these zombies sometimes run as well as walk, which makes behaviour that was reckless in the comic perfectly insane in the TV programme.

On TV the influence of (or just structural similarity to) Lost is even more notable than in the comics (of which I've read the first fifty): the adventurers head out on sorties while everyone else makes camp and waits for them to return. What it perhaps lacks in comparison is a bit of mystery and humour, but perhaps when the reasons for the zombie outbreak are investigated that will lead in some interesting directions. I hope the series stays broadly realistic: in the second half of the Compendium the comic veered sharply into OTT Garth Ennis territory; right for Garth Ennis, but wrong I think for a show that has thrived on a realistic approach. But they haven't set a foot wrong so far, so perhaps I should have faith that whichever storylines are followed they'll make good TV out of them. Post-apocalypse shows don't last, but this one feels different. I can't wait to see more.

 This review originally appeared in BFS Journal #4.

Friday 9 December 2011

Dick Barton and the Paris Adventure – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In a series of fifteen-minute episodes, Dick Barton and his chums work their way into the gang of black marketeer Spider Kennedy, who has a nasty habit of blowing up trains. Rather than the originals transmitted between 1946 and 1951, these are re-recordings produced for overseas transmission in 1949. Occasional line fluffs are not a problem, but do suggest these were recorded very quickly. Though there’s buzzing in places, the sound is good for such an old recording – particularly when it comes to the blood-curdling death screams.

Listening to the story over a couple of days, the accent Dick adopts in his guise as an American gangster begins to grate. Spider Kennedy quickly drops his own silly accent, but their initial meeting is unintentionally comical; think Vic and Bob as FBI agents. The story can be repetitive, the crooks becoming suspicious more or less every fifteen minutes, but the way Dick talks his way out of trouble is often quite ingenious. Its villains are colourful and menacing, if stereotypical (for example a lisping man Dick dubs “honeybunch”).

Though the story begins unpromisingly with a “half-wit” driving into a mine, it’s the now-historical setting of the story that modern listeners may find most interesting. It takes place against the background of post-war shortages, and when Barton goes to France, he notes that the operation is using the same beaches that were used for the D-Day invasion, and expresses surprise that there are any buildings left standing. That he uses the word invasion is interesting in itself.

The greater appeal, though, will be for fans of the character or the genre, and those who remember the story’s radio broadcast, all of whom will I imagine be delighted that these recordings exist at all. Those with only a passing interest in the material should probably listen out for an episode on Radio 4 Extra before buying.

Dick Barton and the Paris Adventure, by Edward J. Mason, starring Douglas Kelly. AudioGo, 4xCD, 4hrs.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Theaker’s Fab Five #2: Radiohead, M83, New Order, Broken Social Scene

I bet you’re excited, aren’t you? I’m going to talk about the CDs I’ve been listening to again! If this were a school it would be Excitement High! The numbers don't indicate an order of preference, but rather their slots in my five-CD stereo.

1. Radiohead - TKOL RMX 1234567 - CD1

I never quite noticed that I was becoming a fan of Radiohead, but I’ve bought three albums in a row now, and listened to them all an awful lot. This remix album continues the odd funkiness of the previous two, and has barely left the CD player since I got it. A good remix album can be perfect for listening to while working, since the words are usually broken up enough to stop you paying too much attention. I still have a soft spot for The Cure’s Mixed Up, and I used to love, inexplicably, The Beloved’s Blissed Out. My favourite remix album of all is probably Mogwai’s Kicking a Dead Pig. It was a track off there, R U Still In 2 It? (DJ Q Remix) which led me to them in the first place, after it was featured in a demo for Actua Ice Hockey 2. Apparently the full game featured two of the band as unlockable characters.

2. M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming - CD1

Still a bit on the fence about this one. I love Midnight City, in a Magnetic Fields disco kind of way, but not convinced by a lot of the rest just yet. Reunion sounds like Simple Minds or U2 or something equally abominable, but I almost like it. Since seeing the video for Midnight City (see below), which features a bunch of superpowered kids escaping from a facility, I’ve been looking out for clues that John Byrne’s Next Men was an influence on this album: at the beginning of their story the Next Men are dreaming…

3. New Order - Movement - Collector’s Edition CD2

The Radiohead remix album – specifically Nathan Fake’s remix of Morning Mr Magpie and the Mark Pritchard remixes of Bloom – has sent me back to early New Order in a big way. In the space of a couple of weeks I’ve bought Singles, the collector’s edition of Movement, Taras Schevchenko and Control on DVD, and even a Movement t-shirt. (Plus New Order’s last album, Waiting for the Siren’s Call, and Bad Lieutenant’s Never Cry Another Tear, which to a brief listen sounded a lot like The Cure at their cuddliest.) This CD has some of my very favourite New Order tracks: In a Lonely Place, Procession, Cries and Whispers, Hurt and Mesh. Wish they’d revisited that style a bit more in later years.

4. Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record

A bit quieter and easier to take in than the eponymous album, which sounded like ten bands in a blender – but I miss the little rapping bits. I like a bit of rapping in a song. Some may think this heresy, but I thought Dizzee Rascal’s bits in the Feed the World remake were the best thing about it. This album has a nice cosy sound. But Texico Bitches uses the second word of its title way too much for me to be able to have this album on in the house very often. This may well find itself tucked away with the work of potty-mouths like the Wu-Tang Clan before I get a chance to develop any real affection for it.

5. New Order - Movement

One of my favourite albums since my school days. If I had any musical talent, I’d be making albums that sound pretty much exactly like this.

And on the iPlayer I’ve been enjoying Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, the Now Show, Richard Herring’s Objective, and Kermode and Mayo’s film programme.

I’m so lucky to work at home... Here's that M83 video.

Monday 5 December 2011

Doctor Who: Castrovalva, by Christopher H. Bidmead, read by Peter Davison – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In the fifth Doctor’s first full adventure, he’s accompanied by Tegan and Nyssa; Adric is in the clutches of the rejuvenated Master. The Doctor’s fourth regeneration has not gone at all well, and he needs to rest. The recuperative properties of the zero room lost to a brush with the big bang, the Tardis heads for peculiar Castrovalva – which ultimately proves to be another of the Master’s traps.

Like Bidmead’s previous story, Logopolis, Castrovalva plays with lots of clever ideas: the zero room, recursion, Escher’s artwork and entropy. The original broadcast of the television version was, for a child, quite mind-blowing (and, years later, helped me get my head around first year philosophy). Freed from budgetary constrictions, the audio version achieves moments of real grandeur. Freed from acting constrictions, Adric, Tegan and Nyssa become almost three-dimensional.

There are also some very nice phrases – believing the Doctor dead in the Big Bang, the Master feels “deep intestinal satisfactions” – and lots of nice continuity touches. It’s perhaps a little humourless, some of the light touches that Davison brought to his on-screen performance not coming through on CD – he sometimes sounds as if he has a cold – but these things don’t spoil it. Castrovalva has its share of pompous and silly moments, but remains a surprisingly stimulating adventure.

Doctor Who: Castrovalva, by Christopher H. Bidmead, read by Peter Davison. BBC Audio, 4xCD, 4 hours. This review originally appeared in BFS Journal #4.

Saturday 3 December 2011

A few thoughts about the William Morrow letter

I started to write a blog post about the William Morrow letter (the problem with which, in short, is that it says “thank you for reviewing books for us” rather than “thank you for reviewing our books”), but I think these two articles from Larry at The OF Blog sum it up pretty well: I Ain't Gonna Work on Maggie's Farm No More: William Morrow and Blogger Reviewers and Follow-up on yesterday's rant.

It’s easy to see why a publisher might want to ask people to request print copies rather than sending them out willy-nilly, because they can be expensive, and William Morrow aren't the first publishers to cut back. Angry Robot are extremely generous with eARCs, but for print ARCs bloggers must guarantee a review. PS Publishing have dropped print ARCs altogether.

Some publishers are clearly being a bit profligate with their ARCs. There are some blogs out there getting 100+ books a month, and reviewing half a dozen at most. If Amazon ever offer publishers a way to distribute DRMed kindle review copies, print ARCs will be dead and buried so far as most bloggers are concerned. Publishers will just have a handful printed for the really important venues that refuse to accept anything else.

For us, as with most publications that publish reviews, an expression of interest in seeing a book isn't a guarantee that we'll review it, and while publishers are within their rights to request such guarantees (not that any ever have), we're within our rights to refuse them. The agreement between publisher and reviewer/blogger should amount to this: send them if you like, I'll review them if I want to.

Where bloggers specifically request books, you'd expect them to make those books a priority, but still, there's no guarantee. If the blogger or reviewer never reviews anything, of course, you'd expect a publisher to stop sending them books. I try to operate an informal rota, hitting each publisher more or less in proportion to how many books they send us.

All of which is why we've always preferred to receive electronic review copies. We can say, sure, send us everything, without having to worry that our open policy is having an effect on anyone's bottom line. If I spend a month reading books that I've bought – as I've just done – that might be disappointing for the people hoping for a review, but on the whole I haven't cost them any money.

We've settled into a very nice arrangement with Black Coat Press, who supply print copies: I pick a couple of books from their catalogue, and when I've reviewed them they ask if I'd like another two. There's no need for them to think, "Am I wasting money on this guy?" and no need for me to think, "Are they getting annoyed because I can't keep up?"

Similarly, I love that lets me select the books I actually want to read, rather than feeling obligated to work through the MOR that tends to arrive in print ARC. I have some reservations about the way Netgalley lets publicists pick and choose who they approve to receive their books – it would be worrying to hear about critical reviewers being shut out – but that applies to print ARCs too. And to their credit Netgalley seem to be trying to make it a more mathematical process, encouraging publishers to auto-approve reviewers who have written a certain number of reviews.

But in the end, if our requests don’t get approved, we’ll review something else. Any one of Angry Robot, PS Publishing or Chômu Press could keep us in books to review all year round. There are enough publishers out there – and enough books on our shelves already! – that we don’t need to worry about any given publisher pulling its books. Unlike the readers of a big genre magazine, our readers don’t expect us to cover the big new releases.

Well, what do you know: I wrote a blog post after all…

Friday 2 December 2011

Warlord of Mars, Vol. 1, by Arvid Nelson, Stephen Sadowksi and Lui Antonio – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

It’s a story most of you will already know. John Carter, Confederate soldier and immortal, falls comatose in a cave and wakes on Mars, called Barsoom by its inhabitants. He falls in love with Dejah Thoris, princess of Helium, fights four-armed green men, two-armed red men, great white apes and anything else that gets in his way. Once that’s all sorted out, the two of them settle down to raise a nice egg.

This volume collects issues 1 to 9 of the ongoing series, adapting the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books, A Princess of Mars. Though my memories of that book are distant and foggy - it must have been twenty-five years ago that I read it - my impression is that this is a faithful adaptation. Despite the pin-up covers, it’s a surprisingly solid read, and I couldn’t help getting caught up in the story all over again.

It’s easy to overwrite an adaptation. Boom’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – which crammed in every single word of the novel – showed how unreadable the results can sometimes be. Arvid Nelson’s script here is unfussy and effective, and gets out of the way whenever it can; there are many wordless pages. Admirably, it doesn’t ride a thoat over the fact that Carter isn’t a modern hero.

For example, like Conan of Cimmeria and Anthony (“Buck”) Rogers, he doesn’t place much value on the lives of his enemies. He leaves a city full of people to be pillaged by forty thousand tharks that were under his command; he doesn’t relish that, but accepts it as the cost of doing business. Also, his moral certainties are never seriously challenged, nor is his right to impose those standards on the “savages” of Barsoom.

That sometimes seems a little silly: tharks live for up to a thousand years, but none of them have ever discovered that being nice to their thoats makes them easier to handle? And one might observe that his Southern gentleman’s honour is actually somewhat wobbly; he despises a Thark female for her betrayals, but murders every last member of the Zodangan court despite accepting a position in their army.

I enjoyed artist Stephen Sadowski’s run on JSA, and his work here is of a similar standard. The action is nearly always very clear, and it’s rarely difficult to tell characters apart, even the tharks. Though you might wonder what an artist like P. Craig Russell or John Ridgway would have done with the material, this is a belt and braces adaptation, and Sadowski does the job that’s asked of him. Colourist Adriano Lucas resists the temptation to use seven shades of red for Mars, but Carter’s skin is a peculiar shade of purple in some night scenes.

Ironically the book’s only real problems are also its biggest attractions: the Heliumite Barsooms of princess Dejah Thoris. Indisputably attractive on the covers, they embarrass in the book, and take the reader out of the story to ruminate on how impractically huge they are, and how resistant they are to the admittedly lessened effects of Martian gravity. And could anyone be so comfortable in a metal minikini that they would wear one, all the time, by choice?

(We came perilously close to naming our first daughter Dejah. We decided against it because (i) we thought she’d get sick of people saying “Have we met before?” and (ii) it seems to be pronounced Dee-Jah, which doesn’t sound so good. Looking at some of the images in this book, I think perhaps she dodged an embarrassing radium shell.)

The book closes with forty pages of notes, sketches and alternate covers, many of which are very impressive. A thumbs down to J. Scott Campbell’s sex-kitten Dejahs (though they were probably good for sales), but thumbs up to Lucio Parillo and Patrick Berkenkotter’s fierce and tough-looking John Carters.

It’s a workmanlike comic, but an entertaining one, and a good way to bring the legend of John Carter to people who might imagine the original novel to be a bit dry. It’s not high art, but then neither was the novel. Sex and violence are front and centre, and they never go out of fashion: this is pulp with high production values. If the forthcoming film plays to its medium half as effectively I’m going to be a very happy sorak.

Warlord of Mars, Vol. 1, by Arvid Nelson, Stephen Sadowksi and Lui Antonio. Dynamite Entertainment, tpb, 264pp.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Writing Raw: Amazon clamp down on paid-for reviews

I was immensely cheered today to read in Writing Raw that Amazon are clamping down on paid-for book reviews provided by author promotion organisations. Ironically, the article was penned by someone who runs one such website, Shirley A. Roe, of Allbooks Review.

Writing Raw is an online magazine that grew out of Raw Edge, a nice Arts Council-funded literary magazine that was handed out for free at libraries here in the Midlands. (I always picked one up, and our own Michael Thomas reviewed books for them.) The current issue is here, but apologies to future readers: from the look of it, old content on the site is scrubbed when a new issue is added, so I can't permalink to the issue, and I can't directly link to the articles I'm talking about.

Shirley Roe's article, "David vs. Goliath or Allbooks Review Int. vs.", can be found about two-thirds down the left-hand column on this page. It begins:
"Allbooks Review started in 2000 and has reviewed thousands of books, encouraging and supporting new and established authors for more than eleven years"
According to the Publishers' Area on the Allbooks website, the cost of a review is currently $45. Quite a bit of money for an author, although if you wanted to pay someone by the hour to read and review a book of any length it wouldn't come close to minimum wage. The FAQs reassure authors that "98% of our reviews are positive". Their Goodreads account is still up, and all books get either four or five stars, including, naturally, five stars for Shirley Roe's books.

Amazon have removed all of those reviews from their website, because:
"We found your reviews to be in violation of our guidelines and have removed them. Because of this violation, we've removed your reviewing privileges from your account."
Looking at Amazon's review guidelines, I would guess that this is the part of the guidelines that the company is said to be violating:
"Reviews written for any form of compensation other than a free copy of the product. This includes reviews that are a part of a paid publicity package"
Seems perfectly clear and sensible to me. Free books sent out to reviewers are fine, but reviews for which you have been paid are not. Another relevant part (and it's something that I will have to be careful to do in future) is that:
"If you received a free product in exchange for your review, please clearly and conspicuously disclose that that you received the product free of charge."
At the conclusion of the article, Shirley speaks of becoming the "Michael Moore of the book industry". Erm, no. The Michael Moore in this situation would be whoever noticed the thousands of paid-for book reviews that were potentially misleading consumers and got Amazon to do something about them. Ideally by way of a comical prank.

So, in short, good for Amazon.

To open the issue out a bit more generally, indie and self-published authors and their friends should really understand that in many regards a range of reviews is better than nothing but five-star reviews. A range of reviews looks honest. Think of your favourite book of all time, and look at it on Amazon: I bet it's got a handful of one and two star reviews (often from complete idiots, or relating to particularly bad editions, but you get my point).

By all means encourage your friends and family to read your books, and to review them on Amazon. But encourage them also to be honest and to disclose their relationship with the author. Do all you can to discourage them from harassing less enthusiastic reviewers. Someone doing this kind of thing is not doing you any favours. (That commenter is also responsible for the silliest, unfairest review I've ever read.) Even if they didn't like your book, those are your actual readers, and if your friends and family post harassing comments, mark their reviews as unhelpful, and so on, that's going to put them off ever trying and reviewing your work again.

If you want the wider world to treat you like a proper, professional writer, ask your friends and family to treat you like one as well.

The other article that caught my eye in this issue of Writing Raw was a guide to "How Book Awards Can Boost Your Marketing Campaign" by Mary Greenwood. (It's the first article in the left-hand column here.) She's not talking about serious awards, but rather about paying to enter your books in things like the ForeWord Book of the Year, which I think are called awards mills (though apologies if I have the terminology wrong). Note that like Allbooks Review, ForeWord provides a paid-for review service.

Though the content of the article is not untrue or misleading, I would suggest that a magazine like Writing Raw shouldn't really be encouraging its readers to pay "$50.00 to $150.00" to enter such awards. You may well be able to tag it onto your bio and make a few people think your book is a worthy award-winner, and it might even help sales, but – and this is a big but – these awards are there to exploit writers, to take your money. Even if you might get something out of it, should you encourage and participate in such exploitation? To readers who don't know what it is, a ForeWord Book of the Year award has no more weight than an award you made up yourself; to people who do know what it is, it is arguably worse than no award at all.

If you want my advice, instead of paying $45 on an Allbooks review or $150 on the ForeWord awards, set up a Goodreads giveaway. For that money you could send ten or twenty copies of your book out to real-life, independent, interested readers, all of whom have friends, online and offline, who trust their opinions and reviews.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

TQF: interviews and the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

A round-up of TQF-related bits and bobs you may have been lucky enough to miss...

In this interview from 2009 on the blog of Gareth D. Jones I talk a bit – or rather, at extraordinary length! – about TQF, what kind of fiction we're looking for, and why I don't think we'll go semi-pro in the near future.

In December 2010 I was interviewed by Justin Bostian, who included it in this market report for students at Columbia College Chicago. (Link is to a pdf.)

In September 2011 I was slightly less loquacious answering a few questions from Duotrope.

We got a nice write-up in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 3rd edition – "its real purpose is the publication of absurdist fiction which uses all of the images, tropes and concepts of science fiction and mutates them into indescribable forms" – as did one of the contributors to our most recent issue, Rhys Hughes.

I spent hours as a youngster reading the first and second editions of the Encyclopedia in the university library, so you can imagine how thrilled I was that we got a mention…

A Chômu Press happening: Thursday night in London

The ever-interesting Chômu Press have organised a unique book launch for Jeremy Reed’s novel Here Comes the Nice, with two bands playing: The Ginger Light, fronted by the author, and Lord Magpie and the Prince of Cats.

Admission is five pounds, which will be refunded upon purchase of a copy of the book (as long as stocks last).

So that's at 8.00pm till 11.00pm on Thursday, November 31, at Jamboree, 566 Cable Street, London, E1W 3HB.

Sounds to me like an event well worth supporting. Really: if I went to something like that I'd feel like I were in a film. But then that's how I feel whenever I'm in London!

More information about the book here.

I’d also like to draw readers’ attention to Peter Tennant’s lengthy and fascinating interview with Quentin S. Crisp, one of the prime movers behind the press, over on the Black Static blog: Chomu Press in Focus. I love that they have a secret aesthetic, and that somehow Quentin manages to seem both idealistic and practical.

One last point. Perhaps some of you think I’m too fusty to use a word like “happening” and get away with it? Well, I’ll have you know that as I type this I’m wearing a necklace of huge pink beads. Thank you, daughters! I’m with it!

Monday 28 November 2011

Doctor Who: The Wreck of the Titan, by Barnaby Edwards – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Every so often an item refuses to be reviewed, fights me at every turn, or like Lucius Shepherd’s Viator Plus is simply beyond the limits of my barely nascent critical faculties. I’ve struggled to review this sixth Doctor adventure. At first I used MP3 Merger to turn it into one long audio file and put it on the Kindle to listen to, but the way it begins with a preview of the next story, the long stretch of incidental music at the end of episode two (during which I invariably fell asleep), and a big chunk of episode three going missing during the merge process all conspired with a story of timeslips and shifting locations to leave me as confused as Jamie and the Doctor are in this story. Trying to listen to it on the iPod or iPad didn’t go any better – I kept losing my place. The PC then? No, Windows Media Player got muddled up by the metadata.

Newer, less intransigent stories came in for review, and I retreated from this one, defeated by a combination of circumstance, technology and sleepiness. Now, having built up my strength reviewing the Companion Chronicles, I decided it was time to make another assault upon the Titan. I’ve got into the habit of burning the digital Who releases to CDs, which might seem a surprisingly retrograde step for someone so keen on ebooks and other forms of digital delivery, but if a CD is one of the five in my stereo I’ll usually listen to it once a day at least while working. This one I must have listened to nine or ten times, and I still can’t be sure I’ve quite got it, so I beg your indulgence for any silly mistakes.

The sixth Doctor and the older Jamie we met in City of Spires land on a grand ship, which they expect to be the Queen Mary, for whose maiden voyage the Doctor has tickets. But things aren’t right, and Jamie is the first to spot it: they are on the Titanic. Doors leading below decks don’t open, the band seems out of sorts, and the first officer is not the man the Doctor remembers. And then it gets really strange, with the story introducing people who are either pretending to be or really think they are Captain Nemo (played perfectly by DS9’s Alexander Siddig) and Professor Aronnax. This mysterious, adventuresome story forms the second part of a trilogy, continuing themes from the City of Spires, and ending on a remarkable cliffhanger that is surely resolved in the next story, Legend of the Cybermen. I can’t guess how a cyberman story might relate to this one, so there must be further surprises to come.

Though I found this story quite hard to get to grips with, that’s a function of how I listen to these adventures (usually while working or on my way to sleep). The script is keen, Colin Baker and Frazer Hines as the Doctor and Jamie clearly enjoying the quality of their dialogue. Howard Carter’s incidental music is very good, creating quite the grand sweep in the listener’s mind. The Doctor is completely wrong once or twice in this story, which he would presumably find a novel experience. It’s good for him, and good for the story: for once he isn’t in complete control of the situation and that encourages the listener to take it more seriously. It’s a good story for Jamie, too. He may not remember the Doctor, but his good sense is unimpaired, and he shows himself ready to think his way around a problem – or a conversation – until he finds a way in.

I enjoyed City of Spires, but this one just about tops it. The only disappointment is a sneaking suspicion that the next story will bring this excellent reunion to an end. I hope not, but shall find out soon.

Doctor Who: The Wreck of the Titan, by Barnaby Edwards. Big Finish, 2xCD.  This review (leaving off the first two paragraphs) originally appeared in BFS Journal #4.

Sunday 27 November 2011

British Fantasy Awards: why I'd reluctantly suggest that BFS members vote against the proposed changes

The BFS has announced its proposals for the British Fantasy Awards, and, to be frank, I think they’re a bit of a mess. The previous procedure had a leak or two, but the new proposals chop up the boat and build a rickety raft that I reckon will sink the first time it hits a storm. Even the new awards administrator says she has a lot of questions about how they are supposed to work, and no one involved in proposing them has come forward to explain.

It's a procedure that's been put together in a rush – albeit with good intentions – and it shows. Basic issues are unaddressed, such as how the administrator should decide between ties. When you have a hundred or so people recommending a hundred different books for four slots, you’re going to get a lot of ties. I can't imagine that there’s a fair way to decide between ten books that all got three votes, and putting them all onto the shortlist would be ridiculous (and isn’t countenanced by the new rules). Rolling a D10 is great when it comes to dodging a goblin's sword thrust, but it's not how the BFA shortlist should be decided!

I’m not sure why they didn’t just keep the old system but have a jury read the shortlist. That was what we thought we were voting for, more or less. For example, there had been no suggestion until this procedure was announced that voting on the longlist was going to be abolished. Or that members would be limited to making three recommendations. At the 2010 AGM I tried introducing a rule that limited members to five recommendations: the response was so negative I withdrew the proposal without even putting it to the vote!

I’m really disappointed by what that all means: there’s going to be very little member participation in the awards. We won’t get to vote, and only a handful of us, if any, will be involved in the juries, which are unclearly stated to "comprise individuals directly or indirectly related to the writing, publishing and bookselling genre fields". Although everyone who reads a book is at least indirectly related to the publishing fields, the intention seems to be to limit the jurors to industry types. Ordinary BFS members are going to pay for the awards, but will have practically no say in the results. (Except in so far as their recommendations will contribute to the shortlist, and that contribution may be discounted at the discretion of the juries – see below.)

One big but unannounced (and possibly inadvertent) change is in the detail of the wording: what was a constitution now becomes just guidelines. This is a potential nightmare: under these proposals the BFS committee will lose the ability to vote for changes to the procedure, but since the rules will now be just guidelines, the administrator can make up new rules on the fly as they need them, as long as they don’t actually add them to the formal rules. So we’ll end up with the awards being run on a series of unwritten and informal – and thus inconsistent and unaccountable – rules. I’ve seen that happen in the past, and it wasn't pretty.

The problem is, I think, that the people who have put together the new procedure haven’t (as far as I know) run a cycle of the awards between them. So they’ve decided what the rules should be, based on what they don’t want to happen (i.e. they don’t want Sam Stone to win again), but don’t seem to have thought ahead and imagined how the awards will play out based on these rules.

Let’s do that.

For example, we know that Sam Stone won best novel having got at least 24 votes this year. Let’s imagine that those 24 people split their 72 short story recommendations for 2012 over four of her short stories from her 2011 release, Zombies in New York. All four stories would be practically guaranteed a place on the shortlist.

(In fact, going on recommendations levels in previous years, I reckon six, five or even four recommendations will usually be more than enough to get a spot on the shortlist under the new rules - in the best novel category in 2010, only one title got as many as six recommendations, and that was when members could make unlimited recommendations per category, not just three. I reckon that under the new rules a canny publicist could buy a book straight onto the shortlist for under £300.)

So we have a shortlist for best short story that is entirely made up of Sam Stone’s short stories. Now what does the awards admin do? Well, nothing, the rules don’t allow her to. Although since the rules are now just guidelines, she could go off-track... but that way lies madness!

So the shortlist goes to the jury, who have no idea who recommended a piece or why. By the rules proposed they have to read the stories to decide whether they should be kicked off the shortlist. So they request them from the publisher, who supplies five copies of Zombies of New York. The jury reads them, and then has to decide whether to throw them off the shortlist.

If they don’t kick them off, the shortlist is announced as four stories by the same author from the same book, and the BFS is right back where it started, mired in controversy and accusations of nepotism.

If they do want to blackball them, they’re going to have to play detective. They’ll have to trawl Facebook and Twitter to see if there’s any evidence of the suspected canvassing, which is just a ludicrous thing to expect of literary jurors. If they find any, they can then kick the stories off the shortlist. If they can’t, then presumably the stories stay on the shortlist.

(Note that the option to remove books from the shortlist for canvassing only applies to bad books. If you have what the jury considers a good book, canvassing is not against the rules, and no one will go looking for it. Nothing unfair about that, is there?)

If the shortlist is then announced without any of Sam’s short stories, the publisher is going to know that she has been kicked off the list, and there is going to be a scandal. BFS members are going to know that their votes have been discounted. The publisher will be annoyed about all the money he spent on supplying those books. And the BFS is going to have to publicly defend its decision that the short stories were so bad that they only got onto the shortlist by “canvassing”. It’s not catastrophizing to say that the BFS, its award administrator and the jurors could very, very quickly (by which I mean next April) find themselves on the wrong end of a defamation suit.

So that’s why I’m against that bit. Another problem is that although 50% of people surveyed voted against splitting the best novel category into fantasy and horror awards, it’s been proposed anyway. The proposers think it’s an important step to put fantasy back at the heart of the awards, and I can see why they think that. But this has been proposed before, and the proposed new rules don’t address any of the problems that have previously been raised with it. They have just left all the problems for the next awards admin to sort out. Lucky her!

My preference would have been for the “Conan” amendment I suggested, reserving one spot on each fiction shortlist for sword-swinging fantasy. Easy and practical to implement, saves the cost of an extra awards trophy, and sidesteps all the problems a split award will introduce. Another obvious and fairly easy option would have been to have a separate award for sword-swinging fantasy. Keep the best novel, but add an award for that particular sub-genre. (The David Gemmell Legend Award for Fantasy had its roots in a proposed BFS award of this type.)

It’s also frustrating that in naming the award for Fantasy after Robert Holdstock – who was of course a wonderful writer who fully deserves to have awards, streets and bridges named after him – they’ve (i) failed to identify it as an award intended to highlight the kind of fantasy that is so neglected in the BFS awards, and (ii) named yet another award after a man. If this proposal goes through we’ll be up to four awards named after men (some of them fairly obscure), and none named after women. The BFS has an ongoing problem with gender representation in its awards: this would have been an ideal opportunity to do something about that, rather than make it worse.

Members will take part in an online vote on these proposals from from mid-day on 1 December 2011 to mid-day on 8 December 2011. Ideally, one would hope that the proposers will take the criticism of the proposals on board and try to fix them before we have to vote, or at least separate out the controversial bits. If they don't, would voting against these proposals leave the BFS in a fix, as has been suggested? No, because the existing awards constitution, which is a pretty robust document, allows the committee to introduce changes by a formal vote. The new committee will be able to sift through the wreckage of these proposals and implement the bits that were a good idea (having a jury read the shortlist) and ditch the rest (pretty much everything else, as far as I can see).

The key question for BFS members to consider is this: would things have been better had these rules been in place for this year’s awards?

If you didn’t like David Howe asking his girlfriend, her BFF and their other friends to hand out the awards at the ceremony, how would you have felt if they had been appointed to a jury that decided eight of the awards? And how would you have felt about them having the ability to secretly kick your books off the shortlist? I doubt David would actually have done that, of course, and had those people been on a jury I’m sure they would have fulfilled their duties admirably and conscientiously, but that's the power the awards administrator and the jury will now have. It's easy to trust a hypothetical juror. Think of people you don't trust (for some of you that'll be me!): would you want them to have that power?

I wanted a change to the procedure as much as anyone – I was one of the first to say online that this year's results were a sign we should consider introducing a jury system – but I can't in good conscience vote for proposals that include secret blackballing of nominees, give a commercial sponsor the power to pick a jury, make it easier than ever to game the shortlist, and reduce the rules to the status of guidelines. Unless these things get fixed, I'm afraid I think that members should vote no. The proposals, as they stand at the time of writing, will in my opinion make the awards worse, not better.

But if you vote yes, I’ll forgive you. I just want to point out the problems before it all gets set in stone. We can always get rid of the bits that don't work at the next AGM.

Friday 25 November 2011

Holy Terror, by Frank Miller – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The names have been changed to protect the innocent intellectual properties, but it’s basically Batman and Catwoman snogging away when a sexy exchange student suicide bomber blows up the club on which they're snogging. They get to their feet, swing around the block, and take the fight to the oldest mosque in Empire City, beneath which they find a secret underground Al-Qaeda base.

I’ve loved or at least enjoyed everything I've read that Frank Miller’s been involved in: Daredevil, Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns, Martha Washington, Sin City, 300; I even enjoyed his film The Spirit – so not liking this should have been an uphill struggle. It really wasn’t. The story is thin, the artwork feels like a cut and paste of Miller’s earlier work, and, to be blunt, it’s completely bonkers.

If, as Miller has said, this is propaganda, what is it propaganda against? It’s not as if many people in the West need persuading that terrorists are thoroughly bad people. Batman punching Bin Laden would have been as reasonable as Rory Williams telling Hitler to shut up and locking him in the cupboard. But this isn’t propaganda against Al-Qaeda: it’s propaganda against Muslims.

What this comic seems to posit is that every Muslim out there shares an implacable hatred of the West, that anyone not fighting them is letting them win. Of course there are insane, murderous Muslims, but there are insane, murderous Christians, Hindus and Jews as well. There are nutters of every denomination. And sane people too.

This book seems so paranoid that it’s hard not to read it as satire. If the last page had shown George W. Bush face-down in a mountain of cocaine, it would have made perfect sense. Unfortunately, time overtook this review and Miller’s comments about Occupy Wall Street make such a sympathetic reading impossible. He really seems to mean it.

What to make, for example, a panel that shows Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter (I think it is) grinning under the banner “Our Moment Now”, as the Statue of Liberty is blown up? They’re in a line-up that includes Gaddafi, Ahmedinajad, Kim Jong Il and a shocked Hilary Clinton, obviously realising the error of her peacenik ways.

If you’re going to fight a war with comics, best make them good ones. If Miller has a point to make – and in The Dark Knight Returns, for example, I think he did have an at least arguable point about the Batman’s responsibility for the Joker’s murders – it’s lost among the sheer hysterical silliness. It’s like reading a comic written by a Daily Mail columnist.

Holy Terror, by Frank Miller. Legendary Comics, hb, 120pp.

Monday 21 November 2011

Doctor Who: The Whispering Forest - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Following the events of Cobwebs, the fifth Doctor asks the Tardis to listen out for trouble. She takes them to Chodor, a planet on which the listener has already encountered human colonists. Besieged by Takers who snatch them from their beds and the whispering ghosts that flock in their wake, they rub their skin raw to keep themselves clean and cut their hair short. The humans have lost their leader, and the Doctor and friends, with their dangerously long hair and baby soft skin (“Er, thanks...” says Tegan), become pawns in a power struggle, between Sesha, progressive daughter of lost Anulf, and Mertil, his righteously murderous widow.

Whether Mertil was a true believer or a cynical manipulator of the belief of others I wasn’t sure; each interpretation would make her actions and tone of voice at certain points a bit out of character. Also, I had a problem I often do with stories where the status quo is so badly out of balance, and yet the situation has persisted for a very long time. As Tegan says, "Things change around the Doctor", but they tend to change without him too, and it’s hard to believe none of the humans have figured anything out for themselves. People brought up in a religion inevitably ask themselves at some point whether it’s all made up; hard to believe people forced to scrub their skin raw wouldn’t ever question its utility.

So it’s a story that brings up some big questions, and as usual the Doctor helps everyone find the answers they need. As in the previous story, there’s a big secret to be discovered, but the resolution of this one is not quite as satisfying, and the story as a whole is rather gruelling. One answer is given away a bit too early: what’s up with Tegan? Be sure to skip the trailer for the following story, inconveniently placed before the first episode of this one. Then again, I missed the trailer, and so the answer to that question hit me with full, nightmarish force. You might want to avoid that experience..! Overall, a decent but not outstanding adventure - with an unforgettable ending.

Doctor Who: The Whispering Forest, by Stephen Cole, starring Peter Davison. Big Finish, 2xCD.

Friday 18 November 2011

Melancholia – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Bats in the belfry, beans in the bell jar.

As the rogue planet Melancholia performs a crazy, slingshotting trapeze across the galaxy, privileged sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) live out their final days in dismal, otherworldly isolation and country estate gloom, a state of existence that is induced only in part by the prospect of planetary dancing partners Melancholia and Earth spinning and twirling their way to doomsday.

Melancholia commences with eight minutes of self-spoiler, the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde flowing forth and bringing with it a collage of slow-motion images: stately lines of dual-shadowed hedges; a bride, page boy and bridesmaid stepping forward beneath the light of twin moons; a woman fleeing with child in arms across the nineteenth green of a deserted golf course; bats dropping from the sky; falling leaves, falling horses; the bride floating serenely in water, standing unaffected, striding through sticky undergrowth like Mr Knox through Mr Fox’s new blue goo; and, most notably, ectoplasmic wisps of electricity dissipating off into space, upon which galactic stage there unfolds an impending, then actual, planetary collision. By “outing” his movie’s cataclysmic ending in this way, writer/director Lars von Trier ensures that it remains just a backdrop to the story. Planets will clash, the world will end, yet – freed from any worrying uncertainty as to how events may pan out – fretful viewers are left to focus unencumbered on what the film really has to say.

Cue the Emperor’s special new 2D glasses.

Plot-wise, Melancholia is split into two parts – the bizarre, hoity-toity wedding reception of Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), and the post-wedding, pre-apocalyptic calm wherein Justine comes to stay with her sister Claire and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). The imagery is striking throughout, the music portentous, and with the protagonists’ fates already determined, the planets are in perfect alignment for insightful character studies and explorations as to what makes the main players tick.

Which is where von Trier’s cinematic cleverness turns problematic.

Melancholia presents a plethora of odd characters, from sisters Justine and Claire themselves (supernaturally disengaged and obsessive-compulsive, respectively) to their bipolar-disorderly and estranged parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) to Justine’s supercilious boss (Stellan Skarsgård) and fleeting, interloperly co-worker (Brady Corbet) to new brothers-in-law Michael and John, both of whom display a quirkiness that, though palpable in its own right, barely registers against the film’s high background levels of outlandish and unnatural behaviour. The acting in all cases may be unimpeachable, but in no instance is an explanation given for any of these extremes of personality. Dunst and Co. seem to be portraying strange for the sake of strange, and as Melancholia falls with art-housed inevitability across its own backdrop, many cinema-goers will find such deliberate sketchiness – a conscious surrealism, almost – to be painfully insufficient.

Having already disavowed the scientific rigour of his fiction1 – but leaving incredulous viewers with plenty of downtime in which to wrap towels around their heads and wrap their heads around the so-called planetary dance of death – von Trier pleads the Fifth Amendment vis-à-vis character exposition, wilfully negating all the character in what purports to be a character study. Consequently, what remains to the viewer is little more than what Justine constructs for her young nephew; that is, a “magic cave” tee-peed together from whittled sticks; the fashionable illusion – or delusion – of a privately beholden intellectual mansion or exclusive golf course par excellence. In short, it is The Emperor’s New Clothes – another Danish creation – all over again, only with Hans Christian Andersen dying in pre-production and his place having been taken by Lars von Trier, lost progeny of the Brothers Grimm.

For those viewers whose bent it is to suffer through wistfully hollow cinematography, let it not be said that Melancholia offers nothing of value. Alluded to in plain sight within the movie’s title is a striking (if harrowing) mood piece: a study in depression and of the debilitating – or, in times of great stress, liberating – effect this can have on people. Depression, of course, is a serious subject, and is perhaps felt especially close at heart by light-starved denizens of the Nordic countries; yet, as much as Melancholia might capture the stark emptiness or colourless stupor of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the realisation of this condition on-screen, even at its most haunting and compelling, cannot disguise or excuse the film’s wanton faithlessness in respect to creating representative, believable characters. If mood disorder is the opera of the day – lugubrious melancholia, Wagner riding shotgun – then von Trier, in scripting so artificial a clique of players, seems to imply that it affects only those who are in some way peculiar or mentally unstable to begin with. He excludes out of hand all the everyday people who are afflicted, and by focusing instead on strangely flawed, “interesting” protagonists – an admission, surely, that mood alone cannot sustain a movie – he cheapens the film’s underlying premise. If Melancholia is intended to present itself as a lingering, evocative landscape of mental disorder, then it does so only covered in pointless and fanciful anomalies – as if Easter Island were dotted not only with hundreds of Moai but also with five or six randomly assembled, thirty-foot-high Mr Potato Heads.

The sad truth of Melancholia is that it fails to engage. Whole scenes could be shunted around – many a forlorn and popcorn-bereft viewer will have contemplated this, surely? – all dialogue could be omitted save Kiefer Sutherland’s, and it would hardly make any difference. The most damning reaction that can follow a movie is the one where nobody leaves the cinema when the end titles roll, not because they are so enamoured that they wish to hang on to every last tendril of the experience, but rather because stultification has set in and every pair of eyes is locked to the credits, wild and staring like those of a gambler on a losing streak, searching feverishly for an unnoticed cameo or funny crew name or anything that might justify having frittered away the preceding two hours.

Melancholia, for those who might have missed it, gives thanks to Penélope Cruz (who made no appearance) and employed Dr Dirk Poppendieck as legal advisor.

Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier. Zentropa, 136 mins.

1. Per Juul Carlsen, “The Only Redeeming Factor is the World Ending”, FILM 72 (May 2011), pp. 5–8. []

Monday 14 November 2011

Paranormal Activity 3 – reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

With each instalment in a series spawned by a groundbreaking horror film, the risk for failure increases. Many things can go wrong: the once effective scare tactics grow tired; acting talent diminishes; humour scenes fizzle. In a worst case scenario, the film flounders as a hastily assembled disaster that pales in comparison to its namesake. Paranormal Activity 3, like its predecessor, manages to avoid this fate.

This prequel reveals the haunted childhood of sisters Katie (PA 1 protagonist) and Kristi (PA 2 protagonist). In 1988, Dennis, the girls’ somewhat bumbling yet loving stepfather, discovers on a home video something odd enough to impel him to pursue it further (and therefore resume the raw footage technique that fuels the PA dynasty).

Though Dennis, a wedding videographer by profession, uses a roving camera to capture some of his home footage, his stationary cameras create the biggest impact. The camera in the couple’s bedroom shows a side view of the bed, a slightly opened door with views to the hallway, and, in a nod to the eighties, a view of itself in a mirrored closet. Another camera films the girls’ room, which, at night, glows with an eerie purple-white luminescence cast by their aquarium. What that camera doesn’t reveal is the waist-high storage space just behind it. This creates a particularly creepy effect when younger sister Kristi converses with an off-camera presence she calls “Toby”.

But the camera that gets the viewer’s heart pumping the fastest is the one that Dennis, seeking a wider vista of his lower floor, mounts on a rotating fan. This view moves between the foyer, a brick-enclosed fireplace, and the kitchen. The effect is one of severe tension: as the camera pans back and forth, the anticipation builds. What will it reveal?

PA 3 delivers a fun theatregoing experience. At several points, when the tension escalates, the directors treat the viewer to a laugh. For instance, Dennis’s videographer sidekick Randy shines as a gawky counterpoint to the gravity of the situation and the rigidly defined sets. The shaggy haired, rail-thin young man’s reactions to Dennis’s footage are legendary. At one point, Randy gives in to Katie’s whim to play “Bloody Mary” using the bathroom mirror. His response to what transpires admirably combines horror and humour. After another conflict-heavy scene, the camera shows a close-up of Teddy Ruxpin, the iconic eighties teddy bear.

Though it by no means equals PA 1’s ability to implant in the viewer a tension that lingers well beyond the experience of the film – perhaps no horror film does – PA 3 does pass the litmus test for a true horror film: it creates a physical reaction.

The PA trilogy has achieved its success not through eccentric characters, complicated plots, or vibrant settings. Each of these facets is developed only to the point it supports the cameras, and frightens the moviegoer. The strength of the PA series is keeping the viewer focused on what’s around the corner; what is not shown is just as important, if not more important, than what is. Thus, these films have the unique and surprisingly effective strategy of entrancing viewers by showing them an empty room in which nothing is happening.

In hindsight, one may unveil several flaws within PA 3: the motivation of the supernatural entities, the use of a mysterious symbol, straying a bit too far from the PA “less is more” mantra, and connection issues with the previous films. But these shortcomings should not impact one’s experience of the film. It’s a movie. So let it be a movie. And let it scare you.

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Paramount, 84 mins.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Sword Man on a one-star Goodreads rampage!

Returning to the blog for a minute – and no, my novel isn't going well at all, thanks for asking! – to note that Goodreads has got itself an amusing new anonymous member, going by the moniker of Sword Man, who has been handing out one star reviews like he or she bought a big box of them at a fire sale.

See if you can spot a connection between the people whose books are getting slammed:

  • The Taken, Sarah Pinborough
  • Torchwood: Into the Silence, Sarah Pinborough
  • A Matter of Blood, Sarah Pinborough ("Really badly written")
  • Zombie Apocalypse, Stephen Jones (ed.)
  • Mammoth Book of Zombies, Stephen Jones (ed.)
  • Mammoth Book of Vampires, Stephen Jones (ed.)
  • Shadows Over Innsmouth, Stephen Jones (ed.)
  • The Art of Coraline, Stephen Jones 
  • Department Nineteen, Will Hill
  • The Deluge, Mark Morris ("Weak")
  • The Silent Land, Graham Joyce ("Dull Characters and an unoriginal setting")
  • TQF36, Stephen Theaker [and John Greenwood] (eds.)
  • TQF Year OneStephen Theaker (ed.)
  • TQF Year TwoStephen Theaker [and John Greenwood] (eds.)
  • TQF Year ThreeStephen Theaker [and John Greenwood] (eds.)
  • TQF Year FourStephen Theaker [and John Greenwood] (eds.)

Most of the reviews were posted on October 16, with a few more added today after I started following his/her reviews. S/he has also voted two of Sarah Pinborough's books onto the Worst Books of All Time list.

But you'll be glad to hear Sword Man is not all negative!

Sword Man has, just in case you haven't made the connection to the BFS awards brouhaha yet, given five star reviews to Sam Stone ("She calls hersle the New Queen of Vampire Ficion on her website and I'm inclined to agree"), Raven Dane ("Well written and a golly good read") and Rules of Duel from Telos.

The highlight for me is the one-star review of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction: Year Two, which states:

"This man really has no clue at all when it comes to reviews and reviewing. It seems to me that Theaker enjoys writing self-indulgent twaddle - nasty gibes - and spends most of his time writing negative, not informative reviews. I haven't seen one he's written that I would say I agreed with."

The funny thing is that there are no reviews in that book. None whatsoever!

Sword Man strikes – and fails!

The irony is that this is exactly the kind of behaviour that seems to have got the BFS and its awards into hot water into the first place. So while Sword Man may feel like s/he is hitting back, s/he is really just confirming that people were right to suggest that there might be a bit of a problem.

Monday 7 November 2011

The Gift of Joy, by Ian Whates – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Though Ian Whates, chair of the BSFA and organiser of Northampton’s Newcon convention, has gone on to (presumably) greater things with novels for Solaris and Angry Robot, this self-published collection of short stories is an inauspicious beginning, one that never strains to reach beyond the closest language to hand, and rarely reaches beyond the most obvious ideas. The best of the stories are perhaps “Darkchild”, in which psychics are caught in an alien trap found in the asteroid belt – the ending was surprising – and “The Gift of Joy”, in which a former deep cover spy uses his talents for mimicry to work as a gigolo. “Hanging on Her Every Word”, horror rather than sf, has an old plot but a painful conclusion.

The book bears a self-inflicted wound: author’s notes at the end of every story. At best such notes are like a magician showing the secrets of his tricks; how much worse when the tricks weren’t all that magical. For example, we learn with very little interest that the plot of “Knowing How to Look” was sketched out in a pub. That “The Final Hour” – which features seconds ticking away between paragraphs, an interesting effect spoilt by dialogue that would take much more than a second to say – was rejected by the anthology for which it was written. And that “Fear of Fog” lifted the collection’s most interesting idea – a human world living peacefully in alien space when Earth is at war with those aliens – from Stephen Baxter.

“Ghosts in the Machine” provides a line that could well be applied to the whole book: “What remained of the adventure was pretty straightforward.” The Gift of Joy is not awful; that would at least be entertaining. It’s just unremarkable, generic and straightforward, the stories feeling more like competent assignments than bursts of inspiration. The part of the book I’m most likely to remember, unfortunately, is when the protagonist of “Flesh and Metal”, prior to his fight with a shape-shifting android assassin, passes blithely by the scene of a gang-rape, describing the girl as a “stupid cow” for wearing the wrong clothes. “She’d certainly have something to tell her friends in the morning.”

The Gift of Joy, by Ian Whates, NewCon Press, hb, 254pp. Amazon UK. Amazon US. This review was originally written for BFS Journal #3.