Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Sonic the Hedgehog | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Family film explores loneliness and self-worth as Blue Devil and Doughnut Lord get chased across western US by narcissistic genius robotics doctor

Podcasters and amateur reviewers tend to roll their eyes at Sonic the Hedgehog (2020), released just before the pandemic struck in earnest. But why? Do they want something more believable and realistic, something more emotionally resonant . . . like another Avengers film? 

The film in question involves a talking, superfast blue hedgehog (Ben Schwartz) based on the 1990s video game that bears his name. And it has Jim Carrey playing an ultra-narcissistic villain to boot. Despite the naysayers, Sonic the Hedgehog, directed by Jeff Fowler, turns out to be a charming film that combines special effects with heartwarming thematic content.

Sonic spends his days zipping around a paradise-like planet where he’s being raised by a female owl. After narrowly escaping capture, he ends up on Earth, where he hides out in a cave in the fictional town of Green Hills, Montana. There he spends his days reading comics (Flash, of course), watching residents (especially “Doughnut Lord” Tom, a cop [James Marsden], and his veterinarian wife Maddie [Tika Sumpter]), and running around at more than 300 miles per hour.

When Sonic inadvertently causes a massive power outage, the US government takes note. It has no choice but to call on Dr Robotnik (Carrey), a technology genius and extreme narcissist with a “Civil War moustache,” tiny sunglasses, and five PhDs. Robotnik quickly discovers Sonic’s existence and sees the potential to bring praise on himself. “That’s one small step for man,” he says, “one giant leap for me.” 

Not to worry: the owl mentor has gifted Sonic with a sack full of magical rings that allow him to teleport to a planet of giant mushrooms. Until, of course, he loses them. The so-called “Blue Devil” enlists Tom to help him retrieve a lost ring from atop a San Francisco high-rise. Thus begins a quest to get Sonic to Frisco while evading the “government whack job,” to use Tom’s words. As he hunts Sonic, Dr Robotnik employs everything from drones and obstinate multifunctional land vehicles to a flying machine. 

To highlight Sonic’s speed, the filmmakers took a page from the book of X-Men films and their portrayal of Quicksilver: the motion of all other activity slows so that the viewer understands just how fast the speedy character is. When a bar fight breaks out and Sonic is about to be attacked, he says, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” then proceeds to do his thing. He appears to be moving at a normal speed while other characters are motionless. 

In a more pivotal scene that highlights his speed, Sonic plays a game of baseball... by himself. He is pitcher, batter, outfielder, catcher, runner . . . everything. When the play culminates, Sonic is overtaken with a profound loneliness that transitions to a runner’s rage. 

One of the key themes here is friendship. Sonic, much like a sugar-fuelled child who zips from activity to activity, vacillates between mania and abject loneliness. He is, after all, the only being of his kind in a world where he can’t show himself. No surprise, then, that one of the key things on Sonic’s “bucket list” is to get a real friend. 

Meanwhile, Tom’s story quest reveals something about community values. He questions his worth as a small-town policeman and sees greener pastures in San Francisco, where he can become a more useful street cop. 

Unquestionably, the best part of Sonic the Hedgehog is Jim Carrey, whose trademark over-the-top movements and dialogue delivery overshadow the one-dimensional nature of his character. What speed is to Sonic pride is to Robotnik, who humiliates others for their inferior intelligence. “I was spitting out formulas while you were spitting up formula,” he tells Tom. A favourite scene shows Robotnik dancing in his “evil lab” as he creates his flying machine.

Sometimes, Sonic’s personality grows a bit grating, but maybe that makes sense for a character who’s so full of pluck and speed. If he presented like James Bond, that would be weird... or maybe fascinating.  

Not surprisingly, the story ends on a touching note. If energy drinks were a movie, this would be it. It’s a good film, with a good message.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday, 26 April 2021

TQF69: UNSPLATTERPUNK! 4 is now out in paperback and ebook!

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

Welcome to UNSPLATTERPUNK! 4, edited by Douglas J. Ogurek. Six stories unite the gruesome contents of the splatterpunk subgenre with the millennia-old notion that art should offer moral instruction. In the tales that follow, villains use advantages, whether a silver tongue or a silver spoon, to subject others to humiliation and violence. Things get shoved into or pushed out of tight places. Flesh tears. Eyeballs burst. And of course, people get eaten by familiar and not-so-familiar species. However, these stories also offer moral nuggets that can’t be found in splatterpunk: a call to share our feelings with those we love, a declaration about the importance of tolerance and unity, a critique on capitalism in America, an appeal to use our skills for good, and a warning about imposing our values on others. This instalment concludes with what could be the most repulsive entry in the UNSPLATTERPUNK! canon: Rick Saldana’s “Boot Camp”, a mind-and-other-body-part-expanding examination of economic disparity, youthful indiscretion, and the ability to transcend life’s most trying moments. Prepare yourself for the next phase of unsplatterpunk – you’re about to learn some painful lessons.

Here are the tremendous contributors to this issue.

Chisto Healy has been writing since childhood, but he only started following his dreams and writing full time in 2020. On top of the award-nominated, self-published novels from his earlier days, he now has more than 100 published stories. You can find out more at his blog chistohealy.blogspot.com or follow him on Amazon, where his new stuff is constantly coming out. He lives in North Carolina with his fiancé and her mom, his daughter Ella who has inspired his stories, his daughter Julia who has been published alongside him, and his son Boe who thinks the world is his drum..

Born into a large Italian family in the Arts District of Dallas, Texas, Edward Villanova is the product of culture and chaos. He began writing at the age of four, and credits reading Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream at the age of six as the definitive moment that he fell in love with horror. Edward hosts the comedy horror podcast Eddie V’s Horror Show, where he discusses terrifying happenings, scary movies, and the art of writing, all with a comedic bent. His published works include political nonfiction under another name, as well as fiction in The Scarlet Leaf Review and via Kindle Direct Publishing.

Ben Fitts is the author of more than thirty published short stories. His debut collection My Birth and Other Regrets was released by the indie press NihilismRevised in 2019. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he writes weird stories, plays guitar in the indie rock band War Honey, and puts too much hot sauce on everything.

Tim J. Finn was born in Boston and still calls the area home sweet home. He penned his first story, an origin tale for Aurora’s Forgotten Prisoner of Castle Mare kit, while enrolled in Catholic school. The good nuns no doubt felt his literary tastes confirmed their convictions regarding the sinister nature of a left-handed person. Tim is a member of New England Horror Writers and the Horror Society and holds a B.A. in English from Grinnell College. His work has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines. Please visit his website www.authortimjfinn.net.

Eric Raglin is a speculative fiction writer, podcaster, and horror educator from Nebraska. He frequently writes about queer issues, the terrors of capitalism, and body horror. His work has been published in Novel Noctule, Fever Dream and Shiver. Find him at www.ericraglin.com and www.twitter.com/ericraglin1992.

Rick Saldana is an award-winning pig breeder from Wales. He also writes fiction..

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

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

Stephen Theaker’s reviews, interviews and articles have also appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism, Dark Horizons and the BFS Journal.

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

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, by J.K. Rowling (Pottermore Publishing) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

An absorbing compendium of magical creatures both familiar and new 

A snake that rises from ashes, lays red-hot eggs, and then dies an hour later. A creature that likes to gorge itself on magic potions and chew on wands. A bird that only flies in the rain. These are just a few of the treats in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling’s collection of mythical creatures in the Harry Potter universe. The list, according to the book, is compiled by Newt Scamander, a Magizoologist (i.e., one who studies magical creatures) born at the close of the nineteenth century. 

The volume starts with an explanation of the lengths to which wizards are willing to go to prevent Muggles (i.e., humans without magical powers) from discovering these beasts. It also describes the danger classification hierarchy and explains how some creatures (e.g., Centaurs, Merpeople) straddle the spectrum between beast and human (though most have opted for the former classification).

The remainder of the collection details the physical characteristics and behaviours of creatures and offers their Ministry of Magic (M.O.M.) classification ranging from X (“boring”) to XXXXX (“known wizard killer/impossible to train or domesticate”). Examples of the latter include the Basilisk (a snake featured in the Harry Potter series) born by having a frog sit atop a chicken egg, the Acromantula spider that has 15-foot-long legs and is capable of human speech, and the Chimaera (i.e., lion’s head, goat’s body, dragon’s tail). I believe the list’s only X-classified creature is the Flobberworm, which secretes a mucus that wizards use to thicken their potions. According to the summary, it hangs out in ditches and does not move much. Many of the creatures, particularly those in the XXX category, can be beneficial to wizards, but also pose a threat.

Fantastic Beasts includes well-known beings (e.g., Griffins, Leprechauns, Pixies, Fairies, Loch Ness Monster [referred to as the world’s largest Kelpie]) and many others that the author invented. There are creatures that will entertain humans and creatures that will harm humans (or both). Some creatures camouflage themselves as logs or stones, while one rhino-like beast can use its horn to pierce anything (including metal), then inject something that causes whatever is pierced to explode! There’s even a creature called the Puffskein (a favourite among children) that likes to eat boogers. 

One section covers all Potter universe dragons from solitary to man-eating, including the most dangerous: the Hungarian Horntail (XXXXX). Elsewhere, Scamander reveals that the dodo bird, which Muggles have long thought was hunted to extinction, is actually the very much alive Diricawl that can disappear in a whirl of feathers and show up elsewhere. 

The diversity of beasts is best exemplified by two creatures who exploit water. Imps find entertainment by tripping people and watching them fall in. Water Demons, which appear to be horses, jump into rivers to devour the rider, then allow the victim’s intestines to float to the surface. Pleasant.

Perhaps the most frightening subject in this collection is the Lethifold (aka the Living Shroud) (XXXXX), a creature that lives in tropical areas and resembles a black cape moving along the ground. I imagined it as a stingray. It creeps up on its victims in bed, where it attempts to smother them before devouring them. The book features the fascinating story of one survivor.

If nothing else, this compilation testifies to the creativity that Rowling drew from to develop a fantasy series so popular that it often has its own section in bookstores.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Death of Me | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Building to something big, but is it big enough?

It isn’t long into the horror film Death of Me (2020), directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, that the viewer gets the impression that something nasty is in store for protagonist Christine (Maggie Q) and her husband Neil (Luke Hemsworth). It’s a “fish out of water” story in the vein of The Wicker Man (1973/2006) and Midsommar (2019): characters get stuck in an unfamiliar place whose odd inhabitants seem highly interested in them. The question soon becomes, will the payoff that Death of Me is building to be as breathtakingly horrific as that in the former examples?

Christine and Neil awaken in their resort room on an island off the coast of Thailand. Mud is everywhere, the room is in disarray, and they have no recollection of what happened the night before or how they got back to their room. A necklace with a strange symbol hangs on Christine. This necklace will play a key role later. Christine has concerns about a potential typhoon, but the natives take it in stride—there has not been a natural disaster on the island in more than two hundred years. This nugget features prominently in the island’s tourism shtick.

The couple’s plans to leave the island are thwarted, and they soon discover on Neil’s camera video footage from the previous night. It shows some bizarre stuff, including one of them killing the other. They try to unveil what happened while things around them grow increasingly chaotic: hallucinations, deceptions, and regurgitations abound. 

When the couple walks into situations, the proverbial record screeches to a halt and all the natives glare or smile at them. Many of these locals are depicted as untrustworthy. Even the couple’s American neighbour Samantha (Alex Essoe), who keeps pushing Gatorade-looking mixed drinks, seems suspicious as she empathizes with Christine. And throughout the film, there is talk of a “festival.” Sound familiar? 

The beginning overdoes it with Enya-like chanting in Thai while characters sit and brood or stare into the distance. Moreover, one grows weary of the aerial shots of the island, though some of that is necessary to establish a sense of place. 

On the whole, however, the low-budget film is worth the watch. Maggie Q and Hemsworth quarrel convincingly and effectively portray the shock and indignity that come with their situation. The casting director made a fine choice with Maggie Q, who looks like she could be a native, but has the American personality down pat: bold in all the right ways, willing to stand up for herself, and insistent on knowing what is happening. 

Ultimately, Death of Me explores the age-old question of whether the health of many can be justified by the suffering of a few. It could have been much better and rawer if it did away with the silly, dream-like supernatural sequences.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Everything Has Teeth, by Jeff Strand | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Stomping on empathy: jerks, dummies, and sociopaths abound in comedic horror collection filled with snappy dialogue, cliché twists, narrative acrobatics, and delightful absurdities 

“The Car” introduces a pair of male vampires arguing over who gets to be the metal car figure for a board game they’re about to play. Behind them, cages hold screaming, suffering, or dead “donors.” This scenario—similar ones appear throughout the short story collection Everything Has Teeth—demonstrates a key component of preeminent comedy horror writer Jeff Strand’s toolbox: when characters show indifference to, rather than sadistic pleasure in, the humiliation and suffering of others, the result can be quite funny. 

Often, short story collections have their hits and misses. Not so in Everything Has Teeth, in which each story is as unpredictable and original as it is delightfully preposterous. The volume brims with odd predicaments and eccentric characters. A jackalope makes the murderous rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail look like a child’s toy. A 32-year-old virgin anorexic rape victim goes on a vengeance killing spree whose victims aren’t what you’d expect. A kid goes into conniptions about the possibility of getting eaten by a bathtub. A railroad worker participates in spike-driving competitions with increasingly difficult (and outlandish) challengers. The collection even offers a slightly more serious piece that pays tribute to the author’s father. 

Everything Has Teeth shines with Strand’s characteristic rapid-fire dialogue, the content of which often jars with what is happening in a scene. Take, for instance, “A Bit of Christmas Mayhem,” in which Strand’s recurring novel character Andrew Mayhem runs into three axe-wielding Santas in an alley. “I first noticed that something was awry,” says Mayhem, “when two of them slammed me into the brick wall and the third held the blade of his axe up to my face.” The quartet argues about when an axe-wielding Santa first appeared in movies and films. 

In “Deformed Son,” the car of one of those ubiquitous traveling blender salesmen breaks down. He stops at the home of a farmer, who repeatedly warns him not to go into the basement where his deformed son lives. According to the father, the kid is so ugly that the blender salesman would be forever mentally scarred upon seeing the boy. The salesman can’t resist seeing the source of all the wailing and chain rattling in the basement. The following sentence stands out: “The door was locked. But it was locked from this side, so he unlocked it.” Think about that—that’s funny.

More than one story is written completely in dialogue. Once such piece, “Tin Cans,” presents two killers who try to force their captive to plead for her life via a tin can with a string that leads to another can near a Jesus statue in the window of an adjacent building. The woman spouts off a couple clichés, such as, “I’ll do anything.” Her persecutor then questions whether she’d be willing to inflict on herself a variety of tortures “because that would save me a lot of trouble.”

“The Fierce Stabbing and Subsequent Post-Death Vengeance of Scooter Brown,” another all-dialogue treat, involves a cop interrogating a murderer with a matter-of-fact approach to his gruesome crime. The interrogator asks the murderer, Mr. Galen, why he thought it necessary to stab his victim 43 times. “Well,” says Galen, “I was trying to kill him.” 

Also watch out for Strand’s point of view nimbleness. The omniscient narrator in “Apocalypse of the Yard Gnome” not only introduces himself as such, but also questions how omniscient he is when a character does something unexpected. The narrator goes so far as to cut off a character’s sentence, stating that you the reader probably don’t want to hear all that. 

Another story that plays with perspective (and competes with “Apocalypse of the Yard Gnome” for the title of the collection’s most outrageous) is “The Sentient Cherry Cola That Tried to Destroy the World.” It’s almost as if Strand teamed with a schoolboy to write this frenetic tale. The author explains how the soda can became sentient through a ceremony involving naked Wiccan witches, then got closed off in a refrigerator for months. At one point, a teenage kid opens the fridge, looks at the can, and then puts it back. The narrator breaks in: “Ha! You thought he was going to drink the cherry cola, didn’t you? Psyche!” When the soda is finally released, it wants to kill. Naturally. As the soda wreaks havoc, the people fight back. One guy activates a cannon he’d always wanted to shoot. This opportunity doesn’t pan out well. Later on, there just so happens to be “the 23rd annual Cannon Festival” in a neighbouring town. The coincidence is so blatant that it’s funny.

Most characters in this collection are self-absorbed jerks, dummies, sociopaths, or any combination thereof. “Nails” is about one such jerk who’s with a woman he enjoys spending time with, but he doesn’t want to marry her and plans to “trade her up” eventually. His nails start to grow long . . . so long that he starts hurting himself and others. The scenes in which nails break off are hard to read without cringing. 

Another jerk/sociopath takes centre stage in “Stumps.” The remorseless killer protagonist—if that’s what you want to call him—explains his killings in a matter-of-fact tone. He ends up limbless and unable to die . . . and explains his predicament as if he’s talking about what he had for breakfast. 

One of my favourites in this collection is “It’s Bath Time!” A child is reluctant to take a bath because he thinks he’s going to get eaten by the drain. The boy’s father—he reminds you of the guy that says “that would never happen” during a movie—uses reason to explain to his wife the futility of such a fear. Something under the bed or in the closet, maybe. But not getting pulled down the drain. 

Strand also allows women to get in a few good licks. In “A Flawed Fantasy,” a man at a bar meets an attractive brunette who asks him about his fantasy, then ridicules him until she agrees to fulfil it… provided he is willing to indulge her fantasy, which turns out to be ultraviolent. The woman doesn’t have an ounce of empathy—problematic in serious fiction, brilliant in this application. 

On the numbskull front, there are selections like the dialogue-heavy “Bad Bratwurst.” Here a struggling bratwurst shop owner is visited by a cast of Dumb and Dumber-type characters. One thinks that bratwurst comes from plants. Another forgets which way to hold a gun. “Scrumptious Bone Bread” focuses on a bonehead who wants a taxidermist to help him make bone bread from his victims. This Einstein confuses the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk with the vegetable-pushing Green Giant. 

Everything Has Teeth even offers a couple pieces that fit the splatterpunk subgenre. In “The Story of My First Kiss,” strand employs his trademark insensitivity to human suffering. A teacher lifts a severed human head as if it’s a spit ball and asks the class who did it. A boy’s punishment for killing a friend is getting grounded. The boy beats somebody to death with a hammer and his parents get mad and yell at him. Kids start a “food fight” by throwing a victim’s innards at each other.  

The stories frequently contain elements that would be considered mistakes by writing instructors—the difference here is that Strand calls himself out to humorous effect. In “John Henry, The Steel-Drivin’ Man,” the narrator breaks from the action at an inopportune moment to reveal his relationship to a key character, then apologizes to the reader because he really could not find a better place to fit that information. 

In more than one story, characters narrate what’s happening to them. Normally, that would be a beginner’s mistake. With Strand, it’s comedic genius. “The word ‘ow’ does not come close to encapsulating the sheer volume of unpleasant sensations that are coursing through my body at this moment,” says one character in “Bad Bratwurst.” “And I’m losing a lot of blood!” 

“Cry” offers an example of a would-be cliché twisted into an absurd scenario. It begins, “My tears spill onto the keyboard as I write this.” Usually, a sentence like that would be a red flag—this is going to be melodramatic muck. But this is Jeff Strand, whose next sentence is “It’s pretty much because I just finished rubbing habanero peppers in my eyes.” Thus begins the plight of one character (another insensitive jerk) who goes to extremes to make himself cry.

Everything Has Teeth is the example of a great mind playing in a sandbox, albeit a sandbox filled with blood and body parts. One would be hard-pressed to find a boring section—even the author’s notes are sharp and entertaining.–Douglas J. Ogurek*****

Monday, 1 March 2021

Oedipus, Carthago, Sweet Tooth and other reviews in brief

Brief reviews of the books I finished reading (or listening to) in February. Creators, publishers, etc as per Goodreads; apologies to anyone left out. (Apologies as well to everyone waiting for TQF69! Almost there!)

Hedra, Jesse Lonergan (Image Comics): Short, silent graphic novel about a spacewoman who sets off from an Earth devastated by nuclear war to find plant life that can survive in our soil. Interesting use of panels throughout, for example some that twist around the page to convey the feeling of crawling through caves. ***

The Victim, P.D. James (Faber & Faber): A former assistant librarian thinks back to the year that followed his divorce, and all the effort he put into preparing what he thought would be the perfect murder. It's very good. I was surprised by how unconcerned he was about DNA evidence, but then realised it's from 1973. ****

I Am Legion, Vol. 1: The Dancing Faun, John Cassaday, Fabien Nury, Laura Martin (Humanoids Inc): Two supernatural body-swapping blood creatures, one in London and one in Nazi-occupied Romania, are up to no good. One of their abandoned bodies sparks a murder investigation. Looks great throughout, but it's very much a chapter of a story rather than a complete story in itself. ***

Carthago, Vol. 2: The Challenger Abyss, Christophe Bec, Eric Henninot, Milan Jovanovic (Humanoids): A scientist's daughter is kidnapped by a reclusive billionaire, to force her into joining a megalodon hunt. A big summer blockbuster of a comic that already had a lot going on before throwing a giant yeti, a secret undersea base and a dinosaur attacking a U-boat into the mix. The animals look spectacular throughout. ***

The Raven King, Liz Tuckwell (Demain): DI Lis Liszt of the Supernatural Crimes Squad is assigned a sneery DC while they investigate the disappearance of the ravens from the Tower of London. Nice little story. The denouement perhaps overestimates the effect of throwing one's female body at a hulking thug during combat. ***

Sweet Tooth: Deluxe Edition, Book One, Jeff Lemire, José Villarrubia, Michael Sheen, Carlos M. Mangual (Vertigo): After Earth is devastated by plague, some of the survivors start to have children who appear to be human-animal hybrids. Gus lives in the woods with his father, but gets forced out into a world that's not kind to people like him. A classically Vertigo mix of fantasy and violence. ****

The Oedipus Plays: An Audible Original Drama, Sophocles (Audible Studios): This was one of my favourite ever Audible books. The first two plays, despite their tragedies, often had me chuckling thanks to the dialogue sometimes sounding, in the mouths of modern actors, like an Absolutely or Armstrong and Miller sketch. For example: "I will go, but you know there are conditions." / "Tell me. Once I hear them I'll know what they are." At times the arguments people had sounded just like online arguments, with all the same tactics and complaints: people haven't changed all that much! The drama still packed a punch. Then the third play knocked my socks off. Hayley Atwell was thrillingly virtuous as uncompromising Antigone, doing what she thinks right despite the consequences, and Michael Maloney was equally excellent as the king whose desire for order and obedience leads to his own ruin. The scene where his son tries to persuade him to clemency was especially stunning, and so full of wisdom. There's a reason new adaptations of these plays are still being made, twenty-four centuries after they were written. *****

Sweet Tooth: Deluxe Edition, Book Two, Jeff Lemire, José Villarrubia, Carlos M. Mangual (Vertigo): A man of violence tries to look after a gentle little deer-boy, whose very existence could be to blame for humanity's doom, or could be its salvation. It's enjoyable and looks great, but on the whole it's quite familiar territory. The symbolic covers for each issue are very good. ***

Carthago Vol. 3: The Monster of Djibouti, Christophe Bec, Eric Henninot, Milan Jovanovic (Humanoids): Dr Melville and two colleagues take individual submersibles down into the ocean off Djibouti to look for a giant shark, with predictably unfortunate consequences. Other shenanigans are interspersed among awesome drawings of giant beasts and wonderfully detailed dinner spreads. ***

Can You Just Die, My Darling? Vol. 1, Majuro Kaname (Kodansha Comics): A boy gets infected with an illness that makes him want to murder the girl he loves, Hanazono. It also gives him super-strength. He resists, but everyone else in school loves her too and the infection is spreading. On the whole, rather unpleasant, but Hanazono was quite funny. ***

The Devil's Own Work, Alan Judd, Matt Godfrey (Valancourt Books): After a decent first book, a writer is made much more famous by his scathing review of a big name author's latest tome, and is invited to interview him. Only one will leave the room alive! An interesting story of supernatural literary ambition, read very well by Matt Godfrey. ****

Batman: The Dark Knight – Master Race, Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson, Eduardo Risso, John Romita Jr. (DC Comics): Surprised by how much I enjoyed this, after how much I didn't enjoy Holy Terror. Plus, part of The Dark Knight Return's appeal was it being the last Batman story, and sequels make it just another Batman story. But this was great fun. I loved Andy Kubert's art, and how epic and legendary it all felt. ****

The Funeral Birds, Paula R.C. Readman (Demain Publishing ): A can-do wife joins her detective husband on the case of a murdered woman. Needed a bit more editing (e.g. "It looks to be a grave. An old very one."), but I was amused by the husband/wife team and the way the husband's hunches came via a ghost granny making him want to poop. ***

The History of Sketch Comedy, Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key (Audible Original): An enjoyable audiobook about the history of sketch comedy, from the ancient Greeks through to one-season wonders on Netflix. Co-writer and narrator Keegan Michael-Key also talks about his own influences and career, and acts out favourite sketches like Fork Handles with infectious enthusiasm. Nice! If there's a criticism, it's that it makes US comedy sound rather rule-bound and regimented, but maybe that's because it is? The "You can't do that!" refrain in each chapter sounds a bit odd to listeners used to sketch shows where people regularly do all that and more. I was also struck by how few US sketch shows there seemed to be, whereas the episode about the UK was packed solid even without mentioning Not the Nine O'Clock News, Harry Enfield, French & Saunders, The Fast Show, Absolutely, Big Train or The League of Gentlemen. ****

The Banks, Roxane Gay and Ming Doyle (TKO Studios): Three generations of women team up in an attempt to rob a creep. There's potential in the idea but the book feels far too rushed, with duff dialogue, plot handwaving and even unfinished art in a few places. The robbers keep saying how good they are, but seem like complete blunderers. **

Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Bill Strutton, read by William Russell (BBC Audio): The first Doctor and chums on a world of giant insects! Oddly fond of this since it's long been the audiobook I put on when I'm poorly and need to sleep. It's perfect for such times because William Russell's reading is warm and grandfatherly, and the story is very, very dull. ***

The Killer Vol. 1: Long Fire, Matz and Luc Jacamon (Archaia): A ruthless hitman thinks about his career while waiting for a target to show up, then scarpers to Venezuela when things go wrong. Apparently I read a different edition of this already in 2011, but I didn't remember much after the first issue. His worsening frame of mind is conveyed in interesting ways. ***

Robert Silverberg's Colonies: Return to Belzagor, Vol. 2, Philippe Thirault and Laura Zuccheri (Humanoids): Second and final part of an adaptation of Downward to the Earth follows a bunch of humans on their journey to see a mysterious ceremony of renewal. A good story, but the book's biggest strength is the art of Laura Zuccheri, who really makes it feel like we are on an alien planet. ***

The Metabaron Vol. 2: Khonrad, The Anti-Baron, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen, Valentin Sécher (Humanoids): The Techno-Admiral's flunky Tetanus devises a plan to destroy both his boss and the Metabaron by cloning an Anti-Baron, but it all goes horribly wrong, especially for the clone's mothers. Typical Jodo-nonsense from the Incal-verse: beautifully drawn and full of casual misogyny. ***

A Quiet Apocalypse, Dave Jeffery (Demain Publishing): In an England where a virus killed almost everyone and deafened most of the survivors, a former teacher kept as a slave for his ability to hear tries to make his way to freedom. Appropriately bleak, but malapropisms, mistakes and overexuberant prose work against the post-apocalyptic tone. **

Carthago Vol. 4: The Koube Monoliths, Christophe Bec, Milan Jovanovic, Eric Henninot (Humanoids): The megalodons become public knowledge after a terrible tsunami leaves one aground in Malaysia. Spectacular art as ever, with beautifully drawn animals and awe-inspiring undersea locations, but it's book four now and the ongoing story has barely moved forward since book one. ***

Mr Salary, Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber): A 24-year-old woman returns from Boston to Dublin to visit her dying father, and stays with an older relative by marriage who lent her a room during her penniless university days. About as steamy as a book can get without being explicit. ****

Dante and the Lobster, Samuel Beckett (Faber & Faber): Belacqua goes out to get some stinky cheese but it isn't stinky enough. He collects a lobster for his Italian tutor, and gets upset when he realises it's still alive and she's going to cook it. The book includes 14 blank pages at the end for anyone minded to write a continuation. ****

Free Speech and Why It Matters, Andrew Doyle (Constable): A short (very short: the main text ends at 55% of the ebook) run-through of arguments in favour of free speech, arguing that protecting the free speech of our political enemies is a key part of protecting our own free speech. Not funny like his Titania McGrath books, but it makes its point. ***

Buck Danny Vol. 1: Night of the Serpent, Francis Bergèse (Cinebook): While flying over the Korean DMZ an American is dazzled and left reliant on the autopilot, which stubbornly refuses to go anywhere but north. Buck Danny (in his 49th Belgian tome, but first from Cinebook) is involved in the rescue mission. A good, detailed, Bigglesish adventure. Had to re-read the bits that take place in darkness to properly understand what was going on. ***

Sergeant Bigglesworth, C.I.D., Captain W.E. Johns (Hodder & Stoughton): After World War II ends, Biggles and his chums get a job investigating airborne criminals. Their first assignment is to stop a gang of ruthless thieves led by a Nazi and an American mobster. It's the early Sopwith Camel stories that I love, but this later book (the 32nd) had its moments. Biggles is surprisingly obnoxious at times, but made me chuckle with his occasional ejaculations. (Maybe I shouldn’t have drawn attention to this ebook: it’s now been removed from the Kindle store.) ***

A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor (Faber & Faber): A racist grandma gets her son and his family into serious trouble by sneaking a cat into their car and asking to see a plantation on which she was wooed in her youth. It's very good, but, like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, I rather regret reading it, because now it's in my head forever. ****

Monday, 15 February 2021

BFS Journal #21, by Sean Wilcock and Sarah Deeming (eds) (The British Fantasy Society) | review by Stephen Theaker

At the time of writing (July 2020), it’s been four years since the release of a new issue of the BFS Journal was last mentioned on the British Fantasy Society’s website, and almost four years since the society last announced a new issue on Twitter, but new issues are still being regularly released.

The last issue I reviewed was BFS Journal #18, edited by Allen Stroud (see TQF64). For this issue he moves on to Advisory Editor, while Sean Wilcock takes over as editor. Sarah Deeming is introduced as Reviews Editor, a review section making its welcome return to the publication after an absence of some years.

The first couple of articles are quite hard work. The first tries to persuade us by way of Jungian theory that mazes, water and eating are traditionally feminine. Taking a theory and shoe-horning a few cherry-picked moments from books into it doesn’t tell us anything very much about the books or the usefulness of the theory.

The second, about “Jung’s Concept of the Anima in Fantasy and Science Fiction Pulp”, has a similar problem, and puts forward the nonsensical idea that the UFO craze of the fifties resulted from a Buddhist symbol springing from the “collective unconscious” relating to “the totality of the self”. Hm.

The third article, “When Fantasy Meets Uchronie” by Pascal Lemaire, is genuinely interesting and knowledgeable, telling us about an area of science fiction I knew nothing about: French alternate histories. I’ll be reading some of them in future. It also introduced me to the excellent phrase used for vampire romance in France: bit lit.

The fourth article is a lengthy history of Ladbroke Grove counterculture, taking in people like Pink Floyd, Mick Farren and Michael Moorcock. It’s interesting – I hadn’t known for example how the Notting Hill carnival had begun – but not rigorously academic: many quotations are unsourced, and sometimes even the speaker is unidentified.

Three shorter articles include Allen Ashley’s visit to a witchcraft exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, Jessica Pascoe on a guided tour of Middle-Earth filming locations, and three academics talking about a seminar series on international fantasy at the University of Leeds, and setting out their mission statement.

The review section starts with a six-page review of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House which devotes only a few paragraphs to Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House rather than the book. A review of the Nicholas Eames book Bloody Rose tells the reader that we might “love him or hate him”, without explaining why we might hate him.

There are also informative reviews of The Godserfs’ Trilogy, The Girl King and Dragon Heart, all of which make it clear how good (or otherwise) the reviewers thought the books were, which I always appreciate. The issue’s one editorial wobble comes with a review of Kingdom of the Wicked: Rules, which seems to have been published in an early draft.

Otherwise, the egregious errors that plagued #18 have gone, and once you get past the thirty pages of Jungian nonsense at the beginning, there are some good articles with useful knowledge to share. Also, the bibliographies now have the date immediately after the authors’ names, making them much easier to use.

Overall, a good deal of improvement since the last issue reviewed. ***

Monday, 8 February 2021

Venus in the Blind Spot, by Junji Ito (Viz Media) | review by Stephen Theaker

An extraordinarily creepy collection of short stories by writer and artist Junjo Ito, translated by Jocelyne Allen and Yuji Oniki. It presents the reader with one horrifying image after another, while reflecting on themes of loneliness, misogyny and obsession. “Billions Alone”, for example, gives us a world where anyone gathering in a group is mysteriously stitched together, naked, in increasingly bizarre patterns.

Two stories are adapted from the work of Edogawa Ranpo (a Japanese writer whose name is a play on Edgar Allen Poe). “The Human Chair” is the disturbing story of a writer who comes to suspect that there might be a pervert hidden inside her armchair, while “An Unearthly Love” is about a newlywed who discovers her husband has another, less human sweetheart.

The title story, about a beautiful woman who cannot be seen except from a distance, was my least favourite, and the most shocking, for exactly the same reason: the sexual violence at its conclusion is so much more real than the supernatural elements that predominate elsewhere. “The Licking Woman” is the most revolting of the stories: she licks people at night with a grotesque tongue, her spit dooming them to a painful death.

“How Love Came to Professor Kirida” is about a man plagued by the sexual attentions of an obsessive ghost, based upon a story by Robert Hichens. “The Sad Tale of the Principal Post” is about a dad who finds himself in a tight spot, a metaphor perhaps for the pressures faced by an old-fashioned “man of the house”. “Keepsake” is about a baby found in a coffin, nine months after a woman was buried by her adulterous husband.

The endings aren’t always satisfying; in fact, rather than stories, it might be more accurate to think of these as nightmares. They have the logic of dreams, and their vividness. But “Master Umezz and Me” is a change of pace, a memoir of the author’s love of Kazuo Umezz’s comics and cartoons, though even that finds room for a handful of horrific images (Junjo Ito makes his younger self as alarmingly obsessive as any of his characters).

“The Enigma of Amigara Fault” is the story that will stay with me longest: an earthquake leaves people-shaped holes exposed in the side of a mountain, and people are drawn to those holes. Every aspect of this story felt like it had been dragged from my worst fears. I wish I hadn’t looked through it again while writing this review: doing so can only increase the likelihood of having nightmares that draw upon it.

The copyright page offers an alternative title, “Ito Junji Tanpenshu Best of Best”. Although I loved the film Uzumaki, based on his book, I haven’t read his work before, so I can’t say if these truly are the best of his best, as claimed, but given how good these stories are, it would be highly impressive if his other work was even better. ****

Thursday, 4 February 2021

New Horizons: The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction | review by Stephen Theaker

This ambitious anthology collects science fiction from the Indian subcontinent (home to about 1.7 billion people) and from the global diaspora. As well as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, there are contributors living in Scotland, Iceland and the USA, and the editor himself was born in Kenya. Unsurprisingly, then, it offers a wide variety of stories, presented in what Manjula Padmanabhan’s foreword self-deprecatingly calls ‘a bouquet of styles that are endearingly – perhaps even irritatingly! – local’.

Tarun K. Saint’s highly detailed and informative introduction might be best saved for reading after the stories, but it provides a useful historical overview of the genre in the region, and is likely to send the reader after other books mentioned, such as (for this reviewer) the utterly charming Professor Shonku stories of Satyajit Ray. Saint explains that the genesis of the anthology, as set out in a concept note to potential contributors, was to explore ‘a sense of disturbance with the situation in contemporary South Asia’, and to explore the power of science fiction to ‘generate alternative visions of the future’.

If, as the editor suggests, this aspect of sf has yet to be fully appreciated on the subcontinent, this anthology makes an admirable attempt to redress matters.

There are twenty-three stories, four poems and a prescient series of extracts from a longer work, The Twenty-Second Century by Rahul Sankrityayan, dating from 1923. Six items are translations, twenty-two were written in English. The copyright acknowledgements list only nine, so most would seem to be original to this anthology.

They explore issues such as post-colonialism, religion, colourism, partition (a trauma explored in the editor’s own ‘A Visit to Partition World’), bureaucracy, class, American and British cultural imperialism, sewage management and police corruption (amusingly satirised in Harishankar Parsai’s ‘Inspector Matadeen on the Moon’). They don’t on the whole go very far into the future, and rarely visit space, tending to explore a recognisable world.

The mistreatment of women is a frequent theme. ‘A Night with the Joking Clown’ explores the effects of Male Hypertoxic Syndrome and extrapolates the exploitation of women to its ultimate end. Giti Chandra’s ‘The Goddess Project’ imagines android goddesses created (or perhaps summoned) to fight back against such oppression. In ‘We Were Never Here’ by Nur Nasreen Ibrahim the women just up and leave (although the only sf element of that one seems to be that it posits ninth and tenth waves of future feminism, without explaining what they are).

Despite the serious intent, it’s far from a humourless book. ‘The Man Who Turned into Gandhi’ by Shovon Chowdhury is the quirky story of a chap who loses his hair and teeth, becomes ambidextrous and can no longer eat chicken or wear clothes. Transformed into Gandhi, he finds out how the hero of the independence movement might be treated if he reappeared now, and delivers lengthy lectures to his wife. ‘You used to talk very little,’ she says. ‘It was one of your few good points.’

‘Dreaming of the Cool Green River’ by Priya Sarukkai Chabria is another satire, and a highlight of the book, introducing us to the Chief Sanitizing Archivist, who in theory collects Objectionable Art and Ideas so as not to offend HurtMobs, but in fact is creating copies so that she can sell the originals.

The New Horizons bit of the title has been added for UK publication, perhaps to stress that these are mostly new stories. For me it was almost all new horizons: the only name I recognised was Vandana Singh, who contributes the flowery final story, ‘Reunion’. I must have missed Anil Menon back in Interzone #216, but his story here is a good one: ‘Shit Flower’ concerns a ‘computational immunologist’ who taught sewage control computers to understand jokes as a security precaution. Surprisingly moving, given its faecal subject matter.

That the anthology was originally produced for an Indian audience is perhaps reflected in the absence of a glossary for untranslated words and phrases. This can be a bit frustrating when they are crucial to understanding the story, but Google was usually able to help.

New Horizons is an entertaining book that offers a generous selection of locations, viewpoints, issues and styles. Don’t expect the censorship of Bollywood films: these address adult themes in an adult world. It does a lot of different things and it tends to do them very well; this review could only fail to encompass them all. This anthology feels like a labour of love, and with respect to Manjula Padmanabhan, readers should find it stimulating rather than at all irritating.

Note that this review was written in January 2020, based on an advance review copy, and originally appeared in Interzone #286. The book's UK publication was then postponed to 2021. Any changes made to the book during the intervening time won't be reflected in the review.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Tomorrow, When I Was Young, by Julie Travis (Eibonvale Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

I’m often a bit nervous to read books by writers I know, because no matter much I like them, I’m still going to rate their books honestly. I needn’t have worried: this chapbook was terrific. Zanders, a woman who in the present was suffering from the physical injuries left by domestic abuse, has now awoken in the past, on a ship called The Giantess, with the mysterious and rather romantic figure of The Golden Sea Captain, and gains a kind of peace through adventure. Highly recommended. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Glork Patrol, Thorgal, Doctor Who and other reviews in brief

Brief reviews of the books I finished reading this month. Creators, publishers, etc as per Goodreads; apologies to anyone left out.

Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, Vol. 9, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (Marvel): Stan and Jack not at their best in this one. The saga of the new house was particularly silly. The Thing as a gladiator on a gangster planet was also fairly daft. ***

The Fourth Power #1: Supramental, Juan Giménez (Humanoids): Graphic novel from Humanoids. Beautiful art, with a story I didn't follow at all till I read the book's description on Comixology. Basically, Earth's been egging on a war, so some of the locals fuse four attractive women into a rather less attractive (but equally buxom) psychic weapon. ***

Rumble, Vol. 1: What Color of Darkness, John Arcudi and James Harren (Image Comics): Good graphic novel by a writer, artist and colourist who all worked on BPRD, and quite a close cousin to that book. A great warrior comes back as a scarecrow, to fight monsters for whom I felt quite sorry, since they were the survivors of a war waged to clear the Earth for us. ***

Thorgal, Vol. 2: The Three Elders of Aran, Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme (Cinebook): Two albums in one. Wish I'd bought the French versions (the English ones are censored and in a different order), but these stories were still enjoyable. Quite old-fashioned, beautifully drawn, in a pick'n'mix world where anything goes, from goblins to UFOs. ***

Babylon Berlin, Arne Jysch and Volker Kutscher (Titan): Very good hard-boiled graphic novel from Hard Case Crime, about a detective in 1930s Berlin. Hoping to wangle a permanent transfer to the homicide division, he plays his cards too close to his chest and gets into a spot of bother. Adapted by Arne Jysch, whose art is excellent. ****

Homeland, Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber): A family takes their Cherokee great-grandma on a road-trip to where she grew up, but it's changed beyond recognition. It's all told from the point of view of a child, Gloria, who is tasked by her great-grandma with remembering everything; the story is one way of keeping that promise. ****

Thorgal, Vol. 3: Beyond the Shadows, Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme (Cinebook Ltd): Best yet of the Cinebook volumes, this includes two linked stories, Beyond the Shadows and The Fall of Brek Zarith, where Thorgal goes on a quest to the underworld and beyond to find his missing wife and child. Gorgeous art, ideal for panel by panel reading on a nice bright screen. ****

Zikora, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Amazon Original Stories): Excellent story, with more character in thirty-five pages than some books do in five hundred, about a woman going through childbirth while thinking about the women in her life and the men who let them (and her) down. I felt much less sympathetic towards her after she had the baby boy circumcised, as if she were punishing him for other men's failures – no wonder he wouldn't stop crying! – but that was all part of what made it so interesting to read. *****

Valentine, Vol. 1, Vanyda (Europe Comics): Sweet, well-observed story about a French teenager who has a group of friends, but not a true best friend, and the leader of the group isn't very nice. It's good, but ends oddly, perhaps because it was originally the first half of a longer black and white book, Celle que je ne suis pas. ***

The Caduca, Elaine Graham-Leigh (The Conrad Press): The first prose novel I finished this year, a political science fiction thriller. I loved it – and not only because TQF gets a nod in the acknowledgments! Review (with appropriate disclaimers regarding my obvious bias) to follow in a future issue of TQF.

The Problem with Men: When is International Men's Day? (And Why it Matters), Richard Herring (Sphere): A funny little book about how he tried for a decade to reply to the hundreds of men who ask the same daft question every International Women's Day: when is it International Men's Day? I might have to buy the audiobook too, just to hear those pathetic, whiny tweets read out loud. It's not perfect: the title's a bit grand for a book with such a narrow focus; the ebook footnotes are confusing; it uses the word gender in some places where sex would make more sense; and it's slightly misleading to say no one gets mad about International Men's Day. Also, I don't think Bill Burr was at all wrong to be suspicious of the inauthenticity of many self-described male feminists. They frequently turn out to be actively sexist and anti-feminist, enthusiastic proponents (and consumers) of prostitution, pornography and paid surrogacy. But it's good. Its biggest strengths are (a) being funny and (b) setting out a vision for what International Men's Day could be about: praising positive male role models, checking in with friends, helping those who need it. A day where we put our energy into being the best men we can be. ***

Thorgal, Vol. 4: The Archers, Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme (Cinebook): Two stories that take place after Thorgal sails off in his little boat and loses it. Left behind on the island, his wife and child have to deal with a supernatural green-haired boy, while Thorgal enters an archery contest to win money for a new boat. Very good, apart from the shocking way Thorgal treats new character Kriss de Valnor. ****

Thorgal, Vol. 5: The Land of Qa, Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme (Cinebook): Another two connected Thorgal stories, both drawn with astonishing detail but censored by the British publisher for the sake of "our more sensitive readers". Thorgal is coerced into a mission by Kriss de Valnor, angrier than ever after the way he treated her in the previous book, while his son gets to meet his grandad from space. ****

Thorgal, Vol. 6: The City of the Lost God, Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme (Cinebook): Another pair of censored but brilliantly-drawn stories conclude Thorgal's mission to bloodthirsty Mayaxatl, and then take him back to Xinjin, where his son Jolan has been installed as a god. Not entirely original, but all the wildly disparate elements are patched together nicely. I have mixed feelings about the censorship. I probably like the books better for them being a bit less exploitative of women's bodies. I might have suggested the same changes myself, if editing the original books. But I'd still rather read the real version and judge that. ****

The Worlds of Thorgal: Louve #1: Raïssa, Yann and Roman Surzhenko (Le Lombard): A spin-off for Thorgal's daughter, Louve, who was still in the planning stages in the last Thorgal book I read. After fighting local boys, she befriends a wolf who was banished from her pack. Different creators, same feel, lots of talking to animals, gets weirder as it goes on. ***

Orion's Outcasts, Vol. 2, Éric Corbeyran and Jorge Miguel (Humanoids): Based on the work of French sf writer Julia Verlanger, this is about Rebecca, an sf hero trying to escape a barbarian world so that she can save its people – despite all their efforts to kill her. Not as good as the first book, and it felt a bit rushed, but it had its moments. ***

Oblivion Song, Vol. 2, Robert Kirkman, Lorenzo De Felici, Annalisa Leoni (Image Comics): Second part of Oblivion Song takes us back and forth between the universes a few times without moving the story forward very far, though there's plenty of personal growth and lots of monster fighting. Like a lot of Robert Kirkman books, it ends very well. Nice art, great colours. ***

Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor, Vol. 1: Gaze of the Medusa, Gordon Rennie, Emma Beeby, Brian Williamson, Hi-Fi and Alice Zhang (Titan): Fairly good story for the fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, who tangle with some Greek myths and the woman who worships them. Catches the Doctor's character well and the likenesses are good, but far too many panels stretch across two pages, making it quite irritating to read onscreen. ***

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, H.P. Lovecraft and I.N.J. Culbard (SelfMadeHero): New edition of the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation by I.N.J. Culbard, published by SelfMade Hero. It's about a weird young man who goes too far in his quest for weird knowledge. Thought I'd read all of Lovecraft's stories, but this wasn't familiar at all. Review to follow in TQF70.

Criminal, Vol. 1: Coward, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Val Staples (Image): A very good crime story. A pickpocket and occasional bankrobber is persuaded to work a dangerous job, even though he knows something is up. Meanwhile he's trying to look after his mentor, his dad's partner-in-crime, who is suffering from dementia and sexually assaulting his nurses. ****

Exorsisters, Vol. 1, Ian Boothby, Gisèle Lagacé and Pete Pantazis (Image Comics): Two twins (sort of) help people get their souls back from hell, while their mum gets involved in something shadier. It is just getting started by the end, but so far I liked the characters more than I enjoyed the story they were in. They're a bit like Maggie and Hopey crossed with John Constantine. ***

The Power of Negative Thinking, Oliver Burkeman (BBC Digital Audio): Oliver Burkeman always seems so wise and sensible on Twitter and in his Guardian columns, so I got this from Audible and it didn't disappoint. Worrying about whether you can do things better and fretting about what could go wrong can be very useful, properly channelled. ****

Nailbiter, Vol. 1: There Will Be Blood, Joshua Williamson, Mike Henderson, Adam Guzowski and John J. Hill (Image Comics): A town has produced 16 serial killers, each with their own gimmick. A guy who thinks he's figured it out goes missing so his pal stays in town to investigate. The mysteries are interesting and there are some good twists, but there was too much actual nailbiting for my comfort. ***

By The Numbers, Vol. 2: The Road to Cao Bang, Laurent Rullier and Stanislas (Humanoids): A sad story about a young accountant up to no good in Saigon during the dying days of French colonial rule. He falls in love with a woman who loves gambling much more than him. Unusual subject matter for a comic, but I thought it was well-handled. I found the art very appealing. ****

Black History In Its Own Words, Ron Wimberly (Image): Thirty-nine Facebook-friendly portraits of black cultural figures and their words. Not a substantial or always reliable read but the portraits are pretty good. Wasn't sure what to make of Angela Davis's quote about radical meaning "grasping things at the root" being followed by one in praise of onanism… ***

Citizen Jack, Sam Humphries and Tommy Patterson (Image Comics): A sexist, slovenly, mendacious, corrupt man with no understanding of politics decides to run for president and finds that the worse he behaves, the more his public adores him. I don't know how comics creators come up with these crazy ideas! There's also a dolphin news anchor. ***

Doctor Who: Land of the Blind, Scott Gray, Dan Abnett, Lee Sullivan, Gareth Roberts, Nicholas Briggs, Martin Geraghty, David A. Roach, James Offredi, Kate Orman, Gary Russell, Barry Mitchell and Gary Gillatt (Panini): A treat of a book, with black and white retro adventures for the first five Doctors, often with television companions that weren't allowed to appear in the comics of their day. A self-aware commentary from the creators pre-empts criticism, e.g. as to the second Doctor's encounter with a "speculum". ****

Doctor Who: The Child of Time, Jonathan Morris, Martin Geraghty, Dan McDaid and others (Panini): Surprised to see I had this down as unfinished on Goodreads, but there was indeed a bookmark in it. No idea why I stopped reading it with 50 pages of story to go. Enjoyed finishing it off, but the commentary makes writing the strip sound like an utterly miserable experience. ***

Glork Patrol on the Bad Planet, James Kochalka (Top Shelf Productions): Another hilarious adventure for the Glorkian Warrior and his patrol, with a new publisher and at a shorter length. I loved the previous three books, even if they were aimed at children, and this one had me laughing out loud again with its glorious stupidity. ****

The Kamandi Challenge, Tom King, Peter J. Tomasi, Neal Adams, Marguerite Bennett, Dan Jurgens, James Tynion IV, Jimmy Palmiotti, Dan DiDio, Dan Abnett, Paul Levitz, Gail Simone, Rob Williams, Greg Pak, Keith Giffen, Steve Orlando and Bill Willingham (DC Comics): Fairly enjoyable book that tries to recapture the wild creativity of Jack Kirby by getting a ton of top creators to run a relay race with one of his characters, the last boy left alive in a planet of the apes, sharks, rats and robots. Pretty good, but the ending was a bit of a letdown. ***

Women & Power: A Manifesto, Mary Beard (Profile Books): Thought-provoking little book, discussing how "women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard". Also interesting when it talks about "the power of followers not just of leaders" and "women's right to be wrong, at least occasionally". ****

Monday, 25 January 2021

The Nostalgia That Never Was, by Rhys Hughes (Gloomy Seahorse Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

A collection of brief pieces (“apocryphal incidents and speculations”) related tangentially to famous figures, who are appearing as visions to Marco Polo. Wikipedia look-up on the Kindle came in handy. The framing device doesn’t really work, since the fragments are nearly always jokes and broken logics from the author’s point of view, rather than the famous figures themselves. It sometimes feels like a compilation of his social media posts. Amusing in places, but not my favourite of his books. ***

Monday, 18 January 2021

Star Wars: Dark Disciple, by Christie Golden (Lucas Books/Penguin Random House Audio)

Somebody, Please Kill Me.

(Note: spoilers abound.)

Dark Disciple is a suitably epic tale set amidst the Clone Wars (and based, apparently, on unmade scripts for the animated series). It lays the thematic groundwork for Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the Dark Side. It eschews multiple storylines and tedious politics and concentrates instead on space opera Jedi action. Golden does so much right.

And yet…

The story begins with the Jedi Council, prompted by the ever-bullish Mace Windu, determining that Count Dooku must die. They cannot capture him; ergo, he must be assassinated. The Jedi, in other words, will put everything they believe in aside to end the war. Quinlan Vos – a Jedi Master and expert in undercover work – is assigned the task, and with a view to completing the mission must first gain the trust of Asajj Ventress, Dooku’s erstwhile apprentice, who has turned against the Count and is now forging her way as a bounty hunter.

So far, so good. Vos hides his Jedi abilities and becomes Ventress’s partner. They work well together and Ventress turns out to have redeeming features. She’s not so steeped in the Dark Side as Vos was led to believe. Or rather, she is, but she isn’t controlled by it. Ventress is a Night Sister and her management of the Dark Side isn’t the wholesale abandonment that is so defining of the Sith. This is a key point in the story’s favour. The exploration of the Dark Side as something more subtle than merely the evil Hyde-side of the Force is what makes events plausible (at first). Vos and Ventress fall in love. Their relationship foreshadows that of Anakin and Padme. Narratively, all is well.

Until it isn’t.

In preparing Vos to survive an encounter with Dooku, Ventress has him summon an ancient creature from the swamps of her homeworld. Vos must control it by force of will and then kill it – an execution with no purpose other than to taste the Dark Side. Just as he must cast aside his Jedi ideals to assassinate Dooku, first he must show that he can tap into the Dark Side of the Force and not be consumed by it. He must harness its power but stay in control. In short, he must prepare himself to use evil with good motivation and be able to come back. Bravo! A compelling exploration of everything that fails to come through properly on-screen in the Prequel Trilogy. This is what we should have seen in Anakin’s fall.

Unfortunately, however, Golden becomes so focused on Ventress and Vos that she rather forgets about the central plot angle; that is, the assassination of Dooku. And no matter how sweeping the romance / sacrifice / “has he turned? is he faking?” take on Vos’s embracing of the Dark Side, none of it can work properly if the action makes no sense.

And in this case, it really, really doesn’t.

Cases in point:

1. Vos has been sent to assassinate Dooku. No duelling. No banter. Not dead or alive. Just dead. The whole point is that Dooku won’t be given a chance. Effectively, literally if possible, Vos is to shoot him in the back. Ventress knows this. She’s in on the plan. But what do they do? Vos and Ventress infiltrate one of Dooku’s functions. They undertake to separate Dooku from the protection of General Grievous. Yet, Dooku and Grievous are already separated. New plan: Ventress will announce herself, thus prompting Dooku to call for Grievous, whereupon Vos can waylay the general and then join Ventress against Dooku in exactly the kind of two-on-one lightsaber battle they were looking to avoid. Ventress, to attract Dooku’s attention, steps up behind him and whispers in his ear! She has her lightsaber. He hasn’t sensed her presence. Where’s the sizzle, hiss? That should be the smoking corpse end of the mission right there.

But it isn’t. This is incredibly clumsy plotting and it undermines the thematic heft. How can we explore questions of dark intent if the so-called assassination becomes just a contrived duel of honour? Sigh. Up until this moment I was really enjoying the book! But it doesn’t end there. Vos and Ventress are defeated. Vos is captured and taken away by Dooku to be tortured and turned to the Dark Side. Ventress gathers together a posse of bounty hunters and comes to rescue him. Vos has indeed turned. He resists Ventress. Indeed, he fights against her. Which brings us to…

2. Ventress lures Vos from Dooku’s stronghold. The bounty hunters are holding off Dooku’s droids. Dooku himself has been tangled up in a net. Instead of going with Ventress, Vos continues to fight. He frees Dooku from the net – and later claims that he did so to gain Dooku’s trust so that he could complete the mission of assassinating him! Holy cow. Now, there turns out to be a reason for Vos not killing Dooku there and then. (In essence, he really has turned.) But no-one on the Jedi Council calls him out over the inconsistency.

And so, the back-and-forth continues. Vos becomes Dooku’s right-hand man and new scourge of the war. Ventress, Obi-Wan and Anakin are tasked with a new assignment – to capture Vos and bring him back… or kill him. They infiltrate the ship they believe him to be commanding, but find Dooku instead. Vos, it transpires, is locked up in the ship’s dungeon, still being tortured. He hasn’t been turned after all! And so…

3. Ventress and Obi-Wan run off to liberate Vos, leaving Anakin alone to duel it out with Dooku. The logic here is astounding. What happened to the original mission of “Kill Dooku at any cost”? It’s three-on-one! They can dispose of Dooku together and then see to Vos. But no. Anakin is left by himself. Vos is rescued. Anakin reappears… and the others don’t even ask him what happened. The outcome of his fight with Dooku is never mentioned.

And this is the crux of the problem. Star Wars continuity demands that Dooku survive. The Dark Side plot demands that there always be someone to turn or tempt Vos. Golden has decided that Vos and Ventress’s thwarted love story is everything. Assassinating Dooku was imperative, and is the catalyst for the entire tragedy that Golden wants to explore, yet at every turn it proves an inconvenient hurdle. So much so, that…

4. To top off proceedings, there comes a final showdown. Dooku is badly injured – close to death, in fact. Ventress sacrifices herself to bring Vos back from the Dark Side. Obi-Wan and Anakin arrive and take custody of Dooku. They still don’t kill him. Instead, glossed over in Vos’s grief-stricken fugue, Dooku simply “escapes”. No detail. Not even an attempt to explain how the almost-dead Count gets away from two uninjured Jedi (one of them a Master) and half a clone army. Golden deems this unimportant.

But it’s not. The failure to do away with Dooku – or even to half-plausibly explain it; or even try to – is itself terminal to what the book is trying to achieve. Vos and Ventress should be tragic figures in the mould of Tristan and Isolde, but instead, because the realism isn’t there, they become ridiculous, as do the Jedi and, by association, the Star Wars universe more generally. To repeat: the elements are present. This book could have been a crowning moment in the written canon. Instead, the whole enterprise is just laughable.

(For those interested in such nuances, the Penguin Random House audiobook version rather exacerbates the sense of forced drama, playing out with lame sound effects and an overly emphatic musical score, not to mention Marc Thompson’s this is so powerful I’m describing everything as if– I’m– gritting my teeth and– fighting against– constipation style of delivery.)

Dark Disciple epitomises both what Star Wars does so well (action, adventure, grand sweeping SF mythology) and where it often falls down (romance and credibility, big moment characterisation). Rather than putting paid to Dooku, Golden instead sounds the death knell for my appreciation.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Vivarium | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Running in circles, digging for answers. And somebody’s watching, but who… or what?

In house number nine, an exhausted Gemma (Imogen Poots) sits on the floor. Clothes spin in the dryer behind her. In front of her, a boy (Senan Jennings) runs in circles and moves into and out of the frame. This seemingly benign scene encapsulates Vivarium, in which a young couple gets lured into a “forever home” in the community of Yonder. In this tract housing development, every home has the same design, the same mint shade of green, and the same fence and yard. And the perfectly spaced clouds are all shaped like… clouds. Gemma, her partner Tom (Jessie Eisenberg), and the odd nameless boy who comes to live with them are the only residents in Yonder. Most disturbing, every time Gemma and Tom try to get away, they end up back at number nine.    

Vivarium, directed by Lorcan Finnegan, brings to mind The Truman Show (1998). However, in this case, the guinea pigs are completely alone and the viewer is just as in the dark as the them. Questions accumulate: What is this place? How will this couple get out? Who (or what) is watching them? “Number nine is not a starter home,” says the awkward salesman (Jonathan Aris) who takes them on a tour. “This house is forever.”

Where this film succeeds is in its placement of an ordinary (perhaps even dull) couple in an extraordinary circumstance, as well as in its exploration of how each of the two protagonists chooses to pursue answers: Tom becomes obsessed with digging a hole in their front yard. Gemma focuses on the boy, whose adult voice, mimicry, and inhuman scream grow increasingly grating to his caretakers. More than once, Gemma tells the freakish boy, “I am not your mother.”

There are some Lost-like things happening, from cryptic television broadcasts to indecipherable symbols. In one especially unsettling scene, the boy imitates someone he claims to have met within the neighborhood. 

Both main actors offer performances that support the consequences of their situation. Poots’s resigned Gemma radiates the malaise that has taken over her life. Eisenberg, despite his reputation as a fast-talking comedy type, adequately portrays the deterioration of a normal guy – there are times when he appears downright menacing. Unfortunately, during a climactic scene, his performance wanes and end ups feeling mawkish. 

Vivarium might stand as an extended metaphor for the young couples who get stuck in parenthood and find themselves in a condition where nothing excites and nothing changes. “Do you remember the wind?” says one character. “The wind was great.” The circle theme resurfaces at the film’s conclusion, which conveys a nihilistic message.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday, 11 January 2021

Heads Will Roll, by Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

This Audible series is written by and stars the reliably hilarious Kate McKinnon and her sister, Emily Lynne. It is often very funny, like an 18-rated version of Radio 4’s Elvenquest, albeit without a studio audience. McKinnon plays Queen Mortuana of the Night Realm, a typical fairy tale evil queen, albeit with a foul mouth and a sex dungeon, who is warned by a soothsayer that a peasant rebellion is imminent. Lynne plays JoJo, a former princess cursed to live as a crow.

Meryl Streep, no less, is in it as the nation’s beloved actor, Catherine Staunch, who becomes a political rival as democracy starts to rear its beautiful head. As well as Peter Dinklage and Carol Kane, there are appearances from half the SNL cast, including Aidy Bryant, Heidi Gardner, Alex Moffat as romantic interest Odin, and Chris Redd as Lil Pelicayne, a prince cursed to live as a pelican. (He raps in character on Flap It Out, available as a free download from Audible.) The chaps from Queer Eye also make a fun appearance, giving Mortuana a makeover.

I hadn’t planned to review this audiobook, but when I found myself handselling it to one person after another online I realised (a) how enthusiastic I was about it and (b) that it might be somewhat quicker to tell you all about it at once in a review. It may not be astonishingly original, but it is a lot of fun, and a good deal of work has clearly gone into it. The only thing that gets a bit annoying is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song used as the theme song at the beginning of each episode, and that’s only because it’s a bit too loud. ****

Friday, 8 January 2021

The Beasts in the Arena, by Sophia McDougall (Gollancz) | review by Stephen Theaker

In a world where the Roman Empire lasted long enough to develop trains, an animal trainer is asked to provide a lion for a celebration of the new emperor. But the lion is dead, and it died on the day the old emperor died. The new emperor might see this as an unwelcome omen. As well as this enjoyable short story, the free ebook also includes a long extract from Romanitas, a novel set 250 years later, by which time the Empire has invented “longvision”, and expanded as far as India and Mexico. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 4 January 2021

Assassin’s Creed: Gold, by Anthony Del Col (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

Aliyah Khan owes her friend’s dad a lot of money. Well, she doesn’t really – he invested in her business and it failed – but she feels like she does. Her attempts to pay him back lead her into contact with the Assassins, who fight throughout history to protect freedom and counter Templar authoritarianism and tyranny. One of the ways they do this is by tapping into the DNA of suitable volunteers, to see if their ancestors came into contact with valuable artefacts and information.

Aliyah’s ancestor, Omar (played by Riz Ahmed), was blind, and thus she is told, “all you need to do is sit back and listen”. This makes these flashbacks ideal for an audio drama, though Omar does possess the magical “eagle vision” of the games, so he is still able to get involved with the action. Much of it involves Isaac Newton, played by Antony Head in the best tradition of historical celebrity guest stars.

This was originally announced as a podcast, but was released as a regular audiobook, albeit one made up of eight episodes of about thirty minutes each. A bit like the film, which I enjoyed more than most, it’s hard to understand why this bothered with a present-day story. In the games it makes sense to have a framing device to take the player into the past, but in a narrative like this it denies the protagonist any agency during large stretches of the story. Why not just tell the whole story in the past? Aaliyah’s frequent and anachronistic interjections just remind you that we’re listening to a replay. But I quite enjoyed it. Riz Ahmed is very good as Omar, and if he returns for a sequel it would probably earn my Audible token. ***

Friday, 1 January 2021

Abigail and the Snowman, by Roger Langridge (Kaboom!) | review by Stephen Theaker

When Abigail moves to a new school, the first friend she makes is an abominable snowman. Unfortunately he is being pursued by agents who want him back in captivity. This is a charming book, with smashing art by writer and artist Roger Langridge. The bumbling agents are basically Laurel and Hardy, which is fun, the monster is very sweet, and Abigail is a cool kid, who takes time to think about things, which I always love in a character. But she is, essentially, a nine-year-old girl sneaking an adult male into her bedroom and school, making it rather unsuitable for school libraries. Stephen Theaker ***