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