Monday 25 January 2016

Terminator Genisys, by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier (Paramount) | review

Tirmynator Genisys: the best misspelling since slyced bred.

Yes, let’s start with the obvious gripe: Genisys. Originally the film was titled Genesis, then someone made the executive decision (absolute power corrupting absolutely) to change/distort/pervert it, presumably working under the delusion that misspelling something makes it stand out in a good way. One wonders how the original Terminator would have fared had Sarah Connor been misspelled in Skynet’s records. The T-1000 would have opened up the phone directory and had a meltdown. Where is S’air-a Conher? Target cannot be acquired. And why? (We bang our heads against the nearest busborne billboard.) Why subscribe to this wanton degradation of language? The only explanation that doesn’t leave the producers hanging their heads in shame is that the alphabetic disparity between Genesis and Genisys is intended to mirror the narrative disparity between the events of the first Terminator movie and their retrofitting in this latest offering. In which case, well played… but a propensity for randomising still seems the more likely cause! Watch out for Terminator 6, where Skynet, unable to destroy humanity by conventional means, sends a T-3000 back to 12 May 1754 to kill Samuel Johnson. Without his dictionary to unite them, the Resistance of the future is torn apart by wilful misspellings.

The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) were near perfect films, whose cult appeal gave rise to a cinematic catch-22: fans desperately craved more, yet no escalation was possible; the only way to avoid the disappointment of absence was to fill it with disappointment. Thus we were given Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and Terminator Salvation (2009), neither of which failed to float post-drowning to the surface of low expectations. For all that viewers might have hoped, thematically there was just nowhere for these sequels to go. Without any form of progression, all that remained was nostalgia. By the time the closing credits rolled, the verdict in both cases was that nostalgia could better be sought by re-watching the originals! Yet, the conundrum remained: how to satisfy the cult craving for more Terminator when the first two films already had achieved everything the genre could offer. Terminator Genisys supplies the obvious answer: change genres.

The movie begins as if it is nothing more than a remake of James Cameron’s first film, dumbed down slightly and slicked up to allow for thirty years’ worth of devolution within the industry. This, however, proves not to be the case. As 1984 is recreated and The Terminator begins to play out again, suddenly, playfully, the expected events are subverted and Terminator Genisys breaks free of its lineage, reinventing itself as an action comedy. It’s a creative decision that no doubt will outrage Terminator purists just as much as films three and four’s inability to recapture the emotional effect of their predecessors. Arnie had to be incorporated, so his iconic T-1000 is allowed to age like Schwarzenegger himself. The paradox element of Skynet versus John and Sarah Connor had become so complex as to evolve into an independent lifeform capable of defying both continuity and genuine fear for the future. Solution: treat this aspect with tongue-in-cheek flippancy. Thus, Terminators are no longer a source of nightmares; but what Genisys lacks in cold menace and the adrenaline of relentless pursuit, it makes up for (at least to some extent) by being enjoyable. This doesn’t make it a classic – there can never be another Terminator classic – but it does afford the movie a raison d’ĂȘtre, and hence a legitimacy, that Rise of the Machines and Salvation lacked. Yes, the camera has to be discreet in not showing up how short Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is compared to Linda Hamilton’s. True, there are motivations that defy reason and plot points left deliberately without explanation. But whereas this would demand censure in SF suspense (and from those who believe they should be watching such), in action comedy the deficiencies can be plastered over with humour.

Even within this genre, of course, Terminator Genisys is not without its faults. After all, we are living in a future where CGI technology came online and wiped out all but a handful of good filmmakers. Please, would somebody send a message back through time and warn them: any action sequence that could not be achieved without CGI is not going to be exciting with it, capisce? Computer game helicopters? Olympic gymnast buses? Nobody can be expected to take a Terminator seriously as a killing machine when anyone it sets its sights on immediately becomes impervious to injury by any other means. But at least this isn’t the crux of the film. Terminator Genisys really does play on the humorous potential of the scenario, and for those who might raise a sceptical eyebrow, look no further than J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Detective O’Brien, who as a rookie was caught up in the carnage of 1984 and thirty years on is still obsessing over what he witnessed, a subject of ridicule for his highflying, unimaginative young colleagues. Okay, that doesn’t actually sound particularly funny on paper, but on screen, in the moment, it works.

And if you buy into the film’s exuberance less as a critical advocate of Terminators I and II and more as someone who finds release in the madness (O’Brien: “I know what’s going on here has to be really, really complicated.” Sarah Connor: “We’re here to stop the end of the world.” O’Brien: “I can work with that.”) then so too does Terminator Genisys… regardless of how it’s spelt. Jacob Edwards

Friday 22 January 2016

The Glorkian Warrior and the Mustache of Destiny, by James Kochalka (First Second) | review

The funniest idiot since Groo the Wanderer returns for his third “adventure”. That is to say, he has a nightmare about a giant moustache, decides that he has invented a talking coffee cup, gets headbutted by a bunch of armless baby would-be Glorkian Warriors, and falls down a big hole. Later, he falls down another hole and meets the book’s villain, Quackaboodle the Space God! (Although I have my qualms about the behaviour of the Glorkian Supergrandma too.) This is just as funny as the previous two books, the stupidity reaching absolutely glorious levels, e.g. the four baby Glorks saying, “Can Gonk do this?” and “Can Doonkies do thats?” and “May Crazy Face?” and then “Cans Bronk bronk bronk?” In context it’s funny, trust me, on this if nothing else. And while we’re talking about glorious, you should see the colours in this book. You know that nonsense about using 10% of your brain? The art in this book makes you feel like you’ve only been using 10% of your eyes. A thank you page at the end makes it sound like this may be the last in the series. Let’s hope not. I could keep reading these forever. It’s not out till March 2016, so don’t let your children grow up too fast. Stephen Theaker *****

Monday 18 January 2016

Doctor Who: City of Death by Douglas Adams and James Goss (BBC Books) | review

The gamble with time – playing the odds of authorship.

Douglas Adams’ involvement with Doctor Who is… complicated. For many years the three scripts he wrote were lamented as being very good (City of Death), very bad (The Pirate Planet), very good and bad in a Schrödinger’s cat kind of way (the unfinished, unbroadcast Shada), and in all cases very much and quite pointedly so, unnovelised. Adams did write a fourth script, which was novelised, but that was Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, which upon being rejected by the Doctor Who production team eventually lost the Doctor and regenerated into Adams’ third Hitchhiker’s novel, Life, the Universe and Everything. In a similar vein, City of Death and Shada weren’t entirely unnovelised: significant portions of them found their way into Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. But these caveats aside, of all the authors whose stories could have disappeared into the time void, it was Adams alone (okay, and two of Eric Saward’s scripts; not such a great loss) whose Who output was destined not to line the bookshelves of fans most eager to devour it. Adams wouldn’t accept the pittance being offered by Target Books; nor, especially after he’d cherry-picked from them himself, would he allow his scripts to be novelised by someone else. End of story.

Well, not quite. A decade after Douglas Adams’ tragically premature death, his estate relented and gave permission for Gareth Roberts to work on Shada. The resulting novel, which is quite brilliantly executed, is probably the only fleck of silver in the dark cloud of Adams’ passing. It also paved the way for two more posthumous collaborations, with Roberts’ next assignment being City of Death. Which he now hasn’t written. Instead, the cover credits Douglas Adams and James Goss, from a story by David Fisher. Complicated? Just a little.

Upon broadcast, City of Death was ascribed to David Agnew, which was a BBC pseudonym used to cover up the similarly trifold mixed parentage of Adams, producer Graham Williams and the aforementioned David Fisher, who was unavailable when money was scrounged to film abroad and his original script (The Gamble With Time) needed a last-minute reworking to accommodate a location shoot in Paris. Adams, who as script editor was at least partly responsible for letting this potential crisis reach the eleventh hour, consequently was locked up over the course of a weekend and, with Williams now script-editing, rattled off City of Death. The resulting story, compared to, say, the analogously last-minute So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, was a triumph. David Fisher’s script provided the perfect framework for Adamsishness at its most piquant, to which was added the splendour of Paris, a certain bonhomie of performance by Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and guest stars, and also an ITV strike that ipso facto sent the BBC viewing figures skywards. From rather troubled beginnings, City of Death thus became officially (and in many eyes unofficially) the most popular Doctor Who story of the original series. Now, fast forward thirty-five years or so and—

Enter, James Goss, who, true to the spirit of the original penning (albeit perhaps lacking the panache to pull it off) was drafted in to write the novel when Gareth Roberts proved suddenly and unexpectedly unavailable. Notwithstanding the task still awaiting whomever is ordained worthy of bringing The Pirate Planet from screen to page, surely this must go down as the toughest if potentially most rewarding enterprise ever gifted a Who novelist. And the result? Well, it’s complicated…

Shada tells the story of Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth, who fell splintered through time when his spaceship exploded back at the dawn of Earth’s history, and has been working ever since to advance humanity to the point of civilisation whereby Count Scarlioni, the last of his personas, can invent a time machine and travel back to prevent himself from initiating the calamity in the first place. To fund his experiments, Scarlioni is planning to steal the Mona Lisa and then sell off the multiple copies he’s arranged an earlier fragment of himself to commission from Leonardo Da Vinci. The only people standing in his way are the Doctor and Romana, who have come to Paris for a holiday, and Duggan, a pugilistic detective whose fist-happy approach provides both a semi-satirical contrast to the Doctor’s methods and an unerring source of humorous material. Punches and bon mots abound. Unfortunately, in the novel, so does the unconscionable shrapnel of typographical mishap. The book, simply put, hasn’t been proofread, which is something of a recurring issue in the BBC range but exacerbated in this instance by the hasty composition. It’s a terrible shame for a glossy hardcover bearing Douglas Adams’ name. As to the writing itself…

James Goss starts with a chapter of jumbled vignettes, which ostensibly lend backstory to all the characters (however minor) who appear in the televised version of City of Death, but which serve also the purpose of obfuscating the reader’s connection to the original. This isn’t a bad idea — let the novel stand for itself, Goss says, not merely call to mind memories of what most readers will already have seen — yet he then presents a narrative that does, particularly in its descriptive elements, rely on that prior knowledge. For example: Douglas Adams contrived for John Cleese and Eleanor Bron to make a cameo appearance in the art gallery scene towards the end of episode four. This was loved by some viewers, criticised by others, but in either case was something of a throwaway. For Goss to have seeded this cameo with several other Cleese/Bron showings earlier in the novel is pointless at best and at worst tripping the light nonsensical for anyone approaching the book as a self-contained entity. Other characters are fleshed out more purposefully, adding at least to the overall mood, if not strictly speaking to the story itself, but the approach is patchy. Goss does afford more substance to the Doctor and Romana than is evident on screen, but even here, where the veneer of flippancy is peeled back to reveal more serious layers beneath, the effect is spoiled somewhat by an unkempt narrative glibness that comes and goes but overall seems hell-bent on crafting a Hitchhiker’s pastiche. This is something Gareth Roberts efficaciously avoided in Shada, whereas in City of Death the stylistic aping is not only evident but also unnervingly off-kilter; if Adams’ narrative voice were to have been evoked, the darker, more measured timbre of Dirk Gently would surely have been a better choice.

James Goss has obviously approached his task with diligence and enthusiasm, taking pains not only to bring the televised story to life but also to ascertain those of Adams’ intentions that didn’t make the transition from script to screen, and to work these into the finished product. Thus, for instance, Scarlioni’s gratuitous end-of-episode reveal as Scaroth is explained at last, as to some extent is the conjugal oddity by which the Countess Scarlioni has never quite noticed that her husband is (in every sense, but especially physically, albeit behind a mask) not human. Other inconsistencies remain the unexplored purview of dramatic licence; and perhaps rightly so, for to probe them more deeply would achieve nothing more than to detract from a tale fizzing with exuberance. Goss has had to strike a balance between presenting City of Death “as is” and remodelling it as something that more intricately wasn’t; between showing due reverence to the spirit of Douglas Adams and due respect to the need to look beyond him. Aforesaid misgivings aside, he’s managed the feat quite well; and although the James Goss novelisation might sit as third-placed iteration on the multiverse podium, below the gold and silver of those by Adams and Roberts, nevertheless it is a book worth slotting into what otherwise would remain just a wistfully set-aside space on the shelf. Jacob Edwards

Friday 15 January 2016

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #53 is out now: free ebook, cheap in print

free pdf | free epub | free mobi | print UK | print US | Kindle UK | Kindle US

You have waited so long for this, but now the wait is over!

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #53 contains three fantastic stories. In “Restitution” Mitchell Edgeworth takes us back to the Black Swan, its crew double-crossed by the thief Nisha. In “Dodge Sidestep’s (and Martin’s) Final Dastardly Plan” regular TQF cover artist Howard Watts completes his absurdist musical trilogy. And “Rathfern’s Menagerie” is a bodyswapping science fantasy from Allen Ashley. The issue also contains fifty pages of reviews by Jacob Edwards, Douglas Ogurek and Stephen Theaker.

We review work by Adam Warren, Alastair Reynolds, Aliette de Bodard, Andrew Cartmel, Brian K. Vaughan, Cate Gardner, Disasterpeace, Geoff Johns, Greg Pak, Ian Edginton, Ian Marter, J.M. DeMatteis, James Goss, James Kochalka, Jean-Claude Forest, John Dorney, John Logan, Justin Richards, Keith Giffen, Kurt Busiek, Laeta Kalogridis, Lavie Tidhar, Mario Alberti, Paul Magrs, Rare, Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley, Simon Guerrier, Steve Yeowell, Vaughan Stanger, Volition Software and others.

We’re sorry again that it is so late, but here it is at last! Possibly the only publication in the world in which you can read positive reviews of not one but two of Adam Sandler’s recent films.

Here are the kindly contributors to this issue:

Allen Ashley works as a writer, poet, editor, critical reader, event host and writing tutor. He runs five creative writing groups in north London including the advanced group Clockhouse London Writers. His most recent books are as editor of Sensorama: Stories of the Senses (Eibonvale Press) and Creeping Crawlers (Shadow Publishing). He contributes a short story, “Rathfern’s Menagerie”, to this issue.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their pit bull Phlegmpus Bilesnot. Douglas’s website can be found at: In this issue he reviews The Gallows and Pixels.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who also provides both a story, “Dodge Sidestep’s (and Martin’s) Final Dastardly Plan”, and the cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his deviantart page: His novel The Master of Clouds is now available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at He also has a Facebook page at, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity. Like him and follow him! In this issue he reviews Doctor Who: City of Death and Terminator Genisys.

Mitchell Edgeworth’s previous stories in the Black Swan series were “Homecoming” (TQF40), “Drydock” (TQF42), “Flight” (TQF43), “Customs” (TQF46), “Abandon” (TQF47) and “Heritage” (TQF50). This issue the saga continues with “Restitution”. He keeps a blog at

Stephen Theaker’s reviews have appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers, runs the British Fantasy Awards, and works in legal and medical publishing. In this issue he reviews work by Paul Magrs, Ian Marter, Lavie Tidhar, Cate Gardner, Vaughan Stanger, Aliette de Bodard, Alastair Reynolds, Adam Warren, James Kochalka and many more.

As ever, all back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Monday 11 January 2016

The Bureau of Them, by Cate Gardner (Spectral Press) | review

Glynn has been dead for thirteen months, twelve days, seven hours and some minutes, and Katy can’t stop missing him, can’t move on with her life. She doesn’t want to. He walked out in front of a coach, so there’s no doubt about his passing, but she thinks she sees him watching her, and these brief glimpses lead her to an abandoned office building, where dust and shadows move with uncanny life. Glynn has become part of this office of lost souls, the bureau of them, and they are looking for new recruits! As in previous books like In the Broken Birdcage of Kathleen Fair and Nowhere Hall Cate Gardner creates an eerie atmosphere that serves the story well, and Katy’s grief is painful to watch. For me it was a bit disappointing that there wasn’t more bureaucracy in the novella, the title conjuring up visions of weird, secret officialdom working behind the scenes of reality, and that isn’t really what it’s about, the office here being more of a base than where the work is done. (I’m trying to avoid giving too much away.) The novella’s spell is broken a bit by a couple of jarring production problems: “may” being used instead of “might” all the way through, and (in the ebook at least) unspaced hyphens being used in place of dashes, which leaves the reader trying to make sense of odd hyphenates (e.g. “Sounds echoed from within the cinema-tinny”). Definitely worth reading, though. No other writer I’ve read is producing books that remind me so very much of my own bad dreams. If Cate Gardner’s next book is about being lost in a spooky school without a timetable you’ll know she’s stolen my dream journal. Stephen Theaker ***

Favourites of 2016

Here are a few of my favourite fantastical things from last year, jotted down without too much thought and deliberation. If you reckon I've forgotten something, let me know in the comments! Additional categories may be added to the post at a later date.

Comic: The Glorkian Warrior and the Mustache of Destiny by James Kochalka. Delightful idiocy. (Out in March 2016.) [Link]

Television: Fargo, Season 2. There was so much great tv to watch last year, but I think this was my favourite. Not going to explain why it fits on this blog, you'll just need to watch it.

Game: Fallout 3. I finished the main mission ages ago, but last year I picked it up again and played through all the expansion packs. I also had a lot of fun with Saints Row: Re-Elected and Shadows of Mordor.

Book: Black Gods Kiss by Lavie Tidhar. Brilliant collection of fantasy novellas about a really shady guy. [Link]

Podcast: The Adventure Zone. Absolutely hilarious, and takes me right back to roleplaying as a teenager, when I would invariably end up laughing so much I couldn't play any more. [Link]

Film: I can't choose between Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road. No, you know what, I can, it's Star Wars. I just remembered the bit where the stormtroopers back away from Kylo Ren's tantrum.

Actor: A tie between Eva Green in Penny Dreadful and Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead. They add so much to those shows, portraying characters pushed beyond ordinary human limits.

Album: Central Belters by Mogwai. Yes, it's a compilation, but it's probably the best compilation ever. You won't find a better album to soundtrack your writing or reading.

Come on 2016. Let's see what you can do!

Wednesday 6 January 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

This one lives up to the fever.

An acquaintance of mine arrived at Star Wars: The Force Awakens while in the throes of a fever. Director J.J. Abrams had a daunting task: to cut through this individual’s nausea, back pain, and somewhat clouded mental capacity. Plus this acquaintance wasn’t the brightest lightsaber in the bunch; what kind of guy goes to the theatre sick?

When the film ended, he was still in pain. However, during the two-plus hours of space battles, lightsaber duels, inspiring music, and settings ranging from vast deserts to cramped spaceships, this fellow mostly forgot his condition and instead basked in the tonic powers (my words, not his) of a simple, yet highly entertaining story.

Impelled by my acquaintance’s recommendation, I saw the film. Kudos to Mr. Abrams!

When it comes to dumbed down one-word summaries of five-star films, there’s a big difference between “wow” and “cool”. “Wow” describes a consciousness-jarring work that embeds itself in the viewer for life. “Wow” is Titanic (1997), There Will Be Blood (2007), or, in the case of genre films, Signs (2002) or Paranormal Activity (2007).

“Cool”, on the other hand, provides a more in-the-moment experience. The “cool” film’s contents include the latest special effects, stimulating action sequences, and, often, clear distinctions between good and evil.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens undoubtedly falls into the “cool” category. There is nothing extraordinarily new or surprising about this seventh installment in the ultimate sci-fi series, yet it manages to capture the essence that made the prior episodes (apologies to haters of episodes I–III) so enchanting. The Force Awakens resurfaces all the things we love most about Star Wars, from TIE fighters and AT-AT walkers to alien bars and stylized scene wipes. And the Millennium Falcon is treated with as much reverence as if it were a character. The Force Awakens also offers plenty of melodrama; I suppose that’s why they call it “space opera”.

This film smartly latches onto the craze for crusader-heroines like Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games series) and Tris Prior (Divergent series). This time, it’s Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. Unlike her counterparts Everdeen and Prior roaming a dystopian future US, Rey lives on the desert planet of Jakku. Moreover, she isn’t encumbered by love interests or prone to teary indecision. Rey, an independent young woman with a difficult (if not very clear) past, scavenges to make her meagre earnings. Her journey begins when she meets BB-8, an R2-D2-like droid and, shortly thereafter, Finn, a Stormtrooper gone rogue.

Both the good guys (the Resistance) and the bad guys (the First Order) want the same thing: to find Luke Skywalker, who has gone into hiding after one of his Jedi Knight trainees went over to the dark side of the Force. The Resistance wants Luke to help revive the mostly dormant Force and help protect the galaxy, while the Nazi-like First Order wants to destroy Luke and conquer the galaxy.

One of the biggest shortcomings of The Force Awakens is the emotional disconnect between characters, which unfortunately transfers to the viewer. (But were we ever that close to these characters?) Also abrasive were some of the post explosion/destruction celebratory colloquialisms. “Did you see that?! Did you see that?!” This is supposed to be “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away”, not “today in the United States”.

Notable is that the new generation heroes are relatively unknown and retain a quiet, though strong presence consistent with Ewan McGregor’s performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi in episodes I–III. Adam Driver excels as Kylo Ren, a Darth Vader wannabe and kind of First Order roving bully who transitions from rage-induced lightsaber tantrums to tense one-on-one conversations. When Kylo Ren is masked, Driver’s thin frame and black cloak give him a Grim Reaper-like appearance. When the mask comes off during key scenes, his previous behaviour, doe-eyed expression, and Josh Groban hairstyle add to the mystery of whether Kylo Ren will go berserk or break into “O Holy Night”.

So take The Force Awakens, in sickness and in health; it will captivate unconditionally. It is cool. Definitely cool. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday 1 January 2016

Book notes: The Chimpanzee Complex, The Whispering Swarm, and more

The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein (Subterranean Press) by Thomas Ligotti. Short-shorts that put alternative spins on well-known stories. ***

The Chimpanzee Complex: Paradox (Cinebook) by Richard Marazano and Jean-Michel Ponzio. An astronaut looking forward to reassignment, and spending more time with her daughter, is required back in space after the astronauts from Apollo 11 splash down – again. The year is 2035. The story is intriguing, reminding me of the first Quatermass Experiment. The art is a bit unusual, looking to me a bit like it’s been drawn over photographs, but I got to like it. ***

The Dirty Dozen: The Best 12 Commando Books Ever! (Carlton Publishing Group), edited by George Low. Took me a long time to finish this one. For our overseas readers who haven’t heard of Commando, it’s a small squarish comic of about sixty pages, with a couple of panels per page, telling lots of stories about World War Two, very much in the style of British war films. The stories in this collection are a mixed bag, some tedious, some thrilling. The highlight for me was “Battle-Wagon”, about the rivalry between two teams of supply truck drivers racing for the same destination. ***

The Great Bazaar & Brayan’s Gold (Tachyon Publications) by Peter V. Brett. A courier travels through mountains haunted by rock demons, and tries to recover precious pottery from a village abandoned to sand demons. Enjoyable enough. My review appeared in Interzone #259. ***

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Primary Phase (BBC Audio) by Douglas Adams. Audible edition collecting the Radio 4 series that started it all. Seems strange that I listened to this for the first time so long after watching the television series, reading the books, watching the the film and listening to the audiobook read by Stephen Fry, but the jokes still made me laugh. It had never clicked before that the extracts from the Guide had originally served as introductions and recaps for each episodes. Very much looking forward to the next three phases. *****

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate (Subterranean Press) by Ted Chiang. An alchemist tells a merchant a series of stories about the people who have used his magical gate – one side takes you into the past, the other into the future. It’s a stylish and clever take on the style of the Arabian Nights. ****

The Whispering Swarm (Tor Books) by Michael Moorcock. A character called Michael Moorcock becomes a professional writer, while cheating on his wife and making regular visits to an abbey connected to all time and space by way of the moonbeam road. It’s a fascinating book, but as a novel it slumps badly in the middle before ending well. Maybe they should have sold it as an autobiography and let the fantasy elements come as a surprise. Reviewed for Interzone #258. ***

Thorgal: The Guardian of the Keys (Cinebook) by Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme. Volsung of Nichor steals Thorgal’s identity and takes his place among the Vikings. Invincible, thanks to a belt cruelly stolen from the guardian of the keys (it’s the only bit of clothing she has!), he begins to murder his way to the kingship. ***

Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium (Subterranean Press) by Clive Barker. This collects short stories that originally appeared in the packaging of a series of action figures, so it’s a bit disjointed, but I liked the idea that on Sunday God, rather than resting, made all the monsters. ***

Trekker Omnibus (Dark Horse Books) by Ron Randalland Jim Gibbons. Decent series about a bounty hunter in very tight trousers. A mix of colour and black-and-white stories. ***

Usagi Yojimbo Saga, Vol. 1 (Dark Horse Books) by Stan Sakai. The adventures of a ronin – a masterless samurai – with a conscience. So brilliant even the appearance of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles couldn’t harm it. Poetry in every panel. *****

Welcome to Just a Minute! A Celebration of Britain’s Best-Loved Radio Comedy (Canongate Books) by Nicholas Parsons. Read in a single day! Fascinating anecdotes of tetchiness, bitchiness and no little affection among the Just a Minute regulars. Almost enough to make me forgive Parsons for the time we took the children to his supposedly PG-rated Edinburgh show. You can’t trust anyone these days! ****