Delightful chills in The Secret of Marrowbone

The Secret of Marrowbone,
Directed by Sergio G Sánchez,
Starring George MacKay, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Mia Goth, Matthew Stagg, Nicola Harrison

My first movie at the world’s longest continually running film festival, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and it is one I have been eagerly anticipating, arriving with some good word of mouth. It marks the directorial debut of Sergio G Sánchez, who also wrote the story; although this is his first time as a director many film-lovers will know his name from writing the likes of the superbly creepy The Orphanage.

Marrowbone itself is the name of an old, semi-derelict, sprawling house in an isolated rural part of America, the family home of the mother (Nicola Harrison). She returns here after decades away, bringing her young family, fleeing some horrible catastrophe which has left a trauma on them all, some terrible event way back across the ocean in Britian. She draws a line in the dusty floor and declares to all of them that when they cross it and join her they leave their past and memories behind, and even their family name, for now they will take the surname of their home estate and be the Marrowbones, starting a new life, a free life, a new beginning.

Brave words and at first it seems they are starting a new chapter, the youngsters coming out from that dark cloud, almost literally as Sánchez has them exploring the nearby countryside and beach in glorious summer sunlight, meeting Allie (the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch) at a skull-shaped rock where she is one of the few to get to know the withdrawn, secretive family, to become close to them. For a few scenes it seems they have turned that corner, playing with delight in the sun with their new friend, smiles, laughter.

But the family has run away from a terrible past and harbours a horrible secret, and the past never really releases us, no matter how we try to move on. Their mother knows she is dying and fears what will happen – Jack, her eldest, must reach his 21st birthday to claim his inheritance and to be legal guardian to his siblings. She makes him promise to always keep the family together, even though it means concealing her death until his birthday allows him to legally take over. He vows to keep his family together, but it is not going to be easy.

Their lawyer is suspicious of this family which rarely leaves their dilapidated home, keeps itself to itself, he is jealous too of Allie’s obvious attraction to Jack, and he wonders why their mother is always too ill to see him to sign important papers. He also hints ominously to Allie about the dark secret the family is running from, that their father was a monstrous figures who was eventually brought to justice back in Britain for his crimes but later escaped. Jack tells her he was indeed a monster, hence their flight to Marrowbone, to changing their name, trying to keep a low profile, but he also adds that their father is dead.

If he is dead, though, what are they hiding from? And what is the ghost that young Sam talks about hearing in the middle of the night. Why are all the mirrors in the home taken down and shoved into one room they never enter, save for a couple too large to move, instead covered up, including a huge one on the staircase, which seems to drop its dustcover by itself? What are those many noises? The soundscape here is exploited well, Sánchez mines the old, wooden country home location for maximum effect, every creaking floorboard, and sigh of wind through gaps in windows serves to immerse the viewer into the film, building layer upon tense layer, crafting an atmosphere of wrongness, a sense of something unnatural, disturbed.

Even when nothing obvious threatens the chill of fear and menace is palpable. And there are questions outside the family – their lawyer wonders why the mother is always too ill to see him, and he is increasingly jealous of the obvious love growing between Allie and Jack. He knows a little of their secret, but not all of it, there are layers here, to be excavated like an archaeological dig; the past does not let go with a simple act of starting again, but neither does it give up its secrets easily or quickly…

Sánchez avoids the cheap “jump scares” too many modern horror film-makers use to get a quick scare (I don’t count those as real scares, it’s just reflex, real scares are when they storyteller plants unsettling ideas right into your mind). Instead this film takes its time to patiently build that disturbing atmosphere, giving more hints at the secrets the family is hiding from, slowly cranking it up, trusting the viewers to invest into it until they too are permeated with that atmosphere and almost feel like they too are in that old, creaking house, slowly building to a climax, which I will not ruin here save to say it was, refreshingly, not what I expected and again show trust in the audience to interpret much themselves.

Sánchez and some of his young cast were at the festival screening last night, and he commented that he never set out to be a screenwriter (I am glad that he did though!), and that he and his regular film-making partner had been looking for something just like this to be his first directing gig, and what a wonderfully disturbing, chilling debut it is, moving from the sunny moments of friendship at the start (reminiscent of some old Enid Blyton tale of children’s adventures away from the adults) to the increasingly shadow-laden, creaking sound infested house and a feeling of the past closing like a noose around them and a secret that just cannot be contained. There is a timeless quality to the film, it feels like it could be set in 1860 as easily as the modern day for much of the running, until we see a 1960s wall calendar in one scene and 60s cars on a rare trip into the small town nearby.

Sánchez praised his young cast saying how lucky he was to have them for his debut, and indeed they were superb, despite their youth. It is a lot for such young actors to carry most of a film, but they do it so well, not least the youngest, wee Matthew Stagg, who takes little Sam from wide-eyed childish joy playing with Allie or his big brother Jack showing him how to send Allie morse code signals by light at night to her nearby farmhouse, to wide-eyed fear at this “ghost” and the sounds and movements in the old house, and grief at the loss of his mother. This is a slow-burn film, trusting the audience to wait, to slowly let themselves be immersed into that ever more disturbing atmosphere, leaving you wondering how much is true, is there a supernatural element here or is it all in their traumatised imaginations? What is the secret they must contain, what causes those noises, why does the top staircase end in a bricked up doorway? This is a delicious chiller that draws you into film beautifully. It is on general release in mid July.

High tension in Adrift

Adrift,
Rob Boffard,
Orbit Books

(cover design by Charlotte Stroomer)

With a history degree and little chance of going straight from college to a nice museum job, and reluctant to take a post with her oh-so-successful older sister or parents, Hannah has, like many a young undergrad or graduate, decided to travel and take on a low-level job to pay her way, get some work experience and fund that travelling. In her case it isn’t tending a bar in Ibiza though, but becoming a tour guide at Sigma Station, a massive station which serviced trade and mining processing for the outer colonies, but which is now also a luxury hotel and tourist destination, boasting spectacular views of one of the galaxy’s greatest sights, the Horsehead Nebula.

It’s not going well though – she’s not even settled in and gotten used to the place before she is put to work, and like many low-paid jobs she gets tossed right in with hardly any training and, unsurprisingly feels overwhelmed, clumsy and out of her depth. Hardly how any of us want to feel at any time, harder still for a young woman in her first job and her first long distance trip away from home on her own, hardly a confidence booster. One of her first tasks is to be the perky, cheery guide for some of the station’s tourists who are taking a local trip on the Red Panda, a basic small vessel, the space equivalent of the wee converted fishing boat that you get at the seaside, all aboard the Mary Jane, twice around the lighthouse and back in time for fish and chips!

It’s not helped by a surly Russian captain who refers to her only as “Guide” rather than by name, or that the small group of tourists are made up of bored, or grumpy types, and several are the type who seem to like belittling anyone in the poorly paid service post below them (we’ve all seen plenty like that). Oh, and then there’s the sudden, violent destruction of the station and the mass slaughter of the thousands of unarmed civilians within just after the Panda had launched…

(the Horsehead Nebula, some 1500 light years from Earth, infrared image from the Hubble Space Telescope)

A ship of unknown origin appears and attacks the station with weapons unlike any they’ve seen before. Who are they? Why have they attacked such a huge civilian outpost without warning? The human worlds have been putting themselves back together after a costly war between the Earth-lead planets and the colonies (as with such wars throughout terrestrial history, the colonial power expands to take in more resources, but when those colonies become successful, strangely enough they start to question why they should be breaking their backs to send most of their hard-earned resources back to the motherland). But the war is over, peace returned, hence the return of tourism to the frontier. And that strange attacking ship didn’t look like anything from the colonies, or Earth, and the tech seems too high… Who are they? Why are they attacking? Are there more of them?

And meantime the small, disparate group of tourists and Hannah have to survive on a tiny ship designed only for short, local sightseeing trips – this is a small pleasure craft, not an interstellar starship, it was never meant to be far from support. Assuming they can avoid meeting the same fate from the mystery ship they’re still in desperate straits, cut off from any support, on a ship with limited supplies and systems, light years from the next base. A mixed group flung together, it isn’t long before the divisions and arguments start, making an awful situation worse. And this is all just in the first few chapters…

This is a tale that stamps on the accelerator right from the start, launching our characters from an everyday situation into a terrifying position in an instant, and then taking that situation Boffard expertly turns the crank on this emotional rack, tightening the ropes, increasing the tension in a desperate fight for survival mixed with conflict and conspiracies. It makes for a read as gripping as a hungry anaconda. It’s a story that has a lot of DNA in common with the likes of Hitchcock’s classic Lifeboat, and like that film it cleverly maximises the almost single-setting to its advantage, building tension laced with claustrophobia and rising panic, anger and division. I hate using a cliche like “page turner”, but oh boy, this is indeed a page turner…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Ant-Man and the Wasp #1

Ant-Man and the Wasp #1,
Mark Waid, Javier Garron, Israel Silva,
Marvel Comics

I must confess I’ve not read a lot of Ant-Man comics over the years, and I was among the doubters when Marvel announced the film a couple of years back, thinking ah, is this the moment where they stumble with a character not as widely known as others? And of course that film turned out to be an absolute joy (putting so much fun into superhero movies again, which was good – much as I love many of the recent crop, too many are dark and forget comics are also meant to be fun). So with Mark Waid, Javier Garron and Israel Silva starting a brand-new Ant-Man and the Wasp just ahead of the new movie I thought it would be a good time for someone like me, relatively unread in this character, to dip a toe into the microverse.

And I am glad I did, because this was so much darned fun. The first page starts with the original duo, Hank Pym and his wife Janet Van Dyne, what an awesome team they made as superheroes, as scientists and also as a loving couple. Before then tripping up the reader with “this is not their story” and flipping us into their daughter, Nadia muttering “I hate you”. Second page and we see her ire is being directed towards Scott Lang, the current Ant-Man, currently calling her on a video screen from the headquarters of the Nova Corps. Scott had been on an adventure helping the Guardians of the Galaxy (a good fit of characters!) and now needs a ride home, so he asks Nova Corps to call the smartest person he knows.

Of course Nadia is still annoyed with Scott, but she still helps him – “give me… ten minutes, forty-five seconds,” she tells him and true to her word when she comes back after this she has worked out a way for Scott to use his miniaturisation powers to travel at a quantum level via the signal carrier (in a technobabble speech that is up there with Brannon Bragga’s in Star Trek!). But it must be timed precisely, otherwise Scott will miss her and could end up anywhere in time and space and the various states inbetween everything. And naturally you know Scott will get distracted and things will not go according to plan. I mean it wouldn’t be much of a story if it did now, would it? And I will leave it there on the narrative as I have no wish to spoil it for you.

As I said earlier this is just so much fun – yes, I know I am harping on about that a bit, but face it, far too many of our comics and comics-based films dwell way too much on the dark side, gritty, full of troubled souls. Yes, I have no problem with that, it makes for more drama quite often, but I think both comics and comics film have too much of that kind of thing, there is room for the simple joyful fun and still have good characters you care about and an adventurous story to follow. I miss that quality in too many modern mainstream comics and film, it’s why I’ve loved comics like Kelly Thompson and Leonardo Romero’s Kate Bishop, Hawkeye series – they remind me that we can still have smile-inducing fun in our comics.

And I think Waid, Garron and Silva manage that rather nicely here too. The relationship between the bumbling former thief Scott and the brilliantly gifted genius of Nadia is deliciously handled, even that oh-so-awkward third party moment – you know when a couple are arguing in front of you and you stand there feeling very much that you don’t want to be there as they do so? Garron depicts the unfortunate Nova Corps officer in this scene so well, sighing as he stands behind Scott at the video screen, clearly not wanting to be involved, almost forgotten by both of them and knowing it but not able to just walk out; the comedy and character here comes out so much in the art depicting these scenes as it does the verbal sparring.

Scott comes across as the guy who manages to bumble his way through it all, infuriating the super-sharp, so-efficient Nadia. And in some way he is so much less able than her, not as skilled, certainly nowhere near as smart and yet there is a lovely moment where the thing that makes him a hero shines through, even to her, its his everyday humanity. He’s a good guy, and he’s been given this chance as Ant-Man to help others, and he really does try, because he’s a decent guy.

As I said, I’ve not read much Ant-Man over the years; I have some knowledge of the character, but not a lot of experience reading his stories. But even I found this first issue to be a perfect stepping on point, so if like me you are relatively new to reading Ant-Man and fancy trying some before the new movie, this is pretty much ideal. And it is (yes, I am using the “F” word again) fun.

“You shall go to the ball…” – Cinderella

Cinderella,
Directed by Beeban Kidron,
Starring Marcella Plunkett, Jane Birkin, Kathleen Turner, Gideon Turner, David Warner, Katrin Cartlidge, Lucy Punch, Leslie Phillips
Simply Media

The Cinderella story is pretty much an archetype – variations on the theme of the innocent, warm-hearted young lass who finds herself in awful conditions through no fault of her own, before finally finding good fortune and true love go back many centuries, with that scribbler of old fairy tales Charles Perrault in the late 1690s and the Grimms in the early 1800s crystalising the story into the form we’re familiar with today. This version is a television film from 2000, which aired on Channel 4, and boasts some solid British thesps like David Warner, Leslie Phillips and the late (and much-missed) Katrin Cartlidge, joined by Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone, Body Heat).

With such a well-known story there is always a question of why do another version? In this case it’s easily answered – because the film-makers have reworked it to be more relevant to the modern day, and in a manner that the younger viewers can enjoy, but which works well for the teen/YA and the adult audience. It is set in a sort of fantasy kingdom of strangely coloured skies, which has the traditional horse drawn carriages, palaces and country mansions, but also open topped cars and steam trains, royal orchestras but also a guitar playing, singing Prince. The Prince and his friends come across as a playful pastiche of the modern, hipper young Royals, the wicked stepmother (Turner) and her nasty daughters aren’t just nasty and spiteful to poor Cinders, they are also a nice comment on modern, super-shallow celeb culture, creatures who are empty inside but made-up exquisitely for outward appearance, the sort who appear in the pages of Hello and its ilk.

David Warner’s father returns from a business trip with a “surprise” – a new wife and step-daughters, to the shock of his daughter. Her shock is furthered by the way her new stepmother so obviously manipulates her widowed father and allows his new stepdaughters to bully her. This swiftly escalates from subtle manipulation to the far more obvious kind of control – Turner’s wicked stepmother is soon quite clear she is in this for money and the noble connections. Warner’s father has the noble title but not much money, so he is soon banished to sleep in the attic – “You know the rule: cash equals company.” despite this he still refuses to see what is going on (no fool like an old fool), and his daughter becomes increasingly isolated in what was once her own loving home.

A woman lives on her own and the whole world imagines she must be a witch…”

Cinderella retreats to the grave of her beloved mother on the hills, encountering a bird of prey who, in the best animal tradition in fairy tales, acts as a form of guide, leading her to a cave by the lake, a magical cave where the waterfall parts for her. Instead of a fairy godmother, here we have Mab (Jane Birkin), an odd being who is half-amused, half-offended when Cinders asks if she is a witch. She may not be a witch, but she does seem to have some magical abilities, and she helps Cinderella in her own peculiar way.

I somehow missed this when it was first aired, and I’m very glad I got a chance to see it now. While some of the effects are very early 2000s (not bad, just not as polished as you would expect today), that in fact adds to the charm here, giving the kingdom an other-worldly look that suits it quite well. And besides, it’s the story and characters which really matter here, and oh boy does Kathleen Turner clearly enjoy playing the wicked stepmother, in fact she seems to relish it, and she is delectably wicked here and, pardon the pun, having a ball with the role (as are Lucy Punch and Katrin Cartlidge as her nasty daughters).

This is an unusual, modern take on an old tale, played well, with some nice riffs on both popular culture and society (Turner inspecting her wicked daughters’ vast shoe collection and advising them “Remember the harder they are to walk in, the more effective”), while also tipping a knowing hat to the old folkloric tropes (“I hate happy endings”). This is a clever version of the Cinderella tale, with all the main beats given a nice, more contemporary twist (and yet still classic tropes), and it knows enough to have fun with it along the way, and take the viewer along too, with a big smile.

Cinderella is available now from Simply Media

Reviews: disturbing Gothic horror in The Atrocities

The Atrocities,

Jeremy C Shipp,

Tor.com


(cover art by Samuel Araya, design by Christina Foltzer)

Turn left at the screaming woman with a collapsing face. Turn right at the kneeling man with bleeding sores the size of teacups. If you come across a big-breasted bear with a child’s head in her jaws, you’re going the wrong way.”

Right from this opening paragraph Jeremy C Shipp’s novella The Atrocities crafts a delightfully, delectably creepy sense of unease. A tutor coming to a mysterious, isolated old home is, of course, hardly new in the fantastic genres – the governess in an old mansion with peculiar owners and even more peculiar children has been a staple of Gothic fiction since the 1800s, and the Old, Dark House has haunted our fictional nightmarescapes for just as long. It’s been quite a while since I came across someone opening up that particular playset again though, and I’m glad to report Shipp not only plays with an old generic type, he twists it and has fun with it; clearly he has a lot of love for some of those older tales, and that shows in the craft and attention to building mystery and atmosphere in The Atrocities.

The garden maze and bizarre, disturbing statuary could have come from the Addams Family mansion, but the constant, growing sense of unease, of things simply not being right, owes much to masters like Poe – there’s a feeling of dread growing throughout this book. On the surface it seems a very straightforward appointment: Danna has been engaged to tutor Isabella, the young daughter of Mr and Mrs Ever in Stockton House. There’s one somewhat unusual factor here though: Isabella is dead. Deceased. She has ceased to be, joined the Choir Invisible.

Mr and Mrs Evers, however, do not see this as any reason she should not have her education continued, like any proper young lady. Isabella is, according to Mrs Ever at least, still here, a phantom, and a playful impish one at that. Danna can see why previous teachers declined to stay, but is talked into giving the post a go, mostly because it may be emotionally helpful to Mrs Ever, who is unable to let her little girl go – has she lost the balance of her mind due to her grief, imagining that Isabella is still with her in her home, in spectral form?

Naturally there is much more going on here, but given how short this is, I’m not going to risk potential spoilers by dropping any major plot points. Besides, as with Poe the real prize here is the brooding, menacing, disturbing, Gothic atmosphere. That’s not to downplay the narrative here, which works beautifully – I’ve always thought shorter fiction is a good way to measure some writers, it is, contrary to what some think, harder to build a solid story, create characters and craft atmosphere in a short space, compared to a full-length novel. When someone does so, as Shipp does very well here, it is, to my mind, a mark of someone who really understands their craft.

Tor has been putting out some quite brilliant novellas and novelettes in the last couple of years, science fiction, fantasy and horror, and we’ve been loving them on here. A brilliant way to experience writers you may not have read before, also ideal for a quick read electronically, and The Atrocities is a very fine, hauntingly creepy addition to that range.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Autonomous

Autonomous,

Annalee Newitz,

Orbit Books


(cover design by Will Staehl)

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Annelee Newitz’s name, being the co-founder of the major SF site IO9 among many other hats she wears. To that hatstand we can now add science fiction novelist with this, her debut from Orbit Books. An oh boy, what a fabulous debut. Robots, love, sex, pirates, copyfighters sticking it to giant mega corporations, shady morality and a future that’s drawn partly from the present and history, making elements of it sadly all too plausible. All of this wrapped up in a very well-paced narrative with flawed characters who work their way into your affections, flaws and all (perhaps more so because of their flaws).

Jack is a highly trained scientist with a lifelong hatred for the big megacorporations, especially big pharmaceuticals. In her younger days she and others pushed for free labs and works being published without copyrights, freely available to anyone to make themselves when needed, or for other scientists to take and twist and alter and enhance. It’s a stance which attracts a lot of other like-minded people and, predictably, the ire of these giant corporations, which use their agents to crush them and make an example of them, seemingly above the law around the world, able to get people imprisoned, or use coercion and violence on those who oppose them, and get away with it while authorities, hungry for the funds that can come with working with those big corporations, look the other way.

It’s a life which instead of cowing Jack has pushed her further into her beliefs – she’s become a pirate, hacking the drugs produced by these megacorps, which make obscene amounts of money and make drugs and therapies which only the well-off can afford. She hacks these, breaks them down and then makes her own versions which are distributed to a black market among various medical staff; it makes her a living (albeit one that gets her hunted) and at the same time people who couldn’t possibly afford those medications are able to get hold of them cheaply.

Except now, as her submarine nears the coast for a new drop, she is hearing news of multiple cases of problems with a drug, one she fears she sold – she checks, her work is good, but the original company’s drug she hacked has a serious flaw (or is it deliberate?), it is highly addictive. Her mission to do good has gone wrong in spectacular, if unintentional, fashion and she is going to need help to fix it. Worse, as this will draw the copyright agents closer to her – not motivated to make sure not only that her pirating is stopped but no news of their dodgy chemistry makes the news – she is going to be running from hiding spot to hiding spot to try and fix it while looking over her shoulder, and knowing she is potentially putting everyone she deals with in danger.

This is an absolute cracker of a debut – it runs along at a fine pace, keeping you glued to it. Where some may give you good heroic characters and their villainous counterparts, Newitz instead gives a much more satisfying mix of flawed characters – many of those on the “sticking it to The Man” side of things are not all entirely clean, and they are, basically criminals (even if some do it for a greater good – at least they think they do), while the agent hunting them, Eliasz, and his robotic companion Paladin, commit morally horrible acts to try and deal with some of those they are hunting, and yet neither is really a villain as such, they think they are doing the right thing, upholding rules and laws, stopping criminals, and there is a strange relationship forming between man and machine which starts as somewhat disturbing but soon becomes actually rather sweet.

It’s a disturbing future drawing on a lot of elements from our current world and our shared history, which makes it all the more terrifyingly plausible. Not only robots are indentured for years (earning their autonomy from those who created them by working off that debt), huge swathes of humanity are similarly indentured, recalling the way more than a few colonists came to the New World back in Colonial-era America, with no resources other than their own labour, selling themselves into an indentured contract, and with the erosion of worker’s rights to suit giant corporations (which have more power than national governments) it’s not hard to imagine a form of that being tried again. The hacking and pirating of chemicals and treatments from giant companies is something we have seen already – think of those Brazilian companies in the 80s and 90s making their own generic versions of big pharma companies’ AIDS drugs, illegal, sure, but on the other hand it made those drugs available to thousands who needed them and couldn’t afford them. That sort of moral ambiguity is laced throughout the book and makes it all the more engrossing. A must-read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: “Be seeing you” – the Prisoner returns

The Prisoner,
Peter Milligan, Colin Lorimer, Joana Lafluente, Simon Bowland,
Titan Comics

Patrick McGoohan’s mind-twisting The Prisoner is pretty much the definition of cult television, a show that was as fascinating and perplexing as it could be confusing and exasperating (and yet always compelling to watch). There’s nothing quite like it (we shall ignore the lamentable modern attempt in TV-land). It was a regular repeat on TV when I was a kid in the 70s, and it still crops up today, is still often discussed by both fans and academics, referenced endlessly in articles and debates, it has permeated the culture. To this day I often take my leave of colleagues with a “be seeing you” and the little salute, although I am not sure most of them know what I am alluding to. But they’ve never been chased along a Welsh beach by a giant inflatable ball roaring away…

Trying to do a modern take on a classic, especially a super-weird classic, is pretty difficult – even the presence of Ian McKellen couldn’t rescue the modern television version (yeah, I know, I just said we’d ignore that, sorry!). But the fact Peter Milligan is writing this take for Titan gave me some confidence that it would be done right, with respect for the original but not a pale imitation or parody, because Peter’s too experienced a scribe for that, and I was glad to see Colin Lorimer joining him as artist.

This is a contemporary tale – Peter and Colin are using the myth of The Village, but it is a modern setting, the post-9/11 world of fractured alliances and counter-counter intelligences and where anything and anyone may not be as they seem. We follow Breen, an MI5 agent on the run – actually on the run from page one, leaping through a window to escape pursuers from his own organisation. It looks like a stereotypical superspy/action moment, the protagonist leaping through shattering glass from an upper storey window to land, deal with his pursuers violently and flee. Except he has been caught with his pants down, literally, having to pull them up while berating himself for being caught off guard so easily, and it’s a lovely touch showing Peter and Colin are going to take some of the well-worn tropes of the superspy genre but also play with them, knowing how ridiculous some of them are in reality. It’s a good sign…

Breen is wanted as a traitor, and this isn’t just the security services sweeping covertly for an agent gone bad, his face is plastered on the media as a wanted man. He needs to get out of town fast, adopting disguises, travelling across counties, looking over his shoulder, watching for possible tails and other spies. Along the way we get flashbacks to a mission gone wrong, a colleague he became involved with in the field being captured while he escaped, of orders given once home, orders he can’t stomach, a man who signed up for Queen and Country but is now jaded and sees it is all short-term political gains, not really about security of the realm. And now he is being hunted by his own people…

Or is he? Is he really a traitor, and is the mysterious Village – a myth to most in security services – likely to sweep him up to interrogate or use? Or has his treachery and escape run been carefully manufactued by MI5 to be the perfect bait to tempt the Village to try to capture Breen, the ideal way to infilitrate this organisation with no affiliations to any nation? Or could Breen be playing both sides with his own agenda? You see how convoluted this is, even only one issue in? This is The Prisoner though, so it should be twisted and convoluted and the truth should always be shimmering like a mirage.

I’m not going to get too deep into more of the plot for fear of spoilers. However it cracks along at a damned good pace, right from that opening page dramatic/comedy escape, and Colin takes care to give us some more delgihtfully odd-looking, almsot surreal images, such as a man, resplendent in chequeboard suit, playing chess by himself over the sink in a lavatory of King’s Cross station (hardly the oddest thing that’s happened around that area though, I’d wager). All very in keeping with the visual oddities of the original series. And, without giving too much away, there are a couple of moments that fans of the original TV series will find familiar and be pleased with (I could almost hear the series’ music at one particular reveal, it is so ingrained in my mind).

Playing on the classic series and acknowledging it (one character refers to The Village as not a myth, and a place only one man has ever escaped from, I think we all know which blazer-wearing chap he is talking about), but very modern, this first issue did what a first issue should, got me hooked and intrigued to see where it goes next. I think it will be a very interesting and twisted ride…

Be seeing you…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A Memoir of Love and Life in China – Our Story

Our Story: a Memoir of Love and Life in China,

Rao Pingru,

Square Peg/Vintage Books

All we children knew about them was that books were among the good things of this world.”

This was an unusual one for me, an autobiography by an 88 year old Chinese gentleman; I think the last Chinese biography I read was back in the 90s, the globally conquering Wild Swans. Rao Pingru recalls his long life spanning most of the twentieth century: childhood, adulthood, meeting the woman who would be his wife for nearly six decades, it takes in the huge events they lived through (and many did not), from the end of an ancient way of life to war then civil war and revolution, and Our Story takes us through these events, but at a personal, family level, with an elegant and warm charm; by the end of this I felt as if I could sit down with Pingru for a chat and tea.

After losing Meitang, his wife of nearly sixty years, Pingru didn’t want the stories they had shared to vanish, and writing was a good way not only to share those memories, but was no doubt quite therapeutic after his loss. This isn’t really a graphic novel, it is more prose with illustrations, rather lovely ones at that, painted by Pingru. In fact there are scenes much later in the book, in his retirement years, where he takes up painting, which Meitang teases him for not being terribly good at, that he should have started learning this skill as a child so by now he might be good! And while there is an amateur quality to those paintings, they are done with love and affection and work far better than a professional illustrator’s work would have done, because this is clearly so personal and from the heart.

Pingru’s long life spans a huge series of changes in the ancient civilisation of China, events that have shaped the present day we live in and the future to come, not just in China but globally. But Pingru keeps those vast historical moments to the personal level: childhood in the last days of an old way of life, about to vanish forever, the long war with Japan (starting long before Singapore and Pearl Harbour brought that fight to the West), the subsequent civil war (just as they think they can at last go home to their lives and families), the Maoist revolution, the “re-education” camps, the emergence of modern China. All of these are seen through the personal level, how it affected him, his family, his friends, and as such it reminds us that those big historical moments are one thing, but it is the people swept up in them who really matter, because they are us.

A recurring theme in Our Story is food, and more importantly, the sharing of food. From the little treats beloved in childhood – especially the dishes served up only at specific festivals, like the Dragon Boat festival or Chinese New Year (we all have similar memories, I’m sure), the warmth of family around you (grandparents, aunt and uncles sneaking you extra treats or little pocket money gifts), through sharing food as a married couple then as their own family grew in turn, or the special occasions when several generations of the family get together. These events stand out against the harder, leaner years – the war, the early Mao era which saw Pingru sent to a re-education camp, apart from his family for so much of the time, making those moments together even warmer, more precious.

There are glimpses into another culture’s way of life – the lovely little rituals observed, such as one to mark the first day of proper schooling, including paying homage to the venerable Confucis, the writing of elegant short poems to mark special occasions in life, the seasonal festivals. Mostly, however, Our Story shows the traits of humanity and family run deeply through us all in any decade, in any nation, there is so much family life here that anyone, anywhere, will recognise, empathise with, smile at. Pingru’s paintings add a lovely touch (in some ways taking the role of family photos), and even the designers of the book have gone the extra mile, crafting a gorgeously bound volume; it’s physically elegant (everyone I showed this to thought it very beautiful), but as with any book it is the inner life between those handsome covers that truly counts. And in Our Story it’s a beautifully warm, personal, human story of life, love and family.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Arm of the Sphinx

Arm of the Sphinx,

Josiah Bancroft,

Orbit Books


(cover art by Ian Leino, design by Lauren Panepinto)

Some scholars believe the Sphinx must be a supreme mesmerist to bring so many to ruin. He spellbinds his victms into self destruction. Other students of the Sphinx, however, contend that, rather than hypnosis, he practices the black art of legal contracts.”

In my review of the first of the Books of Babel series, Senlin Ascends (see here), I described Josiah Bancroft’s debut as “An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher.” )in fact you can see that quote on the back cover of the new book!) So you can imagine that I have been eager to read the second book and see if it lived up to the promise of that compelling debut. Well, the short version of this review is yes, it does, and then some.

Thomas Senlin, our errant fish out of water headmaster is still determined to locate his missing wife, but now it seems as if he is further away from that goal, both physically and emotionally. He is now going by the name Tom Mudd, captain of a piratical airship, with his small, motley crew, and as far as actual piracy goes, they tend to be rather gentlemanly, as poor Tom is reluctant to surrender all of his remaining principles, already eroded enough by his misadventures in the first book. But circumstances are becoming increasingly dire – months have passed, our little crew is glad to be free, each from their previous form of entrapment, and they seem to be forming a genuine bond together. But as desperation presses them they find they are going to have to take bigger chances, returning in their stolen airship to the Tower of Babel, this time to levels we’ve not yet encountered, and it goes without saying that if the lower ringdoms of the Tower have a habit of enmeshing unwary visitor, these new levels are even more dangerous, their inhabitants even more devious and with much more opaque motivations.

So far we’ve heard whispers of secretive (or possibly whatever the Tower equivalent to urban legend is) figures, powers behind the scenes (if they exist, many think they are just legend), Luc Marat, the Hod King (the Hods being those unfortunates enslaved and who do much of the work that maintains the Tower life), and the even more mysterious Sphinx. Tom’s first mate on the airship, Edith, confirms reluctantly that the Sphinx is indeed real – her marvelous mechanical arm which replaced her damaged fleshly appendage, is a construction of the Sphinx, powered by the same red fluid batteries Tom has seen before in the vicious Red Hand in an earlier level. It seems the Sphinx has fingers in many pies throughout the levels of the Tower, and makes contracts with some he selects, such as Edith, with certain services required further down the line. But what game are these two shadowy figures playing? They seem to extol certain ideas but clearly also have other agendas, some of which may be contrary to their more openly espoused aims. Which are the real goals, how will Tom and his crew fit into their plans and will they survive them?

This is an immensely satisfying sequel to Senlin Ascends, and the book is full of multiple possible meanings, right from the title itself – the Arm of the Sphinx could literally refer to the mechanical arm he replaced Edith’s missing limb with (leaving her in his debt), or it could refer to his reach, connecting to all the various ringdoms of the Tower. And it comes as no surprise that a being named after the mythical riddler is something of an enigma – we don’t even know if this is the same Sphinx as the legends. If it is then he is far older than any human being could possibly be, or is there something more to the person, or the legend? And if so what, and why? Marat too, sitting in the ruined level of the former Golden Zoo (an eerie location if ever there was one, it has that creepiness of a funfair after it has closed for the night) seems to be more welcoming and genial, more humanitarian in his mission than the Sphinx, but like many who seem to be selfless and committed to a noble cause rather than their own aims, he may well be the opposite of what he appears to be.

This quality of the book extends to our small crew as well – Bancroft takes great pains to show us the many failings and weaknesses of each of the crew, but he balances this out by showing their better characteristics, not least their increasing bond to one another, a growing, genuine affection. They’re becoming a family, and like every family there is bickering, there are mannerisms and habits that drive others mad or to despair, and yet through all of that their fondness and loyalty to one another wins over, and it’s rather endearing. It all combines to give us far more three dimensional characters, flaws and all, and makes them both more believable and more relatable – I’ve become very attached to Tom, Edith, Erin, Voletta and Adam, and that emotional attachment, of course, draws me further into their story.

I praised Bancroft’s use of language in the first book – I was not surprised to learn that he was a poet before he turned to prose, as many of his lines and paragraphs have a beautifully worked, lyrical flow to them; this is a writer who really knows their wordcraft. And again the descriptions are remarkable, rich and evocative – think an SF&F version of Raymond Chandler on the descriptive phrases front, with lines like “the marble statues with robes no thicker than spilled milk”. It’s a wonderfully rich reading experience, the character developments, the twisting narrative twining its way up the Tower like writhing snakes, the labyrinthine, possible Machiavellian motivations of the hidden power plays of Marat and the Sphinx, some deliciously slow reveals about the history of the Tower (even this monumental structure may not be what it seems, continuing the theme of hidden or double meanings).

The middle books of a series often suffer by comparison to the beginning and end volumes, but here there is no such problem, Bancroft’s writing is too skillful. In fact this serves to draw you ever deeper into the mysteries of the Tower, the lives and trials of our main characters and narrative, leaving the reader eager for the third volume, The Hod King. Senlin Ascends made my annual Best of the Year list, and Arm of the Sphinx will doubtless make this year’s list, which is as strong a recommendation as I can make.

You can read an excerpt from Arm of the Sphinx on the Orbit blog here.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

250 Years of Women in Brit Comics – The Inking Woman

The Inking Woman,

Edited by Nicola Streeten and Cath Tate,

Myriad Editions

Comics and cartooning have often been labelled something of a boy’s club, both in terms of creators and most of the readership, and that’s a criticism that is not without some fairly solid truth behind it; in fact it’s still, even now in 2018, a subject of much debate. We’ve certainly seen change though, quite a lot of change, even just in the last couple of decades, and especially in the realm of Indy comics, small press and zines (the mainstream, while improving, is, as is often the case, lagging further behind). And while the larger visibility of female comickers in the last few decades is very welcome, they didn’t spring out of nowhere, like their male counterparts most of them have been inspired by those who went before them, and that’s one of the things Inking Woman does, and does very well, illuminates a side of British comics history that hasn’t been well served, and by doing so places those creators in a more understandable context, from pioneers like Mary Darly in the late 1700s or Marie Duval in the Victorian era (Marie is the subject of another recent, and much recommended Myriad release) through cartoons in Suffragette publications to the 1960s underground scene, the 70s and 80s rise of women’s liberation, the Rrrriot Girls of the 90s, the contemporary small press and zine scene and many points in between.

In fact that placing of cartoonists and comickers into some historical context is evident right from the beginning, and I am pleased to say not just historical but cultural and societal context (for example, the rowing women’s lib movement of the 70s leading to more cooperatives creating publications, which in turn provides both material and a space for women comickers to show their work, those comic works feeding back into the growing social and commercial groups by women, aimed at women). In her introduction co-editor Nicola Streeten mentions the likes of Jacky Fleming and Ros Aquith’s work that she read in her teens as powering her own ambitions in her comics work later on. I’d like to think that somewhere there is a teenage girl who will read Inking Woman and it will inspire her, to let her know she can create her own comics works too, and perhaps in a decade she’ll be citing Nicola and Cath’s work here as one of the starting points that got her going.

The book takes the form of entries on a multitude of women comickers from the 1770s to the present day, interspersed with chapters explaining some of the history and changing cultural elements throughout that period, such as the rise of the women’s Suffrage movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, the rise of feminism in the 70s, the influences of other parts of our ever-changing culture, such as Punk, with its DIY ethos (an influence I think you can still see strongly in the modern small press scene), the expansion of women-lead publishing like Virago or the Women’s Press, Cath Tate with her own publishing, discovering new and existing talents and reproducing their work.

Between those sections on the changing culture and history we have so many entries with brief biographical notes and a quick recap of the work of those women – in a rather nice touch more than a few of those entries contain quotes from the creator in question, talking about their own work or what it was like trying to establish themselves as a female creator, in their own words. Understandably there is much more material from the second half of the twentith century to today, and especially on the creators of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s, there simply being more creators working then. And as the authors note themselves, much of this is still living history, the woman comickers from that explosion in the 70s still with us to share that history, and many of them still actively drawing away. And as you move closer to the present you find many names that will be familiar to you – a lot of those creators have featured here on the blog, on Down the Tubes, on Broken Frontier. You’ve read some of those reviews, you’ve seen some of those creators at conventions like Caption and Thought Bubble, and, increasingly, at literary festivals, and chances are you’ve bought some of their comics from them.

The book doesn’t shy away from discussing how difficult it has been to fight through a very male-dominated industry and society, or from commenting on other elements of diversity, such as much of the earlier work in particular coming from women who, while still having to fight sexism, did start from a much more privileged area of society (a criticism often aimed at the 70s and 80s feminist movement, for example, that it came predominantly from a well-educated, white, middle-class perspective that didn’t take in the experiences of working class women, or of women of colour, or LGBT people – but these things are always, hopefully, evolving and learning to be more inclusive and diverse).

But overall this is a very positive, in fact I would say optimistic book, especially as it moves closer to the contemporary era – the number of creators increases, they are more and more coming from different backgrounds, tackling all sorts of subjects from social issues to bringing Shakespeare to a modern audience , from using comics to openly and honestly explore their experiences, from encountering racism to dealing with illness or the loss of a loved one to out and out humour and satire. As the book moves into those later sections it felt as if it was, a bit like the comics community itself, gathering pace, growing in confidence and numbers and mutual support, in fact it felt rather joyful, and it isn’t hard to feel that enthusiasm and delight and want to share in it.

This is a wonderfully warm look at an important part of British comics history, it is also a history of the challenges of gender, class and more and how they can be overcome, of how the medium is part of that society and that societal change as well as reflecting it, or sometimes even leading the vanguard demanding that change, placing those changes and the changes still to come into a larger context of pioneers and inspirational creators in turn inspiring new generations to realise they are free to create, to say something. The discussion of the rise of small-press friendly cons and other events, co-operatives like Team Girl Comics or the Strumpet/Whores of Mensa also sends a positive message, something I must admit I love about our comics community, the amount of mutual support and encouragement.

Flipping through the various individual entries on creators will likely bring cries of recognition at some of the names while also, hopefully, bringing creators who are new to the reader’s attention. I think many readers will come away from this not just with a more informed perspective on the history of Brit comics, but with a list of creators whose work they really want to read. And to return to what I said earlier, who knows, perhaps some young girl will be reading this and it will be the spark to her creative outlets and in ten years perhaps we’ll be reviewing one of her comics. I really like that idea.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Lights, camera, music! Score: a Film Music Documentary

Score: a Film Music Documentary,

Directed by Matt Schrader


Music and cinema, two of my favourite things in life, and when combined those visuals flickering on the screen, the narrative, the actors, the dialogue and the music create something which is, when it really works, far greater than the sum of its parts. Can you imagine Star Wars without John Williams’ score? Or the magic he brought to Jaws (Spielberg often remarked with all the effects problems with the mechanical shark models Williams’ iconic theme became the shark the visual effects couldn’t give him)? Or that Superman theme, that dum de de dum dumm dumm building rapidly to that triumphant, suitably heroic theme that makes you want to “do the Superman”, rip open your shirt to show that big S, so empowering, magical, inspiring, so perfectly in symbiosis with the visuals. Just a few bars from any of those themes is instantly iconic, we hear it and the magic of that film moment fills us. A few notes of it added to a comedy sketch works the same magic, it’s instantly recognisable and comes with a built-in recognition and series of memories and emotions.

And that’s only three examples from one – albeit masterful – composer. Score talks to, well a score or more (sorry) of contemporary composers, and this includes a large number of have worked on some of our favourite sci-fi, horror, fantasy and comics-based movies, from Bear McCreary to Hans Zimmer, about their work, their inspirations, how they collaborate with directors and other musicians, from rousing themes like Gladiator or Pirates of the Caribbean to musicians who are generally seen as working outside the soundtrack composition world but who have been invited in, like Trent Reznor, bringing fascinating new ideas, rhythms, energies and passion to the world of film music, to its betterment.

(Hans Zimmer discussing his craft in Score)

That notion of change and evolution is strong in Score; while much of the running time, understandably, talks to contemporary composers – John Williams, Danny Elfman, Trent Reznor, Quincy Jones, Rachel Portman and many more – about their craft, and commenting on the works of others they admire, past and present, the film also takes in the ever-changing nature of film music. From the mighty King Kong in the 1930s, a pioneer not just in visual effects but in using a full symphony orchestra to score the movie (that fabulous music as Kong scales the Empire State Building) – bear in mind at that point the “talkie”, the sound movie, was only a few years old, this was inventing new ways of storytelling for a new medium (although as the film also points out, even the preceding “silent” movies were never truly silent, there was always at least a piano playing along to them, or the famous Wurlitzer organ, or a small chamber orchestra in some cinemas, while some silent films had visual cues for those musical accompaniments – think Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr, for example).

Like many things today we are so used to the notion of a film with carefully composed music being part of its fabric that it is easy to forget someone had to come up with these ideas originally, then others developed them, they became the standard approach. Then others would come along and shake that approach up with something new and fresh – that fabulous, then contemporary jazz score for A Streetcar Named Desire replacing the notion of the symphonic suite to huge effect, a burning, modern, sexual, jazz that went with the story and visual so perfectly evoking and enhancing the mood, the feeling on levels that work beyond those paired with the visuals.

(the Air Studio in a converted London church)

The methods used for inspiration, for creation and recording are discussed, from hearing natural sounds and wondering how they might translate into music for a piece to feeling their way through how to translate that sound in their head into something tangible, experience and artistic intuition telling them how to continue, be it a simple, short piece that may be best on a solo piano to some great, iconic theme that requires a full orchestra (and then how to set up and record that orchestra, which space to use, how to deploy it, the changes in post production, so many choices that can make totally different sounds and feeling to the resulting music), or something new, digital electronica or contemporary jazz or rock or dance beats. There’s technical discussion, but mostly what comes across from all of these musicians is passion for their work, for what it adds to the cinematic medium, and the respect and admiration many of them show for the work of other musicians, contemporary and those who went before.

(Bear McCreary experimenting with different instruments and sounds)

This takes in a huge swathe of film music history, and of course it includes many of our beloved fantastical genres that have featured score which have become iconic – think on that intricate music for Inception, the big, brassy, sassy, swaggering music for James Bond, that Jaws theme, Mad Max, Close Encounters, Psycho, the Avengers movies, that great, swelling Lord of the Rings theme (and all the smaller character themes that weave through key moments). I play a lot of soundtracks when working in the Blogcave, and even divorced from the film they still inspire me, enthuse me, play with my emotions and the best ones, even played on their own, evoke memories of some of my favourite film moments, from Star Wars to Dunkirk. Score captures that feeling the music creates in us as the audience, how the finest soundtracks live in our heads afterwards, and that wonderful magic that happens when amazing musicians and remarkable film-makers come together.

I could easily have sat through much more of this, Score is by turns fascinating and inspiring, a glimpse into some of the creative processes that bring out favourite films to life, to the power of music to enhance the emotional experience.

Score: a Film Documentary is out on DVD and  available via Video on Demand from Dogwoof on April the 2nd

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Bizarre Romance

Bizarre Romance,

Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell,

Jonathan Cape

Now Blanche lies on the bed and waits to become a page in the book…”

I would happily read any book from Audrey Niffenegger or Eddie Campbell, so you can imagine my delight when a book collaboration by both of them turned up in the Blogcave, a collection of short stories on themes of relationships and love, some prose with illustrations, other short comic strips. As with any collection there are always stories that you like more than others, such is the nature of individual taste, but I can honestly say that while I did have my favourites, there really isn’t a tale here that I didn’t enjoy. In fact even the introduction is enjoyable here, as the pair relate a little of not just this their artistic partnership, but their real-life romantic one, once a tentative, very long-distance relationship, then full-blown romance and marriage: “now we are living happily ever after.”

That fairy tale phrase in the introduction is perhaps setting a bit of a tone – quite a few of the stories here have the scent of the fairy tale around them. Some fairly obviously are modern tales riffing on older fairy stories, such as RoseRedSnowRidingBeautyShoesHoodSleepingWhite, which starts with a sister and brother trying on last minute ideas for Halloween costumes in a store, a single splash page of the pair in front of the dressing room mirrors, costumes hanging from the racks, full of colour and hints of a chance to be someone else, at least for a while (it’s also, to those of us of a certain age, reminiscent of the start of Mr Benn’s adventures in the old kid’s animated series. And just like Mr Benn Roselyn is whisked away on a magical adventure, via the age-old portal of the mirror (reflecting surfaces long a gateway to the Otherworld). Faeries appear in other stories, with their own sneaky agendas, as the Fair Folk usually have.

Felines feature several times – Secret Life, With Cats is a short prose tale with illustrations, this one less about grand romantic love and more the warm companionships we can form, with other people and with our furry friends (and they with us, in their own manner, of course), while Digging Up the Cat is a short comic strip meditating on family, on home, on moving, on growing up, on parents getting older and of the furry members of our family, while another tale ponders the parental-child bond and the elements that changes as both grow older (and the elements that never change, no matter what our respective ages, if we are lucky).

Motion Studies plays with the still-fascinating early photographic studies of Eadweard Muybridge which showed, as if by magic, the range of human and animal motions caught frame by frame (long, long before the Matrix’s clever “bullet time” method of multiple cameras), and allows Eddie to frame the strip like Muybridge’s famous photographic studies. The model, Blanche, normally poses for the life classes in the art school, the students trying to translate her likeness through mind, hand and brush, “to transform her into art”, but here Muybridge seeks to capture her exact image in slivers of frozen time, turning, rising, bending. Brand-new science which appears as magic, and yet both her appearances as artist’s model and as photographic subject are re-rendered here as comics artwork now, another transformation (are any of them really true representations of her or does each capture just a facet?). I found this one particularly fascinating, visually, the peculiar Muybridge with his still-compelling imagery and new way of looking at people, animals, the world, science and art and magic.

There are thirteen tales, all told, and I’m not going to go into the rest here because one of the joys of short tales is that you briefly immerse yourself into another world, or see through other eyes, but their very brevity means it is far, far too easy to spoil an important element in a review, and I really don’t want to do that. The stories rotate around love and loss and grief and joy, but there is a quite delightful playfulness running through them all, a deft lightness of touch, such that even the stories that have sadness in them are never maudlin or overly sentimental but leave you with a warm feeling. Bizarre Romance is an utter delight, an artistic collaboration between two writers and artists, not just of great storytelling skill, but who are, quite clearly from that lovely, warm, light tone, sharing a very good space together, and that warmth permeates the stories quite beautifully.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog