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. ***

Friday 16 October 2020

Iscariot, by S.M. Vidaurri (Archaia) | review by Stephen Theaker

Four hundred years ago, a boy called Iscariot took part in a ritual which granted him magical powers. Now, in a relatively modern-seeming world, his mentor is on the verge of death, and he chooses a student of his own: Carson, a very poorly girl. Usually a sacrifice is required to grant the power, and that’s what his fellows in the Empyr want to do. Iscariot hopes to find a different way. It’s a beautiful book, but I had to flip through it all again to remind myself that things did actually happen in it. Stephen Theaker ***

Tuesday 13 October 2020

#OcTBRChallenge: the first 33 books

I've been trying this month to read a hundred books as part of the #OcTBRChallenge, which is where people try to reduce the size of their TBR (to-be-read) lists, or get stuck into the books they've been putting off too long. Obviously there's nothing special about reading a hundred books – almost anyone could do it in a single day if the books chosen were short enough! – but it has been good fun to really burrow through my collection. Plus, knowing that I was going to go all out with the short books in October encouraged me to be a bit more patient with longer books the rest of the year. Anyway, here are my short reviews of the first 33 books of the month.

Exo, Vol. 1, Jerry Frissen and Philippe Scoffoni (Humanoids): Aliens come to Earth and the Moon to proactively prevent the colonisation of their own planet. Decent enough, but unremarkable, and it's very much one chapter rather than a story in itself. ***

Giant Days, Vol. 13, John Allison (BOOM! Box): Good fun. Some real wisdom. I'll be sad to read the last volume but it feels like it's coming to a natural end. ****

The Lydia Steptoe Stories, Djuna Barnes (Faber & Faber): Three short stories in diary form about sexual stereotypes and the people they suffocate. I loved this book. I would get the end of a sentence, realise it hadn't said what I was expecting it to say from its shape, then double back and realise how funny it was. *****

My First Little Book of Intersectional Activism, Titania McGrath (Hachette Audio): Hilarious. I nearly fell off my chair during some chapters. You can tell how carefully the (left-wing) writer has been paying attention to the wilder reaches of Twitter, where racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying and authoritarianism thrive in what are supposed to be progressive communities. Many of Titania's most outlandishly offensive statements are things I've seen people say for real, and receive thousands of likes for doing so. Satire often involves exaggeration; here it's more a concatenation. Alice Marshall's reading is perfect. I'd love a sitcom about the character. She's like a modern-day version of Nathan Barley or Rik from The Young Ones. ****

Shaky Kane: Elephantmen and Monsters, Richard Starkings and Shaky Kane (Image): Three short stories about traumatized ex-soldiers investigating crime and horror in the big city, all drawn with verve by Shaky Kane. ***

Robert Sax Tome 01 : Nucleon 58, Rodolphe and Louis Alloing (Delcourt): A dapper Belgian garage owner finds himself drawn into international espionage. It's 1957 and Eastern bloc operatives are after the plans for a nuclear-powered car. I adored the art – it's a bit like Paul Grist drawing Tintin, if that makes sense? – and how tall panels were used throughout to showcase the architecture of Brussels. ****

The Four Horsemen: The Discussion that Sparked an Atheist Revolution, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel C. Dennett, foreword by Stephen Fry (Transworld Digital): Fascinating discussion between four prominent atheist thinkers. It's not as if I needed to be persuaded to their point of view – I don't remember ever believing in any of the gods, except Santa Claus – but I was constantly impressed by how well they put things. I suppose that by the time of this discussion they had had a lot of practice. I thought it was interesting how often they interrupted each other, and how often they disagreed, and agreed to disagree without flying off the handle. I also liked Richard Dawkins' shout-out to The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – I loved that novel too. If I'd read this a few years ago, I'd have been glad that in the UK religious thinking had been in retreat since their discussion took place, on the whole. Reading it now, long stretches of it could have been, with barely a word changed, a discussion between feminists on how to deal with extremists pushing the idea that the female sex doesn't exist and thus requires no protection in law from the male sex. It feels like that kind of thinking never really goes away, especially when it gives men an excuse to control women. Sam Harris makes an interesting point towards the end, that it's easier to find shared ground when focusing on specific problems rather than the broad strokes. ****

Cosmopolitan, Akhil Sharma (Faber & Faber): The attractive neighbour of a lonely retiree asks to borrow his lawnmower. He makes a grab for her in the garage but is fortunate in that she is receptive rather than outraged. A relationship develops between them, and the question is whether it's the kind of relationship he thinks he wants. He is not the most sympathetic of protagonists, but it's a well-written story that reveals his character, and develops it, in a variety of subtle ways. ****

Terres Lointaines, episode 1, Leo and Icar (Dargaud): A young man searching for his father is taken under the claw of an intelligent crustacean, Stepanerk (the chap on the cover). To reach the right continent, they join an archaeological expedition, the goal of which is to discover what happened to the previous inhabitants of this planet. Stepanerk was the character who made this book for me: he considers everything in terms of whether it is interesting or annoying, which was often amusing, and his spidey-sense was a fine way of creating tension, by letting the reader know something bad was about to happen without telling us what it was. ***

Dalek Attack: Blockade and Other Stories, Terry Nation et al. (BBC Audio): Five stories about people who get into trouble with the Daleks, on Earth and elsewhere, plus some other bits and bobs about the trundling terrors. The stories aren't terribly good, but the readings are, and I enjoyed listening to it. Matthew Waterhouse sounds uncannily like Colin Baker, and it was a surprise to learn that Davros can read minds! ***

John Wick, Vol. 1, Greg Pak and Giovanni Valletta (Dynamite Comics): Decent prequel to the films, showing John Wick's introduction to the world of the Continental. ***

Monsieur Jean, Part 1: The Singles Theory, Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian (Humanoids): Imagine Friends, set in Paris, and drawn in the style of H.A. Rey. I thought it was charming. ****

An Elegy for Easterly, Petina Gappah (Faber & Faber): A sad story about the last days of a Zimbabwean shanty town, very well told. ****

Child of the Storm, Vol. 1: Blood Stones, Manuel Bichebois and Didier Poli (Humanoids Inc): A newborn child is found in the forest, still attached by the umbilical cord to his dead mother, who had apparently been struck by lightning. Raised by the hunter who found him, Laith's peculiar reaction to storms draws attention, and once his abilities reveal themselves powerful people beyond the village begin to pay attention. A decent enough book, without being at all remarkable. ***

The Art of the Boys, Darick Robertson (Dynamite Entertainment): The covers for all the issues of The Boys, plus those of the mini-series that came out during the original run, with preliminary sketches for each cover and brief plot synopses. Probably makes more sense as a physical object; with a digital copy you might as well be browsing the covers on Comixology. Interesting to read that Adam McKay was trying to make it into a film but all the studios turned him down. Wonder if they regret that now it's the biggest thing on television? ***

Do Not Pass Go, Joel Lane (Nine Arches Press): Five short stories, all featuring a crime or two, and set in and around Birmingham. They're all pretty short, so there isn't much mystery, it's more about mood, and overall it makes a pretty good argument for staying at home after bedtime. ***

James Bond: Hammerhead, Andy Diggle and Luca Casalanguida (Dynamite Entertainment): A straightforward but reasonably entertaining adventure for a ruthlessly violent Bond, with him getting into bother at an arms fair. ***

The Dynamite Art of Alex Ross, Alex Ross (Dynamite Entertainment): Lots of amazing artwork, some from comics I've read and loved, like Kirby Genesis, others from comics I didn't even know existed. His style is as stunning as ever, and his talent for revitalising old characters is as remarkable as Alan Moore's, but by the end you do wish he would do fewer covers and more interiors. It's as if the world's greatest actor just appeared on film posters rather than appearing in the films. ****

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, Koren Shadmi (Life Drawn): An excellent biography of the man who created... The Twilight Zone. Shows us his experiences in World War II, his battles with the network censors, and how unfaithful he was to his wife. Brilliantly drawn. ****

The Fantastic Voyage of Lady Rozenbilt, Vol. 1: The Baxendale Cruise, Pierre Gabus and Romuald Reutimann (Humanoids): A book about the people on an airship, some very rich, others very poor, some human, others not. It's weirdly short, apparently due to it being from a French album that has been sliced in two, and entirely unsatisfying to read on its own. ***

Drifting Dragons, Vol. 1, Taku Kuwabara (Kodansha Comics Digital-First!): A crew hunts dragons in their airship; the similarities to whaling make it a rather uncomfortable read. Some of the characters are quite engaging and the art offers some impressive views of the sky and the dragons that live there – at least until our heroes slaughter them without mercy, even the babies. ***

Black Widow, Volume 1: S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Most Wanted, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee (Marvel): Someone knows Black Widow's secrets and blackmails her into stealing intelligence from SHIELD. A pretty good action adventure that seems (from the trailer) to be the inspiration for Black Widow's first solo film. ***

Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery, Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece (Dark Horse Books): A light-skinned black journalist goes undercover in the American South to gather evidence of lynchings. It's getting too dangerous now people know he's out there, but just as he's getting ready to take a desk job his own brother is thrown in jail for a crime he didn't commit, and a mob is gathering outside. It's a very good book, surprisingly funny in places, that burns with its purpose: making sure those crimes against humanity are never forgotten. ****

Without Feathers, Woody Allen (Audible): A very funny audiobook collecting various humorous pieces by Woody Allen, which begins by announcing that it was to "be published posthumously or after his death, whichever comes first", and continues in a similar vein. A striking feature was how often I would be in the middle of a sentence laughing at one thing, and then a twist at the end of the sentence would send me laughing in a different direction. Terrific. I'm so glad Audible got him to record these audiobooks. ****

Moon Face, Vol. 1: The Wave Tamer, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Francois Boucq (Humanoids): Gigantic waves hit the coastline regularly and various groups of lunatics handle it in different ways. Into this situation comes a young man with a flat face and the ability to heal from bullet wounds. It's okay, but I do get tired of how pretty much every Jodorowsky book features sexual violence against women. ***

Living with the Dead: A Zombie Bromance, Mike Richardson and Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse Books): Two blokey blokes who survived the zombie apocalypse find their friendship tested when they encounter an attractive and boisterous woman. Quite entertaining but I wasn't sure what to make of the ending. ***

What Is Existentialism? Simone de Beauvoir (Penguin Classics): Felt like a bait and switch given that "What Is Existentialism?" was only six pages long and basically said it's too hard to explain in so little space. The rest of it was interesting but reminded me of reading a Camille Paglia book a while back – the snappy individual sentences tended towards the aphoristic, but I couldn't tell what they were supposed to add up to. In several places it asserted things that were blatantly untrue in the course of a making an argument. ***

The Arrest, Jonathan Lethem (Ecco): A pleasant post-apocalyptic enclave is disturbed by the arrival of a blowhard in his supercar. Full review to follow. ****

Ms Ice Sandwich, Mieko Kawakami (Pushkin Press): A Japanese boy is fascinated by the ice-cool woman who sells sandwiches in a supermarket. When he becomes friendly with a girl in his class (one so cool she can act out the entire gunfight from Heat) his fascination with Ms Ice Sandwich becomes at first a roadblock and then a joint endeavour. A very sweet and tender portrait of a child who feels adrift. ****

The Originals, Dave Gibbons (Dark Horse): I can't see the art of Dave Gibbons without being six years old again and wowed by his work in Doctor Who Weekly. This story of sci-fi mods and rockers looks as good as his work always does, and if it isn't one of his all-time classic works it's still well worth reading. ***

Brussli: Way of the Dragon Boy, Vol. 1: The Conqueror, Jean-Louis Fonteneau and J. Etienne (Humanoids): A little boy found in an egg is raised by a kindly couple as if he were their own. He's a bit funny-looking and gets teased a lot, but when the village faces danger he will show his bravery. The art is gorgeous, like cells from a hand-drawn animated film, and Brussli and the friends he makes are very charming to read about. ***

The Last Ones, Vol. 1: Exodus, David Munoz and Manuel Garcia (Humanoids): A children's book illustrator found herself in charge of a bunch of children when the apocalypse and then the vampires struck. As they try to reach safety a new ally offers his help, but he's a bit long in the tooth, if you get my meaning. Kind of like The Walking Dead but with vampires, this didn't blow me away but it was a decent start. ***

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark (Canongate Books): A wonderful book, full of humour and character, about the women living together in a London hostel in the period after World War II. I did not expect such a nerve-wracking ending! It is read to perfection by Juliet Stevenson, who even sings at one point, something I always love in audiobooks. *****

Friday 9 October 2020

Deadly Class, Vol. 1: Reagan Youth, by Rick Remender and Wes Craig (Image Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

Despite the skeletons on the cover, not a fantasy or horror book. A homeless young man is given a place at a school for assassins. His classmates are the scions of murderers, gangsters and intelligence operatives, and he makes friends with some, enemies of others. The rules are strict and the penalties for not obeying them are terminal. It looks very good and moves at a fair old lick, and it’s hard not to be moved when the writer talks in an afterword about how it reflects his miserable time at high school. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday 7 October 2020

Shards of the Nightmare, by Joel Cornah (Kristell Ink) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Shards of the Nightmare are magical items; what they are shards of remains a mystery. The title also reflects the book’s structure, which throws fragments of a nightmarish life at the reader and hopes we’ll piece it together. It begins by telling us that Sininen – raised as a (somewhat stereotypical) girl on the advice of a seer named Sear the Seer – was born with blue skin and lived for centuries. Then we’re snapped back to when Sini was fifteen, still living in the fortress of Dun Coille, and the least-loved scion of an expansionist king and queen who come into possession of a magical sea-sword. A personal bodyguard, Merri, offers some friendship, before we are thrown ten years into the Sea King’s reign of terror. Confusingly Sini is still only sixteen, but perhaps I misunderstood. At this point Sini and Merri are on a quest for the shards and major developments have occurred off-screen. It feels like the reader has skipped the film and watched only the deleted scenes, but to be fair there’s zero chance I would have read a five-hundred-page version that took us step by step through each moment. It’s just too run-of-the-mill, in story, prose and ideas. The positives: Sini’s mad mum might have been interesting, if we had spent more than a few pages with her, and Merri the bodyguard was likeable, at least until she confessed to having fallen in love with a child. The conclusion, where the Sea King is effectively stabbed until he stops calling Sini his son, was also rather discomfiting. Not recommended. Stephen Theaker **

Saturday 3 October 2020

Ex Libris: Stories of Librarians, Libraries & Lore, ed. by Paula Guran | review by Stephen Theaker

This highly entertaining book (Prime Books pb, 384pp, £14.50) is the forty-second anthology edited by Paula Guran, who gathers twenty-three tales of mysterious libraries, courageous librarians, and the awesome books they protect from us (or protect us from). The stories come from twenty-two different sources, and all but three were first published this century. The twentieth century is represented by Ray Bradbury’s “Exchange”, Esther M. Friesner’s “Death and the Librarian”, and Jack McDevitt’s “The Fort Moxie Branch”, all of which fit the theme so perfectly that it’s easy to see why they were included.