Monday 30 June 2014

Maleficent, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Mistress of All Evil repackaged as multidimensional heroine

Excepting the horror genre, not many films are named after a villain. Villainesses are even rarer. Moreover, it’s hard to find a fully developed hero in a contemporary special effects-heavy blockbuster.

Maleficent (2014), directed by Robert Stromberg, fills these gaps exquisitely by recasting the iconic Mistress of All Evil as a fairy born into a privileged, human-free life of gallivanting amid an idyllic forest filled with magical inhabitants. Then she meets the boy Stefan, who ultimately betrays her to assume the throne. Jilted lover Maleficent slaps a curse on King Stefan’s daughter: before her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel needle and fall into an eternal sleep, lest she be awakened by true love’s kiss.

The king orders the elimination of all spinning wheels and dispatches his daughter to a remote cottage, where Maleficent immediately finds her.

The majority of the film juxtaposes King Stefan’s self-destructive search for the evasive “villainess” and Maleficent’s relationship with the unsuspecting Aurora.

Initially, the film seems to move toward an eco-tale in the vein of Avatar (2009) when the child Maleficent chides a human intruder for stealing a precious stone from her forest. However, Maleficent veers from this direction and instead focuses on an unlikely relationship between a Goody Two-shoes and a shadowy sorceress. The film offers a moving, if predictable climax and healthy doses of what the best fairy tales deliver: justice and triumph.

A Jolie Good Performance
Having borne Charlize Theron’s overly dramatic portrayal of Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)—the actress made the most of a poorly scripted character—I was concerned that Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent would follow in her footsteps. Fortunately, Jolie, armed with those unmistakable horns and some vicious cheekbones, rises to the occasion.

There are times when Jolie rages. When Maleficent discovers that she has been betrayed, for instance, she conveys first shock with her quiet realization, then shrieking outrage. Fortunately, she avoids the Hollywood cliché of extending her arms and screaming at the sky.

But what truly makes Jolie’s performance a pleasure to watch are her moments of restraint. When Maleficent tells Aurora that “there is evil in this world, hatred and revenge,” one senses both forced constraint and self-castigation in her tone. When people speak to her, Maleficent may stare at them for a couple seconds before responding. Her reserved nature, coupled with her economy of movement and rigid posture, rebels against a real world that never stops talking and moving.

In one of the most endearing scenes, a mud fight breaks out between Aurora and the forest creatures. When a stray splotch of mud hits Maleficent, the revelers look worried and quiet pervades the scene, with one exception: Diaval, Maleficent’s shapeshifting henchman, bursts into laughter. A torrent of mud slams him in the face and as the laughing resumes, Maleficent smiles…slightly.

Go Forth Fearlessly

Disney’s revamp of the villainess joins other blockbusters like the The Hunger Games and Divergent series in the ongoing dialogue about the role of contemporary women both within and beyond the silver screen.

Once, the childless recluse with an unorthodox sense of fashion was restricted to desolate outposts and gloomy alcoves. Now Maleficent has stepped out unabashed. There is something liberating about plopping a gaunt-faced villainess in flowing black robes into a sunny, verdant landscape where a blonde frolics.

“I am not afraid,” Maleficent tells Aurora, who embodies the old-fashioned notion of what a woman should be. Maybe, Maleficent hints, a woman’s success lies not in being whisked away or saved by a man, but rather in her own ingenuity. Maybe they should have named this film Femaleficent. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Would save if my house burned down: Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer #bookaday

Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer (subtitled Pseudoscience, Superstition and Other Confusions of Our Time), is the book I would save if my house burned down, without a doubt. Not because it's a terrific book, although of course it is – chapter three in particular should be taught in schools - but because it is one of the first books on the first bookcase when you enter our house, on a shelf at chest height, and it sticks out from the other books on there.

Because if my house was on fire, I wouldn't give a stuff about my paper books. They're only possessions. I'd get by with the books in my Kindle archive, or the eARCs in my Dropbox. But The Borough Press, who set this challenge, presumably plan to be there, to make sure I don't leave without a book, perhaps even forcing me to go back inside! In those circumstances I would go for the easiest to grab: Why People Believe Weird Things.

I got off to a slow start with this series of #bookaday posts, so here’s a quick catch-up on the four I missed at the beginning.

Favourite book from childhood: The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. So many lands to visit! The slippery slide! The Saucepan Man! Silkie! (My second literary crush.) It gave me the most amazing dreams and the most terrifying nightmares. I tried reading the modern bowdlerized version of this to our children but it was painful. The sexism of the original is deplorable, but the modern version replaces it with a pathetic vagueness. And Fanny and Dick were always funny names, that was half the fun!

Best bargain. Nearly all my books were bargains. For my first twenty-three years I could only afford secondhand books, and by the time I could afford new books I had so many secondhand books that there wasn’t much room for much else. I could pick something like The Best of McSweeney’s Deluxe, where I pre-ordered it and the price went up by twenty quid before publication. There was a nice time when sterling/dollar exchange rates were such that Marvel’s hardback deluxe collections of things like New X-Men and Runaways were only fifteen quid each. Three quarters of my collection of 2000AD graphic novels (the Hamlyn and Titan editions) came from places like The Works and Leicester Book Clearance. My pick, though, would be the two carrier bags full of Doctor Who books I bought on one glorious day in Sutton Coldfield, back in 1998 or 1999. It was a popup shop that seemed to be gone in a week, so thank goodness I had plenty of money in the bank that day. They had pretty much the full range of Virgin New Adventures and Missing Adventures, plus loads of the non-fiction and hardbacks, and even, I think, collections of comics. I bought everything I didn’t already have, spending a hundred and fifty quid or so and coming away with forty or fifty books.

One with a blue cover: Selected Stories by Fritz Leiber. This is the Night Shade edition, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Charles N. Brown. This was a kind gift at FantasyCon from someone I had helped out that year with my awesome publishing skills. Here it is on the overloaded coffee table in my office.

Least favourite book by favourite author: Monsters in Orbit by Jack Vance. An early undistinguished work. I don’t remember much about it, except the disappointment!

So that's it for this #bookaday series of blog posts. It's been a fun experiment, and tomorrow I'll probably be back to blogging as infrequently as ever. (Although I do have almost thirty reviews half-finished – time for a review a day?) I love that this got me to root around in my stupidly huge book collection, which was a great way of bringing it back to life. For example I found a bunch of unread books by people like Clifford Simak, James Tiptree Jr, Leigh Brackett and Henry Kuttner that had previously been lost to double-shelving.

Must find time to read those soon.

Anyway, thanks for reading!

Sunday 29 June 2014

The one I have reread most often: The Slings & Arrows Comic Guide #bookaday

Doctor Who: The Television Companion by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker was my first thought here. I must have read it all a dozen times over, bit by bit. You start by looking up a transmission date, then begin reading the analysis, and next thing you know it's time to go to bed and you're wondering where the day has gone.

Other Doctor Who books were contenders too - Planet of the Daleks, The Discontinuity Guide, The Claws of Axos (which I got in exchange for some marbles at middle school), Day of the Daleks (77p at Millers), and Image of the Fendahl (borrowed from the town library three or four times and read in a single night each time).

Then I thought about novels, like Planets for Sale by A.E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull (which led me to read loads of tedious A.E. van Vogt books before realising I should probably have been looking for E. Mayne Hull books), The Duelling Machine by Ben Bova, The Time Trip by Rob Swigart, The Stainless Steel Rat for President by Harry Harrison, or Biggles in France by Captain W.E. Johns.

But no, it had to be the second edition of The Slings & Arrows Comic Guide, edited by Frank Plowright, a wonderful series of critical essays surveying American comics from the 1930s to the present day. The other books I've read several times, but this book I've never stopped reading. It was published in 2003, over 3800 days ago, and I'd estimate I've read from this book on at least three quarters of those days.

Saturday 28 June 2014

Bought at my fave indie bookshop: Bone and Jewel Creatures at Weightless Books #bookaday

Millers in Keighley was my favourite independent bookshop as long as I lived there. It had a great mix of new and secondhand titles at a wide range of prices. It fed my hunger for science fiction for years. I would walk into town to save my bus fare so that I could afford to buy a 15p comic or three 5p books from the discard box. I bought loads of books there – lots of Moorcock, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Sword of Shannara. Their new books had often been sitting on the shelves a while so they still had old prices on, making them more affordable than in other shops.

However, I’ll always hold against them that they took my entire collection of Doctor Who books and gave me just £5.50 for it, most of which I spent on one book, a tie-in to the TV show Murder in Space. Easily the worst decision I have ever made. Not really their fault, but they made no effort to talk me out of it! So they can’t be my favourite. Too much pain! It’s made me reluctant now to ever throw anything away, for fear of future regrets, to the point that I’ve had to put “throw something away” on my to-do list for every Saturday, to counter my hoarding tendencies.

I spend more money on books at Amazon than anywhere else by a long, long way, but does it count as an indie bookshop? I don’t think they are owned by anyone except themselves. But still. If I had chosen them, I’d have gone for one of the many books that would have been too expensive for me to buy anywhere else, like my box set of Penguin Mini Moderns.

I’ll pick instead Weightless Books, who are doing a great job of making ebooks available from the small press, without DRM, at reasonable prices, and in a variety of formats. I like the books put out by people like Subterranean Press, but I don’t have the money or shelf space for buying collectable hardbacks. The particular book I’ll pick is Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear. The vampire books I bought from the same shop at the same time by the same author were very enjoyable, so I’m looking forward to reading her more fantastical work.

Friday 27 June 2014

Her, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Love bytes.

The Goodies episode “2001 and a bit” (1976) is perhaps the most fantastically offbeat of all the Goodies satires, extrapolating a violent yet progressive, absurdist future from the social mores and concerns of the mid-1970s. Each Goodie plays the lookalike son of one of the others – they were equally fond of Raquel (Welch, the picture from One Million Years B.C. would suggest), so when triplets came along they guessed and took one each – and in revealing whatever it was that became of Graeme, Tim confesses that, “He was put away for having an unnatural relationship [half-pause] with his computer.” Never mind that such an affair already had been the subject of “Women’s Lib” (1971), one memorable scene of which sees Graeme and his desk-sized desktop skipping hand-in-hand through the woods. In 1976 the idea still was ludicrous enough to power a good one-liner.

Fast-forward to the year 2013 (and a bit), and writer/director Spike Jonze has brought us Her – a movie in which the human/computer relationship is taken not as the subject of a throwaway guffaw or outlandish thought experiment, but rather as a foregone social trend whereby insular digital natives such as Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) quite naturally will bond and form intimate relationships with their AIs. The computer romance idea is by no means new to cinema – nearly thirty years have passed since Electric Dreams (1984) had its fling with the silver screen – but Jonze’s take is both disquietingly stark and unnervingly serious (notwithstanding that a few uneasy chuckles served somehow to earn the film two spurious Golden Globe nominations in the comedy genre). Her, as the title might suggest, is no mere conceit around which to structure a plot, but rather a reasoned, often uncomfortable extrapolation wherein the once-unimaginable has become an acceptable and inevitable reality, burgeoning yet manifest, from which necessarily there must be both repercussions to face and truths to learn. What is human? What is love? Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is in many ways no less real to the audience than is the metrosexually liberated Twombly with his Tom Selleck throwback moustache and his unselfconscious inversion of the seventies swinger lifestyle. Samantha does not exist to drive the narrative; she is the central yet unseen feature around which it flows. As both Twombly and the audience project onto her their expectations, desires and ideals, well might there be some deeper truth lurking beneath the revelation that, beyond the fleeting yet ultimately intangible bond of interaction, we don’t really know her at all.

Aside from his cinematic treatment of Where the Wild Things Are (2009), Spike Jonze is best known for directing the cleverly eccentric turned bizarre and disturbing Charlie Kaufman-scripted films Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002). Although Kaufman made no direct contribution to Her, his rampantly, unabashedly obtuse Synecdoche, New York (2008) has been cited by Jonze as an inspiration;[1] and while it may be said with some cause that neither Kaufman nor Jonze is quite the same without the other to complement him, nevertheless Her presents as very much of the Kaufman/Jonze oeuvre, taking a quirky idea and playing it not for laughs but rather for dark and gritty (sur)realism. There’s great honesty in this approach, but also the inherent danger that it can produce a high-quality movie of low-enjoyment; a film where nothing can be faulted, per se, yet where the viewer is left ever-so-slightly dissociated throughout, and will exit the cinema possessed in vague combination of feelings perturbed, unfulfilled and off-kilter. Her walks this line, trembling with a certain aplomb through an engrossing yet not particularly easy to watch two-hour traversing of a feature length tightrope (which reputedly was a wobbling half-hour longer before Jonze sought advice from fellow filmmaker Steven Soderbergh on how possibly to cut it back).[2] Phoenix inhabits his character with a sorrowful, lonely truthfulness, as does Amy Adams playing Twombly’s similarly sequestered, alone-in-a-crowd neighbour. The hollowness of the emotional world in which they live is craftily hidden beneath a technologically slick facade – a tragic yin and yang embrace that Jonze stitches together seamlessly and to great effect – and if Twombly’s job as a ghost-writer of personal correspondence were not unsettling enough in its own right, then his detached aptitude serves to bring home the point, the emotional forgery of scripting other people’s happiness falling like drizzled vinegar upon the limp lettuce of Theodore Twombly’s own private life. All in all, it’s a gleaming but downbeat near-future dystopia; terribly good in its own claustrophobic way, yet nonetheless an immersive depiction from which, at journey’s end, one might quickly seek to escape, if not with considerable relief then at least without undue regret.

If to Her we might ascribe a flaw – beyond that of not compromising the filmmakers’ artistic integrity to within maintenance parameters of an audience comfort zone (if indeed some critics might find this problematic) – then it is the inescapable shortcoming of the movie’s having pinned its dénouement, its thematic closure and telling twist of perspective, on a character whose depth, development and growing self-determinism are revealed but sparingly and only ever with directional reference to Twombly’s more overt character journey. Granted, it would be nigh impossible for filmgoers to experience with any sort of fidelity either such thoughts as must be driven by Samantha’s superhuman processing power, or for that matter the unfathomable intricacies of the AI’s multitasking or her lightning-quick capacity for growth – perhaps this keening lack of viewer/subject compatibility even constitutes in some measure the movie’s forlorn raison d’être – but no matter whether it be judged warranted, or of solipsimal necessity, still this remains a shortcoming that lessens the film’s capacity to pass meaningful comment on its central themes of what constitutes love and life. As such, Jonze’s brainchild is born into our world as a yearning future depiction of where the here and now may take us. She sparks briefly, lighting up a murky unknown, then is gone, our relationship with Her revealed at barb’s end as having been not only unnatural but in fact unattainable. Theodore Twombly will move on, as must we all, leaving everything and nothing behind, save for an odd not-quite-resonance and a strange feeling that whensoever next we shall encounter Scarlett Johansson, she’ll have a very particular, almost conspiratorial look directed at each and every one of us.

1. Michael, Chris, “Spike Jonze on letting Her rip and Being John Malkovich”,, posted September 10, 2013 []

2. Harris, Mark, “Him and Her: How Spike Jonze Made the Weirdest, Most Timely Romance of the Year,”, posted October 7, 2013 []

Want to be one of the characters: Plague Ship by Andre Norton #bookaday

For day twenty-seven of #bookaday we are asked for a book where we would want to be one of the characters. After rolling this around for a while I came up with Plague Ship by Andre Norton, and the other books in the Solar Queen series, Sargasso of Space and Postmarked the Stars.

I bought the pictured copy of Sargasso of Space this month in a secondhand bookshop on a seaside trip, got a chapter or two into it on the way home before realising I’d read it, and carried on anyway. Not sure where my Plague Ship is (I think it’s an ex-library yellow Gollancz edition) but I’ll add a photo if it turns up.

I love stories about science fiction traders, have done ever since playing Elite for the first time on a BBC Micro and reading Robert Holdstock’s tie-in novella The Dark Wheel. (Plug: see the Black Swan series by Mitchell Edgeworth in recent issues of TQF for another fine example of the type!)

The crew of the Solar Queen are capable and hard-working, and if I was forced to live in a place as dangerous as the interior of a novel, they'd be good people to be around. They understand the importance of good training and procedures, come up with good ideas, and are always ready to take advantage of a lucky break.

I considered James White’s Hospital Station and the Sector General series for similar reasons (plus it’d be nice to live in a galaxy like that where all problems have solutions), but the Solar Queen won out. I'd struggle with the pleasant bedside manner, and no one expects that of a space trader.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Should have sold more copies: Giant Thief by David Tallerman #bookaday

In doing this series of blog posts it seems polite to avoid promoting our own work, so I won’t pick The Mercury Annual, Pilgrims at the White Horizon, Five Forgotten Stories or any of our other titles, all of which should have sold more than the handful they did, and almost certainly would have if they had been published by a more active publisher!

So I’m going to pick instead Giant Thief by David Tallerman, the story of a thief who steals a giant and sets off on the world’s most exciting piggyback. I’ve no idea how well or otherwise it did, although two sequels were released. But it stands here for all the interesting books that Angry Robot have been publishing over the last few years.

Unfortunately, Angry Robot has run into a bit of trouble this month, forced into closing two of its offshoots: YA imprint Strange Chemistry and crime imprint Exhibit A. The approach of Angry Robot seems to have been to throw a lot of books at the wall to see which ones stuck. Not all of those books were brilliant, but I didn't read any that were boring.

Their enthusiastic approach means they have given lots of new authors a crack at mainstream publishing, and they’ve also been a home to more experienced writers with good books still to write. Long before NetGalley, they sent ebooks to reviewers. If they disappear, they'll be missed. But Angry Robot have come through rough times before, let’s hope they do again.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Never finished it: Edge of Light by Robert Silverberg #bookaday

Today the #bookaday request is for a book you've not finished.

As you can see below, I had quite a lot to choose from. I'll get around to finishing all one hundred and thirty-six of them eventually, but I've gone for Edge of Light by Robert Silverberg as my book of the day.

It's an omnibus of five novels. I read the first two, and they were brilliant, but I never read the other three. (I've read a lot of his other books in the meantime, just not those ones.)

I love an omnibus, but as shown below I hardly ever finish them. Many of these are books I'm very fond of, like Songs of the Dying Earth.

(Titles and credits are from Goodreads and not checked; only first credited contributor listed; apologies for any errors in titles or attribution.)

  • 52: Companion, Grant Morrison
  • A Journey: My Political Life, Tony Blair
  • A Logic Named Joe, Murray Leinster
  • A Long Night at Abu Simbel, Penelope Lively
  • A Pair From Space, James Blish
  • Army of Darkness Omnibus, Volume 1, Sam Raimi
  • Avant l'Incal (l'intégrale), Alejandro Jodorowsky
  • Barnacle Bill The Spacer, And Other Stories, Lucius Shepard
  • Be a Sex-Writing Strumpet, Stacia Kane
  • BFS Journal Spring 2011, Allen Ashley
  • BFS Journal Autumn 2011, Peter Coleborn
  • BFS Journal Autumn 2012, Ian Hunter
  • BFS Journal Spring 2012, Lou Morgan
  • BFS Journal Summer 2011, Peter Coleborn
  • BFS Journal Winter 2010, Sam Stone
  • BFS Journal Winter 2011/2012, Peter Coleborn
  • Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, C.L. Moore
  • Book of Prefaces, Alasdair Gray
  • Bull Running for Girls, Allyson Bird
  • Carmen et autres nouvelles, Prosper Mérimée
  • Cities In Dust (Wasteland, #1), Antony Johnston
  • Citizen Rex, Mario Hernandez
  • Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady, Samuel Richardson
  • Colomba et autres nouvelles, Prosper Mérimée
  • Complete Stories, Rudy Rucker
  • Darkness, Mist And Shadows: Volume 1 And 2: The Collected Macabre Tales Of Basil Copper, Basil Copper
  • Do Not Pass Go, Joel Lane
  • Doctor Who: The Child of Time, Jonathan Morris
  • Doctor Who: Vanishing Point, Stephen Cole
  • Don Juan, George Gordon Byron
  • Don Quixote de La Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  • Edge of Light: The Robert Silverberg Omnibus, Robert Silverberg
  • Empire Star / The Tree Lord of Imeten, Samuel R. Delany
  • Essential Killraven, Vol. 1, Neal Adams
  • Essential Punisher, Vol. 1, Gerry Conway
  • Essential Works of Foucault (1954-1984), Volume 3: Power, Michel Foucault
  • Fever Dream And Other Fantasies, Robert Bloch
  • Filboid Studge, The Story Of A Mouse That Helped, Saki
  • Four Gothic Novels: The Castle of Otranto; Vathek; The Monk; Frankenstein, Horace Walpole
  • Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas R. Hofstadter
  • Gotrek & Felix: The First Omnibus, William King
  • Great Stories of Crime and Detection Volume II (The Twenties and Thirties), Various
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Harry Potter, #7), J.K. Rowling
  • How I Escaped My Certain Fate, Stewart Lee
  • Isis Unbound, Allyson Bird
  • La Compagnie des glaces 1, Georges-Jean Arnaud
  • Let the Galaxy Burn, Marc Gascoigne
  • Lieut. Gulliver Jones: His Vacation, Edwin Lester Arnold
  • Lion Time In Timbuctoo (The Collected Stories, Volume 6), Robert Silverberg
  • Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon
  • May We Borrow Your Husband & Other Comedies of the Sexual Life, Graham Greene
  • McSweeney's #10, Michael Chabon
  • McSweeney's #27, Dave Eggers
  • McSweeney's #45, Dave Eggers
  • Mrs. Pepperpot Stories, Alf Proysen
  • Nancy Drew Files: #66,96, Carolyn Keene
  • Night Watch (Discworld, #29), Terry Pratchett
  • Noddy: A Classic Treasury, Enid Blyton
  • NOS4A2: A Novel, Joe Hill
  • Odyssey, William Shatner
  • Postscripts 14, Nick Gevers
  • Ragmop, Rob Walton
  • Rain, Conrad Williams
  • Rainbow Six, Tom Clancy
  • Rising Stars Compendium, J. Michael Straczynski
  • Rupert: A Collection Of Favourite Stories, Alfred Bestall
  • Rustblind and Silverbright - A Slipstream Anthology of Railway Stories, David Rix
  • Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories, Leigh Brackett
  • Selected Stories of Rudyard Kipling, Andrew Rutherford
  • Showcase Presents: Ambush Bug, Keith Giffen
  • Showcase Presents: Green Arrow, Jack Kirby
  • Showcase Presents: Jonah Hex, Vol. 1, John Albano
  • Showcase Presents: Justice League of America, Vol. 2, Gardner F. Fox
  • Showcase Presents: Phantom Stranger, Vol. 1, Robert Kanigher
  • Showcase Presents: The House of Mystery, Vol. 1, Len Wein
  • Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier, Vol. 1, Joe Kubert
  • Showcase Presents: The War That Time Forgot, Vol. 1, Robert Kanigher
  • Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honour of Jack Vance, George R.R. Martin
  • Space War (Professor Jameson Space Adventure #3), Neil R. Jones
  • Star Trek: Logs 7–10, Alan Dean Foster
  • Starstruck Deluxe Edition, Elaine Lee
  • Stonewielder, Ian C. Esslemont
  • Teatro Grottesco, Thomas Ligotti
  • Test Pattern: Jonathan Hickman Collection, Volume 1, Jonathan Hickman
  • The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3), Philip Pullman
  • The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories, John Kessel
  • The Best American Comics 2011, Alison Bechdel
  • The Best Of Fritz Leiber, Fritz Leiber
  • The Best of McSweeney's, Dave Eggers
  • The Book of the Thousand and One Nights. Volume 1, Anonymous
  • The Burning Circus, Johnny Mains
  • The Carl Hiaasen Omnibus: Tourist Season, Double Whammy And Skin Tight, Carl Hiaasen
  • The Centauri Device, M. John Harrison
  • The Chandler Collection: Volume 1, Raymond Chandler
  • The Collected Stories, Katherine Mansfield
  • The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, Elmore Leonard
  • The Dark is Rising Sequence, Susan Cooper
  • The Dirty Dozen: The Best 12 Commando Books Ever!. Edited by George Low, George Low
  • The Drawing of the Three (The Dark Tower, #2), Stephen King
  • The Dudley Smith Trio, James Ellroy
  • The Ends of the Earth, Lucius Shepard
  • The Expelled (Penguin Mini Modern Classics), Samuel Beckett
  • The Finder Library, Volume 1, Carla Speed McNeil
  • The Five Great Novels Of James M. Cain., James M. Cain
  • The Halfling: And Other Stories, Leigh Brackett
  • The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus, John Franklin Bardin
  • The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 19, Stephen Jones
  • The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 16, Gardner R. Dozois
  • The Mammoth Book of Contemporary SF Masters, Gardner R. Dozois
  • The Matrix Comics Vol 1, Geof Darrow
  • The New Avengers Vol. 1, Brian Michael Bendis
  • The New Nature of the Catastrophe (Tale of the Eternal Champion, #9), Michael Moorcock
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  • The Planet of the Double Sun (Professor Jameson #1), Neil R. Jones
  • The Polish Officer, Alan Furst
  • The Richard Laymon Collection, Volume 4: Beware / Dark Mountain, Richard Laymon
  • The Sam Gunn Omnibus, Ben Bova
  • The Savage Sword of Conan, Volume 3, Roy Thomas
  • The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner
  • The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Stories (Penguin Classics), Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Very Best of Gene Wolfe, Gene Wolfe
  • The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Fictions, Ann VanderMeer
  • The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics, Timothy Ferris
  • Them: Adventures with Extremists, Jon Ronson
  • Time Patrol, Poul Anderson
  • Un Lun Dun, China Miéville
  • Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks
  • Unexpected Journeys, Juliet E. McKenna
  • Unlikely Stories, Mostly, Alasdair Gray
  • Valérian et Laureline l'Intégrale, volume 2, Pierre Christin
  • Voice of the Fire, Alan Moore
  • War and Peace (Konemann Classics), Leo Tolstoy
  • Warlock, Andre Norton
  • Yesterday's Tomorrows, Rian Hughes
  • Young Miles (Vorkosigan Omnibus, #2), Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Zombies in New York and Other Bloody Jottings, Sam Stone

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Hooked me into reading: Star Trek 10 by James Blish #bookaday

Today I have to choose a book that hooked me into reading.

I could have gone for the Peter and Jane books, or the works of Enid Blyton, particularly The Enchanted Wood, The Magic Faraway Tree and The Wishing Chair. Or the Target Doctor Who books. They all played a huge part in giving me a love of reading and teaching me how to do it.

But I decided instead to highlight Star Trek 10 by James Blish, a true watershed book: the first book I got out from the big library!

When I was little, the children's library was a separate building with a separate entrance. It backed on to the grown-up library and behind the scenes I doubt there was much of a distinction. But going into the big library was a big deal for a kid.

I had learned how to use the library's microfiche catalogue to see which Doctor Who books it was worth searching for. From that I discovered that a copy of Star Trek 10 was in the grown-up library next door.

I asked a librarian, and was told I was indeed allowed to get books out from the big library. Imagine my excitement! So I went next door, found the book on the sf shelf, and took it to the counter - which I could barely reach.

The book scared the heck out of me and gave me nightmares for years. It contained "The Empath", in which I think Bones get stuffed into a giant test tube. And then (spoiler) the Empath takes all his appalling wounds onto herself, which was heartbreaking.

But I had crossed the threshold into reading grown-up books. I was a reader for life!

The Blish adaptations are still my favourite version of Star Trek. And I still find them frightening.

Monday 23 June 2014

True Detective, Season 1, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Is True Detective, Season 1 (Sky Atlantic, TV, 8 episodes) a crime programme or a supernatural programme? Even by the end I wasn’t entirely sure, though I suppose the title is a clue. I’ll hedge my bets and call it horror.

The series tells the story of two police officers in Louisiana working together for the first time. Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) is a family man cheating on his wife (Michelle Monaghan). Rust Cohle, played by an incandescent Matthew McConaughey, is a loner with a bare apartment who cribs his bleak philosophy of life from the likes of Thomas Ligotti. They don’t get on – a shame given how much time they’ll spend stuck in a car together.

They catch a disturbing homicide, a young woman posed nude by a tree in the middle of a field with a crown of antlers. Investigations reveal she was a girl went missing a long time ago, and soon Marty and Rust are falling into a rabbit hole of abducted children, cover-ups, abandoned schools and churches, secret societies and conspiracies. That’s all happening in the mid-nineties, but their investigation is framed by interviews in 2012 with a portly Marty and an unhinged Rust.

Both lead actors give what I’d be tempted to call career best performances if I ignored how many of their performances I haven’t yet seen. Marty is funny when getting riled by Rust, but behaves like an utter jerk towards his wife, and worse towards his girlfriend. Woody Harrelson makes every cruel comment feel in character, never holding back to preserve a good-guy image. Marty’s ruining his own life, and he knows it.

McConaughey deserves all the awards that don’t go to Harrelson. He (with help from the costume, make-up and hair departments, of course) creates a stunning contrast between the handsome young Rust, looking like he stepped out of a Paul Grist comic, just about keeping it together despite a miserable spell undercover for the DEA, and the dishevelled, ruined guy he becomes – but you never doubt that it’s the same guy.

Though the programme comes close to perfection, it doesn’t quite get there. The exploitative female nudity in some episodes is crass and embarrassing, as sexy as the contractual obligation to HBO one suspects it to have been. The final episode doesn’t quite live up to the heights that precede it, and features a cringeworthy spiritual discussion that felt shoehorned in to satisfy the needs of the actor who delivers it.

But step over those things and you’ll find a stunning piece of work. Nic Pizzolatto writes all eight episodes, and Cary Joji Fukunaga directs them all, which gives it, whether in quiet reflection or thrilling action, an unusual degree of creative consistency – though of course that’s only a good thing because it’s consistently excellent. I’d call it an eight-hour film, but this is television so compelling it puts cinema to shame.

The assumption seems to be that season two will feature a new pair of detectives. If that’s been confirmed offscreen, it seems a shame. Rust and Marty worked together for several years, and for many of those they thought this case was over. What else did they investigate in that time? And what happens next? I would love to find out.

Made to read at school: Les Mains Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre #bookaday

Not many books could be said to have truly changed my life, but my pick for day 23 of #bookaday is one. Unlike John, I wasn't very good at French, but when we studied Les Mains Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre I (a) loved it and (b) got straight As for my GCSE essays about it.

As a result of this surprising development I took French at A-Level, and after that at degree level, which is bizarre given that I was never any good at understanding or speaking the language. The oral exam for my degree went so badly that bellows of laughter broke out as I left the room! I used English words at one point!

The mistake I'd made after the great scores for those GCSE essays about Les Mains Sales was thinking I was good at French, whereas in fact it was the literature bit I liked. And because of that mistake I took a literature degree in a foreign language, with all the inconvenience one might expect from such a course of action.

But credit to Les Mains Sales: it got me studying literature, which had never been part of my plan, and the literature degree helped get me into publishing, and I'm doing okay in my quiet little way. For one thing, I've been able to work from home for the first decade of our having children, and I feel incredibly fortunate for that.

So thanks Les Mains Sales. I wish you hadn't derailed my education, but thanks for getting me into reading books in French, and thanks for getting me where I am today!

Honourable mentions: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Pinballs by Betsy Byars, and A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Out of print: Philip Jose Farmer conquiert l'univers #bookaday

Day 22 of #bookaday, and we're supposed to name a book that's out of print. This one probably is: Philip Jose Farmer conquiert l'univers by Francois Mottier.

I found this on a secondhand bookstall in Tourcoing, near Lille, while spending a year there as a teaching assistant. I was terrible at it. Never have so many pupils played so many games of hangman.

The idea here is that it's a tribute to PJF in the same way that PJF's Venus on the Half-Shell, published under the name Kilgore Trout, was a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut.

It's a bit like The Stone God Awakens mixed with To Your Scattered Bodies Go - a statue of Farmer is imbued with his spirit and dashes around the future having sexy adventures.

I don't remember much of it, as you can tell from that summary, and I've no idea if it was good or not. I probably skipped the hard words, because I hadn't been reading French books long in those days.

I always enjoy books with real authors as characters. See also Michael Bishop's Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas or Richard Lupoff's Lovecraft's Book. They have a weird and groovy vibe.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Summer read: The Best of Archie Comics #bookaday

Day 21 of #bookaday (though I only started on day 4 and began blogging about it on day 5) is for naming summer reads. When I'm on holiday I try to avoid reading anything that gives me work to do, i.e. books I'll owe a review. It's a time for reading magazines, Doctor Who books, Penguin 60s and mini moderns, non-fiction, humour, and most of all: comics.

So my pick today is The Best of Archie Comics, a cheap four-hundred page collection of stories about everyone's favourite two-timer and his chums.

Archie comics are bright and cheerful and require absolutely no thought or effort - perfect for holidays. They are available in vast quantities at cheap prices, which is exactly how I like my comics. And best of all, our children often buy them with their own pocket money. Sometimes these even make me laugh out loud, usually when Jughead is involved. How does he keep his figure?

Friday 20 June 2014

The Exploits of Engelbrecht by Maurice Richardson, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Gibbon Moon, ebook, 1736ll. In years gone by one of the principle pleasures of the gentleman on a Sunday afternoon was to read Maurice Richardson’s reports of the sporting activities of this nation’s greatest sportsman, Engelbrecht, the Dwarf Surrealist Boxer, “Sportsman of the Millennium”. Or at least to imagine doing so, since no Sunday newspapers saw fit to publish those reports, choosing instead to stick to quotidian sports such as football, cricket, rugby and badminton. That they could find no room for such estimable activities as clock-boxing, man-hunting and witch-shooting beggars belief.

Undeterred, Richardson submitted his reports to the chronicles of the Surrealist Sportman’s Club, the highlights being collected in this book, whose publication was never entirely confirmed, so infrequently were copies sighted by the public. Now, by way of his own small press, Rhys Hughes has performed the duty so lamentably neglected by the fourth estate, and made the book available to all, at an entirely reasonable price, in ebook form, with an effusive introduction by his own hand. It is easy to see why that rambunctious Welshman, so famous for his love of surrealism and physical exertion, felt such an affinity with Richardson’s careful accounts.

Though these are to some extent relics of a bygone time, the terrors of Health and Safety and Risk Assessment having long since put paid to the Grand Cosmological steeplechase, mixed electioneering and round-the-world golf, good sports writing never goes out of date. The articles are short, but Richardson never fails to fully explore each activity, allowing the present-day reader a gentle entrée to that long-lost world, poking into its every corner and revealing the quirks and humour within. Some features even stray from the usual brief to explore other aspects of Engelbrecht’s social circle, such as plant theatre and a Season of Song performed by dogs.

Recommended on one hand to those fond of sports, on the other hand to those amused by humour, and on the third hand to those who like books.

Favourite cover: Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold #bookaday

For day twenty of #bookaday we are asked to choose our favourite cover. So many to choose from! I love the cover of Vingt Mille Lieues Sous les Mers:

Although it loses a bit of glamour when you realise it’s used for all the other books in the Verne series too!

When I saw Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series in a three for the price of two sale, I doubt I’d have bought the whole lot if the covers hadn’t been so terrific. The stunning artwork is by Geoff Hunt, but look too at the map details behind the titles, showing where each adventure takes place.

The artist (or artists) who produced these bizarre alien images for the New English Library isn’t credited, but I’ve probably spent more time looking at them than reading the actual books!

Covers aren’t just about the artwork. Books in the Corgi SF Collector’s Library were notable for the lovely bumpiness of their purple covers:

If we’re talking best covers, I have to give Chris Foss a mention – if I saw a book with his art on the cover when I was a teenager, I bought it. One of the first times I saw his work was on this Panther Science Fiction edition of Skylark DuQuesne.

I doubt that this artwork was specially produced for The Stone God Awakens (the stone god in the book is a petrified human who wouldn't be able to turn his head to look at things until after waking up), but it always gave me a wonderful sense of otherness:

I could have gone for almost any issue of McSweeney’s. My current favourite is usually the one I bought most recently. Look at shiny blue #46! (Art and lettering by Sunra Thompson.)

And here’s #45. Where else would you see Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury having a punch-up? (Art by Tavis Coburn.)

But my pick today is the cover of Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold.

The cover art is by Marek Okon. It isn’t a stock photo, it isn’t graphic design, it isn’t typography, it’s a new piece of commissioned artwork that tells us something about the book and gives us a real sense of the kind of characters it contains. It sells the book.

A couple of years ago I used it when the children wanted to do a “big write” at home. I gave them an unfamiliar book each and asked them to write as much as they could in fifteen minutes or so without opening the book or reading the back cover. Here’s what my oldest had to say about this one:

I agree, it does look really good. In fact, I’m going to start reading it today!

A dishonourable mention here for my least favourite cover of all time, the 1979 NEL edition of Robert Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil. A human skull in a curly blonde wig! And what is that weird white goo? This cover literally makes me feel unwell.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Still can't stop talking about it: Drunk with Blood by Steve Wells #bookaday

Day 19 of #bookaday and you must name a book you still can’t stop talking about. Well, some books I liked so much that I had to work hard to avoid bringing them up obsessively in reviews of other books. Like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, Quartet and Triptych by Matthew Hughes, and Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God by Lavie Tidhar.

But if you’re looking at the total amount of conversation provoked by a book, I bet that, over the course of my lifetime, Drunk with Blood by Steve Wells will take the prize.

Let me explain: working at home, I’m here for every knock at the front door, and so I meet every door-to-door salesperson that is doing the rounds. Many of them are selling religion of an unsophisticated, literalist, fundamentalist and proudly irrational bent. My usual approach is to say, no thanks, not interested, but once in a while they don’t give up and we have a conversation.

I was always aware of some of the bad stuff the deity these people want me to start worshipping is supposed to have done, like killing everyone in certain cities, children included. I was told recently by one doorstepper about the two bears he believes his deity sent to kill forty-two children who were making fun of a prophet’s bald head!

It’s hard to understand why, if people (a) believe in such a deity, and (b) believe that deity to have done such appalling things, they would (c) choose to worship it. If something started doing that stuff today, we would only worship it as long as it took us to find the source of their power and send Jeff Goldblum in with a laptop to hack it!

And yet Drunk with Blood, going chapter by chapter through the source text, shows that the two or three things I knew about, more than enough in themselves to put their perpetrator beyond the pale of any worshipper with a conscience, were just the tip of the bloodstained iceberg.

It shows how the deity specifically orders the killing of children and suckling babies, kills other babies directly himself, punishes his servants for incomplete genocides, sells his followers into slavery, hardens hearts to provoke unnecessary wars, creates evil spirits, and sends out demon snakes. So many crimes! (If you believe it.)

(My theory is that if those things happened, it was a Goa'uld giving the orders.)

So that’s why I still can’t stop talking about this book. Truly amazing. And that’s even before you get to slaughtering the priests who lose a prayer contest, or killing hundreds of men to buy a wife with their foreskins, or killing thirty men for their clothes to pay off a debt, and the story of the golden haemorrhoids.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Bought on a recommendation: Suddenly, Zombies by Amanda C. Davis #bookaday

Day eighteen of #bookaday, and I'm still going - just about! Today's request is for a book I bought on a recommendation. I wanted to go here for a book I've bought and then read, as opposed to books I picked up because they were going cheap and I'd seen good things said about them, but haven't got around to reading yet. (There are so many.)

So: Suddenly, Zombies by Amanda C. Davis. This was recommended by David Tallerman on his excellent blog, Writing on the Moon, and it was a good little read. Just a couple of stories, but they are fun, one about zombies on a spaceship, the other about giant zombie gorillas causing trouble in a city. An agreeable way to spend an hour.

And what a brilliant cover!

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Future classic: Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg #bookaday

The seventeenth item on the Borough Press's #bookaday list asks for a future classic. So that's a book that isn't officially a classic now, but will be one day. A tricky thing to call! I seem to remember two writers of my acquaintance having a bet over which of them would be the first to make it into Penguin (Modern) Classics. That seems like a good way to approach this question.

What helps make a classic? Quality, in theory, but being publishable in a single volume helps. A film or television adaptation. The author having died. The book giving people plenty to discuss, being studiable. Something that makes people keep coming back to it long after its initial moment has gone, sometimes because its relevance isn't tied to that moment, at other times because the book is the perfect expression of that moment.

I'm only picking from the authors I've read, and according to Goodreads, I've given five stars out of five to 339 books. Twenty-six of those are by Alan Moore, thirteen each by Grant Morrison and Jack Vance, eleven each to Isaac Asimov and Michael Moorcock. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of those writers in Penguin Modern Classics at some point. Diana Wynne Jones is bound to end up there too – I mean, if a book as ropey as The Wizard of Oz can make it into Penguin Classics, all of her books are in with a chance!

But I'm going to go here for something by Robert Silverberg. It seems to me that many of his books have the depth and serious intent of classics. There's a lot to talk about. If he doesn't end up in Penguin Modern Classics I'll eat my hat. My pick is Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg. I haven't read it yet, but people seem to regard it more highly even than the books of his that came to mind at first, like Thorns, Master of Life And Death, Tower of Glass or A Time of Changes, so I'm guessing that'll be the one that cracks the Penguin Classics first.

But who knows?

Monday 16 June 2014

The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Professor and the Siren (New York Review Books, 78pp) is a new translation by Stephen Twilley of three stories by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, all of which originally appeared in the 1961 collection I racconti. The book will also include an introduction by Marina Warner (not available for review).

The first and longest is the thirty-eight-page title story, “The Professor and the Siren”, in its Italian publication “La Sirena” (the title change is perhaps to distinguish this volume from others), about an elderly professor who reminisces fondly about his sexual encounter, at the age of twenty-four, with a mermaid who had “the smooth face of a sixteen-year-old”, an “adolescent” with “features of infantile purity” and “decidedly youthful sensuality”.

She’s much older than she looks, being in fact Lighea, daughter of Calliope, and she helps his career immensely by giving him the unique opportunity to converse in ancient Greek: he is now “the most illustrious Hellenist of our time” – but that doesn’t stop the story feeling rather grotty. “And were you all not disgusted,” the professor says to our narrator about his pair of lovers, “they as much as you, you as much as they – to kiss and cuddle your future carcasses between evil-smelling sheets?”

To finish the book one must get past the descriptions of this lovely old gentleman spitting onto the floor of the café on Via Po! The narrator finds this much more off-putting than the description of the mermaid, but relents when his friend explains that the spitting is for show, and the emissions that hit the floor contain no catarrh and very little saliva. Delightful.

The other two stories feature no fantasy elements, but are more likeable. In “Joy and the Law” (“La Gioia e la legge”) a downtrodden office worker wins a fifteen-pound panettone – he was voted the most deserving employee by his charitable colleagues. But his hopes of enjoying this uncommon treat fall prey to existing social obligations. “The Blind Kittens” (“I gattini ciechi”) tells of Don Batassano Ibba, and the legends that have grown up around him as his property empire expands across Sicily.

Though issues with sex and spitting spoilt the first story for me, two of the three were good, the translation reads elegantly, and their portrayal of a particular time and place feels authentic, whether it is or not. It’s probably not a book many of our readers will rush out to buy, and there are other translations available, but I found at least some things to enjoy in it and you may too.

Can't believe more people haven't read: Way Station by Clifford Simak #bookaday

Day 16 of #bookaday, and we are asked to come up with a book we can't believe more people haven't read. I haven't read it for a long, long time, but I always used to think that Way Station by Clifford Simak, about an isolated guy, living in his house, communicating with aliens and beset by humans, would make a perfect Tom Hanks vehicle. Or maybe Keanu Reeves. One thing's for sure: If John Wyndham had written it, it'd be a lot better known by now.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Favourite fictional father: Ben Healy in Problem Child #bookaday

Day 15 of the #bookaday challenge. Who is your favourite fictional father? Well, I don’t mind admitting that this one stumped me. Dads don’t seem to be that common in the books I read, living dads even less so. They tend to need avenging, deposing, finding or replacing. For example, here are the last ten novels I read, and what I could find about the dads in them:

  1. The Buried Life, Carrie Patel: Jane is an orphan.
  2. God’s War, Kameron Hurley: Nyx “has never known a father”, Rhys’s father disowned him and is dead.
  3. Child of a Hidden Sea, A.M. Dellamonica: can’t be specific without giving away plot details, but he’s no Doctor Huxtable.
  4. Ghost Train to New Orleans, Mur Lafferty: adoptive parents elsewhere, mentioned, but unaffectionate; birth parents missing or dead.
  5. City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett: Shara is an orphan.
  6. Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor: the father of Adaora’s children quickly turns nasty.
  7. The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison: Maia was exiled to the middle of nowhere by his father, the Emperor Varenechibel the Fourth, who dies at the beginning of the book, leaving Maia an orphan.
  8. Costume Not Included, Matthew Hughes: the previous novel in the series explains that Chesney’s dad, Wagner Arnstruther, “departed for parts unknown with a waitress he met at a truck stop”.
  9. New Amsterdam, Elizabeth Bear: Jack says “my parents couldn’t afford to feed me; they indentured me at five”.
  10. Template, Matthew Hughes: Conn says, “As an infant, I was sold anonymously to my indentor, Ovam Horder.”

So sod it, I’ve gone for a fictional dad who wasn’t in a book. Ben Healy in Problem Child, as played by the wonderful John Ritter. He adopts the child from hell, a little boy whose penpal is Martin “The Bow Tie Killer” Beck. Junior destroys Ben’s life, takes away everything: possessions, reputation, wife, job, sanity. By film two they’ve been forced to leave town. And yet he keeps trying to do his best for the kid. An example to us all!

Saturday 14 June 2014

An old favourite: The Duelling Machine by Ben Bova #bookaday

Oh, I love this book: The Duelling Machine by Ben Bova. This is my choice of an old favourite for today's #bookaday. As a teenager I read it over and over and over.

Like a lot of the early science fiction books I read, this one came from my dad.

When I was ten or eleven he gave me a box of grown-up sf that contained my first books by Philip Jose Farmer (The Stone God Awakens), Michael Moorcock (The Bull and the Spear, I think), Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers?), Isaac Asimov (Foundation?), A.E. van Vogt (an omnibus). I went on to read everything I could find by those writers.

The Duelling Machine was one that he found floating around at work and brought home for me.

I loved it to death: it was about games, the duels taking place online in virtual reality, which back then seemed like the ultimate dream. It reminded me of my favourite Blake's 7 episode, with Tarrant in a similar duel, and I liked how the dweeby hero became a badass.

Must read it again.

Friday 13 June 2014

Elvenquest: The Complete Second Series, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Elvenquest: The Complete Second Series (Audible edition, 2 hr 46) by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto, sees the questers – Lord Vidar the elf, Dean the dwarf, Penthiselea the Amazon princess, Amis the chosen one (a former dog), and his owner Sam – unapologetically sent back to square one in their quest for the sword of Aznagar. It is once more abroad in the land! The subsequent adventures of this daft bunch are typically caused by their greed, lust, laziness and selfishness, and a general lack of appreciation for each other. Plots come second to jokes.

Meanwhile, villainous Lord Darkness, having made his way back to this world from another dimension, must recover his lost immortality, persuade bankers to lend him enough money to pay his mighty armies, and deal with personnel issues – the infernal horde find him a bit intimidating. His conversations with assistant Creech (similar to those of Blackadder and Baldrick) provide many of the programme’s funniest moments.

I really enjoyed series one, but my radio listening tends to be irregular and so I had missed series two till now. There is a cast change, Kevin Eldon taking over as Dean the dwarf, though in tribute to his mimicry I didn’t realise until seeing the cast list. It was as much fun as the first, and perhaps more, as the arbitrary nature of the quest becomes even more of a joke itself.

Like many of its fellow Radio 4 programmes (The News Quiz, Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, Just a Minute, The Now Show, etc), a strength of Elvenquest is the warm relationship between performers and audience. Pulled out and put on display some jokes would seem rather flaccid, but it’s hard not to laugh along when the audience is having such a good time.

It felt a bit daft buying the kind of programme that is so frequently repeated, but two or three listens later it’s clear my Audible token was well spent.

Makes me laugh: Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams #bookaday

Today's #bookaday question asks for a book that makes me laugh. Naturally, my first thought went to Groo the Wanderer, which is probably the funniest thing in the world.

Then I thought of Asterix. I often do! A couple of weeks ago, when someone asked for the dimensions of the new British Fantasy Award, my first impulse was to say, larger than the pen of my aunt, but smaller than the garden of my uncle. (My second impulse was to say, just the usual three. But that isn't a quote from Asterix.)

But then I thought of Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams, and knew I could choose no other, because this book made me laugh when I was waiting for the police to come to our house to tell my parents what I had done.

I had gone into the town centre with a boy I didn't usually hang around with, and we went to the top of a multi-storey car park, and he began to spit off the top of it onto the people walking through the streets below. I, of course, did not.

Quite properly, we were apprehended by an officer of the law who took our names and said he would soon be visiting our homes. My dad wasn't home, but my mum was, and I told her straight away and then waited for the knock of doom. I noticed a book on the sideboard, and picked it up – I would start reading any book left unattended back then.

I'd seen the television series of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but didn't know there was a book or any sequels. I began to read, started to laugh, and pretty much forgot about the policeman who was on the way.

In the end, I don't think he ever turned up. And though my parents weren't very happy about the incident, I don't remember getting into a great deal of trouble. I couldn't wait to read the other books.

Thursday 12 June 2014

I pretend to (or might give the impression I) have read it: McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #bookaday

Today's #bookaday challenge is to name a book I pretend to have read. I can't think of a proper example of that. Obviously, at university there would be the occasional tutorial about a book or play I was supposed to have read, but I would usually be able to read ahead fast enough in class that I never needed to actually fib.

But here's my confession: much as I adore it, I haven't finished reading very many issues of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. I've finished #22 (with the magnets), #26 (new stories from home and overseas) and #28 (the little hardbacks), but that's about it. The rest are doomed to eternal dipping.

In fact, I finish very few anthologies at all, and the same goes for fiction magazines. It's not that I don't enjoy them, it's just that after a couple of stories a novel nuzzles its way in and I never get around to reading the rest. That's why you don't see many reviews of magazines or anthologies on here.

It's especially odd when you consider that McSweeney's #10 (the Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales) inspired me to start this zine in the first place. Forty-seven issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction later, I still haven't finished the book that inspired it. Shame on me!

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Secondhand bookshop gem: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance #bookaday

Today's #bookaday challenge is to declare one of your books a secondhand bookshop gem. So many to choose from on my shelves! Apologies for the poor quality photographs that follow – these are all from my own collection.

Should I go for bona fide classics like the works of Philip K. Dick, Michael Moorcock, and Brian Aldiss? Here are The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius and Barefoot in the Head.

R.L. Fanthorpe or Perry Rhodan, titans of the secondhand scene? Here are The Unconfined and UFO 517 (Fanthorpe there writing as Bron Fane) and Perry Rhodan 20: The Thrall of Hypno.

An American book that found its way to a UK bookshop in the days when that was still unusual, like Henry Kuttner's Return to Otherness? Or the kind of books you only ever seem to see second-hand, like Casca (a Roman soldier who stuck the spear into Jesus's side and is cursed to immortality) and Venus on the Half-Shell (by Kilgore Trout, as channelled by Philip Jose Farmer)?

Unread curios like On the Symb-Socket CircuitBlood Sport and The Game of Fox and Lion by Kenneth Bulmer, Robert F. Jones and Robert R. Chase? What are these books, why did I buy them, and should I read them?

Lesser known works by superstar authors like Ursula K. LeGuin, Christopher Priest or Robert Silverberg, like Planet of Exile, Fugue for a Darkening Island and World's Fair 1992?

What about the mindblowing Best of Cordwainer Smith, found in a mysterious bookshop at a farm in Reading? A shop I only ever visited once, and yet I struck gold! Just reading the introduction was enough to knock me for six. I even wrote a poem about it.

All good contenders, but in the end there can be only one, and it's got to be The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, found in a junkshop in Keighley, bought for 5p and read in full on a coach trip to France. I might possibly have read the Planet of Adventure omnibus first, I'm not absolutely sure of the dates, but this was the book that made Vance one of my all-time favourites, and I could so easily have missed it. The shop I bought it in doesn't even exist any more.