Thursday 31 December 2020

Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night by Vincent Lazzari and Ben Dever

Holmgard Press, hardback, £19.99, December 2020, ISBN 9781916268036

If I enjoy a series and the latest instalment isn’t up to the standard of its predecessors, my usual policy is to avoid reviewing it.  Perhaps that’s what I should do with Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night, the penultimate instalment of the late Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf cycle of fantasy gamebooks, which was released in time for Christmas by Holmgard Press.  Having invested so much time and energy (and a not inconsiderable amount of money) on the franchise as well as reviewing all of the New Order series (Lone Wolf 21 onwards) to date, however, I feel it would be a cop out.  Also, notwithstanding my criticism below, I will be buying the last in the cycle – Lone Wolf 32: Light of the Kai – on the basis that I am in my fifth decade of playing the books and have a need to know how it all ends (I began shortly after Lone Wolf 1: Flight from the Dark was published in 1984).  For those interested, I’ve discussed the trials and tribulations of the franchise – including why the publication of the cycle has taken so long – here, here, and here.  So let me begin with the bad news and my harshest criticism: Lone Wolf 31 simply has too much dialogue, too much description, and too little gameplay.  It’s as if the authors forgot they were writing a gamebook and wrote an experimental young adult fantasy novel instead.  Now one may think that this hybrid model of gamebook-novel is an improvement on the gamebook-only model or that the change of direction is precisely what the cycle needs for a spectacular conclusion, but I have been playing these books since the eighties because they are games.  If I wanted a novel set in Magnamund I would have collected the Legends of Lone Wolf series (novelisations of gamebooks 1 to 8, published from 1989 to 1994) – and, indeed, I did try the first and decided that they weren’t for me.  I genuinely hope that most if not all readers of this review disagree with my evaluation and if you don’t want to be put off Lone Wolf 31 please don’t read any further.  Just buy the book, read it, and make up your own mind.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #68: out now in paperback and ebook!

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

Welcome to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #68, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood.

This issue of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction features “Network”, a complete novella by Mitchell Edgeworth, the longest entry yet in the adventures of the Black Swan. It’s been four years since the previous episode appeared in TQF53, but it’s been worth the wait. This issue also includes “The Erkeley Shadows”, a new story by Michael Wyndham Thomas, the magazine's first ever real contributor, way back in 2005 with “Valiant Razalia: Prologue” (TQF8), and twenty pages of reviews, where Jacob Edwards, Douglas Ogurek, Rafe McGregor and Stephen Theaker consider the work of Anthony Del Col, Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne, Christie Golden, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joe Dever, Rhys Hughes, Joe Hill, Julie Travis and Junji Ito, as well as BFS Journal #21, edited by Sean Wilcock and Sarah Deeming.

Here are the magnificent contributors to this issue.

Mitchell Edgeworth lives in Melbourne, Australia. He tweets as @mitchedgeworth and keeps a blog at

Michael W. Thomas is the author of eleven titles, the latest being a poetry collection, Under Smoky Light (Offa’s Press, 2020). His Valiant Razalia duology, The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon, is published by Theaker’s Paperback Library. His writing has appeared in such publications as Critical Survey, Magazine Six, The London Magazine and The Times Literary Supplement, as well as in previous issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. Website:

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. His website is at, his Facebook page at, and his Twitter account is at

Rafe McGregor lectures at Edge Hill University. He is the author of two monographs, two novels, six collections of short fiction, and two hundred articles, essays, and reviews. His most recent work of fiction is The Adventures of Roderick Langham, a collection of occult detective stories.

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in more than fifty Earth publications. Douglas’s website can be found at and his Twitter account is at

The cover art is a detail, which we have tinted red, from a piece by Etienne Leopold Trouvelot: “The planet Mars: Observed September 3, 1877, at 11h. 55m. P.M.” From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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

Friday 25 December 2020

Blood on Satan’s Claw, by Mark Morris (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

Audio drama produced by Bafflegab. The young people in a eighteenth-century village fall under the sway of a malevolent force. The original film (mysteriously popular with Doctor Who fans) was a product of its time, the year of Charles Manson’s trial, which it echoes. This new version is still about the horror of sexually active women. The cast is excellent, including Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Alice Lowe, and it does interesting things with sound, music and effects. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday 18 December 2020

The Witcher, Season 1, by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich et al. (Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Unashamedly derivative of Elric, right down to calling its main character the White Wolf, this eight episode series was nonetheless very enjoyable. It’s as if they took the time that Henry Cavill reloaded his biceps in Mission: Impossible – Fallout and made it last eight hours. It’s daft as a brush and leans into it. In this series the Witcher runs through a series of entertaining one-off adventures, while we see what a wizard and a princess were getting up to before they met him. Rollicking stuff. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday 11 December 2020

Preacher, Season 4, by Sam Catlin and chums (Amazon Prime Video) | review by Stephen Theaker

The final season of a show that wasn’t quite the equal of its best moments. Preacher Jesse Custer, his partner in many crimes Tulip and vampire Cass head for Masada to stop the apocalypse, while God and Herr Starr do their best to make it happen. It frequently feels like an extended game of Marco Polo, with episodes often driven by the need to recover whichever member of the gang has gone missing this time, but it’s still entertaining: where else will you see Jesus in a fist fight with Hitler? Stephen Theaker ***

Saturday 5 December 2020

Provenance by Ann Leckie | review by Stephen Theaker

Ingray Aughskold of the planet Hwae has come up with a daft plan, because she feels obliged to compete with her obnoxious brother Danach for her mother’s approval. Her mother’s affection seems entirely out of the question, but there’s still an outside chance of her selecting Ingray as the inheritor of her name, and names are important on Hwae. So the young woman comes to Tyr Siilas, and hands over everything she owns – and more besides that she has borrowed – to a criminal organisation, Gold Orchid.

Friday 4 December 2020

Legion, Season 3, by Noah Hawley and chums (Fox) | review by Stephen Theaker

The third and final season of Legion makes no effort to cater to those who found previous seasons obscure and self-indulgent, and is all the better for it: beautiful, unique and innovative. It introduces time traveller Switch, as David Haller tries to fix what went wrong in his life, but stops caring about right and wrong as he does it, assuming that everything will be undone when he is successful. We also meet the Legion universe Professor X, played perfectly by Harry Lloyd. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday 29 November 2020

November novel-writing: a few thoughts about what worked well this year

I didn't officially take part in Nanowrimo this year -- I deleted my account earlier in the year in dismay at their tweets about J.K. Rowling -- but in November I always write novels, and that didn't change. This year, I finished two novels off, Rolnikov the God, which I began writing in November 2019, and We Slept Through the Apocalypse, which I began back in November 2008. Finishing a book on which I'd been stuck for so long made me very happy, and that means I've now finished writing eleven of these daft novels. I think I'm going to keep going, and see if I can finish a few more, after catching up on my book reviews.

Anyway, for my own future reference as much as anyone else's interest, here are a few of the things that worked for me this month, roughly in order of where they came in the writing process:

Leaving Twitter and Facebook. I left Twitter and Facebook at the beginning of November and stayed off completely until I had finished a novel. To be honest, I wish I had stayed off until I had finished both novels. It's not just reading the posts on social media that is a drag on concentration -- though Twitter especially does offer a never-ending succession of interesting people with interesting thoughts -- it's writing my own posts, and then thinking about the responses to my posts, and then thinking about how to respond to those responses. I spent an entire week earlier this year arguing about the canonical sexuality of Velma from Scooby-Doo, for example. All thinking time better invested in the novels. I've become a big fan of just reading Twitter on the television, via the Fire TV stick, not logged in. It becomes like reading a newspaper then, much more enjoyable, with no sense of an obligation to respond to anything.

Moleskine squared cahiers. I love these. I've been using them for a few years now. I have one for each novel. I draw a front cover and write a blurb for the back cover, both of which help keep me focused on what the book is supposed to be about. The first few double-page spreads are for brainstorms, character lists, maps, mysteries that need to be resolved, and other things I need to remember. Then each chapter gets a double-page spread. On the left-hand pages go the things that are supposed to happen in that chapter, and on the right go the things that did actually happen, if different. It's so useful having my notes in these self-contained little booklets. I can take them anywhere, and they make it immensely easier to resume writing an unfinished book. I've just ordered another set of three, to help me finish off The Mysteries of Mygret Zend, The Triumphs of the Two Husbands and I Couldn't See Past the Spider.

Routine. I got into a very nice routine this year, helped, I have to admit, by one of our children having to quarantine in her room after being in close contact with a Covid-19 carrier. (Don't worry, both children seem to be fine.) That meant I didn't have to get up early with her, and also that the other daughter was sleeping on the sofa, so I couldn't play on the Xbox after half nine or so. Every night I would go in my office between nine and ten, start writing, and carry on till that chapter was done. I like writing in the mornings too, but that's a bit harder without a pub to go to, and if I don't get a chapter done in the morning it can be a drag on the whole day.

The Freewrite and the Freewrite Traveler. I wrote for most of the month on the original Freewrite, and then switched seamlessly to the Freewrite Traveler when that superb device arrived. Using the same device every day helped me to get into a routine, and it helped that the Freewrites are focused entirely on writing. There's literally nothing else you can do on them. When I sat down to write, everything else was already switched off and the Freewrite was waiting for me.

Alexa. I set up a routine on Alexa called Novel writing, with music. It tells me to write a hundred words, then plays a long, wordless song for seven and a half minutes, which is usually more than enough for me to write a hundred words. Then it tells me to aim for two hundred words and plays another long, wordless song, and so on until I reach my target of 1666 words for the day and the chapter. It's like putting myself on a train track. Once I'm on, I can't get off, I just have to keep going till I reach the station.

Hundred-word chunks. It's hard to write 1666 words, but it's easy to write 100. I marked each 100 words off with a cross on that chapter's page of the cahier.

Treats. Each 100 words earned me a treat. I'm getting a bit sick of Haribos at this point, but I finished two novels so they seem to have done the trick!

Playing cards. After each 100 words I also get to turn over a playing card. (I do the same thing with proofreading, where I turn over a playing card for each page read.) This acts as a surprise and a treat, but I think it also provides a physical manifestation of progress through a project that you don't get when writing or reading digitally. I have various sets of playing cards that I use (Doctor Who, James Bond, Star Wars, Judge Dredd, etc), but this year I mainly used a (possibly unlicensed) set that featured paintings of Tarzan, John Carter, Game of Thrones and Vampirella.

The Kindle. I have things set up so that when I finish the chapter, and press the SEND button on my Freewrite, it gets automatically forwarded to my Kindle. It was such a pleasure to go to bed each night knowing that I would have a new chapter of my own novels to read! I wouldn't recommend them to anyone else, but I find them hilarious. I would annotate the chapter while reading, then in the morning take in those corrections to the text file. It was good preparation for writing the next chapter, but also meant the novels were in pretty good shape by the time I finished writing them. Expect to see them in future issues of TQF!

Not reading anything else. I didn't read other books this month. I got that out of my system in October! I read the new chapters of my books, and the old chapters of those books, and chapters of other books I've written about the same characters. That meant I was constantly refreshing my memory of their lives, and noticing details I could work back into the story. It also meant that I didn't get drawn into thinking about other people's plots instead of mine, or get distracted by writing book reviews instead of fiction.

Friday 27 November 2020

The Expanse, Season 3, by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and chums (Amazon Prime Video) | review by Stephen Theaker

Thirteen episodes of top-flight space adventure. They begin with Earth, Mars and the Belters at loggerheads, heading for war, and later put their people in a situation where co-operation is their only hope. In the middle of it all is James Holden and the capable crew of the Rosinante, pushed and pulled by forces they barely understand. Acting, storylines, effects, dialogue: all brilliant. It was dramatic, funny and epic, with a generous helping of sense of wonder. Stephen Theaker ****

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Splatterpunk’s Not Dead, edited by Jack Bantry (Splatterpunk Zine) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Splatterpunk may not be dead, but if this is the measure, then it’s only half alive. 

Splatterpunk’s Not Dead purports to reignite the presumed dying art of the splatterpunk horror subgenre. However, only half the stories within the anthology offer something both inventive and splattery. The remaining stories range from so-so to forgettable, plus there are quite a few mistakes.  

Monday 23 November 2020

The Devil, by Ken Bruen | review by Rafe McGregor

The Devil by Ken Bruen. Transworld Ireland, 304pp, £12.99, May 2011, ISBN 9781848270206.

I first came to Ken Bruen in 2002.  I was researching for a military police procedural series that I hoped would launch a writing career and was reading or watching every mystery with a military setting I could find.  I read a review of The Guards (2001), the first Jack Taylor novel, and because either the review or my concentration were lacking came away with the impression that it was about a murder in a London barracks.  Not even close – it’s actually about an alcoholic ex-guard (Irish police officer) who works as a private investigator in Galway, a small city on the west coast of Ireland.  I devoured it anyway and immediately sought out the second in the series, The Killing of the Tinkers (2002), which had just been published and which I read in a single sitting.  Like his protagonist, Bruen has suffered from addiction and his no-holds-barred noir fiction is nothing short of addictive itself – extremely difficult to stop once one starts, even if one later wonders if it was the wisest use of one’s time.  While I was waiting for the third Jack Taylor, The Magdalen Martyrs (2003), to be released, I got stuck into Bruen’s Detective Sergeant Brant series, police procedurals set in south-east London: A White Arrest (1998), Taming the Alien (1999), The McDead (2000), and Blitz (2002).  I also read two excellent standalones, The Hackman Blues (1997) and London Boulevard (2001).  The fourth Jack Taylor, The Dramatist (2004), won the Shamus Award, but it was at this stage that my appetite for Bruen started to wane.  First, there was simply too much personal tragedy in The Dramatist and too little mystery for my taste.  Second, it was at about this time that I realised The Magdalen Martyrs, which I had also loved, was essentially an inferior retelling of London Boulevard (which is an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard).  I read the next three Jack Taylors and Brants with a strong sense of diminishing returns and gave up in 2008 with Sanctuary (the seventh Jack Taylor; the Brant series ended with Ammunition, published the previous year) and Once Were Cops, a disappointing standalone.

Friday 20 November 2020

Burials in Several Earths, by Radiophonic Workshop (Room 13) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Radiophonic Workshop created electronic music for BBC programmes, innovating all the while, and inspiring more than one generation of electronic musicians. After some surviving members reunited for live performances, they went on to make this excellent instrumental album. Four of the tracks are so long that two CDs are required, and when it is playing I’m never quite sure what is happening, but I like it a lot. It reminds me of classic Tangerine Dream albums like Alpha Centauri and Zeit. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday 15 November 2020

Ragged Alice, by Gareth L. Powell | review by Rafe McGregor

Ragged Alice by Gareth L. Powell, 202pp, £9.99, April 2019, ISBN  9781250220189

It would be an exaggeration to state that rescued the novella as a literary form in the twenty-first century, but that form certainly appeared to be in an irreversible decline by the end of the last century and’s series of speculative fiction novellas has made it a commercially-viable option for authors again.  The revival of the novella (and, to a much lesser extent, the short story) may also be a consequence of the shift from hard copy to hard and digital copy over the last two decades, however, as the chunky – and often clunky – ‘airport’ novel seems to be as popular as ever.  Notwithstanding, deserve credit where it is due and the renaissance in which they have at the very least played a significant part has been achieved in the simplest and most effective way possible, by publishing great novellas.  In the last four years alone, these have included: Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (2016, reviewed in TQF here), Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone (2016) and A Song for Quiet (2017, TQF review here), David Tallerman’s Patchwerk (2016, TQF review here), and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier (2017–2020) series.  Personally, I couldn’t be more pleased about this.  If one follows Stephen King’s definition, the novella as a narrative of between twenty and eighty thousand words, it is my preferred form for most genre fiction.  It not only suits speculative fiction, but crime fiction too and almost all of Agatha Christie’s ‘novels’ as well as all four Sherlock Holmes ‘long’ stories were in fact novellas.  This review is of a particular combination of the two, an outstanding occult detective story that fits the novella form with pleasing perfection.

Friday 13 November 2020

The Vision, Vol. 1: A Little Less Than a Man, by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

This was an unexpected treat, and I can see why it got a lot of attention. The art is terrific, and the story is a real tragedy, as the Vision tries to set up a home with his synthezoid family and step by step things get worse and worse. It reminded me of The Leftovers in that way, and was somehow just as moving despite the protagonists being robots. Stephen Theaker ****

Thursday 12 November 2020

Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons, by James Lovegrove | review by Rafe McGregor

Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons
Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons by James Lovegrove

Titan Books, 408pp, £11.75, October 2020, ISBN 9781789094695

Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialised in The Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902 and then published as a novel (or, more accurately, a novella) by George Newnes the following month. The tale is probably the best known of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and is certainly one of the most filmed, with big and small screen adaptations stretching from 1914 to 2016 at the time of writing, including retellings in both BBC One’s Sherlock (2010-2017) and CBS’s Elementary (2012–2019) series (The Hounds of Baskerville in 2012 and Hounded in 2016 respectively). I think it may also be the narrative about which I have written the most, in terms of number of publications: a review of one of the sequels, David Stuart Davies’ The Tangled Skein (1995) in TQF24 (2008); an article for Crime and Detective Stories (2008) in which I propose an alternative solution to the case; a review of SelfMadeHero’s graphic novel in TQF29 (2009); a chapter in Josef Steiff’s Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy (2011) in which I suggest that the novella is primarily a work of horror rather than crime; and a short story sequel, “The Wrong Doctor”, first published in TQF50 (2015) and reprinted in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine 20 (2016) and The Adventures of Roderick Langham (2017). The reason for my fascination – or perhaps I should say fixation – is my interest in crossover between crime and horror fiction (particularly, but not exclusively, the occult detective) and my agreement with Christopher Frayling’s claim that The Hound is one of the four great Gothic horror stories of the first century of the genre, alongside Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). In the chapter for Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy I examined both the creative context of the novella, which was originally intended to be a supernatural story co-authored with Bertram Fletcher Robinson, and the narrative itself to show that the mystery plot is underpinned by tropes much more common to the horror genre.

Wednesday 11 November 2020

Vampires vs. the Bronx | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Stranger Things partners with Fright Night and moves to the city to take on gentrification 

Kids find out vampires are trying to take over their neighbourhood. Adults don’t believe it. And so a familiar scenario plays out in Vampires vs. the Bronx, directed by Oz Rodriguez. Lots of clichés in this one: hissing, baring teeth, gathering weapons, taking notes from movies. However, one thing does set this film apart from other vamp flicks: the predators use the guise of a real estate firm to pursue their malicious goal. They even go so far as to enlist some of the neighbourhood thugs to help them.

Tuesday 10 November 2020

The Dark Knight Rises | review by Rafe McGregor

The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Bruce Wayne, Bill Gates, or Donald Trump?

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is the third instalment of his Dark Knight Trilogy, which began with the unimaginatively-named Batman Begins in 2005.  The latter title was selected to indicate that Nolan’s trilogy is a reboot, starting the story afresh after Warner Brothers’ initial film series ended with its fourth instalment, Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997), which was very poorly received by critics.  As the title of the Trilogy suggests, Nolan wanted to return to the hardboiled realism of Frank Miller, Klaus Jackson, and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) rather than continue the comedy that Schumacher brought to Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin, which was reminiscent of the camp humour that popularised ABC’s Batman (1966–1968) television series.  Batman Begins finds millionaire Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) setting out to train himself as an outlaw in order to return to Gotham (a fictionalised New York) and perform the role of a law enforcer – against the threat of organised crime – a role that the corrupt police department cannot fulfil.  In Bhutan, he is trained by the League of Shadows, which initially appears to be a monastic order but is subsequently revealed as a kind of Hegel-inspired insurgency that has existed for centuries and shapes world history by destroying civilizations when they become too decadent.  Wayne escapes when he learns that Gotham has been selected as the League’s next target and returns to save the city from organised crime as Batman, with the benefit of his physical and mental training at the hands of the League and the technology produced by Wayne Enterprises.

Monday 9 November 2020

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle | review by Rafe McGregor, paperback, £8.82, February 2016, ISBN 9780765387868

Read on its own, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is a fine example of a novella in the hybrid genre of the weird tale – or perhaps, more accurately, the new weird.  In The Weird Tale (1990) and The Modern Weird Tale (2001), S.T. Joshi defines the weird tale as a retrospective category of speculative fiction, published from 1880 to 1940, that is essentially philosophical in virtue of representing a fully-fledged and fleshed-out world view. The new weird was initially associated with China Miéville in the UK and subsequently Jeff VanderMeer in the US (although both Miéville and Joshi reject the term). In their introduction to the short story collection, The New Weird (2008), VanderMeer and his wife, Ann, distinguish the new weird from the weird tale in terms of the former combining real-world complexity with transgressive fantasy and contemporary political relevance. Read in conjunction with H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”, which was first published in Weird Tales in January 1927, The Ballad of Black Tom is a deliberate and definitive deconstruction of the original short story. LaValle takes one of Lovecraft’s most overtly and viciously racist narratives and reimagines the character, action, and setting represented by Lovecraft from a twenty-first century that is conscious of racial prejudice, social injustice, and police impunity. LaValle dates his story to 1924, when Lovecraft and his wife, Sonia Greene, were living in Flatbush and the real horror of Red Hook for Lovecraft was the extent of its multiculturalism, which stimulated his racism and xenophobia and fears of miscegenation and evolutionary reversal. In contemporary terms, Lovecraft believed he saw first-hand at Red Hook evidence of the white genocide conspiracy theory, which is one of the reasons he returned to his sanctuary in Providence, Rhode Island, after less than two years. LaValle is an African American novelist and short story writer from Queens, who lives in Washington Heights, and his complex relationship with Lovecraft is revealed in the dedication of the novella, ‘For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings’.

Friday 6 November 2020

Supergirl: Book Four, by Peter David, Leonard Kirk and chums (DC Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

Reasonably enjoyable but surprisingly religious adventures of an odd Supergirl. Not Superman’s cousin, nor quite the protoplasm Supergirl either, she’s a mixed-up kid who merged with the protoplasm while dying to become, well, an angel. Trying to do good while keeping her secret identity under wraps, in this book she learns that her literally god-given talents have an expiration date. Though not so obviously aimed at men as earlier books, it’s still not the Supergirl you’d pick out for girls. Stephen Theaker ***

Thursday 5 November 2020

Poison City, by Paul Crilley | review by Rafe McGregor

Poison City by Paul Crilley

Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, £15.49, August 2016, ISBN 9781473631588

I’ll begin this review with a confession: for idiosyncratic reasons in which the readers of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction will have no interest, I have a soft spot for police procedurals set in Durban, South Africa’s ‘third city’ (after Johannesburg and Cape Town).  As far as I know, Poison City is the only police procedural set there aside from my own novella, The Secret Policeman (2008).  In consequence, I may have approached this novel in a less critical frame of mind than usual.  Having said that, this is not Durban as I or anyone else who has ever lived there knows it.  Scottish author Paul Crilley invites his readers to imagine a world similar to that of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001), in which every legend, myth, cult, and religion ever invented by humanity is true and in which the orisha – these supernatural beings – all exist.  The difference between Crilley’s and Gaiman’s fictional worlds is twofold: first, Crilley is not afraid to confront the monotheistic religions and his God is simply another orisha, albeit one of the most powerful; second, the orisha are free to migrate where and when they wish rather than being reliant on humanity for their transportation and have accordingly dispersed across the globe.  A world where human and orisha live side-by-side requires a special police force and an international organisation of police officers along the lines of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) exists precisely for this purpose.  These Supernatural Divisions are part of the regular police forces of each country, clandestine units with obscure names run from secret headquarters whose primary purpose is to serve as peacekeepers, enforcing the Covenant, an ancient truce between humanity and orisha.  In South Africa, the Supernatural Division is called Delphic Division (DD), is part of the official Occult Related Crimes Unit of the South African Police Services (SAPS), and is based in Durban.  DD is nominally under the command of Divisional Commissioner Ranson, a political appointment, but actually run by Major Olivia Armitage, an Englishwoman in her fifties, and her senior investigator is Lieutenant Gideon Tau.

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Angel's Inferno, by William Hjortsberg | review by Rafe McGregor

Angel’s Inferno by William Hjortsberg

No Exit Press, 384pp, £8.19, October 2020, ISBN 9780857304131

The late William Hjortsbjerg (1941–2017) was a Hollywood screenwriter best known for his screenplay of Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985) and his novel, Falling Angel (1978), which was filmed as Angel Heart (1987), directed by Alan Parker.  I recently reviewed Angel Heart for TQF, discussing the film and the novel, in consequence of which this review includes spoilers for both.  Hjortsberg was not a prolific writer of books, publishing seven novels, one collection of short fiction, and one biography, with only Falling Angel achieving critical acclaim.  He published a single novel in the last twenty years of his life, Mañana (2015) and his last before that was Nevermore (1994), which may have been the inspiration for James McTeigue’s disappointing The Raven (2012), though I’ve found no acknowledgement of the connection.  Nevermore is considerably better than The Raven, featuring Harry Houdini and Conan Doyle as a detective duo (they were real life acquaintances), a fine example of an occult detective story that blends fact with fiction.  I’ve been interested in Hjortsberg for some time, but – like so many screenwriters – details of his work and life are difficult to find.  I stepped up my efforts when I reviewed Angel Heart and was surprised to learn that not only had he been working on a new novel at the very end of his life, but that it was a sequel to Falling Angel.  (There is no mention of the book on his own website, which is the most comprehensive source of information on him:  I had to re-read the final chapter of the latter to refresh my memory as to whether a sequel was possible without employing retroactive continuity… it is and it was first published by Centipede Press in July 2020, as a limited edition hardback paired with a new edition of Falling Angel that sold out on pre-orders.  The specialist crime fiction publisher No Exit Press, which is part of the Oldcastle Books Group and seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance of late, released the paperback and Kindle editions three months later.

Tuesday 3 November 2020

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

The sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale. Incendiaries, intrigue, and insurrection: finding the female voice in a world “where women might as well be house cats”.

What kind of place relegates women to groups with names like Econowives, Marthas, Handmaids, Pearl Girls, and Unwomen? Where might one see a Particicution in which normally meek and submissive women grow enraged and literally tear apart men convicted of crimes? Gilead, of course… the fictional setting of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.   

Saturday 31 October 2020

#OcTBRChallenge: books 67 to 100 reviewed

Just finished my hundredth book of the month! It was a bit less of a challenge than expected – I have a lot of very short books! – and of course in the grand scheme of things reading a hundred books in a month is an entirely meaningless achievement, but it was still a good deal of fun. Here are my reviews of books 66 to 100.

Doctor Who: Short Trips – Volume 3, Xanna Eve Chown (ed.) (Big Finish Productions): A slightly different format for this anthology: one story, read with aplomb and astonishing range by Nicholas Briggs, acts as as a frame for the other stories. David Troughton narrates a story of Zoe stuck in the wrong time zone while the Doctor fights a millipede man. Jo and the third Doctor encounter an advertising robot, which leads them to shut down the Tardis – this story has an interesting explanation for why the Tardis's computer technology sometimes seems familiar to us. The fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane visit Barnum's circus, where I learned that we get the word jumbo from an elephant's name. Doctor Who, educational as ever! The fifth Doctor and Peri take refuge from the rain in an house that is being put to an unusual use. Peri and the sixth Doctor visit the Oort Cloud and seem to discover a bunch of naked humans living there. Sophie Aldred reads a story in the first person as Ace, where she and the seventh Doctor investigate a series of violent attacks near a river. India Fisher reads a story about a scoundrel using the eighth Doctor's Tardis as a fairground attraction. Enjoyable, and read very well throughout. ***

Lucky Luke: Le Fil Qui Chante, Morris and Rene Goscinny (Dargaud): In a book by the classic Morris/Goscinny team, Lucky Luke joins an effort to extend the telegraph wires from west and east until they meet at Salt Lake City. Whichever team arrives there first will win a prize. Unfortunately, there's a saboteur on Lucky Luke's team, and the terrain is difficult. Typically enjoyable, typically dated in places, the square and rectangular panels look absolutely splendid on an iPad. ****

Olympus Mons, tome 1: Anomalie un, Christophe Bec, Stefano Raffaele, Digicore Studio and Pierre Loyvet (Soleil): A book that carefully cultivates a sense of awe around a series of mysterious vessels, on a mountain, in the depths of the ocean, and on Mars. A police psychic warns of doom if the vessel in the ocean is interfered with. It ends on a cliffhanger, but I didn't feel at all short-changed. The art is very good. I'll keep my eye out for future volumes. ***

Doctor Who: Short Trips, Volume 4, Xanna Eve Chown (ed.) (Big Finish Productions): A fourth audio anthology. The first Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara try to help the cloned survivors of a sea-lion species. The second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe investigate a big hole in the ground. The third Doctor and Jo deal with giant rhubarb in a Wakefield shed. A cafe owner with an alien secret dreads the sound of the Tardis arriving; this time it brings the fourth Doctor, Romana and K-9 to make the decennial check on him. The fifth Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan investigate an anomaly at a dinner to celebrate the completion of Nelson's column. Colin Baker reads a story about the sixth Doctor visiting a cornish pasty maker in hospital – it was funny to hear the scorn with which he read a reference to I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, a year before he appeared on it. Ace gets a sore throat from some bad food and encounters a shadow thief while the seventh Doctor plans to watch a spaceship launch. India Fisher reads a story about the eighth Doctor helping an archivist stuck in a time loop. Not as good as previous volumes, but I was amused by the idea in a couple of the stories that if aliens come to destroy the Earth it might well be as part of a prank or a hobby. ***

Masquerade, Vol. 1, Phil Hester, Carlos Paul and Alex Ross (Dynamite Entertainment): A spin-off from Project Superpowers, which placed lots of out-of-copyright heroes in a shared universe, this tells the story of Masquerade, via crucial episodes on her adventuring, and flashing back from each of those to her childhood. The plot makes it more of a side-story to the original Project Superpowers series than a fully-fledged story in its own right, but it was still a good read. I was a bit frustrated by how the book didn't care to tell us what happened to an important character after she was kidnapped, casually revealing that she survived at the end but never telling us how. ***

Goldie Vance, Vol. 2, Hope Larson and Brittney Williams (BOOM! Box): Tintinesque but with a livelier hero, this book sees 1960s teenage detective Goldie Vance investigate the case of a girl who washes up on the beach in an astronaut suit. Goldie is a charming character, and, perhaps unusually for a children's book, all the adults in her life are very likeable too. ***

Mrs Fox, Sarah Hall (Faber & Faber): A man's wife seems to turn into a fox, not temporarily, like a were-fox would, but permanently, and he doesn't take it well. Feels like a metaphor for men who persuade or coerce unhappy partners into staying. ***

Dreams of a Dead Country, Douglas Thompson (Salo Press): A man dreams of a long-lost love, since that's the only way they can be together again. His dreams are "jumbled up fragments" of things that happened, things that might have happened, things that could only have happened in a different reality. As usual, Douglas Thompson offers ideas every few pages that other writers would mine for entire novels. ****

Fairy Tales, Marianne Moore (Faber & Faber): These seem from the preface to be translations of Charles Perrault's stories rather than entirely new tellings. Puss in Boots and Cinderella held few surprises, but the second half of Sleeping Beauty was all new to me. ***

Orion's Outcasts, Vol. 1, Eric Corbeyran and Jorge Miguel (Humanoids): Based on the work of Julia Verlanger, this is old-fashioned adventure sf set on the world designated Orion-XB12557, where the descendants of colonists from Earth live iron age lives, the ruins of the colonists' spaceships a backdrop to their settlements. A pair of outcasts – Kohlen, a warrior tricked into a liaison with a priestess and Tryana, who saw an offworlder trading weapons – team up in an attempt to escape their fate. While this is often a bit corny, not least in the way that in a fight Kohlen kills without hesitation but the people he's fighting show restraint in return, I did enjoy it. The art was very much to my taste. ***

Miss: Better Living Through Crime, Vol. 1: Bloody Manhattan, Philippe Thirault, Marc Riou and Mark Vigouroux (Humanoids): A flint-hard woman takes her first steps – or long strides – into criminality, quickly acquiring a sidekick and a reputation for making people disappear. Terrific art and a story that pulls no punches. ****

Shutter, Vol. 1: Wanderlost, Joe Keatinge, Leila del Duca and Owen Gieni (Image Comics): Kate Kristopher used to have science fictional and fantastical adventures with her dad, like Tom and Tesla Strong, but he died ten years ago and now she's working as a photographer, living with her old schoolfriend Alain and a talking, cat-shaped alarm clock. On a visit to his grave, she is attacked by a trio of purple ghost ninjas and from that point things just get weirder and weirder. It's a very lively book, with a vibrant colour palette and a ton of things happening, all with Kate at the centre. I didn't fall in love with it, but I'd be interested to see what happens next. ***

Unnatural, Vol. 1: Awakening, Mirka Andolfo (Image Comics): A buxom, blue-haired pig lives in a world where anthropomorphic animal species can cross-breed, but are forbidden from doing so. It's rather hard to imagine how these species evolved, but I suppose I don't complain about that with Usagi Yojimbo, so it would be unfair to complain about it too much here just because I didn't like the book as much. The protagonist has reached the age where the government steps in to find a same-species mate for anyone who hasn't found someone for themselves, but she is distracted by sexy dreams about a big white wolf. I didn't enjoy this very much. The casual violence was frequently at odds with the cutesy art, and all the naked pig-woman scenes were a bit weird. One for the furries. **

Postal, Vol. 1, Bryan Edward Hill, Matt Hawkins, Isaac Goodheart, Betsy Gonia, Isaac Goodhart and Troy Peteri (Image Comics): A book with an interesting idea: a town that seems to be very happy has a habit of taking criminals to the church and shooting them dead. The protagonist is the town's postman, who is very good at noticing things, and noticing things in this town leads to all the secrets everyone is trying to keep. I wasn't blown away, but it's a promising start. ***

Mars Attacks Judge Dredd, Al Ewing and John McCrea (IDW Publishing): I didn't have any great expectations for this, so to see it had such a renowned pair of creators involved when I opened the book was a surprise, and it turned out to be very good fun. It felt like a genuine Judge Dredd story, albeit in the IDW continuity, and I especially enjoyed John McCrea's "Gaze into the fist of Dredd" moment. There's not a lot to it, so if I had paid full price I might have been disappointed, but I got it in a Humble Bundle. ***

Oblivion Song, Vol. 1, Robert Kirkman, Lorenzo De Felici and Annalisa Leoni (Image Comics): Ten years after a disastrous land swap between our world and a more demonic dimension, one man keeps travelling there to find survivors and bring them home. But because he doesn't do the obvious thing – i.e. put up a sign saying that he wants to take people home, telling them when and where to meet him – and instead hunts and shoots them like animals, the people stuck there think he is an enemy. The basic idea is one seen before in books like Hellboy and Savage Dragon, but as usual with Robert Kirkman's books what makes it compelling is how it shows the effect of these events on the people living through them. The absence of chapter breaks makes the reader hurtle through the book, and he really knows how to end a book on a thrilling note. Smashing art too. ****

James Bond: Kill Chain, Andy Diggle and Luca Casalanguida (Dynamite Entertainment): Bond gets on the trail of of a SMERSH plot to divide the NATO allies, and does his best to foil it via the judicious application of violence. Stylish and restrained. ****

Starving Anonymous Vol. 1, Yuu Kuraishi, Kengo Mizutani and Kazu Inabe (Kodansha Comics): Teenager I'e is sensibly wearing his mask on a bus when everyone else passes out. The gas still gets him eventually but a lighter dose means he wakes up before the others, to find himself in a ghastly facility, where fat people are sliced up for meat and skinny people are fattened up for later consumption. He teams up with a violent weirdo and a rapist in an attempt to escape, only to discover horrors even worse. A very discomfiting book. ***

Robert Silverberg's Colonies: Return to Belzagor, Part 1, Philippe Thirault and Laura Zuccheri (Humanoids): I've read the novel Downward to the Earth a couple of times, but have only hazy memories of it, so I can't judge whether this is a faithful adaptation or not. But taken on its own terms it's a very good graphic novel, portraying a racist imperialist administrator returning, as a tour guide, to the world from which he was ejected, and perhaps learning to relate to that world and its peoples in a new way. Laura Zuccheri's alien flora and fauna really make it feel like we're not on Earth. ****

Miss: Better Living Through Crime Vol. 2: Sweet Lullaby, Philippe Thirault, Marc Riou and Mark Vigouroux (Humanoids): Miss and Slim take a job to kill a rich guy on a boat, but as usual kill anyone else who irritates them too. A certain amount of affection introductes itelf into their relationship. Like the first book, it looks amazing, the art and colours utter perfection. ****

Bramble, Vol. 1: Electric Roots, Jean-David Morvan and Nesmo (Humanoids): A big strange chap (a bit like Archer's Goon) leaves his idyllic village in the countryside and comes to the city, building a pile of dead bodies wherever he goes. This attracts the attention of the police, as embodied by Captain Edward Mornieres. The art shows us everything from peculiar angles to create a certain mood, and it's usually pretty clear what is going on, but there were a few sequences I had to re-read. ***

Carthago, Vol. 1: The Fortuna Island Lagoon, Christophe Bec, Eric Henninot and Milan Jovanovic (Humanoids): A company drilling for oil discovers an immense underwater cave, which turns out to connect to other immense caves around the world. It is home to a variety of prehistoric creatures, but the one that really captures everyone's attention is a megalodon. Quite a fun comic with very nice artwork -- the animals look terrific. ***

The Manhattan Projects, Vol. 1: Science. Bad., Jonathan Hickman, Nick Pitarra, Jordie Bellaire and Rus Wooton (Image Comics): The extra s in the title is significant: this is about a world where the atom bomb was only one of the Manhattan Projects. Strange versions of Feynman, Fermi, Einstein and Oppenheimer work to expand the boundaries of reality, with frequently unfortunate consequences. I wish I'd read this sooner: I found The Nightly News hard going and thought Hickman's other Image stuff was in a similar style, but this is the kind of wildly imaginative type of story that makes me love reading comics so much. ****

Revival, Vol. 1: You're Among Friends, Tim Seeley, Mike Norton and Mark Englert (Image Comics): Like Les Revenants and the various television shows it inspired, this is the story of a town where people have come back from the dead, for no apparent reason, and not as mindless zombies, but as, it seems at first, the people they used to be. But even if the idea is not new, the execution of it is very good, with lots of mysteries and interesting characters. In art and style it feels like the kind of classic Vertigo comic that got me back into reading comics again in the first place. ****

Miss: Better Living Through Crime, Vol. 3: White as a Lily, Philippe Thirault, Marc Riou and Mark Vigouroux (Humanoids): After some business that I didn't really understand by the river, a racist hires Miss and Slim to perform a hit on a man on a golf course. Then the KKK show up and Miss chooses that moment to show her affection for Slim. Like many stories with evil people as their protagonists, this book comes into its own when the people Miss and Slim tangle with are even worse than they are. You can never root for them, but you can appreciate the way they deal with dangerous situations and terrible people. ****

Miss: Better Living Through Crime, Vol. 4: Bad Luck, My Love, Philippe Thirault, Marc Riou and Mark Vigouroux (Humanoids): A final volume for the pair of criminals, who never quite seem to achieve the Better Living Through Crime that the subtitle promises. This one's not so much about the crimes, though as usual they commit plenty, with double-crosses and bonus crimes for people they don't like, and more about Slim getting sick with tubercolosis. Miss needs a big score to pay for the treatments. It looks as good as the three previous books, and even if they are a pair of irredeemable villains it's nice to see how their relationship develops. ****

Savage Highway, Book 1: Hit the Road, Mathieu Masmondet and Zhang Xiaoyu (Humanoids): Based on a novel by Julia Verlanger, this tells the story of a severely traumatised woman and a man who might well turn out to be equally traumatised if he ever spoke more than a word or two. After he kills her from brutal captors, they develop a relationship and he joins her on a quest to find her abducted little sister. It's standard post-apocalyptic stuff (the moon has broken into pieces), but the action is portrayed very well, and they are a fairly likeable pair of protagonists. It's satisfying to watch them take down a bunch of the bad guys. ***

A Rare Book of Cunning Device, Ben Aaronovitch, read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Audible Studios): An investigator of the supernatural and the superscientific looks into what is thought to be a poltergeist at the British Library, in a low-key adventure that feels like a less flashy British version of the Dresden Files. The story came and went without leaving much of a trace, but I enjoyed Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's weary narration. ***

Usagi Yojimbo/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete Collection, Stan Sakai (Dark Horse Books): Collects five stories where Miyamoto Usagi meets the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, four by Stan Sakai, and one by Peter Laird, creator of the Turtles. Its only real flaw is that the turtles in the fifth story seem to come from a reboot continuity, so that the pleasant fellowship built up over the other stories is lost. Other than that, this is as much of a treat as any Usagi Yojimbo book, the art flawless, and looking so good in the colour section that when I finish reading Usagi Yojimbo I'll be tempted to go back to the beginning and read the new colour editions. ****

My Son the Fanatic, Hanif Kureishi (Faber & Faber): A taxi driver notices that his son is behaving oddly, discarding his possessions and becoming silently judgmental. At first he thinks the problem is drugs, but the truth is that the young man is becoming a religious fanatic, and the father's own moral failings complicate his attempts to challenge this unwelcome development. From 1996 but still feels topical. ****

Le Lama Blanc, tome 1: Le Premier pas, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Georges Bess (Humanoids): A powerful Tibetan monk, prophesying dark times ahead for his community, says that he will be reborn as a baby in a particular house after his death. Not everyone is keen on this plan, and assassin gods are sent to kill the baby. But there is another child born in the same house, the child of English parents… It's a decent start, and not as offensive as I expected, but very talky. ***

Mallam Cross, T.M. Wright and Steven Savile (PS Publishing): The people of a town called Mallam Cross are concerned to hear that a ghost-hunting television show is on its way to visit, and with good reason: pretty much everyone in the town is a ghost. (Bill and Deirdre, who run the grocery store, used to be the dwarven royalty of the Antipodes, but I wasn't sure if they had died before coming to Mallam Cross, or just retired.) Unfortunately, the ghost hunters aren't even the worst problem the town faces: a pair of naked ancient Welsh magicians are running around the place torturing and devouring other ghosts. The book begins by introducing a slightly overwhelming array of characters, most of whom won't play a major role in the narrative, but an afterword explains why. In his later years T.M. Wright struggled to write, but came up with the idea of a city where everyone was a ghost, and produced a series of fragments describing its inhabitants. After his death, his friend Steven Savile was asked to prepare them for publication. This is why the book's description doesn't match the book, and why Savile was originally credited as the book's editor rather than a co-author. This proving impractical, he instead built a new story around those fragments, also incorporating emails and other writing by Wright, making the book itself a tribute to him and his work. For an author, this book is the equivalent of being sent out on a burning Viking longboat. I'd never read a word of T.M. Wright's work before buying this book, but that didn't affect my appreciation of it. I especially enjoyed the lightbulb moment at about the three-quarter mark, though it may come sooner for readers sharper than I am. ****

The Finishing School, Muriel Spark (Polygon): A portrait of Rowland Mahler, a teacher and struggling novelist who burns with envy of Chris, the young writer for whom it all seems to come so easily. I've known a Rowland or two, and I'm sure that Muriel Spark knew more, and it is utterly hilarious to watch his descent into teeth-grinding mania, complemented as it is by his wife Nina's increasing insouciance towards him. The book is also very good on the creative benefits of a good old-fashioned literary enemy. I read a hundred books this month, and this was my favourite of them. *****

The Book of Dreams, Jack Vance (Coronet Books): When Matthew Hughes talked about writing an authorised sequel to the Demon Princes series, I realised that I had never read this one. I thought I had, perhaps because I'd read the other books twice. I can't be mad at myself, though, because that mistake meant I had a new novel by Jack Vance in his prime to enjoy today. In this novel, Kirth Gersen, the interplanetary Count of Monte Cristo, goes after the fifth and last of the super-criminals who attacked his home and killed his parents. Howard Alan Treesong is a rapist, a paedophile and a child murderer who was on the verge of ruling this part of the galaxy under three different hats until Gersen steps in. I loved it, and I loved how it ended. ****

Already looking forward to next year. I don't know if I will aim to read a hundred books again, or if I'll do a different project, like reading all my remaining Dumarest novels, or as many Penguin 70s as I can, or a manga serial from start to finish. Something to think about! Anyway, now to finish off TQF68 and get on with some novel-writing!

Friday 30 October 2020

Silver Surfer, Vol. 4: Citizen of Earth, by Dan Slott and Mike Allred (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

I think Mike Allred is one of the greatest comic book artists of all time, and Laura Allred is my favourite colourist, and Dan Slott here writes a series of stories that suit their work perfectly and give them the chance to illustrate lots of Marvel characters. It feels a bit like Doctor Who, with the Silver Surfer having a companion on his adventures, and his board getting a bit of personality. It’s goofy and fantastical and colourful. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday 23 October 2020

Judge Dredd, Vol. 1, by Duane Swierczynski and Nelson Daniel (IDW Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

My low expectations (inspired perhaps by memories of the underwhelming DC Comics version) were quickly proven wrong. Although this is a reboot series with its own continuity, it is absolutely within the spirit of the 2000 AD strip, with art that perfectly fits the tone. It begins an epic saga of cloning, kidnapping and robot rebellion that continues in subsequent volumes, while also featuring short back-up strips that show us one-off stories taking place against the background of those events. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday 21 October 2020

#OcTBRChallenge: books 34 to 66

Pretty much on target to finish reading a hundred of my short books and quick reads this month as part of #OcTBRChallenge. Some of these books were very quick reads, so reading 66 of them hasn't really been a challenge, but it's still been fun.

New Atlantis, Lavie Tidhar (JABberwocky Literary Agency): Hundreds of years after our time, in a world still trying to recover from the damage we've been doing to it, a relatively small number of humans survive in isolated communities. Mai gets a message from an old flame who lives far away, asking for her help. The tone of this seemed much more sincere than the other Lavie Tidhar books I've read, with none of the usual ironic detachment, but I found it all very interesting. It left me with two questions: which of his other books take place in decaying time vaults (it would explain a lot!), and why do ants let us live? ****

The Alliance of the Curious, Vol. 1: Sapiens, Philippe Riche (Humanoids): An ancient relic gets everyone running around in a tizzy while the son of its erstwhile owner wanders the city, dazed and confused. This took a little while to get going, but I was getting quite interested by the end, when the Alliance of the Curious was officially formed. ***

Spider-Gwen, Vol. 4: Predators, Jason Latour, Robbi Rodriguez and Hannah Blumenreich (Marvel Comics): A dimension where Gwen Stacey was bitten by the radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker. In this book she's trying to get her powers back by working for an apparently evil Matt Murdoch and chasing the Lizard to Madripoor. I didn't really enioy any of this, except for when Mary-Jane beat up a creep. **

Getting Even, Woody Allen (Audible): Not quite as funny as Without Feathers, which I listened to recently. It's humorous rather than hilarious. But the epistolary chess game was superb, anticipating online life better than any science fiction novel I've read. ***

Flywires, Book 1, Chuck Austen (Humanoids): An ex-cop, called a frywire because his link to his Dyson sphere's neural net is permanently busted, gets drawn back into the action when hoodlums blow a hole in his apartment's wall, a kidnapped little kid in their hands. Nothing massively original, but there are worse ways to spend half an hour. ***

Nevertheless, She Persisted, Diana M. Pho (ed.) (Tor Books): A mostly female group of writers respond to Mitch McConnell's infamous words about Elizabeth Warren during the Jeff Sessions confirmation hearings, with very short stories that take his words as their launchpad. I didn't think they were very good, on the whole, but Catherynne Valente's story pulled it up from a two-star rating and I liked the bit in the Charlie Jane Anders story where a man made of ice climbed out of the freezer. One or two of the stories seemed to advise against persisting, if anything. ***

Conscientious Inconsistencies, Nancy Jane Moore (PS Publishing): A short collection of five stories in an expensive format, which made some careless errors stand out: people paying £25 for a 66pp book would expect a bit better. I quite enjoyed "A Mere Escutcheon", a Three Musketeers pastiche. The hero of "Homesteading" was admirable, and "Three O'Clock in the Morning" was interestingly nightmarish. ***

The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood, read by Laural Merlington (Canongate Books): A pointed interrogation of the Odyssey, from the point of view of Penelope, married to Odysseus at fifteen and left behind during his adventures, as well as that of her maids, murdered upon his return. Penelope's rivalry with Helen of Troy, which continues beyond the grave, was amusing, and the book does a good job of persuading us to read between the lines of The Odyssey. Well read by Laural Merlington, but the recording is from 2005 and the sound effect used for the chanting maids sounds very odd, as if they were aliens in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. ****

Daughters of Passion, Julia O'Faolain (Faber & Faber): A terrorist on hunger strike thinks back to her childhood, the friends she had then, and how reconnecting with them as an adult led her to this situation. ***

Solid State Tank Girl, Alan C. Martin (Titan Comics): Her kangaroo boyfriend gets sick so Tank Girl and friends go on a fantastic voyage to his gentlemanly area. Extracting the source of the illness just leads to even more trouble. The story was okay, but I haven't found any of the Tank Girl books very funny, so I think I'm missing out on one of the main things people seem to like about them. My first reaction to the art was not particularly positive, but it grew on me a lot: it's highly expressive and full of character. ***

Side Effects, Woody Allen (Audible): Another very enjoyable book of short stories and humour pieces, with the usual literary, philosophical, romantic and criminal themes. I especially enjoyed his take on UFOs, the death of Socrates, and falling in love with his partner's mother. I'm surprised the latter did not become a film. ****

A River in Egypt, David Means (Faber & Faber): An assistant art director, recently fired from what sounds like a terrible science fiction film, tries to keep his son from crying during a test for cystic fibrosis, and a nurse enters the room at a point where the father seems to have lost control. I liked this a lot. I liked the way he read acres of thought into each expression on the nurse's face, it being part of his job to encourage film viewers to read actors' faces in the same way. I also liked the title: it's not about a river in Egypt, but it is about denial. ****

By The Numbers, Book 1: Traffic in Indochina, Laurent Rullier and Stanislas (Humanoids): An accountant gets dragged into a shady deal and, what's worse, the money he was meant to hand over gets stolen. Rather than doing the sensible thing, he follows the money to French-occupied Vietnam and tries to get it back. A good story with excellent art. ****

Vardoger, Stephen Volk (Gray Friar Press): Sean and Ali check into a luxury hotel but everyone seems to think Sean was there already on his own the previous week, and he didn't behave well at all. He soon becomes convinced that he has an evil twin, one who wears a smart suit and mistreats women, and frustration turns to horror when he sees his wife leaving the hotel on that double's arm. As with the same author's The Little Gift, I'm baffled that this was nominated for a British Fantasy Award; neither feature any fantastical elements. I found the plot fairly interesting – it would have made a good episode of Inside No. 9 – and could share Sean's anguish, but he is an unpleasant character from the off, grabbing female staff by the arm and such, and it's narrated in an artless, blunt style that may reflect the way Sean sees the world but didn't make it enjoyable to read. One mystery remains at the end: what was the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song playing at the wedding party? ***

So Long, Lollipops, Sarah Lyons Fleming, read by Julia Whelan (Podium Publishing): Having, he thinks, sacrificed himself to let the rest of his group escape a zombie attack, Peter is pleasantly surprised to be rescued by a young girl. After spending some time with her group, he sets off to find his own people. It's a fairly bog-standard zombie story, and an awful lot of it is spent telling us how Peter feels about people who aren't in it. He's very sentimental about children. The reading is fairly good. ***

Stumptown, Vol. 1: The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left her Mini), Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth (Oni Press): A private eye in Portland gets herself shot, beaten up, cold-cocked and generally mistreated in the course of trying to find and protect a casino owner's missing granddaughter. Pretty good. ***

Fantastic Four by Dan Slott, Vol. 1: Fourever, Dan Slott, Sara Pichelli, Stefano Caselli, Nico Leon and Simone Bianchi (Marvel): Reed Richards and Sue Storm and a bunch of brainy kids are travelling through the dimensions created by their son, while The Thing and the Human Torch are noodling around on Earth and missing them. Felt like a contrived way of ageing up the children without breaking Marvel time, as much as anything. The eventual reunion is nicely done, though. ***

Muse, Vol. 1: Celia, Denis-Pierre Filippi and Terry Dodson (Humanoids): Coraline, a highly attractive woman with a tendency to clotheslessness, takes a job as a governess to a young boy. He turns out to be a steampunk inventor, who (although this is not confirmed by the end of the book) appears to be creating various fantasy scenarios at night in an attempt to seduce her. Overall it's rather like Beauty and the Beast if the Beast were a child. Very weird and deeply iffy. No idea why the book is called Celia. ***

Doctor Who: Short Trips, Volume I, Xanna Eve Chown (ed.) (Big Finish): Not, I think, an audio adaptation of the old BBC print anthology, but a set of new stories, one for each of the first eight Doctors. One about the Doctor and his friends encountering a civilisation for whom time passes more quickly was well done, though very similar to the Star Trek: Voyager episode with the same plot. In the second story a sculptor makes a version of Zoe out of memory meat to help the Doctor. The third Doctor repairs a bicycle. Leela gets herself killed. The story about the fifth Doctor, where Nyssa tries to fix the chameleon circuit and inadvertently creates a new species of giant whale, has a nice Hitch-Hiker's reference and was my favourite in the collection. Colin Baker writes his own story, which involves the Doctor making even more of a muddle of time than usual. Sophie Aldred narrates a story featuring Ace, and India Fisher reads one about a disastrous adventure for the eighth Doctor. I enjoyed this audiobook a lot. It had the exuberance of the old annuals. ***

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, Zen Cho (self-published): A young female writer of Chinese descent, originally from British Malaya, is now living in 1920s London. She writes a scathing review that leads her into a relationship with the book's irritatingly handsome author, but is that what she really wants? This novella was self-published, which may explain a slight inelegance in the ebook (a line of space between each paragraph, and two unspaced hyphens instead of dashes throughout), but that's the only way in which it is below par. Geok Huay (or Jade Yeo as she is known to the English) is a highly amusing protagonist, especially in her frustration with her own feelings: she's a wind-up merchant who has wound herself up. The dialogue is funny, the romance romantic. It's a film waiting to be made. ****

Sole Survivor, Vol. 1: Atlanta–Miami, Stephane Louis, Thomas Martinetti, Christophe Martinolli and Jorge Miguel (Humanoids): Max, the only survivor of a coach crash in which his girlfriend died, has been persuaded to board an aeroplane. He recognises the pilot as the drunk driver who caused the coach to crash, and believes it is his mission to deliver justice, regardless of the consequences for anyone else. It's a fairly bog-standard madman on an aeroplane story. We never really understand why Max acts in such a demented way, and the ending seems to be predestined so it's hard to invest in what's happening. ***

Sole Survivor, Vol. 2: Bossa Nova Club, Stephane Louis, Thomas Martinetti, Christophe Martinolli and Jose Malaga (Humanoids): The sole survivor of the disaster that capped the first volume is even more demented than Max. Convinced that she has been saved for a purpose, she latches onto a pregnant girl and makes it her mission to stop the girl getting an abortion at all costs – with disastrous consequences, this time reaching their crescendo in a night club. It's rather like Final Destination, except that it's the survivor who causes all the additional deaths, rather than death's pursuit of them. ***

Sole Survivor, Vol. 3: Rex Antarctica, Stephane Louis, Thomas Martinetti, Christophe Martinolli and Jose Malaga (Humanoids): The third volume is a bit different to the first two, in that here the sole survivor of the last book's climactic disaster is deliberately trying to avoid the curse (as he sees it), rather than leaning into it. Calculating that the curse will only strike when it can kill more people than died in previous events, he only agrees to go on a boat trip since there will only be a handful of people on board. But before too much time has gone, they run into difficulties and are rescued by a cruise ship. And so the curse perks up its ears… This was probably the best of the three books. ***

Aftermath, Vol. 1: Ares, James D. Hudnall and Mark Vigouroux (Humanoids): A group of artifically-enhanced teenagers fought a successful war against alien invaders. Years later, one of them, known as Ares, is trying to write a book about it all. When a former comrade he meets is then murdered, Ares is accused of the crime. This only deepens his determination to bring the truth to light. This book wasn't helped by the kind of computer-effects colouring that made 2000 AD look so plastic a decade or two ago, and the plot feels very similar, so far, to Watchmen. None of the characters really jumped off the page. But it was an okay read. Can't really complain for 79p. ***

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Penguin Classics): It took me three and a half years to finish this 64pp book, so it won't be a surprise to say I didn't enjoy it much. My only way into it was to pretend that it was the work of a pretentious poet character in a Jack Vance book. I did like this line, though, which gets to the root of why we like social media so much: "What no one with us shares, seems scarce our own." ***

Doctor Who: Short Trips, Volume II, Xanna Eve Chown (ed.) (Big Finish Productions): Another set of stories for the first eight Doctors. Barbara and her Tardis crew get stuck in a bubble of frozen 1963, and we learn that Barbara had a lesbian aunt. The second Doctor and Victoria investigate a boy who has reinvented time travel for a science fair. The Brigadier forces the third Doctor to take a break from work, and a visit to the zoo gives Liz Shaw an insight into the Doctor's feelings about being trapped on Earth. Louise Jameson reads a fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith story, where he watches a pound coin roll around on its way to destiny. Peter Davison reads a story about a depressed widow who finds a dancing horse in her home; she quite likes it but it's a sign of a serious problem. A post-Peri sixth Doctor loses his coat, but, unfortunately, finds it again. Sophie Aldred reads a seventh Doctor and Ace adventure, where they try to stop a deadly weapon from being unleashed; she often sounds like Susan Calman when she does the Doctor's voice. Charley and the eighth Doctor visit the family left behind by someone who died during an adventure. This is a more downbeat collection than the first volume, but still enjoyable, and well-read throughout, with era-appropriate incidental music. ***

They Are Really Molluscs, Anna Cathenka (Salo Press): A chapbook of clever, amusing poetry drawing inspiration and sometimes the actual words from The Observer's Book of Sea and Seashore and its brethren. ****

The Girl With The Horizontal Walk, Andrew Hook (Salo Press): A nice little chapbook. Not sure what the title means (is it her hips swaying? or is it that Marilyn Monroe is laid out for her autopsy?), but this was an interesting story that seemed to be about an actor losing her identity through playing the role of a character who lost her identity. ***

The Book of Chaos, Vol. 1: Ante Genesem, Xavier Dorison and Mathieu Lauffray (Humanoids): After losing a colleague in the midst of making a remarkable archaeological discovery, an adventurer writes a book about his experiences. Warned to keep everything secret, he ignores the advice and New York is plunged into a nightmare. It is all very Lovecraftian, like Hellboy without the heft. ***

Warlord Of Io and Other Stories, James Turner (Slave Labor Graphics): A book reviewer asked on Twitter recently if it was a good idea to include the publisher's synopsis in their review. I said no, it's lazy and they aren't always accurate. This is a good example of that. The book's description claims that it's "the story of Jon Jett, a hero in the mold of Flash Gordon who is unstoppable and unopposable", but he doesn't appear in the book at all, except when the lead character of the main story plays a video game he stars in. It's actually the story (or the beginning of the story, since it doesn't get very far) of a young prince who gets the job of emperor when his dad retires to a brothel, told with black and white computer-generated artwork. A second story is about grumbling demons in hell, a third is about a guy who tells the truth at a job interview, and the last is about a chair complaining about the weight of its users and then getting depressed when no one else wants to sit on them. Has the feel of a book that's been scraped together from unfinished projects. **

Retina Vol. 1: Just Another Day, Benoit Riviere and Philippe Scoffoni (Humanoids): A woman is killed on the street; retina scans bring up two matches. Two sets of crooks were planning to kill her. A criminagent sees the shooting and takes the case. ***

Open Earth, Sarah Mirk, Eva Cabrera and Claudia Aguirre (Limerence Press): Scientists sent up into space twenty years ago decided to stay there, because things were getting so bad on Earth. A young woman from the first space-born generation wants to move in with a boyfriend, but is at pains to reassure everyone else that she will remain sexually available to them afterwards. That's basically it. It's really quite appalling how some of the young men respond to her. They treat her as public property, and sound like cult members, but the book seems to regard this behaviour as normal. Sexually explicit. Creepy. Not very good. **

Black Science, Vol. 2: Welcome, Nowhere, Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera and Dean White (Image Comics): A bunch of dimension-hoppers are in a world ruled by giant bugs, and trying to stay alive until the pillar that brought them there is ready to go again. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who hasn't read the previous volume – I had, and I was still quite lost as to who was who for most of it. The art was beautiful, striking and dynamic, but often quite hard to parse. ***