Monday 29 June 2020

The Señor 105 Adventure Book, by Joe Curreri (Manleigh Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Señor 105 is a Mexican wrestler and an international man of mystery, whose various elemental masks grant him special powers. He is also reputedly a botanist, a scientist, a stuntman, a magician and an escape artist. His colleagues are a sentient balloon named Sheila and Officer Lori Flaherty of the Canadian Mounted Police. He is distantly related to the Doctor Who franchise, having I think originated in stories about Iris Wyldthyme (imagine a cross between Mrs Cornelius and River Song; she may well have partly inspired the latter), a creation of Paul Magrs who appeared in several fine Doctor Who novels. This book was part of an ebook-only series, the Periodical Adventures of Señor 105, and is still available from the Obverse Books website.

Sunday 28 June 2020

Questions and Answers, 28 June 2020

Here are my answers to the less urgent questions that the world has been asking this week. Feel free to supply your own answers in the comments!

What is a pop-culture reference you assume everyone else gets but you find yourself repeatedly having to explain?Duncan Jones

"I know what goes where, and why" — Gene Wilder in Silver Streak.

What do you think about lower than 5-star reviews? Would you be happy with 4 stars or 3?Ulane V.

I'm happy with one star, as long as they've read it. When your novels are as little-read as mine, you celebrate even when people are hate-reading them!

When I'm rating books myself, three stars is my default rating for a book that was good, and my most common rating by far. Four stars is for something special. Five stars for all-time favourites. Two stars for sub-par books. One star for terrible books (and sometimes that might mean well-written but morally repugnant). Or to put it another way: bad, not very good, good, very good, excellent.

I've only given one star to 27 books in my life. 435 books got five stars from me, 1574 books got four stars, 1857 books got three stars, 270 got two stars, and there are 179 books I haven't rated, usually because I worked on them, or because they weren't out yet when I marked them as read.

In general, I love star ratings. As a reader, I like them because they stop reviewers who don't like a book from dodging the most important question (is it good?) because they don't want to upset their social group.

And as a reviewer, it frees me to spend the review talking about what I liked, or what I didn't like, without worrying that I'll be misunderstood as to how good I think the book is. I once saw a chap on Twitter complaining about a book he thought I had raved about in an Interzone review, but I had just said what I liked about it. So now I'll sometimes work the words "a three-star book" into my reviews for venues that don't have star ratings, to avoid that kind of confusion. I can have lots of positive things to say about a book without thinking, overall, that it's an all-time classic.

I don't insist on other reviewers using them in TQF, though, and I don't tell the ones who do use them what scale they should use. The rating is just one aspect of the review as a whole, and if the review as a whole conveys their honest response to the work in question, I'm not fussed if they use that particular tool or not.

Buying books as gifts, reading them and then regifting 'as new' is acceptable, according to @WhichPennySmith. We're conflicted. Please advise.Scala Radio

It's a bit like when you buy a CD for someone and receive the Amazon Auto-Rip MP3s yourself. I think it only counts as half a present…

What are you reading?Reading Glasses Facebook group

Driftwood by Marie Brennan, about a place where what seem to be the ghosts of dead planets cluster before disappearing forever. Very good.

What's the best TV show with the worst pilot episode?Amazon Prime Video UK

Babylon 5.

What are your favorite book adaptations?NetGalley

The Thing. Dune. Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit. Starship Troopers. Blade Runner. The Godfather. The Silence of the Lambs. Bosch. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I'll watch any Stephen King miniseries. I am really looking forward to Foundation. Least favourite adaptation: maybe the Riverworld tv movie? Talk about wasting a great premise.

What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen in theaters?Chris

I won't say any of those I walked out of, like Thunderbirds or Sweet November, because that wouldn't be fair. I didn't see them to the end and they might have improved. I asked to leave The Age of Innocence but Mrs Theaker wasn't having it. And was it as excruciatingly boring as I remember, or was that feeling caused by the two people whispering behind us and a projector problem that made my eyes ache every time the camera panned? There are lots of other things that I'm less keen on now, like Batman and Robin and Lost in Space, but I didn't hate them at the time. I think it's got to be The Nut Job, one of many, many unremarkable CGI films I watched with the children over the last decade.

If you had 6 minutes left to live, what's the last song you'd listen to?Fred the Fish

My choice would be Time to Pretend by MGMT. It's one of my favourite songs, I'll never tire of hearing that keyboard riff, and it's always felt like an apocalyptic goodbye song to me. It's a big influence on the novels of Howard Phillips.

What's the longest amount of time past publication date you've taken to read and review a NetGalley ARC?Roxanne Michelle

Just reviewed Kim Reaper and Archival Quality, both from March 2018. The oldest book still on my list is from 2013, Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes. I've reviewed several of his other books, though. My worst example is Bitch Planet Triple Feature, which I think was from Edelweiss. I sat down to review it a week or two ago, and realised it had been 837 days since I read it. I'm going to read it again before trying to write a review.

Friday 26 June 2020

Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: The Musical Drama, by H.G. Wells (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

Do we really need a new version of The War of the Worlds, one might ask? Do we really need a new version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, one might also ask? After remixes and live shows and re-recorded versions of what remains one of my favourite albums ever, I thought not. If only Jeff Wayne would do a new album in the same vein instead. Even Spartacus had its moments!

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Angel Heart | review by Rafe McGregor

Angel Heart, by Alan Parker (Tri-Star Pictures)

Hellishly hardboiled detection.

The story of the occult detective is the tale of a turn of two centuries.  In the late nineteenth century, magazine contributors on both sides of the Atlantic began to explore ways in which the relatively new and incredibly popular figure of the private detective could be merged with the much older but still entertaining milieu of the ghost story.  One of the progenitors of this exploration was Sheridan Le Fanu (1872), with Dr Martin Hesselius.  The combination of detective protagonist and ghostly setting saw the initial blossoming of the subgenre of ghost-finders, paranormal physicians, and occult psychologists with notable contributions by Arthur Machen (1894) with Mr Dyson, L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace (1898) with John Bell, E. and H. Heron (1899) with Flaxman Low, Algernon Blackwood (1908) with Dr John Silence, William Hope Hodgson (1913) with Thomas Carnacki, and Aleister Crowley (1917) with Simon Iff.  The occult detective became a staple of the cheaper weekly and monthly magazines of the Golden Age of the Pulp era, particularly Cassell’s Magazine and Weird Tales.  The first female occult detective was most likely Ella Scrymsour’s (1920) Sheila Crerar, whose adventures appeared in The Blue Magazine.  As the pulp era came to an end, interest in the subgenre waned, being sustained through the nineteen fifties, sixties, and seventies by three main sources: Dennis Wheatley’s series of eleven novels featuring the Duke De Richleau (published from 1933 to 1970 and including The Devil Rides Out in 1934); the dogged persistence of short story writers such as Seabury Quinn, whose Jules de Grandin appeared in Weird Tales from 1925 (“The Horror on the Links”) to 1951 (“The Ring of Bastet”) and were frequently reprinted and collected during the nineteen sixties and seventies; and the successful migration from short story to small screen evinced by the popularity of Adam Adamant Lives! (1966–1967), Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969–1971, remade in 2000–2001), and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–1975).

Monday 22 June 2020

Rogue Protocol, by Martha Wells ( | review by Stephen Theaker

Third in the Murderbot series, and like the first two I enjoyed it very much. The SecUnit is a Droid with No Name (“I’d given myself a name, but it was private”) who just wants to watch its favourite shows, but can’t help returning to the fight when needed. It’s a wonderfully fun character to spend time with, with a self-deprecating sense of humour and a great line in bracketed asides.

Sunday 21 June 2020

Questions and Answers, 21 June 2020

Here are Stephen's answers to the less important questions that the world has been asking this week. Feel free to supply your own answers in the comments.

Which videogame character would you most like to be your friend/partner in real life?David Murray

They all get into too much bother. I like a quiet life. So I'll say Socrates: it felt like such a privilege to meet him in Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and to then take part in a Socratic dialogue with him… Wow! One of my favourite ever videogame moments.

What I tend to do is put my actual partner in every videogame I can. She was my pilot in Elite, my lieutenant in Dynasty Warriors, my trooper in X-Com, and my avatar in everything that let me customise my character: Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Saint's Row, Far Cry 5, etc. Better to spend 50 hours watching my wife on screen than 50 hours watching myself.

What is the best book you ever read for school?Francesca Niewiadomski

Les Mains Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre. Led to me doing a French degree so I could read more of the same. A mistake, perhaps, since I never got the hang of speaking it.

What's the least "date" movie you've seen on a date?Film4

The Silence of the Lambs. And for some reason I thought it was a good moment to say "I love you". It was not. I was a silly little boy. She dumped me soon after and that was a good thing for both of us.

Talk to us, this is a safe space… which TV show would you give a different ending?Amazon Prime Video UK

Battlestar Galactica. It began as a tough show about real people in an impossible situation and ended with a load of spiritual blather. And Quatermass. Don't kill him off, please. Make some more stories.

What's new in your reading life this week?Reading Glasses Facebook group

Only Imagine, by Kathleen Stock, a book of literary philosophy based on the idea that a fictional text is a series of instructions to the reader as to what we should imagine. Hard to get my head around but thought-provoking. It's a bit like being on the monkey bars in a park: I grasp one thing, then swing around for a bit, then grasp another bit and try to connect it to the previous bit I thought I understood. D.F. Lewis is also reading it.

I've also been reading The Hair Carpet Weavers by Andreas Eschbach, a mosaic novel/book of short stories in the new Penguin Classics sf series. Plus of course stories for our next issue!

Friday 19 June 2020

Empire of Sand, by Tasha Suri (Little Brown) | review by Stephen Theaker

Mehr is the governor’s daughter, but she’s inherited the powers of her mother’s nomadic people. When the emperor’s chief mystic learns of her, she is coerced into an arranged marriage with an angry young man. This was one of the dullest books I’ve ever read or listened to, all rumination and repetition, every step in the story swaddled in endless bloviation. Soneela Nankani’s narration tries hard to rouse interest in the reader, but in doing so only emphasises how little of interest is happening in each sentence. I frequently found myself saying out loud in exasperation, “I know, you’ve already told us that!” That the novel won the British Fantasy Award for best newcomer, against much better books, genuinely makes me wonder whether the audiobook was based on an earlier version of the manuscript. Stephen Theaker **

Sunday 14 June 2020

Questions and Answers, 14 June 2020

Here are my answers to the less urgent questions that the world has been asking this week.

Hilary Mantel’s new essay collection is called MANTEL PIECES. What’s yours?Susanna Forrest

I Know My Middle Name Is William.

What do you do with physical ARCs when you’ve read and reviewed them?@meringutang

They mostly go in the recycling, once the review has been published and it looks like no one is going to demand I justify myself. Charity shops can't sell them and authors and publishers don't want unfinished versions of the book in circulation, especially when the literary scene is as judgmental and febrile as it has been in recent years, plus they'll be covered in my scribbled notes, highlights and foldings. I'll usually have broken the spines, and some I'll even have torn in half along the spine for more convenient reading (see photo). Finished books I'll pass on to friends or charity shops. But I've stopped accepting print copies for review now (except when assigned by Interzone), because it takes me so much longer to read them, so if all of that fills you with horror, rest assured I'm not doing it very often now.

If you are old enough to have played in an arcade, let’s say you have £20.00 of tokens in your pocket. What is the first game you ran to without hesitation?Danny Deraney

Space Harrier. I loved the game and the chair moved around, but it was very expensive so I stuck to playing the brilliant ZX Spectrum version.

Who is your high school's most famous alumni?Ben Upton

I wasn't aware of any, but I looked it up on Wikipedia and Captain Tom Moore, who raised all that money for the NHS, went there, a year or fifty before me. And Robert Westall was a teacher there! They never told us that when we were reading his books.

Kate Dickie especially is quite extraordinary as a Sleaford Mod [in this video]. She’s now on my list of who I’d want if I ever made a film.Julie Travis

Making is a film is hard, so I'd want actors I could trust to have my back. Like Dave Bautista. I love how he stood up for and stood by James Gunn and rallied the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy cast to do the same. Not all actors would have the guts to put their careers on the line like that, as we've seen this week. (Daniel Radcliffe would not be on my list.) Same for Scarlett Johansson, who has been forthright about working with Woody Allen because she thinks he is innocent (which on the evidence he does seem to be), while other actors distance themselves in an unforgivably cowardly way, even though they surely think he is innocent too – why else would they have been willing to work with him? And Jamie Bell. In the "making of" Jumper he's like, "Well, it's day 924 of the shoot and the director has decided to reshoot everything from scratch with an almost entirely new cast on a different continent," and he's still smiling and giving it everything.

What's a movie you've watched 5 or more times?Eric Alper

Just Go With It, Jack and Jill, The Wedding Singer, The Master of Disguise, The Thing, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home: Star Trek IV, Flash Gordon, The Thing, Superman II and III, Big Trouble in Little China, Return of the Living Dead, Poltergeist, Halloween, An American Werewolf in London. Weird that I could think of so many, because I don't generally like watching films twice.

Friday 12 June 2020

The Cabin at the End of the World, by Paul Tremblay (Bolinda Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

Rather like Terminator 2 from Miles Dyson’s point of view, crossed with Vacationland by John Hodgman. What do you do if people show up at your isolated home and ask you to do crazy stuff to save the world? This starts well and expertly ratchets up the tension, but then starts to run in circles, with people talking over the same issues again and again, and like series one of Big Brother it gets less interesting the fewer people are left. Many readers will find the conclusion frustrating. Amy Landon does a fine job of reading it. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday 8 June 2020

The Lonely Dark, by Ren Warom (Fox Spirit Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Ingmar has agreed to become one of the pilots of a new spaceship, along with a chap called Yuri. Or you could say that they have actually become the spaceships, their bodies left in suspended animation while their consciousnesses fill the ship. The reason for this arrangement is that the previous pilots, artificial intelligences, started to go mad, culminating in an incident fifteen years before where a ship ejected all its passengers into space. Ingmar and Yuri take it in turns to be conscious and in charge while the other rests.

Sunday 7 June 2020

Questions and Answers, 7 June 2020

There's only one question this week.

Is J.K. Rowling transphobic?Twitter, passim

No, of course not, don't be silly. She hasn't said a single word that is transphobic.

And it shows how far off-course the American left has gone, that it is more agitated about a feminist saying sex is real and relevant to the lives of women (which it is, obviously), than about the sexist, highly gendered abuse she receives hourly for having said it.

I've been reading the replies to her this weekend, and I imagine that this is what it would be like to watch Scientologists go after a suppressive personality in real time. It's been especially dismaying to see the homophobia and transphobia directed at the gay and trans people who agree with her.

And the replies have proved her point, that some people do regard any reference to sex as transphobic. She said biological sex is real, not what she thinks the particular policy consequences of that should be. And yet her interlocutors jumped from "sex is real" to "she hates trans people" and "she denies the existence of trans people", both of which are entirely nonsensical and, in my view, libellous.

The insistence of some Americans that trans rights must be grounded in sex denialism is sexist, dehumanising and, indeed, transphobic. We don't need to deny reality or demand that others deny reality in order to support the rights of people who wish they were the other sex to live, so far as possible, as if they were.

And if your policy position is that all male people in England and Wales, all thirty million of us, should have the unquestionable right to enter women's spaces, then you should not be surprised that women expect to get a say in that.

It's been particularly odd to see writers piling on her for saying that biological sex is real, as if this is at all controversial. And yet, when you read their books, their protagonists invariably meet strangers and can tell, somehow, whether that person is a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. Maybe there are more psychics in fiction than I realised. Or maybe they are just hypocrites.

Wednesday 3 June 2020

Terminator: Dark Fate | review by Jacob Edwards

The future’s so grim, I don’t even wear shades.

I don’t write many reviews nowadays. I don’t see many films. I’m time poor and fully committed to sparing the world my verbiage from on high.

But then another Terminator movie comes along and – well, here I am, contemplating the inevitability of it all while staring at a cinema ticket that reads:

__Cinema 1__

__Terminator: Dark Fat__

Monday 1 June 2020

Devil’s Road, by Gary Gibson (Brain in a Jar Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

After reading the heartbreaking If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, a book that began with a jailbreak was just the ticket. After five years in prison, Dutch McGuire is woken up by unexpected darkness in her cell block: the power is off and every door unlocks. She has no release date and so has little to lose by trying to escape. Unfortunately, some inmates are intent on using this time for revenge, and so Dutch finds herself assailed by cleaver-wielding Anna Dubayev, the Cannibal of the Steppes.