We Read Comics podcast

Radio Summerhall, which operates a small studio for podcasting from Edinburgh’s very splendid Summerhall arts hub, boasts We Read Comics among its show, a new monthly series of podcasts discussing comics and graphic novels. Jenny Mayhew, Martin Zeller-Jacques, John McShane and myself follow a book group style format, where we take it in turns to choose a graphic novel to read then discuss.

Jenny, Marty and myself (sadly John couldn’t make it this month) recorded the May show this week, discussing Archer Coe: the Thousand Natural Shocks, by Jamie S Rich and Dan Christensen, published by American Indy outfit Oni Press. It’s a very Noir-style tale of a masked stage hypnotist who also takes on extra work for rich clients. When a wealthy banker asks him to use his mental powers to help cure his wife of her sexual problems, it seems straightforward, but in true Noir fashion of course it is anything but, and our man soon finds himself lost in a conspiracy and potentially framed for murder. Everyone has a secret and he can trust no-one – including himself and his own memories.

Is he being set up or has he been acting like a split personality and committing acts he has no conscious awareness of? Why does Hope, the business man’s wife, seem to know him when he has never seen her before? And what’s with the talking cats (who warn him not to get involved, smart kitties!)? Warning, there are some possible slight spoilers during the discussion, although given the twisting nature of the narrative I doubt they will spoil anyone’s rading of the book. You can find the previous three episodes on Mixcloud and on the Radio Summerhall site here.

Rosewater Insurrection

Rosewater Insurrection,
Tade Thompson,
Orbit
Paperback, 375 pages

I’ve been recommending Tade Thompson’s first Rosewater novel since I first read it last autumn, and it went on to feature prominently on my annual Best of the Year list for 2018 books, so to say I have been looking forward to this second volume is something of an understatement. In fact when I read the original book I had no idea it was actually going to be a series – it felt very self-contained, in and of itself, although the world Thompson has conjured up was so rich I was very glad to learn he was going to explore it further. With Insurrection Tade has side-stepped the normal serial approach of most multi-volume SF&F, instead rather than lead simply and directly from the previous events he takes different angles here, some of which give another perspective on what we saw in the first book, others moving on the story.

Rather than following Kaaro from the first book, Insurrection follows several other characters, some we are familiar with from Rosewater, others new, prominent among them Eric (another intelligence operative and along with Kaaro the only psychic sensitive left alive), the mayor Jack Jacques (who chose his public name for PR purposes, a real politician!) and Aminat, a scientist and another S45 secret service operative, who is also the girlfriend of Kaaro (in some nice touches which help round out the emotional believability of the characters we see more of their relationship from Aminat’s perspective, and why they love each other, despite Kaaro’s many failings).

This multi-character perspective could be confusing in the wrong hands, but Thompson keeps a tight reign on his narrative and his different characters, each chapter labelled with the name of the person we are following in those pages. This allows for a much wider view of the events taking place in the second book, there’s a real sense of Thompson, having established the world of Rosewater in book one now opening it up. We see not only the ongoing potential threat from the alien presence in Rosewater (perhaps the most slow-motion alien invasion ever in SF?) but the personal lives of various people, from those working like Kaaro did in S45 to gangsters and the political elite (the two not being entirely separate, no-one will be shocked to hear).

The title may refer to the political insurrection, as Jacques attempts to proclaim Rosewater as an independent city-state, evoking a predictably aggressive response from the main Nigerian government. But it may also refer to a secretive society that moves behind the scenes (shades of the Illimunati and other such conspiracies) which Jacques is a part of (but not always following their hidden agenda, perhaps following his own), or even a schism between the lifeforms that have come from the alien presence in Rosewater, with different creatures who may have very different ideas of what they want from planet Earth (while the humans are tossed in the middle, many still unaware of what is really happening).

It’s a much wider-ranging story than the first Rosewater, but the solidity of that first book setting the scenery allows for this expansion, while the multiple character views give not only more angles on what is happening, they also often show conflicting ideas and agendas, reminding us that each person here has their own ideas and goals, and ways they are willing to try and achieve them, which makes them much more believable as characters.

The increase in the threat to humanity from the aliens is ratcheted up several levels here too, and between the Big Threat and the Personal Threats it’s a damned good mix for snaring the reader into this book, while, as with the first book, Thompson’s descriptive prose really gives you a feel for the sights, sounds and smells of this future Nigeria. Thompson builds on the promise of his debut novel brilliantly, clearly a talent to watch out for. I can’t wait for book three…

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading science fiction journal

Blossoms in Autumn

Blossoms in Autumn,
Zidrou, Aimée de Jongh,
Translated by Matt Madden,
SelfMadeHero

This collaboration between Belgian writer Zidrou and Dutch creator Aimée de Jongh touches on a subject we don’t see all too often – love in later life. We open with Mediterranea, a lady of mature years, dealing with something that sadly we all have to as we get older – losing loved ones to old age. She’s by her mother’s bedside as she passes, and within just a few pages the deeply emotional tone of Blossoms in Autumn is very apparent. Despite having just met this character and being introduced to her world I found myself very moved, my empathy stirred. It has been a slow decline over months before her mother breathed her last breath, and as anyone who has seen a loved family member fighting the inevitable will know, this unleashes a strange mix of emotions – your desire to have them continue to live battling with the feeling that this only leads to prolonged suffering, it is better for them if they just went now (and the guilt for thinking that way) – that pushes you into a bizarre feeling of unreality and disconnection from the everyday world around you.

So this is retirement? This empty feeling…

This scene cuts to Ulysses, a removal truck driver, carefully tidying his van for the last time – the firm he has worked for over decades is downsizing, and he has been given early retirement. For some this might be a gift, more time to enjoy life after work, but his wife Penelope (yes, Ulysses and Penelope, he has heard all the jokes) passed away some years before. Of their two children only one remains, a doctor, married but with no children of his own, so Ulysses doesn’t even have the option of playing doting grandfather to any grand-kids in his old age. Faced with an empty home and a forced retirement that isn’t his choice, he too is facing a moment of unwanted change, perhaps not quite the same as Mediterranea’s loss of her mother, but still a huge, emotional wrench, bringing with it a form of loss and grief too.

Some word have a bite to them. They dart out from the middle of a sentence, like a viper from under a rock… and sink their fangs into your ankle a little deeper with every syllable.”

Mediterranea, still dazed from her mother’s passing, leaves the hospital to take the bus home, her brother’s words about her now being the oldest member of the family echoing in her head along with thoughts of her own age and mortality. De Jongh’s art perfectly captures that wretched dislocation you feel during grief, of trying to do something as mundane and everyday as get on the bus but your mind and spirit are a million miles from the body that goes through these routines, part of you almost unable to take in the fact that the regular world is still going on, the planet still turns, buses still run, people are getting on and off with their own lives to run, oblivious to the emotional bombshell which has just shattered you inside, while outside you still go through all the normal motions.

Aimée similarly crafts some beautifully-drawn scenes with Ulysses, trying to fill his now long, empty, lonely days. Sure there are little fun moments, like hanging with a regular group of fellow supporters of his small (and not very good) football team, cheering and booing, their faces going from triumph to anguish, the post-match drink and talk of how much better it was back in the day. But those are the exceptions and stand in contrast to most of his time, alone at home, or walking by himself in the park. The latter is subtly handled, the expressions and body language she gives to Ulysses passing two other older men chatting amiably on a park bench (why doesn’t he talk to people like that, join in?) or seeing parents playing with young children in the park speaking volumes.

Their paths cross in the waiting room of the local doctor’s office (his son’s office, in fact), and these two drifting souls start to chat, in the way you sometimes do to strangers, which leads Ulysses to decide he has nothing to lose and follow up by visiting Mediterranea at the business she inherited from her mother, a cheese shop. She is surprised but happy to see him again, and she enjoys his candour when he admits since meeting her in his son’s office he has walked past her shop several times already, trying to screw his courage to the sticking place before finally coming in. From this small beginning something rather wonderful begins to blossom, at a time of life when neither really expected any such thing.

There are a myriad of very fine touches throughout Autumn Blossoms, not least the superb translation work by Matt Madden. Translation, like editing, is often an almost invisible job – handled very well it is all to easy for the reader to forget that someone other than the writer and artist had a hand in the work they are reading. Good translation requires far more than a literal swapping of words from one language to another, it also requires the delicate interpretation by the translator of not just the words, but the meaning and style the original language writer is trying to convey, then writing something in English which will carry that meaning in as similar a fashion as possible. Madden’s translation work is quite excellent, carrying the deep emotional undertow of the book into English in an elegant and deeply satisfying manner.

Other lovely touches abound, such as Zidrou and de Jongh arranging crossover cuts from Mediterranea to Ulysses, like the opening scenes I described previously, slowly intertwining their lives, or later, once they are just starting to see each other he finds out that in her youth she was a model and even appeared in a famous magazine, naked. Ulysses finds a vintage copy of the magazine in an old shop, but when he gets home he finds himself troubled, his desire to see what Mediterranea looked like déshabillé in her youth fighting with a sense of unease, that it is unfair, perhaps almost cheating on the older Mediterranea to do so. This cross-cuts with Mediterranea herself, viewing her naked body in the mirror, musing on age, on how that pretty young model could now be in this older woman’s body. It’s a lovely bit of cross-cutting, and again it reinforces the intertwining of both of their stories into one, or the way another, happier change in their life is viewed through a change to a much softer pencilwork, almost sepia toned artwork.

There’s a lot more in this rich, deeply emotional and satisfying story, that handles romance but without ever being sugary or saccharine, instead remaining believable, and laced with some of that humour that just comes out of everyday life and situations in places. A beautiful, warm, joyful story, deftly handled by a writer, an artist and a translator at the top of their game.

The Hod King

The Hod King,
Josiah Bancroft,
Orbit Books,

(cover art by Leino)

I described the first of Bancroft’s remarkable Books of Babel series, Senlin Ascends, as “an engrossing, intoxicating delight”, back in 2017. Now into its third volume (of a projected four, I believe), I stand by that description. There can sometimes be a tendency for series to flag slightly in the middle volumes, but both this new third volume, The Hod King, and the previous tome, Arm of the Sphinx, have been, for my money, even better than the first book. I confess, I am smitten with this series, its main cast – poor rural headmaster turned reluctant adventurer Tom Senlin, his missing wife Marya, the irrepressible Voleta, the strong, determined Edith, the mighty yet surprisingly tender-hearted warrior Iren – and its astonishing setting, no less than the Tower of Babel itself, each massive round floor its own “ringdom”, the mysterious upper levels lost in clouds, the original builders and the maintainer – the Sphinx – now almost legend and myth.

Having encountered the mysterious Sphinx in the previous book and finding that person to be far from a myth, our reluctant adventurers are now sent forth on new business – Tom, having overcome his accidental drug addiction, is removed from his former crew and sent ahead to the ringdom of Pelphia, where the missing wife he has been seeking to find and rescue is now known to be living (married to a noble of the ringdom and apparently content, her old life and husband forgotten). He has strict instructions to carry out business as a spy for the Sphinx, although it is made clear to him his personal goal of communicating with his wife, to see if she is truly happy in her new life or wishes to be spirited away, will be supported later by the Sphinx. Naturally Tom gets himself into all sorts of trouble fairly early on – we would expect no less! The question arises, however, when he goes off-mission, is he really breaking the Sphinx’s commandments, or is he merely doing exactly what the Sphinx expected and planned for him to do?

The rest of the crew returns to airship life, although not their tatty old ship, but the fully updated and restored flagship of the Sphinx, the State of the Art (I did wonder if that was a nod to Iain Banks?), with Edith, now fitted with a new “engine” by the Sphinx (a mechanical arm, making her one of the Sphinx’s “Wakemen”, a group of augmented beings spread through the ringdoms and, nominally at least, agents of the Sphinx), becoming captain, much to the approval of the rest of the group. They are to tour the ringdoms, to show off the gleaming, powerful ship as a form of diplomatic gun-boating (behold the power of the Sphinx) and they are to dock at Pelphia, where Voleta will be passed off as an aristocratic lady to this pompous society, in an attempt to contact Marya while also obtaining items the Sphinx requires.

Of course, no plans survive contact with the enemy, and it isn’t long before both strands of this two-pronged tale, Tom’s trials and Edith with the airship crew, start to unravel, forcing them to adapt to often brutal changes or perish. And then, behind the scenes – almost literally, in access shafts and trails hidden behind the walls of the ringdoms – there is another plot brewing, Luc Marat and his army of zealot Hods we encountered in book two have more going on than anyone, even the Sphinx, suspected, and who is the Hod King they acclaim in secret, away from the free people of the ringdoms? There’s a real sense of a mighty storm brewing here, of conflicting forces that have been hidden for many years about to erupt, which may dictate the future of all the people in all of the ringdoms of the Tower, or even, perhaps, if there will still be a Tower…

They’ll say no, no, no, women are weak. They’re foolish. They need looking after and direction. But I think deep down they can’t forget they came out of a woman, were nursed by a woman, and had their little minds sculpted by one as well. When they grow up, just the thought if it makes them uneasy. But rather than face their fear, they look for ways to dominate and possess us, to create proof we are weak and they are strong. I’ll tell you this: the harder a man brags about his thunderous escapades in the lady’s boudoir, the more frightened he is...”

This growing urgency in the narrative goes hand in hand with strong development and growth of the main characters (the huge, powerful warrior woman Iren is especially nicely handled), in a way I found most satisfying. As with the first two volume though, the intriguing characters (who I have totally fallen for) and increasingly complex conspiracies and plots, while a delight, are only a part of the pleasure of Bancroft’s writing – his way with words, his assured, lyrical descriptive passages (he was a poet before he was a novelist, and it shows in his beautiful way with words), and the mischievous sense of humour, and some nice gender moments (he has some very formidable female characters, often far more capable than the men, as the themselves note), all combine to make this one of the best forms of books – the type you can totally lose yourself in.

This review was originally penned for The Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction

The first of the Books of Babel, Senlin Ascends, is reviewed here, and the second volume (Arm of the Sphinx), is reviewed here on the blog.

Thin Air

Thin Air,
Richard Morgan,
Gollancz

Welcome to Mars, soak.

For the first time in several years, and the first time since the well-received Netflix adaptation of his debut Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan returns to science fiction and, I am glad to report, delivers everything a Morgan fan could want. Since that powerhouse debut years back Morgan has enjoyed – relished, in fact – bringing a Hammett or Chandler-esque Noir quality to his science fiction, and with Hakan Veil, a disgraced former gene-tweaked deadly enforced for a mega corporation, dumped on the Martian colony and making a living anyway he can, he continues that tradition, mixed rather interestingly with elements of the classic Western in this High Frontier colony, but also suffused with a burningly angry take on unchecked market forces and runaway corporate capitalism, the vast inequalities it creates, the needless, grinding poverty and anger, and those who exploit it, on all sides of the political spectrum, from the holier than thou supposed revolutionaries to the oily “man of the people” governor in his superbling mansion (with more than a passing comparison to several contemporary politicians of our troubled times).

The details of the everyday life and troubles, from the disgruntled and often corrupt (some more so than others) cops and politicians in the vast colony city in the great trench of the Valles Marineris (crudely referred to by locals as “The Gash”) and gangs to the everyday colonists – many of whom, being several generations into Mars life, don’t see themselves as a colony any longer, they see themselves as Martians, and bridle at the oversight by Earth authorities (a fact played on by various political operators on Mars). And with an oversight committee coming into town from Earth, feelings are running high – some see it as an overdue accounting to hold the corrupt governor and local authorities to rights, others see it as outside influence in Martian affairs. And some suspect there is far more going on in the shadows than a simple audit and rooting out of corruption (shades of the current corruption crackdown in China), that there may be deeper, more sinister motivations behind the entire enterprise.

Freshly sprung from Bradbury police’s jail, police officer Nikki reluctantly hires Hakan, still “running hot” (his genetic tweaks include a hibernation cycle, from which he awakens sharp and ready for violence, a handy thing for his former employer who may have had him on ice on a ship sent out for months to intercept another ship and needed their people to come awake instantly and at full tilt), to be a minder to a junior member of the Earth oversight committee, Madekwe. She seems curiously compelled to investigate a minor missing persons case from several years before, out on the much rougher uplands (think the Wild West of Mars, complete with a Marshall service trying to maintain a rough law and order), and Hakan, while agreeing to take the job on, is left wondering what she is really looking for.

To discuss the plot any further would lead to spoilers, and besides, as with Raymond Chandler, the plot, which satisfyingly twists and loops around in conspiracies, political and economic intrigues and sheer bloody violence and double-crosses, is only part of the enjoyment here, much of the satisfaction also comes from the way Morgan tells the story. Like Chandler he has a gift for descriptive flair which manages to be both hard-boiled yet elegant and evocative. As with most of his previous works Morgan delivers some remarkable – and often very violent and bloody – action scenes, and yet this is no mere action-thriller, even the violence has a subtextual layer to it, from the political to the personal levels. And the view of life in the colony for the many is no mere adornment for background colour, there’s a feeling of authenticity, of a real community, of real people struggling to get by, and great empathy for the situation created by those at the top of the heap, over which the many have little control, despite the illusion of elections, and they all know it.

Despite the length this is a tight, fast-paced, high-octane read, with intelligent use of action mixed with some fine science fiction elements, adorned with colourful clothes from the Noir and Western genres for added atmosphere, unafraid to offer us main characters who are not heroic and commit questionable (or downright awful) acts, and yet beneath the powerful action segments, beneath the science fiction of a future Mars and genetically enhanced trained corporate killers, as with most of Morgan’s work it is about fallible, flawed people in a bad situation, trying to get through situations they didn’t ask for.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction

Red Moon

Red Mars,
Kim Stanley Robinson,
Orbit Books

(cover design by Lauren Panepinto, art by Arcangel Images)

I’ll confess right away to being biased here: I think Kim Stanley Robinson is one of our consistently most thought-provoking and intelligent science fiction writers we have working today, and any new work from his pen is most welcome. In Red Moon we’re roughly three decades into the future, with well-established Moon bases – numerous nations have a presence, from Brazil to Britain, the Americans, the Russians, but the biggest player by a Lunar mile is China. Robinson imagine the vast monetary surpluses China already has today, much of which is invested in gigantic infrastructure projects, and plays that out on the astronomical scale with huge investment in colonising and exploiting the Moon. Among the various nation states there are also freebooting prospectors, 49ers in spacesuits and Lunar rovers and a form of free town, a domed settlement run on co-operative lines where the architecture takes advantage of the lower gravity (humans leaping and swinging from structure to structure like orang-utans).

American Fred Fredericks works for a Swiss technology firm, tasked with taking a special communications device to a customer, a senior Chinese official on the Moon. The device is quantum-entangled, it will only talk to its paired device back on Earth and is pretty much un-hackable. On the shuttle to the Lunar surface Fred meets a fellow traveller Robinson fans will remember fondly from Antarctica, Ta Shu, now quite elderly but still up for exploring a new destination for his much-loved travel shows. Ta Shu takes a shine to the awkward Fred (who is better with systems than people, it’s hinted that perhaps he is on the Spectrum), and when his young friend finds himself mixed up in a mysterious assassination of a Chinese official (which almost kills Fred as well), he does his best to help, which draws him into the orbit of Chan Qi, daughter of a high party official, who needs to get off the moon quickly after breaking the rules big time – she’s heavily pregnant.

Ta Shu, Fred and Chan Qi find themselves soon treading through a labyrinth of conflicting ideologies and movements, some local, grass-roots (Qi is involved with a people power movement across China), some internal party politics (leader succession time beckons and different groups want a different direction for China), and global conspiracies (America is even more in debt to China than it is today, but trying to compete and play the Great Game against a backdrop of economic chaos at home). It’s an incredibly rich stew of the political, economic and scientific, but as with his previous works Robinson is good at ensuring there is always a personal level here that isn’t overwhelmed by the events going on around the characters.

These are characters you come to love – the brave but brittle and testy Chan Qi, the awkward but trying his best Fred, and, for me most especially Ta Shu. There are some beautiful little emotional moments, such as Ta Shu meeting an old friend, who takes him to the best spot to watch the Earth Rise above the Lunar surface, after which the two old gentlemen, in the traditional, refined Chinese manner, each compose a poem for the moment. Fred forced into close contact with Qi for a long period on the run, has to deal with his problems in interacting with others, while Qi is slowly forced to realise that individual friendship is as important as the Great Cause she is fighting for.

Robinson, as he often does, uses his future fiction to address many of the ills of today’s world – the vast economic inequality (both individual and national level), the importance of equal rights for all, the problems of mass, illegal migration (although of a different type from what you may think), and weaves in an environmental aspect to it all. Red Moon also echoes his much earlier Antarctica novel (written after Robinson himself travelled there, part of a writer and artist’s programme by the National Science Foundation), not just in having Ta Shu, but also echoes its feel in some places, the Lunar colonies reminiscent of the scientific bases on Antarctica, the stark, barren beauty of the landscape also evoked by the Lunar surface. But at its heart this is less about the science or the politics but the people involved, and that is what makes it so compelling.

This review was originally penned for The Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction

Guantánamo Kid

Guantánamo Kid: The True Story of Mohammed El-Gharani
Jérôme Tubiana and Alexandre Franc
SelfMadeHero

Life in the insanely oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia may be great, if you are rich and male and Saudi. If you are a teenage Muslim boy from Chad, though, you’re part of the large underclass that carries out many of the day to day jobs that keep that rich country going, and you’re unlikely to even get into school (“is he Saudi? Oh, sorry, the school is full”), so your chances to try and improve yourself and so hopefully improve your lot in life are somewhat limited. And this is how we meet young Mohammed El-Gharani, hustling his day job on the baking hot streets, selling items to passing cars with his Pakistani pal Ali (names, as you can appreciate, have often been changed here to protect people), in-between chatting about what they can do to make things better for themselves.

Ali comments that Mohammed is good at learning languages, he could get better work if he learns English. Mohammed recalls an older friend who struggles to get competent workers to staff his small computer repair service, and how he’d like to try that, if he could learn (Franc shows this in a lovely, simple cartoon fashion – a sweltering, sweating Mohammed selling his wares under the blazing sun next to the dream version sitting at a desk indoors with air-conditioning as he works). Ali has a relative back in Pakistan who may be able to help – he teaches IT work and he can build his English lessons while he is there, they will be happy to put him up while he learns, before returning to Saudi.

It is a well-meant gesture from a good friend, trying to help his buddy, but it will change Mohammed’s life in a way neither could have imagined. Mohammed will find himself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, after a good start learning in Pakistan (after overcoming all the obstacles to get there – the Saudis less than helpful attitude to anyone not Saudi regarding travel papers, his own family’s reluctance, money), a nice, happy time for this young man, finally feeling that he is seeing something of the world and improving himself.

Until, one day, the security forces simply arrest a bunch of people coming from the local mosque. Of course, the fact that the CIA was paying several thousand dollars for each “terrorist” suspect they hand over in no way influenced the Pakistani security forces at all, honest…

Despite being fellow Muslims, the security personnel here treat him and others abominably, beating and torture are the norm, and this is just the start; this is before he is even handed over to American agents, and finally flown hooded and manacled to Camp X-Ray in the now infamous Guantánamo.

Mohammed is in a no-win situation here, nothing he can say or do will change the mind of the obsessed investigators and interrogators – they start by assuming he must be a seasoned terrorist, I mean, why else would he be here?

“We have files on you going right back to the early 1990s when you were part of a terror sleeper cell in London!”

Um, hold on, Mohammed replies, I am fourteen, and back then I had never been outside Saudi and would only be about six years of age.

You’d think at this point the Americans would realise they had just had any old person passed on to them for money, clearly this intel is totally wrong. How could a fourteen year old boy who had never left the country before have been an active terror cell member on a different continent when he was six? Naturally the US intelligence officers realise their mistake, apologise profusely to the young boy and send him home with a handsome amount of compensation.

No, of course they don’t. They just keep asking him how he knows Osama Bin Laden, when he was active in Afghanistan and subjecting him and the other inmates to a continual regime of the too hot or too cold treatment, no food, or very poor food, abuse, beatings, even petty acts like spitting on his Koran (I’m not fond of any religion, but treating someone’s holy book like that just horrible and pathetic).

Mohammed may only be a wee, skinny lad, but he doesn’t like bullies, and he finds ways to fight back, sometimes metaphorically – singing that annoys the guards, he and other inmates shouting together, “dirty” protests (shades of A Sense of Freedom, except Boyle actually was guilty), and sometimes literally fighting back, physically attacking the guards. You may think the latter just makes his life harder, but when you are innocent, railroaded and abused, I think it’s fair to say many of us would find any way we had of hitting back at our tormentors.

This isn’t all suffering though, despite the subject matter, Tubiana and Franc do a lot to give us an impression of a real person – a young boy, full of dreams for his life ahead of him – suddenly snatched away and plunged into a nightmare not of his own making, over which the only control he can summon is resistance. We see his bonding with some of the other inmates, many of whom clearly have a soft spot for such a youngster dragged into this wretched morass, and their support helps his morale, some teach him bits and pieces, while some of the marines guarding the prisoners are not happy about the situation either and try to perform small acts of kindness to inmates like Mohammed, knowing he is innocent. (The African American soldiers seem especially sympathetic, not least when they see the racist abuse some other soldiers heap on the prisoners).

There are even moments of humour – as some CIA agents grill him, shouting “you fucker!” at him, he notes “thanks to the lessons, I already knew some English words. The Americans taught me the F-word…”

Guantánamo Kid takes us through the years of this young boy incarcerated in the camp, his suffering, his learning of very hard lessons, but also some small, sweet moments of triumph that keep him and his fellows going when it feels like all the world has forgotten them. Importantly, we also follow Mohammed after he is cleared and released, and how despite being found innocent he’s left with the stigma of having been a Guantánamo prisoner following him around, as he tries to rebuild his life and again tries to think, just like when he was fourteen on the streets of Saudi, how to better his life.

The book includes a postscript in prose by Tubiana, where he relates meeting Mohammed and learning his story, and his current status as of 2018.

If Guantánamo Kid was a fictional narrative it would be compelling enough, but knowing this is based on real events, and real events that were inflicted on a child, a fourteen year old boy who had harmed no-one (and that he was continually harmed even after it was so evidently clear he wasn’t what they claimed he was even in their own faulty intel), it has a lot of power. Few things can ignite anger more than burning injustice and bullying, and levelling those at a child is a thousand times worse.

But despite all of that, as I said, there are moments of humour and lightness here too, there are moments that will make you smile, and many that will leave you furious with anger, and, dammit, you should be angry.

“It’s only a movie…” – Reel Love

Reel Love: the Complete Collection,
Owen Michael Johnson,
Unbound

I first heard of Owen Michael Johnson’s Reel Love project quite a while back when it became an Unbound project, looking for backers. Given it combined two of my favourite things in the whole world, comics and cinema, I joined the group of people backing the project. As with many of the best movies, Reel Love is arranged in three acts, each taking in a different part of our film-obsessed protagonist’s life, starting off with his very first memories of a trip to the cinema. This is before the massive multiplexes that dominate today, and as we follow the wide-eyed and nervous wee boy walking in with his dad, there will be a rush of nostalgia for many of us of a certain age – the heavy curtains that pull back to gain entrance, the ushers with the wee plastic torches.

Sadly it is not an auspicious start – the darkness, the noise, the special effects, they are all too much for a young boy, he gets more and more upset until, bawling his eyes out, his dad has to take him home. But the siren song of the cinema will not be denied, and he returns. And returns. An enjoyable day out starts to become a way of life then an obsession. Friendships develop, always seen through the lens of movie characters and stories, he grows older, his small town is boring, doesn’t look like there is anything much for him to look forward to as he gets older, but the movies are always there, an escape, and naturally he gets an old camera and tries to make his own.

After school comes getting a job and unsurprisingly he gets work in a nearby cinema – his favourite old fleapit of a cinema is on its last legs, the old man who runs it and knows him well from all his visits knows his time is limited in the face of the giant, new multi-screen multiplex cinemas and that’s where he gets his job. The total newbie, no real drive or qualifications or career path, like so many of us he falls into something he has a love for, but working in a multiplex isn’t quite the stepping stone into the film industry. He does make some new friends though – the “Monster Squad”, the late-night shift of other misfits around his own age, each of them with a strong obsession with cinema. He’s found his tribe and even finds first love among their number.

But nothing lasts forever, friends drift apart, each has their own life and has to move on at some point, to a new job, new town, college, and Johnson captures that odd mixture we’ve all been through growing up, friends you were so sure would be your best pals forever and ever, but life – your own and their lives – just gets in the way, things change; it can be exciting, but it is also scary, a feeling of being left behind, left alone, that you’ve somehow been a non-starter, and again the book captures that mix of emotions that growing up and change brings to all of our lives, again reflected through the prism of film. First loves leave, both people and places (there goes that first girlfriend, there goes that first cinema he loved so much). By the third act our protagonist is an adult, now lecturing about film in a small college, looking at his students, young, dreams of taking on the world and making their Great Film, while he has grown cynical and jaded, until a new student shoves his way into class.

There’s much to love here – the three acts, corresponding to a Three Ages of man is a good one, from wide-eyed youth to teen desperate for connections and a place and not knowing how to achieve those, to the adult looking back and wondering how did I get here in my life, what happened to those dreams of youth? These scenes are beautifully handled by Owen, they don’t shy away from embarrassing details (of the sorts of things we all probably did at some point growing up) but they are also depicted with sympathy, and they will echo with so many of us.

The flashbacks to the early cinema trips are a delight, and the way it shows how deeply some of those stories embed themselves into our minds, especially at a young age, will again chime for so many of us – watching the original Star Wars as a kid in the cinema is beautifully rendered, the glimpses of the action on the screen with the wide-eyed looks of wonder on the faces of the kids, the way lines from those movies becomes a part of your life; an early, important friendship and its later break-up is shown through Hobbit characters from Lord of the Rings. The film imagery bleeds into the everyday, which is as it is for a lot of us – the films we love, the books and comics we read, the music we listen to, they all embed themselves into our lives in both good and bad ways. Reel Love celebrates that through a mix of coming of age and dealing with grown up life, all embroidered by the stories, characters and imagery of cinema, from Star Wars to Bogie.

Best of the Year 2018

Time for my annual Best of the Year 2018 selection where I traditionally pick out some of my favourite books, comics/graphic novels and films of the year. I suspect they will not generate the interest they garnered back when I was posting them on the now sadly vanished Forbidden Planet Blog, but it’s something I’ve done for years so I thought why not continue?

Books

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs,
Steve Brusatte,
Macmillan

I’ve been fascinated by these magnificent creatures from millions of years ago since I was a very small boy, and I’ve never grown out of that fascination. Edinburgh University professor Brusatte gives a great overview of some of the amazing research and discoveries from the last few decades which have vastly increased out understanding of how these animals developed, how different types coped with changing environments and climates (of great interest to our own species given the climate change we’re causing), through to their decline and the legacy they left behind. This is all delivered in a wonderfully enthusiastic and open manner, and with Brusatte also including descriptions of his own personal expeditions and the others he has worked with it has a nice, warm, personal aspect to it too.

Arm of the Sphinx,
Josiah Bancroft,
Orbit Books

I thought Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends, the first of the Books of Babel was ““An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher.” In fact that quote from my review of the first book is on the back cover of this second volume, and it applies equally to this impressive sequel. The innocent abroad Senlin has been rapidly having to learn his way through the ringdoms of the tower as he is exposed to new challenges well beyond what he has been used to. Taking the moniker Tom Mudd he has commandeered an airship and with a small crew carries out some peculiar piracy to keep themselves going as he plans new – an increasingly dangerous and desperate – ways to ascend further and seek his missing wife. While the tensions are increased here and we see the toll they take on the characters, we also get to learn far more about the fascinating Tower and the multiple societies which inhabit it, all wrapped up in Bancroft’s utterly gorgeous prose. The full review can be read here.

The Labyrinth Index,
Charles Stross,
Orbit

The ninth entry in the excellent Laundry Files series, which sees an especially secret part of the Intelligence Services that deals with the unusual threats, from things that go bump in the night right up to incursions from adjacent dimensions of awakening, Lovecraftian dark gods. The last couple of volumes have changed the game for this series, with the service outed to the public (and government scrutiny) after a disaster that couldn’t be concealed, and a desperate better-the-devil-you-know move at the end of the last volume which saw a conspiracy to bring in a dark elder god which could lead to the end of humanity thwarted by making a deal with another – slightly more reasonable – dark god, who has now taken on a human mask and become the prime minister…

Just as it seems our real world is spiraling into ever great darkness and mad governments, so too here, as strange things are afoot in the USA, where the president hasn’t been seen for months, and most people don’t even remember the word “president”, while the Laundry’s counterparts in the US – the Nazgul, as they are termed, not affectionately – seem deeply involved, leading the new PM to dispatch a secret Laundry team to America. Part political satire, part spy thriller, part fantasy, laced with dark humour, the Laundry Files simply keeps becoming better and better. I am amazed Netflix hasn’t tried to make a series from these books yet.

Red Moon,
Kim Stanley Robinson,
Orbit

Robinson has been one of the most outstanding and thoughtful SF writers of the last couple of decades – his Mars trilogy is pretty much required reading at NASA. In this near future book we move back and forth from China to the Moon, now home to bases by many nations and freelance prospectors too, but mostly dominated by China which invests in the Moon the way they have invested in massive infrastructure projects back home.

A conspiracy between factions in China vying for leadership of the party coincides with a rising people power movement and international problems, with an American man and a Chinese woman thrown together as an odd couple buffeted by these titanic forces, and also sees the return of the wonderful Ta Shu from Robinson’s Antarctica novel. As with all of his books it is well researched (both the science and the possible government and economic models) but retains a warm interest in the people involved. Thoughtful and compelling.

Thin Air,
Richard Morgan,
Gollancz

I’ve been a huge fan of Morgan’s since I was sent an advanced copy of his debut Altered Carbon years ago, it was also the first book my long-running SF Book Group ever discussed. After a series of fantasy novels Morgan is back in hard-boiled SF with Thin Air, and Hakan Veil, a former corporate mercenary now eking out a living in Bradbury, the main Martian city. With the arrival of an Earth oversight committee politics, policing and the criminal network on Mars is put into a turmoil, with Hak hired by the police to supposedly babysit a junior member of the oversight team.

Of course nothing is as it seems here, and there are plans and counterplans from Earth, Mars and corporations which dominate the solar system, as well as more local-level shenanigans between police, crime gangs and politicians (the three are often closely connected). This is all driver by Morgan’s very Noir style, like a science fiction Raymond Chandler, with powerful action sequences and a labyrinth of conspiracies to navigate, layered with social commentary on the failure of politics, the inequality of wealth and the reach of giant corporations.

Finding Baba Yaga,
Jane Yolen,
Tor Books

The prolific Jane Yolen returns with an unusual entry in Tor’s very welcome series of SF&F short novellas, this time giving us a reworking of the ancient folklore of the Baba Yaga, told in poetical form in this brief but magical book. Natasha is a young girl fleeing a broken home; like many lost souls before her she enters the Deep Dark Woods, and there she encounters the chicken-legged house of the famous witch, the Baba Yaga.

Where a young boy might have been gobbled up by the Baba Yaga, the house seems to welcome the young girl, as it it had been waiting for her, the old witch herself, grumpy and yet seemingly accepting of Natasha. This is one of those stories that welcomes re-readings as there are multiple layers and possible meanings to be teased from it, from a parable about growing up, finding your way, being different to ruminating on the power of myth and folklore, this is one to get lost in. You can read my full review here.

Rosewater,
Tade Thompson,
Orbit

There are times when I get sent a book, the author is new to me and I know nothing of it other than what the blurb says on the press sheet, but I somehow just know it is going to be good, and I’ve learned to trust that instinct over the years. I got that vibe with Thompson’s Rosewater, winner of the first Nommo Award for speculative fiction in Africa. Set in a strange, circular town in a future Nigeria, which has sprung up around what seems to be an alien structure it follows a decidedly non-heroic (and yet very still likeable) lead character, a “sensitive” with psi powers who has a day job as part of a psionic firewall for a bank, but is really a reluctant member of the intelligence services.

The story weaves his tale of growing up with the increase in such sensitives and his own awareness of his growing ability, the alien artefact and combines them with elements of Nigerian social and folkloric norms and a beautifully described setting that practically has you tasting and smelling this strange African city. It’s refreshing to have Africa so beautifully used and described, and the setting and culture add hugely to the pleasure of reading Rosewater. A stunning debut, I can’t wait for the second book in 2019…

Dreadful Company,
Vivian Shaw,
Orbit Books

I loved the first of Shaw’s Greta Helsing books last year (in fact there’s a quote from my review of that on the cover of this volume), introducing the GP who ministers to an unusual patient group, the supernatural creatures of London, from pregnant ghouls to depressed vampires. This time Greta is taking a break to attend a conference in Paris, in the company of her elegant friend, the vampire Lord Ruthven, when she is kidnapped.

There follows a delightfully tense story as her friends attempt to find and rescue her, while the resourceful Greta makes her own attempts to rescue herself. Along the way the world of Greta is expanded, with new characters and creatures, and the book is layered with multiple references to earlier fiction from Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat to Leroux’s classic Phantom of the Opera, and even manages to reference The Prisoner! Compelling story, wonderful characters and a delightful sense of fun, this is a total pleasure to read. You can read the full review here.

Comics/Graphic Novels

The Best of Enemies:a History of US & Middle East Relations Volume 3,
Jean-Pierre Filiu, David B,
SelfMadeHero

Back in the summer of 2015 I heard Jean-Pierre Filiu, former French diplomat turned history lecturer, discuss the first two volumes of his collaboration with the brilliant David B (Epileptic) with their graphic history Best of Enemies. You could be forgiven for thinking three volumes of a history of the relationship between the America (right from early days of the Republic) and the Middle East may be dry, but this is anything but. Instead driven by Filiu’s extensive research, and in later sections drawing on his own experiences, and with David B’s astonishing artwork, this is a remarkable way to explore some of the pivotal events and relationships which have influenced the region, and in return, the politics of the entire globe; essential reading for trying to understand something of how our world has become the way it is. The full review is here

Out in the Open,
Javi Rey, adapted from the novel by Jesús Carrasco,
SelfMadeHero

I had the pleasure of chairing Javi at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the summer, where he explained that the Spanish publisher of Jesús Carrasco’s acclaimed Out in the Open approached him to adapt it into graphic novel form. Where Carrasco’s novel is noted for its beautiful prose, Javi takes a different approach, using very few works, making the artwork carry the story, and it does so quite magnificently, from vast, open desert landscapes (you can almost imagine an Ennio Morricone soundtrack to it) to more intimate scenes as we see a terrified young boy who has fled a useless, violent father and an abusive local sheriff. So much emotion is conveyed through the almost silent art panels, it is a truly remarkable read, powerful and emotional.

Tumult,
John Harris Dunning, Michael Kennedy,
SelfMadeHero

This was another book festival event for me, in fact John and Mikey were sharing the stage with Javi Rey and myself as we discussed their very fine graphic novels at the festival. Tumult is a gorgeous-looking work, which deftly mixes various elements – midlife crisis, the self-destructive urge, romance (of an unusual form), and the thriller, dealing with a film-maker dealing with where his life has gone to so far encountering an enigmatic woman who he has an affair with, but the next time he sees her she says she doesn’t know who he is.

Slowly we begin to realise that her body is home to several distinct personalities, and the woman he made love to was just one of them. There are hints of the old-school spy thriller too here – her multiple personality disorder may be in part due to a shadowy and supposedly defunct secret programme, and we can’t always be sure quite what is true and what is not. Dunning’s script and Kennedy’s art work perfectly together, using expression, inflection and colour to help give the impression of the distinctly different personalities manifesting themselves. A gripping, superb book and one of the best comics I’ve read all year.

The Inking Woman,
Edited by Nicola Streeten and Cath Tate,
Myriad Editions

In the year of #MeToo and a very welcome strong surge in artistic projects of all sorts by and about women, The Inking Woman made its bow from Myriad Editions (a treasure of an Indy publisher, one which really encourages and fosters new talent and celebrates different voices). Comics and cartooning have often, with some justification, been labelled a boy’s club, but The Inking Woman shines a light on and celebrates some 250 years of British women cartoonists, from Mary Darly in the late 1700s or Marie Duval in the Victorian era through to the Underground Comix of the 60s, the women of the 70s and 80s growing up in the era of Women’s Lib and powerful feminist voices, right through to the contemporary crop of exceptionally fine female creators we have in the UK right now (especially in the Indy comics scene). This is a reference work that should be read by anyone with an interest in UK comics and cartooning. It’s also often very funny, a celebration of some creators that will already be familiar to you and a good pointer to others whose work will be new to you.

The full review is here

It Don’t Come Easy,
Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian,
Drawn & Quarterly

I’m a long-time admirer of the Angouleme-winning Dupuy and Berberian (even reading some of their works in the original French, no meant feat given how rusty my French language skills are), and this volume collects several of the later Monsieur Jean albums into one large collection. The usual gang is all here but much older, and with the Real Life thing getting in the way just as it does for all of us – from living in each other’s pockets they are all still friends but with jobs, families of their own and even living in different cities, they don’t see each other as much as they did before.

The author Jean is still a ball of neuroses (as in earlier volumes still often illustrated in his unusual and often amusing dreams), despite having has success as a writer, a wife and a child (and old Felix who is almost a surrogate child as much as friend, and his son). The story moves from Paris to New York and takes in a lot of the ups and downs of life that we can all empathise with as we rejoin our old (and getting older!) friends, mixed with the trademark flights of fancy that have figured throughout the series. The full review is here

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies,
Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Jacob Phillips,
Image

When a new Brubaker and Phillips collaboration is announced I know I am going to be reading it – personally it doesn’t matter the subject, I’ll read anything Ed and Phillip create. This starts off seeming like a cross between Romeo and Juliet (the star-crossed lovers) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as we meet Ellie and Skip in the group therapy room of a rehab clinic, both clearly more interested in flirting with one another than the supposed remedy of the therapy.

As both are addicts we often can’t trust what they tell us about themselves – there is no godlike narrator here giving the reader the inside scoop, we pick up bits and pieces and can’t be certain which facts are true. It could have alienated the reader but instead it is used as a way of bringing us deeper into the character’s lives, and then there is the whole youthful rebellion aspect of it, which always has a certain doomed appeal. There’s a lot more going on as we move further into the tale, but to say anymore would be to risk spoilers, suffice to say this is a clever, engrossing and damned stylish tale. The full review is here

Modern Slorance: the Finland Issue,
Neil Slorance

I’m always happy when I have  new Neil Slorance work to read – I’ve been reading and reviewing his work for several years since first coming across some of his self-published works, and have a special fondness for his travel comics. Neil has a lovely knack of showing and exploring the new places he is visiting in a warm, open, often smile-inducing manner. Here he has won a trip to an art colony in Finland where he will be creating new work but also using it as a base to go and explore further afield, the cities, museums and as always in his travel works, the food (quite how Neil lost so much weight when he fills his comics travels with dining, I don’t know!). Unusually this one is in colour and Neil takes advantage of this to give his art an extra layer of expression. Lovely, warm, smile-inducing work.The full review is here

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees,
Olivier Kugler,
Myriad Editions / New Internationalist

Like the better-known Joe Sacco, Kugler practices a form of graphic journalism, although in a very different style. The refugee crisis has dominated headlines across Europe and further afield, and for every piece of proper reporting there seems to be ten baseless scare stories motivated purely by bigotry and xenophobia. What Kugler does so well here is to step back, still his own voice and instead do his best to give that voice to the refugees themselves.

What becomes clear in this book is the basic shared humanity of these people in a desperate plight. This isn’t the “horde” of “foreigners” that the likes of the hate-filled Mail shouts about, these are people, many of them had highly respected roles in their society – doctors, lawyers, architects, midwifes – and good homes for their families. All of which were ripped away just like that, home, loved ones, sometimes even most of their town just gone. It shows how horribly easy it is for even what seems like a stable society to be broken and produce refugees who rely on the help of their fellow humans. It puts a very human, individual face on people all too often vilified in the press and by certain politicians for their own ends, and reminds us how we are all of us vulnerable and may at some point rely on the kindness of strangers. The full review is here

Punk’s Not Dead,
David Barnett, Martin Simmonds,
Black Crown/IDW

Music, a supernatural threat and the ghost of Sid Vicious – how could I not read this?!?! Barnett and Simmonds bring us a troubled teen and his huckster single mother (putting on different fake personas to appear for money on reality shows), who encounters the ghost of the punk rocker Sid Vicious in, of all places, the bathroom in the airport (Sid, who no-one else can see, explains his mum dropped his ashes in the airport bringing his remains home from New York). There’s a peculiar, mis-matched buddy story here but allied to a rising tide of unusual, supernatural events happening in the UK and a very odd and possibly mad older woman (who used to have eternal youth until something went wrong) who works for a covert part of British Intelligence which covers the supernatural beat, and who is very interested in the musical spook…

Black Hammer Volume 3: Age of Doom Part One,
Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston,
Dark Horse

I’ve had Jeff Lemire down as one of the best talents to watch in comics since his early works like Essex County for Top Shelf years back. Since then he’s gone on to write and draw a range of works for both the big publishers and maintaining an impressive output of Indy works. With Black Hammer and the associated spin-off mini-series he and Ormston have created a hugely intriguing tale (a group of heroes who saved the world in one desperate battle but awoke to find themselves stuck in a small farming town they can’t leave and no idea how it happened) and then proceeded to layer this mystery, mining the rich legacy of decades of superhero comics, riffing deliciously on many golden age style heroes and plots but in a very contemporary way. It’s a gripping story with some terrific characters (playing with the older superhero tropes but also showing the human side of their lives) and a deep mystery, an absolutely fabulous series.

Film

The Shape of Water,
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

Ever since the highly unusual vampire tale Cronos many years back I have been following the work of Guillermo Del Toro and loving it, but with The Shape of Water (which swept many awards) he excelled himself. Del Toro has often mined folklore and the darker side of fairy tales for his stories; here he mixes that dark fairy tale magic with loving homages to earlier movie genres, notably the golden age musicals and a glorious, wonderfully odd romance, powered by the fabulous Sally Hawkins’s mute woman and the amphibian creature played by Del Toro regular, Doug Jones, who again gives an amazing performance, he’s an incredible physical actor. Simply a gorgeous film.

BlackKklansman,
Directed by Spike Lee

Playing with some actual events but highly fictionalised, Lee’s latest takes the highly improbable scenario of a black detective in the 1970s blags his way into joining the KKK over the phone, then has to persuade his white colleagues to back him up, with one having to pretend to be him in real life to join. In a period where most police were more worried about civil rights activists than white supremacist terrorism (still an area much of law enforcement tends to ignore in the US, despite the deaths they have caused).

It gives great scope for comedy and Lee does work in plenty of humour, contrasting with the far heavier subject of bigotry and racism, with a strong feeling of many being “woke” as they say. There are some very cool visuals – faces floating out of the darkness in an auditorium during a talk by an activist, a sense of individuals realising they have some knowledge and power, and a use of recent news footage which hammers the viewer with an inescapable brutality, linking the racism of the 70s to today.

Ghost Stories,
Directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson

Taking the anthology approach as made famous by 70s horrors like the Amicus Productions, Ghost Stories, adapted from Nyman and Dyson’s own stage play, has several supernatural tales linked by a professional debunker who normally disproves cases (such as supposed ghosts or fake psychics conning people), who is challenged by the man who had been his inspiration to try and disprove several cases he couldn’t.

The linked tales are all handled with an elegant less is more simplicity – traditional effects rather than CG (even the old fishing wire to move objects, which the actors said actually helped them on set), this establishes a growing sense of disturbing unease early on (a tale of a night watchmen in an old asylum) and it just gets creepier and creepier. I love a good horror but rarely find any today that genuinely give me chills – Ghost Stories even made the mundane location of a suburban house seem worryingly scary (you really, really don’t want the character to step out into the dark staircase landing). It’s just been added recently to Netflix, so if you missed it you can catch it on there.

Anna and the Apocalypse,
Directed by John McPhail

It’s horror! It’s comedy! It’s romance! It’s a zombie apocalypse! It’s a Christmas movie! It’s a musical! This was my last movie of the 2018 Edinburgh International Film Festival and it was sooo much fun the audience was clapping and joining in. Taking the mickey out of the American teen high school musical (but in a wee west coast Scotland school, complete with dancing dinner ladies) this takes The Usual Suspects like the pretty, talented one, her best friend (who is clearly in love with her), the silly one, the ditzy but lovable one, the jock who hides a better nature, gives them the last Christmas concert of their school life before they have to face the outside world, then drops in the zombie apocalypse. Enormous fun. My full review is here

Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out,
Directed by Bert Scholiers

Another of my film festival screenings from 2018, this was one of those movies I knew nothing about other than the short description in the film fest programme, but I just had a feeling about this Belgian flick, and there’s something great about discovering an unknown gem like this – that’s partly what film festivals are for, after all.

Shot mostly in black and white (apart from some brief, lurid colour) this is a charming, funny, eccentric film as Charlie and Hannah, two best friends, have a big night out and encounter increasingly surreal events, from Catherine the Great bumming a smoke in the garden of a party or a brothel where all the ladies of the night are famous literary figures, to full out fantasy sequences, this has the sort of magical charm of early Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Lisa the Fox Fairy. The full review is here

Saving Brinton,
Directed by Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne

Another Edinburgh Film Festival find for me, and in fact my favourite movie of the many I watched in 2018. A documentary about the Brinton Collection, a treasure trove of works from a turn of the 20th century showman and his wife who travelled the US but were based in a tiny Iowa town. Local resident Mike Zahs (looking like a genial cross between Santa Claus and Gandalf) has for decades preserved this material, which includes showbills, magic lantern slides and some incredibly early silent films. How early? Well as Mike himself said at the talk after the screening, the big names we think of as the stars of the silent era, the Chaplins, the Clara Bow’s etc, were children when these films were made.

After decades of struggling to interest a wider audience Mike finally gets local, then national, then international academics interested, and the collection gets the attention it requires and deserves, with excited scholars finding Mike has preserved works thought lost for a century. But it isn’t just about preserving this treasure of early cinema, the film is as much about the local community – Mike has shown some of these treasure for years in the local cinema (which, by the way, is now Guinness certified as the oldest continually running cinema in the world – not a cinema in Paris or London or New York but a wee farm town in Iowa, there is something pleasing about that). This is utterly charming and wonderful, a must-see for any of us who love cinema. My full review is here

The Labyrinth Index

The Labyrinth Index,
Charles Stross,
Orbit Books

The ninth entry in Charlie Stross’s fabulous Laundry Files arrives, and leads directly on from the events of The Nightmare Stacks and The Delirium Brief, which saw this most-secret branch of the old SOE, the intelligence service which deals with extra-normal threats (from vampires to unicorns – not as cuddly as they seem – to the increasingly likely Case Nightmare Green scenario which would see an unspeakable, Lovecraftian Elder God awakening and pushing into our world) exposed to the public after a cross-dimensional invasion of Britain reveals their existence. And then, worse, public scrutiny leads to meddling politicians interfering with the Laundry, neutering them just as a threat at the highest levels of government strikes, ending in a desperate deal choosing between the (slightly more approachable) lesser of two evils, leaving the British government now under The New Management – the Elder God N’yar Lat-Hotep is now the Prime Minister…

Now well into the reign of The New Management and his darkness summons Mhari Murphy to Downing Street. Despots are always hard to anticipate – underlings never know if they are still being favoured or summoned to be disciplined (and the new PM’s discipline includes planning a giant Mesoamerican temple to replace Admiralty Arch, all the better to show off the skulls of his enemies and those who have disappointed him (if you are lucky you will be dead by this point, if unlucky a still-living decapitated skulls), the old tradition of placing the heads of enemies of the regime on spikes taken to the max. In an impish move the PM has promoted Mhari to the Lords – creating her as “Baroness Karnstein”, a nice nice nod to her vampiric status. He has a special mission – in fact a pretty desperate, possibly one-way mission – for her and a small team in America.

It seems that while the UK – mostly unaware – has been slowly assimilated under the rule of a new Prime Minister who is just a human sock puppet for the Elder God, something else is going on in the US of A. Previous books had hinted at power struggles within the various agencies there which ran Laundry-style extra-normal intelligence services, and now it seems the main one, known to everyone else as the Nazgûl (which gives an idea of the sort of ethics they have) has pretty much cleared out agents of other services. But there’s something else – nobody has seen the President in weeks, not so much as a wave while boarding Marine One. And only those outside of the US have noticed this oddity, those in America not only haven’t noticed the absence of the President, they no longer even recall there was such a person or post. Somehow the entire nation has been enchanted into forgetting even the term “president”, and the PM sends Mhari and her small team covertly into the US to find out what is going on.

I’ve loved the Laundry Files since the beginning – they are an intoxicating mixture of spy thriller, supernatural horror and some wonderfully dark humour (you may be battling inter-dimensional dark gods but you are still in the Civil Service, so you need to fill out a Risk Assessment form and properly document any expenses claims). Over the preceding eight books Charlie has built up the world of the Laundry Files and its characters, and with the most recent few books there has been a strong sense of events spiralling ever more rapidly, the tempo is increasing, any victory may be short-lived, the darkness is spreading. It makes life hellish for our characters, but it makes the series ever-more engrossing for the readers. Covert espionage missions, power plays between different Dark Elder Gods coveted our world greedily, vampire agents, humans with special powers, Men In Black and even our old chums from the secret 666 RAF Squadron making an appearance again. As gripping as a hungry anaconda.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading science fiction journal

Aardman: An Epic Journey

Aardman, An Epic Journey, Taken One Frame at a Time,
Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with David Gritten
Simon & Schuster

Aardman Animation has, rightly in my opinion, become a national, and indeed international, treasure, a bastion of quality animation – most especially the fine art of stop-motion animation – all the while maintaining their warm, Indy, quirky, lovably eccentric British humour and sensibilities. Aardman, An Epic Journey follows the two founders, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, across more than forty years of history, and what a story it is – from schoolboy chums playing with a parent’s old cine camera, making simple animations on an old kitchen table to first early forays into television in the 1970s through to Creature Comforts, award-winning adverts that helped the young company thrive with a decent income through to BAFTA and Oscar glory and beyond to the contemporary internet era. All this from two young friends playing with an old camera and cut-out animation on a kitchen table…

The book is chronological, essentially a biography of David and Peter and Aardman itself, starting with their school friendship, a new hobby using an old camera, a home-made rostrum mount for it on a venerable kitchen table that was now surplus to requirements. What started as fun and experimentation rapidly becomes something more as the young lads find they can create their own animated shorts. In this they are hugely encouraged by their parents and others – encouragement and nurturing of talent will be a theme throughout this book, right from the start – and they are also inspired by various art books and some of those unusual children’s programmes of the early 70s, such as Vision On (a very visually-rich series aimed to cater for hearing-impaired kids).

(above and below, the book also comes with several pages of photos and illustrations from throughout Aardman’s forty-plus year history)

A family connection to the BBC and their home-made experiments gets them their first paying work with some brief animated snippets for Vision On, and then the follow-up, Take Hart. For the latter they would move away from their 2-D basic animations and start using a substance found in most children’s toy boxes, Plasticine. This time the idea wasn’t just for animated interludes but to have a character who could riff off the iconic Tony Hart, a foil to the much beloved art presenter. That wee Plasticine creation was, of course, Morph, and it would change not only the direction of their animation style but their entire career, the first of a number of Aardman characters who would become embedded in and beloved by popular culture.

The 1980s sees growth and the arrival of a young Nick Park, the arrival of Channel 4 (with a budget and remit to include more unusual works, including animation aimed at older viewers and not just for kids) and the huge expansion of well-funded advertising. Aardman had already crafted some interesting animation based around some free-range dialogue recorded by simply leaving a microphone at a homeless shelter, then working around the real-life dialogue, and this approach of using real-world, everyday people’s dialogue then building the animation around it found expression in Creature Comforts, the humans’ words now put into the mouths of animated zoo animals, to huge effect. Not only did this go down well and remain warmly regarded by many animation fans and inspire more advertisers to use Aardman (the ads being a great bread and butter income source for animators and artists between their film projects), it lead to an Academy Award nomination – and a win (amazingly A Grand Day Out was also in contention, so Nick both won and lost the same Oscar!). Aardman’s first Oscar and not their last…

As the 80s and 90s roll on Wallace and Gromit make their bow and soon become one of the studio’s most recognised and most adored set of characters (come one, who among us doesn’t love the humour, the craft that goes into those W&G films, the beautiful attention to detail, the multiple references to classic Brit films? How many of you are hearing the W&G theme music in your head just thinking about them?), feature films and co-operation with major US Hollywood studios like Dreamworks. This doesn’t always go smoothly – the smalller-scale, eccentric, people-driven Aardman style is very different from the big Hollywood system, and the book explores the ups and downs, although refreshingly there is no back-biting or snarky gossip here, just acknowledgement that the Hollywood studios and their approach didn’t really mesh with Aardman’s way of doing things, but also that those joint adventures taught them a lot about the business and helped Aardman.

Given the huge range of famous thesps who have lined up to voice an Aardman character it will not surprise you to learn the book also contains quotes from a number of famous actors about their time working with Aardman. Most, as Peter and David acknowledge freely (and almost gleefully) say their painstaking attention to details can drive actors up the wall and across the ceiling, requiring endless re-takes and re-recordings of slightly different voice techniques as the animators have a particular idea in mind to fit their characters, and they have to work the actors until they strike that note (also, as the duo admit, at first they simply were not used to directing actors). However this is all tongue in cheek – while I’m sure the endless re-takes for the voice talent does drive the actors mad, they all seem to understand that it is because of the perfectionism of the animators, and that the actual animation itself requires even more time and more excruciatingly painstaking work. And clearly they still all want to be a part of it.

There are lots of fascinating little sidebars to enjoy here too – those of you of a certain age will recognise some of the adverts Aardman made in the 80s and 90s and perhaps never knew it was their work (remember the animated skeleton advertising Scotch Video Tapes, “re-record, not fade away” or Douglas the wee man who came to life from a packet of Lurpak butter? All Aardman works). Or the fact that the Hawes Dairy in Yorkshire was struggling, until in Wallace and Gromit: a A Close Shave Wallace mentions Wensleydale, and the dairy finds demand soaring. Cheese-makers accidentally given a huge boost in sales by animated characters, there is something wonderfully Aardman about that, isn’t there? And I am sure Wallace and Gromit would approve.

(Above, the Aardman-created animated skeleton for Scotch Video Tape’s advert, below, another 80s boom for animators with the arrival of MTV demanding more visually interesting music videos, including the now iconic Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer video, shot in a remarkably short period of intense work and featuring among the crew very young Brothers Quay, now revered as giants of Brit animation)

I mentioned the encouragement very young Peter and David received right at the start of their animation experiments, even before they had made anything actually for sale. That becomes a theme running throughout this book, starting with the nurturing of teenage Peter and David’s interests and talents, then they in turn paying that forward, encouraging new animators like Nick Park and Golly, trying their best to make sure all their staff feel valued, encouraged, running mentoring schemes, becoming heavily involved in charity works, especially in their much-loved home-town of Bristol (even those Bristolians who aren’t animation fans love Aardman because they put back into their city and community).

This continues right up to the design of their latest HQ building and – as many of you may have read in the news just before the book came out – Peter and David, with one eye to how Aardman will run when they choose to retire, have put the shares for the company into a trust, effectively making all the Aardman staff shareholders of their own company, empowering the staff and rewarding them while also heading off any larger media company simply gobbling them up and changing them.

(above and below, the book has some lovely attention to detail, including these gorgeous end-papers, with original Wallace and Gromit sketches at the front and Shaun the Sheep at the back)

That note of encouragement and having fun is perhaps one of the nicest aspects of this book, perhaps even more so than the fascinating history of how this beloved company came into being and grew, of how its characters conquered our hearts. It gives this book a warm, smile-inducing quality, an utter delight, much like Aardman’s films themselves do. A lovely, open, friendly history of a great British film institution.

You can browse Aardman’s own YouTube Channel here.

Traces of the Great War

Traces of the Great War,
Image Comics

(cover artwork by Dave McKean)

In the approach to the 1914 centenary I was fortunate enough to be one of the contributors for To End All Wars, edited by Jonathan Clode and John Clark (aka the cartoonist Brick), a graphic anthology timed for the start of the centenary of the Great War. One of our aims was to tell stories from all sides, using an international group of writers and artists, to avoid the poison of jingoism, to instead go behind the horrible litany of statistics of casualties and tell stories about the actual people. If truth is indeed the first casualty of war then perhaps individuality is the second – too easy to lose those who endured those times in vast legions.

Seeing individual people, people like us, people we can recognise, empathise with, humanises those events at a level we can comprehend emotionally as well as intellectually, and in Traces of the Great War, which draws on an international array of writers and artists, and quite a diverse crew at that, from bestselling novelist Ian Rankin working with the excellent Sean Phillips to Juan Díaz Canales (co-creator of the magnificent Blacksad, for my money one of the finest comics creations of the last couple of decades) to the brilliant Dave McKean collaborating with the poet Simon Armitage, Mary and Bryan Talbot, I Kill Giants co-creators Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, to Marguerite Abouet (author of the wonderful Aya graphic novels) and Ergün Gündüz.

As with any anthology it always feels a bit unfair to single out some stories over others, but I can’t really go through every individual story here, and of course it is in the nature of collections that some elements will stand out to different readers, so not disrespect is intended to those I didn’t single out here – in truth I don’t think there was a weak link in this chain of tales, they all had something to commend them, and all took different aspects of that century ago war and the people who took part, and played them out with interesting hooks to capture the modern reader’s attention and take them not only back to that time, but to see how linked Then and Now actually are, that we today are all part of the same great tapestry that those earlier people were already woven onto, and to do so with much emotional honesty.

The collection starts with Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard’s “Without a Trace”, which manages the neat trick of being a century-later epilogue of sorts to the pair’s earlier WWI graphic novel White Death, but which can be read by anyone with no knowledge of that earlier work perfectly well. White Death dealt with one of the often overlooked arenas of this global devastation – the Italian-Austrian front in the Alps, where men had to combat the mighty peaks, snow and ice as well as the enemy shells and bullets. As with the better-known Western Front, even a hundred years on remains are still uncovered from time to time. In France and Belgium it is known as part of the “iron harvest” when the plough turns up old bullets, shell casings, helmets and often bodily remains of the fallen.

(Without a Trace, by Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard)

As with Flanders Fields so too in the remote, sublime beauty of the mountains; Morrison and Adlard have a carefree group of teens on an Alpine walk finding the remains of an Italian soldier of the Great War. Their shock quickly gives way to an all-too-modern reaction, the urge to take photos on their mobile phones. Their brief horror is replaced with larking about, until one youngster points out that this could have been their grandad’s father, that this was a person and that someone, somewhere was waiting for him to come home and never learned what happened to him or even had the small mercy of burying their fallen loved one. It’s short but packs in a huge emotional punch, and it’s a reminder of why, as we now move out of the range of living memory of those days, that each generation has to be taught about them.

Rif Reb takes an unlikely protagonist, a young punk anarchist in Paris, at a rich friend’s party, bored, escaping the crowd to explore the house’s library, finding (and stealing) a book of WWI poems written in a Haiku form, that speaks to this rebellious teen in a way the history books had not, leaving an indelible mark. Jean-David Morvan, Scie -Tronc and Hiroyuki Ooshima’s “Mines for the Miner” took the war under the tortured earth of the Western Front, with a young Welshman, a miner in civvy street like so many back then (most of those pits, like the war itself, are now history) finds himself once more pressed into digging dangerously below the land, but this time to “undermine” the enemy positions, a centuries old tactic used from the days of besieging castles before cannon existed, except here the miners and sappers would then leave an enormous explosive charge under the enemy lines.

(Unfathomable Imprints by Riff Reb)

My grandfather was a miner, severely injured by his time in the pits in the days when Health and Safety rules didn’t exist and working men were expendable cogs in the machine. This story captures that feeling of the civilian miner, a dirty, dangerous job that took so many of their lives, then adds in the complexity of war on top of it. Aurélien Ducoudray and Efa’s “Body to Body” sees an older Lady of the Night and a mutilated soldier in the bordello behind the lines, but instead of sex for sale the pair find some sort of comfort in comparing and explaining their respective war wounds, his bayonet scar, her Cesarean scar and so on. It’s a fascinating and unusual angle to take on emotional and physical trauma, drawn in a way that is intimate without being sexualised, despite the setting.

When did war become entertainment?

Ian Rankin is best known for his international best-selling crime novels, but he has penned a couple of comics before, and I know he is a voracious reader of comics, so I was interested in seeing what he did in collaboration with veteran comics artist Sean Phillips and Peter Doherty. The result, “War Games” (from whence the above quote comes from), has a man who lost his mother young, and was largely raised by his grandparents. After losing them and then his own father he has to perform that heart-breaking duty we all have to at some point – clearing out the belongings of a loved one who has gone, and in the process finds relics from his grandfather’s service in the Great War. Right away his memory takes him back to being a wee boy, out with his granddad, being taken to visit Edinburgh Castle, where his grandfather shows him a book of remembrance in the National War Memorial there, with the names of some of his old comrades. It didn’t mean much to the wee boy, as he says he remembered the ice-cream granddad bought him afterwards more vividly. But now he is a grown man with life experiences, he thinks back to what his grandfather was trying to tell him, to pass on to him a piece of living memory. He starts to explore this past, intertwined with his work running a modern-day computer games company, with perhaps a view to using some of the settings in a new video war game.

(War Games by Ian Rankin and Sean Phillips)

“War Games” works cleverly on several levels – there’s that reminder that the elderly, frail veteran you see was not always old, once he was young and strong, and he went through experiences that thankfully most of us today never will when he was that young man. It’s easy, especially with the cockiness of youth at times, to forget that older people were once our age, once younger. The story also works on that regret at not understanding that when young, when those people were still around. I’m sure I am not alone in wishing that I could, as an adult, speak again to old family members and family friends, to try and draw from them those stories to preserve them and pass them on. But we can’t go back; I was too young to ask and write down those stories before those I knew faded away and it is an eternal regret. I suspect many of us feel that way in later life. Of course, if you do get the luxury of exploring some of that past, it may lead you to down pathways you never thought it would, to see that now-gone loved one in a very different way – could that gentle old grandfather really once have shoved a bayonet into the body of another young man and twisted it? It’s a horrible thought, but we all have a past and for those who served that often means a past they couldn’t talk about, taking their stories with them to the tomb, lost to us forever.

Space doesn’t permit me to go into detail on every story, but before I conclude I have to make special mention of the collaboration between the great Dave McKean and the acclaimed poet Simon Armitage, with “Sea Sketch” and “Memorial”. November 2018 marked not only the centenary of the Armistice which ended the War to End All Wars (while sowing the bitter seeds of the next war), it also marked a hundred years since the war poet Wilfred Owen fell, only days before the Armistice. The poetry of Owen and others is one of the ways that we still experience the visceral, emotional impact of that war; those who served are now all gone from us, but their experiences, in their own words, are still with us. I’ve always thought poetry has a certain power that even the most lyrical prose can’t quite match; verse has an ability to engage with our higher thinking but also bypass it to deliver a shot directly into our emotional core, it can speak in metaphor and magic in a way that conjures feelings and imagery. With so many now revered pieces of poetry coming from that horrendous time it strikes me as very appropriate to involve one of our better contemporary poets, and putting him together with McKean is a touch of genius, the verse combined with Dave’s artwork has such strong, symbolic, raw, emotional power.

(Sea Sketch by Simon Armitage and Dave McKean)

The ranks of those who survived the slaughter of the War to End All Wars have thinned across the long decades, until finally the last veteran has departed to join his old comrades in whatever comes after this life. A full century has passed since the guns fell silent. But the echoes of those events still follow each generation down the decades – they shaped the events which came after them, which in turn shaped the events of the world our parents grew up in, that shaped our own and in turn will shape the world we pass on to the next generation. History is never truly about the past because history is never truly over, it’s all part of that same grand tapestry I mentioned earlier, and we are part of it, shaped by it and shaping it in turn.

It’s why it is important to understand those events and to comprehend their continuing influence on our own times. It’s important to remember that the Big Events of history were made by many people, all individuals, and we should not, cannot turn them into ranks of numbers and statistics but should recall them as people, like us, because many of them were us, they were our own families. And that simply we should always Remember. Traces of the Great War brings out that history but weaves it with the present, the consequences political, geographical, economic, that we still live with, but most of all it reminds us of the living, breathing people who once thought and dreamed and loved and were taken from us. But we Remember.

You can read my own story, Memorial to the Mothers, illustrated by Kate Charlesworth, from the earlier WWI collection To End All Wars, for free here on my blog.