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!

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