Time for a quick look back over my reading year, to pick out some of my favourite reading from 2021’s book releases. While science fiction and graphic novels / comics will always be my favourites, I think it’s fair to say I have a fairly diverse reading diet, so this covers biography, history, science, fiction, crime novels, spy thriller, SF and graphic works. As usual I am sure I will be forgetting someone from the list, for which I apologise – normally I’ll notice a book on my shelf well after posting this and realise I meant to include it. If you’re considering buying any of these, where possibly please try using your local bookshop rather than giving more money to Jeff Bezos.
The Island of the Missing Trees, Elif Shafak, Penguin Books
I’ve come to love Shafak’s works, and this year had the pleasure of meeting her when she visited to sign some books in our shop while she was in town for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Missing Trees is split between a father and daughter bereft of wife/mother recently in modern Britain, and 1970s Cyprus where young lovers are torn apart by the civil war, with a tree grown from a graft of a Cyprian tree also in the mix. If that sounds like it may be depressing, it isn’t: while it has sad moments and explores loss of both people and place, the exile’s life, it is also often uplifting and utterly beautifully written. I fell in love with her elegant, moving prose and finished this book with a deeply contented sigh.
The Lost Storyteller, Amanda Block, Hodder Studio
A debut novel, Amanda paid us a visit ahead of publication with advance copies of her book (as a bonus she was accompanied by an old colleague of mine who now works for the publisher, which was very nice). An adult woman has long excised her famous but long absent father from her mind, but she hasn’t really processed his departure from their family. A famous actor in his day, she is drawn into investigating why he really left them when a journalist asks for help in researching his disappearance (he didn’t just leave them, he vanished from public life), with the narrative wrapped around a small book of tales he wrote for her when she was a child. Beautifully done and emotionally satisfying, I think Amanda will be a new author to watch for.
Island Reich, Jack Grimwood, Penguin Books
I’ve read this author since his science fiction days (as Jon Courtenay Grimwood), and had to have a look at this standalone, WWII spy thriller. A safecracker and con-man is caught in 1940s Glasgow, and given the choice of the hangman’s noose or working for British intelligence, being dropped into the recently oocupied Channel Islands to play the part of a long-absent, fascist-friendly local lord to work his way into cracking a Nazi safe for secret plans, while a secondary plot involves disgraced former king Edward and Wallis (nee Simpson) fleeing the fall of France and being courted by the fascists of Spain and Germany (which he was clearly having fun writing). A cracking, fast-paced thriller.
City of Vengeance, D.V. Bishop, Macmillan Books
I’ve known David Bishop for many years – he teaches writing quite close to our bookshop, and I’ve known him through our comics connections, as he is a former editor of the mighty 2000 AD (which has launched many careers), so of course I was interested in his debut novel. Set in Renaissance Florence, this is a super historical crime novel, gripping story, exploring attitudes to vulnerable minorities (with echoes of today’s society), and a superbly realised feeling of the city and the time. Looking forward to the second book coming out in spring of 2022.
The Edge of the Grave, Robbie Morrison, Macmillan Books
Another debut prose work from an old comics chum – I’m sure some of you will know Robbie for his long list of comics creations, not least in 2000 AD. Here he introduces us to Glasgow in the early 1930s, and the first Catholic detective on a police force that is very blue-nose. In the Noir tradition our detective is also damanged by his experiences in the war, carrying his internal wounds with him as he investigates a body in the Clyde, taking in the low-life of the razor gangs to the high society of the city’s aristocracy, the great shipbuilding families, with a strong sense of place grounding the story.
Beyond, Stephen Walker, HarperCollins
For as long as I can remember Yuri Gagarin has been one of my heroes; posters of him and Neil Armstrong adorned my walls a a kid. I grew up in the shadow of the Space Age, and it has left a mark on me for life, so I had to read this new book on Gagarin and that heroic first manned space flight, which came out in time for the sixtieth anniversary of that world-changing event. Walker explores Gagarin’s life and that of the other cadre of young cosmonauts in detail, and the Soviet space programme, the immense engineering challenges, comparing them to their NASA counterparts, as they strive to be the very first in all the history of the world to step beyond our own world.
It’s unbelievably dangerous, heroic stuff, they really didn’t know what would happen to a human being in space – assuming they could even get them there safely, not to mention back again – and yet they did it anyway. Walker also explores the man, not just the myth – insights from fellow cosmonauts, friends and family let us see this young man, not just the epic hero, making it more touching and personal. Gagarin, who really did go “where no man has gone before.”
The Wolf Age, Tore Skeie, Pushkin Press
History has long been a passion, and Skeie’s book delivered in spades; a thousand years ago, and early English kingdom that has recovered from the devastating Viking wars of previous centuries is again repeatedly assaulted, people slaughtered, towns burned, alliances shift and change. It’s like something from one of the great Norse epics, and indeed Skeie begins with an overture about the final days of Snonri Sturluson, the man who wrote down so many of the sagas in Iceland, preserving them for us centuries later (while most of the warlords here also take warrior-poets with them who compose epic verses of their battles, history becoming myth almost as it happens).
As he points out you cannot understand the history of early England or Scandinavia (and other parts of Europe) without understanding this period and the interaction of Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen.It’s as gripping as any epic fantasy, but it actually happened.
Sentient, Jackie Higgins, Picador
In Sentient, Higgins explores the remarkable world of animal senses, each segment dealing with a different sense – touch, vision, hearing and so on. While most of us will be familiar with the idea that dogs can smell far more scents than our human nose can, or certain animals can see in ways we cannot, this delves far deeper into how scientists are researching some of the remarkable abilities of the other creatures which share the planet with us, from the incredible sense of touch used by the star-nosed mole to animals that can see in other wavelengths beyond what we can detect.
However, it goes further – Higgins then relates the research on each of these animals senses to the human experience, and how it compares to our own (spoiler, our senses are far better than we give ourselves credit for) and also how we can use this to help when our sense fail. More than that though, this is a book that restores that precious sense of wonder about the world around us, and that’s something always to be cherished.
Bumble and Snug and the Angry Pirates, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books
This was truly one of the most delightful finds of 2021 for me: I’ve found my beloved comics medium to be a rich one for younger readers, enticing even kids who are reluctant readers, or have reading problems, to devour books and entire series (we’ve had a lot of success with our graphic novel section for young readers). Mark’s debut was just a wonderful adventure of two friends, packed with humour, a giant balloon, a sea monster, a picnic, pirates and more (really, what more do you need?!), and an important message about friendship, kindness and being okay to explore your feelings. It also had me chuckling out loud repeatedly, and our younger regulars we’ve recommended it to in the bookshop have all loved it it too. Looking forward to the next book! (full review can be read here on the blog)
I always look forward to Darryl’s new works – back in the Long Ago he was our virtual cartoonist in residence on the now sadly gone Forbidden Planet Blog, and I still recall being incredibly impressed with his first full-length work, Psychiatric Tales (which badly needs to be put back into print). In this new work he explores the life of Vladimir Putin and his rise to power in post-Soviet Russia, his years of corruption and abuse of power (and intimidation and worse to cover it up) stretching far back beyond his time as president or prime minister.
Given how much influence Russia under Putin’s vile, autocratic rule has had on the world stage (think not just the invasion of Crimea, but behind the scenes works such as massive disinformation and interference campaigns on political campaigns in the US, UK and more, or the assassinations carried out brazenly in other countries with utter contempt for laws and decency), this is an important and pertinent story, and again as with Billionaires or Supercrash, Darryl delivers a huge amount of complex research in the most accessible form, cementing for me his position as the UK’s leading non-fiction comics creator. (the full review can be read here in the blog)
Megatropolis, Kenneth Niemand and Dave Taylor, 2000 AD / Rebellion
Taking long-established characters and settings and putting them into alternate possibilities has long been an interesting way to explore different aspects of long-running series; DC has its Elseworlds (where we see what happens if Superman’s escape pod landed in the USSR instead of Kansas, or Batman as a vampire), and Marvel their What If series (recently adapted into an animated TV series).
Here Niemand and Taylor take the world of Judge Dredd and Mega City One, but it’s different, it’s a retro-future, a city of gleaming, Art Deco influenced styles, Taylor clearly delighting at being free to reimagine the Big Meg in this stunningly beautiful way (partaking of both Lang’s 20s masterpiece Metropolis as much as the Film Noirs of the 30s and 40s). Here Hershey is an investigative journalist, Cal is a corrupt detective, Rico – in normal Dredd he’s the judge’s clone brother who went bad – is the rare straight detective trying to fight crime and corruption, even in his own department, while Dredd himself is a shadowy, mysterious vigilante figure appearing from nowhere to hold those corrupting the vision of what the city should be to account. Gripping story, fascinating “what if?” moments and stunning artwork (the full review is here on the blog).
Beyond the Hallowed Sky, Ken MacLeod, Orbit Books
I always have a huge pile of books on the TBR (to be read) pile, but Ken has long been one of the few authors who bypassed that tottering Babel Tower of books to go straight to the top of the list when he has a new book out. This is the first in a new trilogy, set around fifty years in our future, mostly split between Scotland and a couple of distant worlds. We have a phycisist who receives a letter supposedly from herself in the future, which has mathematical proof of faster than light travel, which most ridicule.
We have explorers on a distant world beyond our own solar system, explorers closer to home on bases on Venus, and right on the Clyde, a new ship being built with a faster than light drive. I loved the idea of this vessel being built in a Clydeside shipyard, and MacLeod also conjures up a believeable future world split into different factions: Scotland here is independent and part of the Union, save for the Faslane base which England, now in an Alliance with the US, has held onto for their nuclear submarines (some of which boast this FTL drive to travel well beyond our oceans). Terrific narrative and, as always with Ken, some material for you to think about.
Blood and Gold, Mara Menzies, Birlinn
Mara is a professional storyteller, usually doing live performances, but here she has taken some of her stories into prose form (although we were fortunate enough to have her tell some of them live in our bookshop recently, and it was wonderful). Blood and Gold, which features illustrations from Eri Griffin explores both Scottish and African heritage, family, folklore and mythology, with teenage Jeda in a never-named city (which is clearly Edinburgh), dealing with not just the problems of growing into an adult, but losing her mother.
But her mother has left behind a trove of important stories to help her growing daughter understand herself and where she came from – and where she can go to next. But the sinister Shadowman follows, eager to seep into her misery and depression, to keep her from the vibrant glow of the stories, of her mother’s enduring love reaching out from beyond. It’s extremely emotional and caused me to tear up quite a bit, the raw emotions reminding me very much of my own grief and loss, but this brought me deeper into Jeda’s world, and the importance of storytelling as an integral part of what makes us human (I think lovers of Neil Gaiman’s work would fine much to enjoy here). Beautiful and moving, and also a good celebration of our cross-cultural heritage (the good and the bad)
Hummingbird, Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer, Fourth Estate
I’ve been reading Jeff’s remarkably unusual works since his early Ambergris novels (his collection City of Saints and Madmen is a good introduction), and am always looking forward to whatever he does next, safe in the knowledge that it is going to be thoguht provoking, unusual and hard to predict. In Hummingbird the skeleton of the story is pretty much the private eye type – a woman who works in security finds herself drawn to keep investigating something she’s told frequently not to, creating problems and danger at work and at home.
However, while accurate, that really doesn’t convey what Hummingbird Salamander actually is: a summary of narrative really doesn’t tell you much about any of Jeff’s books, I think – he’s one of those writers whose books you don’t just read, you experience. This is as much about atmosphere and very carefully considered wordplay as it is the actual narrative; as with many of his other books there’s an increasing sense of dislocation, of things being out of kilter, both the people and world around them becoming something other, different, odd. Intriguing, disturbing, unusual, and with a strong sense of the environment (and what we’re doing to it) woven through.
Time once more for my annual round-up of my favourite books, graphic novels and films I enjoyed over the preceding year. Sometimes wonder if it is still worth posting this after the demise of the Forbidden Planet Blog, given it won’t have the same reach or impact, but I’ve been doing them for years, and I still do a lot of reviewing each year, so what the heck, I’ll continue the tradition for now.
Fleet of Knives, Gareth Powell (Titan)
I had been meaning to read Gareth for a while, when one of my chums at our long-running SF book group chose Embers of War for one of our monthly reads. I loved it – great Space Opera with a nice moral dimension and characters I really loved, not least the ship herself, Trouble Dog. So I was eager for this sequel, and then even more enthused when I was put down to chair a talk with Gareth, along with Adrian Tchaikovsky and Ken MacLeod, at the first Cymera festival of literary SF in Edinburgh in 2019.
Children of Ruin, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Macmillan)
Children of Time was a huge, well-paced, absorbing Space Opera set across millennia of artificially-boosted evolution and terraforming gone off on a direction the colonists never planned. Adrian’s creation of a very convincing intelligent species that has evolved from humble, small spiders is a terrific slice of The Other, something to be craved in good SF. This sequel is similarly large and despite the size zooms past at a cracking pace (reminding me a little of Peter F Hamilton in that respect, the ability to write a doorstop sized book that never feels that large as you read it because it is so well paced). Set much further in the future evolution of the spider species this sees them co-operating with descendants of the human colonists who terraformed their world before returning to cryosleep and their voyages, and introduces another world and species touched by the hand of human science.
Rosewater: Insurrection and Rosewater: Redemption, Tade Thompson (Orbit)
Tade’s Roeswater made my best of the year list for 2018, and I have been waiting on the following two books. I was delighted to see that rather than straight-forward sequels each of the other two books took different angles and characters viewpoints on the events that had lead to this point, while progressing the overall story, often in ways I didn’t expect, which is no mean feat – I read a lot, watch a lot of films, so quite often I pick up on story beats and can guess where a narrative is going, so I am always happy to have a clever writer who blindsides me on story development. As with the first book I found the Nigerian setting and the richly described life in the city and the local culture a refreshing departure from much Western SF. Insurrection reviewed here, and Redemption reviewed here.
Underland, Robert Macfarlane, (Hamish Hamilton)
Macfarlane has rightly been hailed as one of our most intriguing writers on the natural world – his works are part nature writing, part travel literature, part local culture and folklore, all wrapped in a beautifully poetic writing style which immerses you into the prose. In this Wainright-winning book the theme is exploring the underworlds, each chapter a different aspect of the subterranean, from underground, hidden rivers below the Dolomites to old mines which run out from the east coast of the UK under the sea (and which are now also being used to house high-tech science experiments in the depths, far below land and sea), to a great glacier in Greenland and a man-made underground sarcophogus for nuclear waste. Absorbing, fascinating, and often reminding us that there is still magic to be seen in our world, if we remember how to look.
On the Shoulders of Giants, Umberto Eco, (Harvil)
I’ve loved Eco for many decades – I enjoyed his fiction such as Name of the Rose, and his academic work which I came across later at college. He passed away three years back, but this final, just-translated collection delivers a final set of essays, collected from a series of lectures he gave at an Italian festival each year, all on different themes, from the nature of beauty to truth. As always with Eco the sheer range of his intelligence and his curiosity about multiple subjects is clear, as his enthusiasm to discuss them in a manner anyone can understand. Most of all though, there is that playfullness there, a feeling of sheer delight at having an interesting subject to explore and discuss and share.
Islamic Empires, Justin Marozzi, (Allen Lane)
I picked up an advance proof of this on a whim, to boost my non-fiction reading diet, an area of history I didn’t know a huge amount about. Marozzi, who has been a reporter in the Middle East for many years, has chosen a city and a century for each of the 1500 years since the birth of Islam, and used them to explore a different view on the rise and spread of Islamic culture. The book takes in glories such as the golden age Baghdad, which really does come across like the wonderful fantasies set in that magical city and time, or Damascus, the “perfumed paradise”, the historical description standing in stark, horrific contrast to contemporary Syria and its endless civil war.
The Hod King, Josiah Bancroft, (Orbit)
I described the first in Bancroft’s Babel series as “an engrossing, intoxicating, delightt” (the review ended up on the back cover of the second book, which was nice to see). Former rural headmaster and stick in the mud Tom Senlin has changed a lot as he traverses the ringdoms of each level of the Tower of Babel, searching for his missing young wife. This third volume ups everything in a very satisfying way – the characters develop even more, their trials and tribulations – and their friendhsips – have changed them, the plot cooks to perfection with a real feeling of multiple, slow-burning fuses reaching their kegs of gunpowder. And over all of this Bancroft’s beautiful, lyrical, richly descriptive writing style – Josiah was a poet before he was a novelist, and it shows in the way he can make his words dance and sing to the reader. A fabulous, immersive and very different slice of fantasy. Reviewed here.
Ether #2, Matt Garvey and Dizevez
I loved the first issue of this Indy comic and the long wait for the second issue was well worth it, expanding not just the story and setting but also adding much more personal, emotional depth to the main character. In my review I said “Emotional depth, a story that is developing more complexity with hints of more to come, lovely attention to small details and beautiful artwork that handles the domestic, personal, intimate moments as well as it does the vigilante superhero elements, really, what more can you ask for?” and stand by that. Reviewed here.
Billionaires, Darryl Cunningham (Myriad Editions)
I have looked forward to each new Darryl Cunningham work since his quite magnificent, quietly, sensitively powerful Psychiatric Tales. Since then Darryl has gone on to establish himself as a leading creator of extremely well-researched non-fiction comics work in the UK. Here he takes three examples of the mega-rich – Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and Jeff Bezos and explores how they developed into the powerful and influential figures they are today. As he points out himself he could have chosen non-white billionaires, or female billionaires or those on a more left wing political slant, but the general consensus would still be the same: no person should have the level of power and influence these people have over so many individual citizens, politicians, even entire governments and their policies. Essential reading for our modern world, delivered in Darryl’s usual exemplary style which makes even the most complex ideas comprehensible. The full review is here.
Americana, Luke Healy
Like many Irish folk Luke has long had a mixed view of America – a fascination for it, its culture and landscapes, mixed with a less rosy view of it as a place so many family members have left for, rarely to return. He has an obsession with walking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the California-Mexico border all the way up the west coast to the American-Canadian border, thousands of miles taking in everything from vast, burning deserts to snow-capped mountains (even in summer). Unlike many who write such travel works, Luke isn’t a serious outdoorsman, or even particualrly fit, and it is his physical unreadiness for this endurance hike endears the book to me in a way a book by an experienced hiker wouldn’t. The main pleasure here though is the people he meets along the way, the friendships, the way it all slowly changes his outlook on the world. Reviewed here.
The Book of Forks, Rob Davis (SelfMadeHero)
The final part of the trilogy which started with the brilliantly, wonderfully odd (in the best way) Motherless Oven, and Davis delivers an absolute corker, one of the most unusual and intriguing Brit comics I’ve read in ages. While the main story arc has developed through all three volumes, each has also focused one of the young trio of leading characters: Scarper Lee (the schoolboy whose Death Day was imminent in the first book), the irrepressible Vera Pike (the eponymous Can Opener’s Daughter), and here their unusual friend Castro, who is writing the Book of Forks, exploring the bizarre worlds they live in. There is a real sense of everything coming together here, in terms of character development, of the various plot arcs coming together, and also of the strange world Davis created, being more explored and explained in a very satisfying manner.Reviewed here.
Sensible Footwear: a Girl’s Guide, Kate Charlesworth (Myriad Editions)
I have been looking forward to this for a long time – I know it has been a labour of love for Kate for many years. Partly a biography of Kate growing up, tyring to work out who she is – sexuality not being something that was discussed much openly back in the day – mixed with slices of the way gay culture has been suffused throughout British life, even when people didn’t realise it (and in eras when most would have been actively hostile to gay people), often shown through some great montages depicting slices of cultural life from different decades (which invokes a lot of “oh, I remember that!” moments). Mostly though, this is just a wonderfully warm graphic memoir, beautifully drawn, emotionally rich and left me with a huge smile on my face after I’d finished reading it. I’m also delighted how well it’s sold in the graphic novel section in the Portobello Bookshop where I work some of the time. Reviewed here.
Shout outs also go to the delightful and warm Blossoms in Autumn (review), graphic biography Guantanamo Kid (reviewed here), the venerable 2000 AD (still keeping me reading after forty years), a troubling insight into the civil war in Sri Lanka with Vanni (review here) and the homage to growing up with a deep love of cinema in Reel Love (reviewed here).
The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot
Krzykowski’s film is a little gem of a movie – unusually I knew very little about it before I was sent a copy to review, which is rare in this day and age where most films are discussed online or in film mags well before release. Other than the intriguing title I knew almost nothing going in, apart from the fact it starred Sam Elliot, so it boasted one of Hollywood’s finest cinematic moustaches. I had no idea if this was a comedy, a pastiche, a B movie – that title hinted at all of those. In fact it delivered a very unusual and very satisfying film that explored the cost of going to war on those who had to serve, how it changed them. “I never wanted to kill a man, even one who had it coming,” Elliot’s character tells his brother, reflecting on his wartime service many decades gone, and how they changed his life. A beautiful and often quite emotional work. (reviewed here)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
I must confess I’ve somewhat gone off Tarantino in recent years. I was there at the start, impressed as hell with the vibrant, powerful Reservoir Dogs, and the clever, switching narrative of Pulp Fiction. But his last few films, while all having elements I enjoyed, mostly left me thinking they didn’t quite work for me. Mostly down to what I thought was increasing self-indulgence on his part – the seeds were sown back in Kill Bill, which has some great scenes, but doesn’t require two films to tell that story – from there on I felt he waffled, added in long, pointless scenes just because he wanted to or because he wanted to play a certain song over it, regardless of how it harmed the narrative flow. Once Upon a Time does drift quite a bit, but in a pleasanter way, and felt far more like earlier Tarantino – it even boasts some nice touches film lovers will like, such as the style of shooting, like the handheld, over the shoulder takes in open top cars in LA, are very much in the style of that period, when new film-makers were shaking up the old studio system, shooting films their way.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
I’ve loved Davis since I was in my teens and first discovering jazz music, so I was always going to be drawn to Stanley Nelson’s new documentary. While not without its flaws in its approach, it does a solid job in taking in the long sweep of his musical career, from a precocious young talent getting a break in a big band, through the amazing 60s output and the constant need to re-invent himself as the years and styles around him changed. Mostly though it is the talking heads here with a range of people who knew Miles being interviewed, sharing their memories – friends, family, lovers, fellow musicians (including some who would go on to deserved fame of their own, such as Herbie Hancock) that really makes it interesting, nor does it shy away from his bad side (so focused on his art he neglects time with his wife, his kids, or his later substance abuse and even hitting a spouse during such a period), but the focus here is mostly on the music and how the man and his music evolved over many decades.
Technically this came out late last year, but I only caught up with Ferenc Török’s astonishing film in early January when my beloved Filmhouse (long a second home for me) screened some of their best picks from 2018 that people may have missed. A Holocaust film infused with a 1960s Spaghetti Western vibe (yes, really), shot in crisp, silvery black and white, borrowing heavily from the Sergio Leone playbook, with amazing cinematography, this is one of the more unusual and quite brilliant films I have seen this year. (reviewed here)
I’m a huge fan of Taika Waititi – I loved the skewed humour and the deadpan playing of it in What We Do in the Shadows and then Hunt for the Wilderpeople (and the way the latter used that humour to examine a serious, emotional subject), then his Big Budget Debut with Thor: Ragnarok, which managed to be a Marvel superhero flick but also still very much a Taika Waitit film as the same time. Jojo Rabbit follows a ten year old boy in the last years of the Nazi regime. Indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth and his head filled with fascist hate propaganda, his imaginary best friend is a cartoonish version of Hitler. When he finds his beloved mother -who worries how much of her original, sweet natured boy is left under all the fascist poison he has been filled with – has secretly hidden a young Jewish girl and is involved in the resistance to the Nazi regime he is, for the first time, forced to see the world differently, with the fantasy and humour elements, while delivering fun and laughs, also serving to contrast against the real historical brutality going on around Jojo. (reviewed here)
The Accountant of Auschwitz
A rather different film about the Nazi era, this documentary follows Oskar Gröning and the changes in German law that took decades to implement, which allowed for more of those who took part in the Holocaust to be tried, finally, for crimes against humanity. Is it worth putting a ninety-something frail, old man on trail? As some make clear in this documentary, yes, because it isn’t just about this one man, it is about laying down precedent, as with the trials in the Hague for those who committed genocide in the Serbian and Bosnian wars, it is to make it clear to such people that sooner or later they will be held accountable under law for their hideous actions, that they cannot hide from what they did forever. Outside some still try to deny the Holocaust happened – some are young, skinhead neo-Nazis, but some are elderly, upright citizens who also try to deny what happened, making this all the more important. Gröning, a former SS man, makes clear his complicit guilt – he didn’t carry out the atrocities, but he watched, and he served in a capacity that helped them to operate the death camps, and he wants those modern day deniers to know that truth, that he was there, he wore that SS uniform, and he saw what they did. (reviewed here)
Released to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the first crewed lunar mission, I was eager to see this – I’ve been a space geek my entire life, my childhood room didn’t have posters of footballers, it had posters of Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. This narration-free documentary managed to include footage even life-long space geeks like me hadn’t seen before, and was a powerful, emotional, tense and wonderful celebration of one of the most remarkable feats in the history of human exploration, following three souls who really did go where no man has gone before.
What can I say about this? Big blockbusters are not always the ones which make my end of the year list, but, dammit, this was the culmination of ten years of movies by Marvel, slowly, carefully building up their universe so that those not familiar with the comics would understand each character and the shared universe they inhabit, so when those linked individual films lead to this gigantic, two-parter which spanned all of those films and characters they groundwork had been laid. It’s an amazing approach to storytelling, and for fans like me it paid off – we’ve invested ten years in the film versions of these characters, so many of the scenes here packed a big, emotional wallop for us (sorry, Martin Scorcese, I love you, but regardless of what you think of these kinds of movies, they do count as films and they matter to a lot of us). I also liked the feeling of that original run of connected films coming to an end, of that generation of heroes passing the torch to newer figures. And, darn it, Steve Rogers almost made me cry…
Stan and Ollie
I grew up watching repeats of classic Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton films, usually with my dad. We both still enjoy watching them together, so I was always going to be drawn to this biopic about two of cinema’s funniest duos. The film cleverly avoids the usual chronological approach to their career and instead the bulk of it is set after their heyday, on a final live stage tour of Britain after the war. The two bicker and argue over past incidents, there is a feeling their star has long since declined, their fame fading, they are getting older, the world moving on without them, and yet at the same time there is also a huge reservoir of affection for these two men, and under the arguing (almost like an old married couple), the love between them is also very apparent. John C Reilly and Steve Coogan turn in amazing performances, quite obviously this is a labour of love for those actors, determined to do right by the real Laurel and Hardy. I exited the cinema smiling, and humming the Cuckoo Waltz all the way home… (reviewed here)
I caught Emma Tammi’s The Wind late night at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Right from the start it established a delightfully creepy atmosphere – you just feel that something here is wrong, the world is out of kilter, and a disturbing opening scene becomes clearer as the film progresses and we learn more of what lead up to that scene and its aftermath. Set in an almost empty, vast landscape of the Plains during the westward expansion, the wind screams constantly over this huge, empty landscape, leading many to talk of demons on the Plains, their shrieks carried in those winds. How much of what we think is happening is real and how much the product of fevered minds slowly cracking under the strain of the environment and the isolation is always open to debate, making it all the more disturbing, while the film boasts some superbly scary, creepy moments. A thoughtful, unusual and atmospheric horror. Reviewed here.
Shout outs to must also go to some of the other films I enjoyed this year but which I can’t fit into the main list. Greta, The Favourite, Ms Marvel, John Wick Chapter 3, Toy Story 4, Karina Holden’s eco-documentary Blue (reviewed here), lo-fi, small budget Indy sci-fi film Prospect (reviewed here), Tehran Taboo (reviewed here), Destroyer (reviewed here), which played with genre expectations and also introduced me to Karyn Kusama, who also wowed me with The Invitation this year, Liberté: A Call to Spy, a female-lead (and scripted and directed) Indy WWII film about the first women to be trained by the SOE and dropped into Occupied France, which I caught at the film festival (review here), and Memory: the Origins of Alien, which I also caught at this years film festival (reviewed here), and documentary Making Waves which explored the fascinating history of sound in the cinema (reviewed here)
We have an annual tradition on the Forbidden Planet blog of running a series of Best of the Year posts. So do many other blogs and sites, of course, but I like to think we do ours in our own fashion – we ask a whole bunch of people we know to pick their faves out – comics, books, movies – for the year and run the guest posts every day throughout most of December. This year’s series actually has run right on into the middle of January, ove a solid month of daily (well weekday daily) guest posts, plus the selections from the FP folks. That’s a pretty long series of faves and from such a number of different guests I like to think this means we get a really good, diverse range of suggestions. Yes, a lot of the same titles will be chosen independently by a number of folks, but with guests from the US, UK, Europe and the Philippines I think we get a good range – certainly there were some titles that came up that I didn’t know before. You can see the entire 2010 Best of the Year series here. And I’m reposting my own personal best of the year list on here today, first published on the FP blog:
Each year when it’s time for me to think about my favourite reading of the year it seems I have to struggle quite a bit. Not struggling to find stand-out comics and books but rather the opposite – struggling to try and narrow down my list into something reasonably short and readable. I think once more I’m going to fail in that respect and more than likely I’m going to ramble on a bit about some of the frankly brilliant reading material that passed my eyes in 2010 and I’ll apologise in advance for the lack of brevity, but I certainly don’t apologise for highlighting what I consider to be some terrific books. And I know full well after I’ve posted this I will doubtless suddenly remember some other works and slap my head thinking how did I forget to include this or that?
But you know what? This is no bad thing that I’m toiling to produce a short list (okay, a fairly long short list) of my favourite reading; in fact it’s a good sign, a sign at the quite brilliant – and diverse – works that are coming out. It’s also a sign of how much good work is out there that I still have a pile of books and comics I really wanted to read in 2010 that I simply never had time to, because there’s only so much free reading time and I used all of that up (and then some, always snatching a read during commute, during waits in cafés to meet friends, anywhere I can). And this year I am delighted to be able to say a good number of my favourite graphic novels came from independent British publishers. We’ve often gone out of our way here on the blog to highlight the remarkable range of comics work from around the world, but I hope you’ll forgive me for being so excited at being able to honestly say that some of the best works I read came from here, because it’s been a damned long time since we’ve been able to point to British comics publishers producing a continual stream of fascinating graphic novels.
I think 2010 was a real watershed year for Blank Slate Books and SelfMadeHero; both had been producing good works before this year, but it seems in 2010 they both put out a fantastic range of comics work, works which picked up great reviews all over the place (including in the mainstream press). Disclaimer: I should point out, for those who don’t know, that Blank Slate is run by FPI’s own Kenny Penman, but I trust most of our readers know us well enough here on the blog to know that when it comes to reviews and opinions we strive to be honest – when I say some of these books are my favourites it has nothing to do with knowing those involved and simply to do with the fact that I loved reading those books. And talking of those books, let’s get started – and I apologise for how long this is, but I’m invoking editor’s privilege here – if I can’t ramble on about a whole pile of my favourite reading here then who can? To the books …
Blacksad, Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, published Dark Horse
We’re a bit behind Europe on Blacksad – the first couple of volumes were translated years back but became inaccessible after the publisher closed and we’ve had to wait for a new English language edition. Kudos then to Dark Horse for bringing out this lovely hardback with all of the first three volumes of Blacksad collected together (a fourth tale came out in autumn 2010 in France). Essentially a classic 40s/50s gumshoe detective Noir but with animals instead of humans, Blacksad is simply one of the most gorgeous comics you’ll read. The characters and dialogue are genre-perfect – femme fatales, tough guys but with a code of honour and always a wisecrack – the mysteries and engrossing and Guarnido’s artwork is superb. Richly detailed scenes, both intimate, indoor scenarios and larger, street-wide panoramas, bring the period to life while the expressions on the character’s faces are amazing. Don’t just take my word for it, Steranko himself provides the introduction and lavishes much praise on this aspect of the art.
I’ve adored Glasgow writing-art team Metaphrog’s Louis books for years and was eagerly looking forward to this new volume; I was not disappointed. The story sees Louis on a desperate – possibly imaginary – quest to save the life of his pet and best friend and touches on responsibility, guilt, love and what we will do when driven by those emotions. It’s hard to summarise the plot as much of it is very dream-like (and indeed it may even be a dream), it’s one of those stories you allow yourself to sink into. And the artwork is, in my opinion, some of the best they’ve created yet for Louis – the scenes in the underground city are utterly enchanting and magical, making it a beautiful book for younger readers and the older readers alike. You can read a full review here on the blog and Metaphrog talk us through the new Louis in a “director’s commentary” feature here.
It is something of a surprise to read Burns in full colour – for a few pages it feels quite odd, but I quickly got used to it, aided by the fact that, colour or not, he still uses his beautiful clear line style, which here is most appropriate given his allusions to Tintin throughout the book. Like some of Burns other works while there is a narrative of sorts to follow this is really more a book about dreams, nightmares and the collision of fantasies and the real world. Like Black Hole there is a real David Lynch feeling of creeping dread and our main character with his Tintin quiff (and sometimes donning a Tintin mask to do performance poetry as Nitnit) drifts between a drug-supported illness in his basement bed through what could be dreams, nightmare or hallucinations – it’s almost impossible to tell what scenes may be real and what are the product of a mind moving through guilts and repressions. It’s a work to be immersed into and feel rather than follow as a conventional narrative and I look forward to more in the series.
Typical, you wait ages for a British comic about mental health issues then two come in the same year. However Brick’s Depresso is a quite different beast from Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tale. It is often just as touching and honest, but the perspective here is mostly personal, a partly autobiographical tale following the cartoonist’s comics alter ego through the highs and lows of manic depression and the effects the illness (denied at first) has on both him and those around him, as well as the struggle to find some form of treatment, being passed from pillar to post in the NHS and the feeling that most health professionals don’t take depression seriously and are content to just keep offering various medications (with their attendant side effects).
Despite the subject matter though this is a more upbeat, comedic offering than Psychiatric Tales – Brick seems very much from the fine old school of Brit comics, the Leo Baxendale, Hunt Emerson type of comics. Even when tackling serious moments the artwork often has you laughing your butt off. I started reading it on a train one day and attracted more than a few looks both for the cover art (the book has a pleasing, European BD feel to it) and the laughs it was evoking from me. It hasn’t had the column inches of Psychiatric Tales, perhaps, but it’s a brilliant bit of very British cartooning and just as touching and honest, but with that lovely comedic touch that brightens even the dark depressions (which reminds us even when we’re down there’s still often something to laugh at – the sense of humour along with love is often what will save us). Brick was kind enough to grace us with a “director’s commentary” feature, talking us through some of Depresso, so if you missed it go and have a look then see about picking up the book.
Over my years as a bookseller I’ve developed a bit of a sixth sense; there are times when I hear just a little about a new book or graphic novel and, without knowing anything else, I simply know it is going to be good and that I am going to love it. Dance was one of those books; as soon as I heard it was in the works I knew I had to read it. No, I don’t know how this feeling works, but I’ve learned to trust it, it’s always pointed me to good reading and this was no exception. Taking a before and after approach to the main events we get two strands about a romance between a Belgian student and a political refugee from Africa, struggling to stay in the country, the first largely from the long-suffering but clearly loving father’s perspective as the affair unfolds, the second set years later as our heroine recalls that youthful love and tells her young daughter about her ‘African prince’. It’s beautifully romantic and touching without being saccharine, capturing that intense feel of young love and also the concern mingled with love of the parents, so worried about their daughter being used or hurt and yet, like any loving parents, still doing their best to help her along the path she chooses because they want her to be happy. Simply beautiful.
When Kenny first told me he was planning to do another translation of European work for Blank Slate some time back I had a look at the artist – Belgian creator Randall C – and his website. I found some of the Flemish version of Sleepyheads on his site and, despite not understanding most of the text, I fell in love with it right away. The artwork was simply so beautiful, even in another language it felt to me like it evoked a dream-like state. The English language version has more than lived up to expectations – it’s a very dreamy state of affairs, moving through a series of connected vignettes, like the dreams one has when lying in that half-awake, half-asleep hypnagogic state, aware you are dreaming yet still held within the dreams, which unfold with their own alternative logic that defies the waking world. Dream-like tales seem to have been something of a theme for me this year, now I look back at it (Cages, X’ed Out), but this stands out as a very unusual and oh so beautiful title, a talent that will be new to most English language readers too. I suspect many who adored entering Gaiman’s Dreaming will find much to love here. Something new, unusual and very beautiful.
The Hot Rock, Donald Westlake and Lax, published SelfMadeHero
We seem to be in a real boom time for crime tales in comics at the moment, both original works (like Criminal or the great series of works from DC’s Vertigo) and those adapted from great crime novelists. The Hot Rock, adapted by European creator Lax from Donald Westlake’s novel, stands easily alongside some of the best of those adaptations, right alongside the likes of Parker or Tardi’s adaptation of West Coast Blues). We get a whole series of cunningly crafted heists planned and executed here, with something unforeseen going wrong each time leading to another attempt to get the eponymous rock. The set-ups are brilliant, the characters excellent and most of all the book drips with the atmosphere of that 70s New York, before Times Square and the like were cleaned up, the sort of vibe you get from Taxi Driver, Mean Streets or French Connection, but with an added with and humour.
I’ve been addicted to Mike Mignola’s Hellboy for many years now; I love the art style, the characters, the way Mignola often mixes in bits of real-world myth and folklore into his own world. So believe me when I say this is one of the best Hellboy collections in years – it reaches right back to the earliest tales and draws elements of them together as we continue to explore more of HB’s real reason for existing in our world and the role he has to play. Dunc Fegredo does a great job of taking on-board Mignola’s distinctive art style without slavishly aping it, still bringing his own feel to the series without disrupting the feel of it, not an easy trick to pull off, but he does it ably. Plus we have giants striding across Great Britain, ancient witches and Arthurian legend, I mean what more do you want?
Bryan Talbot returns with his second Grandville outing and it is a wonderful offering of murder mystery, conspiracy, guilt, revenge and wonderful turn of the century steampunk trappings, all wrapped up in Bryan’s gorgeous artwork. LeBrock returns in a case that become personal for him, following a daring escape from the Tower of London right before an execution of a vile murderer of women he put away. But there’s more here as Bryan starts to hint at more of the alternative history of his Grandville universe and the murderer and LeBrock’s past in the British resistance against French rule and the murky goings on that lead to independence once more are involved, as are conspiracies that may lead all the way to the top of the government. The story is a cracking read and moves along at a belting pace, but once you have read though it you will go back over it again and again because, as he often does, Bryan has loaded scenes with gorgeous details and references to other comics, books, history, film, art movements… It’s a delight finding some of them and I’m sure there are many more I missed, but that’s just an invitation to go back and read it again. Glorious stuff.
Lovecraft – for a man who lived a relatively short life he has cast a long shadow over all of the fantastical genres of the 20th century and shows no sign of his influence diminishing in the 21st. Lovecraft’s ancient horrors that existed long before man tap into both that strand of fantasy than imagine a Hyperborian time before the present race of humanity and lost worlds and the suspicion that perhaps we are pushing too far, prying into too much, that there are some places we should not explore, that should simply be left on the map with the legend “here be dragons”, that some knowledge simply should not be sought and our own arrogance in pursuing it at all costs will bring our ruin, an ancient, dreadful doom. Unlike many modern horrors there isn’t much in the way of huge set pieces here, rather, like Poe, Lovecraft and Culbard weave an atmosphere of dread and constant menace, like the thought that the darkness we walk in conceals something, a primal fear, that there is something lurking in the dark and we’re as helpless before it as our ancient ancestors were before sabre toothed tigers. And we’re right to be afraid here, there are ancient things in the dark places of the world that we should never disturb… Best read in bed on a dark night…
I’ve admired the great Tardi for some time and was delighted when Fantagraphics started translating some of his work for the English language world. I first read some pages from this collection in French (very slowly and unevenly, my French is not great and very rusty) a few years back and have been longing to see it translated. I reviewed it a few months back, where I said that it stood next to Mills and Colquhoun’s Charley’s War as one of the finest comics about the Great War and I stand by that. It burns with a sense of outrage at the meaningless slaughter and sheer injustice of the events of almost a century ago. A century ago, perhaps, but we should never, ever forget and works like Trenches serve both as a fascinating piece of comics work and also an accessible reminder of history that has now all but passed from living memory and relies on books, film and other media to remind us.
Fantagraphics recently released more Tardi goodness in the shape of their first collection of his wonderful Adele Blanc-Sec adventures (Tardi, like Bryan Talbot, seems to be able to flit through any and all sorts of genres, adapting his art style to suit), but alas I only just picked up a copy and started reading it last week, so it’s not going to sneak into my list, but I’m already loving it, so it has to get a mention too.
I’ve been looking forward to this ever since SMH announced it the other year. The Great Gonzo has been a hero (anti-hero?) of mine since my teens, he’s up there with Lenny Bruce, William Burroughs and Bill Hicks in my book as one of the great counter cultural icons of 20th century American life. It would have been easy (and lazy) to have gone down the route of buying into the bizarre, outrageous public persona Thompson created for himself (a creation he both benefited from and suffered from). Instead Will and Anthony, while acknowledging this public image, go behind it to explore a figure who was important in pushing journalism to cover areas it had ignored and to gleefully ignore the wrath of the great and powerful in pursuit of a story that he thought should be told. Given the current rather cowed and tamed state of much of journalism, especially in the US (where no-one rocks the boat lest they have their White House press pass revoked or never be embedded again) this is a timely reminder that sometimes a journalist is supposed to stand and shout the story and make people listen. Brilliant stuff.
I first read Cages years ago, reading a copy that belonged to a flatmate back in my student days. I was already familiar with Dave’s collaborations with Neil Gaiman, especially the brilliant Signal to Noise (still a visually fascinating piece), but this was Dave on his own, his own voice, articulating through words and pictures some of his own thoughts on life and art. It’s a massive piece, with something of a dream-like feel to it and it is ridiculous that such a major opus by a major artist has been unavailable for so many years, so I was delighted by Dark Horse republishing it. An important work by one of our finest creators and an essential tome for the shelves of any comics lover.
What can I say about this book that I haven’t said before? A book so good we reviewed it twice (my review, Richard’s review). A book that wasn’t just on an interesting subject that we all too often shy away from discussing in public because of a perceived stigma, but a book that gets into your thoughts, into your soul, that makes you think again about how you view the world and your own problems and, just as important, how you perceive the problems of others, especially those who are suffering, often through no fault of their own, coping both with a mental health affliction and ignorance and lack of empathy from many around them. I think Darryl’s work certainly addresses the second of those two problems – this is a comic that should be read by everyone. It should be in every library and every school. It’s touching, sensitive, human and a cry for understanding and the milk of human kindness, that finest quality of our species which we shouldn’t have to be reminded to employ, but somehow in our busy, self absorbed lives we do need reminding.
You know I normally select a pile of my favourite comics reading for the year but I normally don’t rank them in any sort of order. I’m going to break with that tradition this time round and say that, for me, this is the most important comic release of 2010. A hugely laudable work that is both well executed comics work and a touching, important voice on a subject too often hidden, a work that can and has reached out beyond the comics readership to many others. I’m delighted to see it is being published now in the US and will soon be translated for the acclaimed Italian publisher Coconino. Here’s hoping it travels further around our comics world and that as well as being a fascinating read, that it actually helps some people. Simply the most beautiful, touching work I read all year.
Since I’ve spent so long rambling on about some of my favourite graphic novels of 2010 (and I am sure I’ve forgotten some) I’ll be a bit more concise with my other faves of the year. In books again I found some excellent SF&F reading, among which was a name new to me, French author Pierre Pevel. His Cardinal’s Blades (published Gollancz) totally hooked me in right away – fabulous historical fantasy, actually for the most part more historical, all set in pre revolutionary France, with a scheming Richelieu, dashing, courageous swordsmen who are, essentially, the Mission Impossible force for the French state and a dash of dragons and magic thrown in. there’s swashbuckling galore, compelling characters (including, refreshingly, some very strong female leads) and a wonderful sense of the history (Pevel’s descriptions of Old Paris are remarkable, you can imagine yourself in those winding, rather aromatic streets so different from modern Paris). I’ve just devoured the sequel, The Alchemist in the Shadows and it was superb, the best swashbuckling novel since the great Arturo Perez Reverte’s Captain Alatriste novels; think Dumas for a modern era but with added fantasy elements. Can’t wait for the next book!
Aussie scribe Marianne De Pierres continued her Sentients of Orion series (published by Orbit), a bit of a departure for her, delving into full on space opera mode. With the latest volume she brought events to a head, with what started as a seemingly regional attack on a planet becoming a huge scale war spread across the galaxy, personalising the vast scale through her range of carefully cultivated characters and, as with her previous works that I’ve so enjoyed, she continues to write some seriously strong female lead characters, something we need more of in SF.
Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four (published by Penguin) was a hugely enjoyable young adult slice of SF – a handful of young survivors from a planet decimated by greedy, warlike neighbours who endlessly consume natural resources have fled to earth, watched over and trained by guardians, constantly having to move, to refrain from making connections with others as they try to conceal themselves from their enemies, while they grow into their attributes, powers they develop naturally, different to each of them, their only hope for reclaiming their world and quite possible for defending ours, should the enemy decide our world is their next target. Add in first romance to the mix and it’s a cracking YA read. There’s a movie version due quite soon.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl was a book I hadn’t heard of until it was chosen as the reading for the SF book group I set up years ago (still going strong) and is a fine example of how recommendations and book groups can lead you to something wonderful you may not have found otherwise. Set in a future where most resources have been used up (now we are back to clipper ships instead of huge container freighters and airships instead of fuel burning jets), Paolo’s tale of an environmentally ruined future teems with atmosphere, set in Thailand as it tries to protect itself from outside influences and (literal) corruptions but forced to interact and trade with the outside world. He could have a great second career as a travel writer, the sense of the place, the people and customs he evokes are so remarkable, you really feel yourself immersed into this other culture. I read the Night Shade edition a few months back, but I see our good friends at Orbit have just released a mass market paperback which should be easier for you to find. Something very new, unusual and captivating.
Jeff VanderMeer‘s cropped up more than a few times over the years on the blog as a writer I’ve recommended and his latest work, Finch (published by Corvus), is no exception. Jeff is one of those remarkable writers who is always compelling, be he tackling a novel or editing a great anthology or reviewing books and comics (you should check out his blog), but when he returns to his strange, distorted half-fantasy, half real-world setting of Ambergris I always get excited. This time around he opts for a gumshoe detective style tale as opposed to the autobiography/history approach of Shriek, set in an Ambergris now ruled by the bizarre Gray Caps, the bizarre, mysterious denizens of the city’s underground and the entire city and many of the inhabitants are mutating due to their fungal technology. There aren’t many who could convey both a feeling of Chandler-esque detective tale with Cronenberg type body horror, but Jeff can. Up there with China Mieville as one of the finest masters of the New Weird that you should be reading.
How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu, Corvus. Another score for Corvus and, like its stablemate Finch it is a welcome unusual entry into the genre, delightfully odd and different to most other SF. Charles is a time machine repair man, happily avoiding life and all the complexity that comes with it and relationships by staying inside his own closed timeline, talking only to his possibly imaginary dog and his time machine’s AI who he may have a bit of a crush on. As with all things temporal it can quickly get confusing, especially when you factor in not only time travel and paradoxes but also the fact the universe Charles is living in seems to be a man-made construct, made by entertainment companies in much the way theme parks are today. Odd, quirky, funny (well to us geeks!) and very smart, a new talent to watch for.
Mike Cobley’s continued to impress me with his move away from fantasy and into space opera with the second book of his Humanity’s Fire series, The Orphaned Worlds (published Orbit), a series in which distant, lost human colonies which were spun off into deep space centuries before to preserve the race in the face of a disaster, are slowly being rediscovered. What should be a joyful reunion of lost human tribes is marred by interstellar power politics though and the colonists find themselves drawn into a situation they know little of after their isolation for centuries. It’s an engrossing series and I love the characters, especially his mix of Russian-Scandinavian-Scottish colonists on Darien (a historical reference and joke on Scots history). Looking forward to book three.
And once again for everyone who enjoys quality science fiction Interzone journal continues to be a much needed home to some brilliant short SF tales, a good place to find new talent (and established voices) to watch for; ditto Black Static, Interzone’s sister publication which takes in horror and the darker side of fantasy, both regular reading material for me, available in our stores and from TTA Press.
Inception was a hugely enjoyable film, for me probably the most interesting Chris Nolan since his Memento and proof that a big budget film with huge effects and action scenes (the assault on the snow fortress is so very old school James Bond, as the director happily acknowledged). The scenes set during the gravity shifts are amazing, as is the walk through the dream version of the streets of Paris. Well worth re-watching, just like Memento, as you try to work out just what is happening as layers and layers of symbols and dreams within dreams are laid on one another.
Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is probably my favourite film of the year – it’s no secret that I love animation and Chomet’s Belleville Rendezvous was wonderful. For the Illusionist he was drawing on an unfilmed Tati script, relocated to my home, the beautiful city of Edinburgh. Chomet worked from a studio in the city to make it and was inspired to capture the constantly changing quality of light we have in Scotland – the scene where a boat crosses a Scottish loch (in a scene nodding to Tintin, but with more flapping kilt) under clouds which suddenly part to sunlight perfectly capture that constantly changing light and weather, while his bittersweet tale of a naïve young island girl and a failing stage magician, while sad in many places, showcases a semi-fantasy version of 1950s Edinburgh which is simply gorgeous.
On the TV front of course Doctor Who continues to be must-see viewing for me and I enjoyed Matt Smith’s first year while Karen Gillan has been terrific too. Fringe has got me totally and utterly hooked and the new season, split between our own and the alternative Earth, has been compelling. And I must give out a shout to one of the most geek friendly of all shows on TV and one that gets missed a lot I think due to being often hidden away on late slots on digital channels, Big bang Theory. My colleague Iz first put me on to this and now I love it – comics, science fiction and science geekery abound, it’s the best geek comedy around and anyone who loves their SF and comics should be enjoying it. Check out a clip of the recent fancy dress ‘Justice League’ scene here (sorry, it won’t let me embed it)
Okay, phew, that’s it and I know I am missing out a lot of people, books and comics I meant to include as well, but I think that’s more than enough! And that’s it, folks, we’ve come to the end of our annual Best of the Year fest and I’d very much like to thank all the guests who kindly took the time to share some of their favourite comics, books and movies with us every weekday through the last several weeks. I hope you enjoyed them and I hope that you picked up some new readings suggestions from them too (I certainly did). There really were some great comics and SF&F reads in 2010, there are some brilliant ones due for 2011 that I am looking forward to very much – it looks like another bumper year for quality comics in particular, especially in the UK scene, and I hope you’ll join us in supporting and celebrating that scene. And I’d also like to thank our many regular readers and friends who comment and link to the blog or re-tweet us – your support is much appreciated!
Well we come to our last Best of the Year for the 2009 releases and before we embark on my own selection of graphic novels, books and movies from the previous year I’d like to thank all of the many guest bloggers who took part in our annual tradition; I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did and that the diversity of contributors meant there was an interesting variety of choices on offer. I certainly saw some I hadn’t had time to read yet but now want to track down (simply click on the Best of the Year 2009 tag or category to see them all). My own selections are, I’m afraid, less than concise and more rambling in nature (which is not unusual for me), but they were works that really stood out for me in 2009 from beautiful animations to dark and disturbing horror and comics work from glowing retro science fiction settings to real world reportage. I think again in terms of comics and in terms of SF&F publishing I was again utterly spoiled for choice; these works I’ve picked out here are only the tip of the iceberg, there were many more I thoroughly enjoyed this year, but there’s only so many you can squeeze into an article and I think I’ve squeezed in about as many as I dare, so here we go:
I’ve already flagged this up on the blog while I was in the process of reading it; with it only being published in December I think Footnotes has missed a lot of people’s Best of the Year selections, which is understandable but a shame, because it is a brilliant work. Not just because of its ‘worthy’ content which is a subject matter of recent and living history which demands further attention, not just because Sacco is so good at putting the intimate, personal face onto historical events, giving us real people we can relate to and empathise with and a voice to people who all too often are just background in a news report to most of us, but because as well as his well documented comics reportage (and I hugely admire him for going and living among the people he is covering, despite the not inconsiderable dangers to get those reports), he is also, quite simply, a bloody good cartoonist.
From small, almost cosy scenes inside small rooms to larger landscapes of the city and refugee camps, replete with fine details to draw the eye in, to good cutting, from the same location right after a massacre to the present day where it is a market, both on facing pages, one large panel each, simple, powerful. It’s a terrific comics achievement and, I think, the form makes the subject more accessible to many readers than any number of in depth prose pieces from well-meaning broadsheet reporters. It will make you angry at injustices and cruelties (on both sides), it will make you sad for the losses that seem to go on endlessly, but it will draw you in.
This graphic biography of one of the most iconic musicians of the 20th century is one I had been eager to read for a couple of years, since we first blogged about Reinhard Kleist publishing it in Germany. When one English language edition seemed to evaporate into thin air I thought I wasn’t going to see it, until SelfMadeHero stepped in with what I think was their first translated work from a modern creator. It was worth the wait – Kleist uses a mixture of biographical scenes with comics renditions of some of Cash’s songs to give not a cradle to grave exhaustive biography but to give the flavour and essence of a fascinating figure and a passionate, troubled artist. Read it while listening to a playlist of your favourite Man in Black tracks. Simply brilliant. (see the full review for more)
Another work I had been eagerly anticipating – I remember seeing some art from Grandville the year before last at the Edinburgh Book Festival where Bryan was speaking. The lovely clothbound hardback is a lovely looking book and the work itself is a delightful Steampunk science fiction piece, set in an alternate history with anthropomorphic characters (our lead hero, a Scotland Yard detective, is a badger) entangled in an international conspiracy with echoes of our own troubled present. All of this is depicted in Bryan’s fabulous art, with wonderful characters, some truly gorgeous depictions of an alternative Belle Époque Paris – the eponymous Grandville. Add in a good murder-conspiracy tale and a ton of references of all sorts, from nods to famous performers of the period to Tintin to Rupert the Bear, you’ll find yourself going back over it again and finding more details and references you didn’t get before.
I was quite surprised not to see this being mentioned more in people’s favourites of the year, perhaps because of its brevity or perhaps because it was way back in April and there’s been a lot of comics since then and its easy to forget just what you read this year among so many (I know I had to think about some, did I read that this year or the end of last? Oh yes…). Its a little annoying that its so open-ended, but then again its part of a triple whammy of new LOEG work, so that’s not really a criticism. Kev’s artwork is, as always, brilliant and full of little sneaky details that demand going back over it with a magnifying glass while Alan, of course, delivers an intriguing story layered in more references than I can take in, even after he discussed many of them with Pádraig here on the blog.
I missed reading this when D&Q first did it in North America but picked it up when Cape published the UK edition in 2009. Travel Literature is a very popular genre in prose books and its surprising that relatively few comics creators work in that area because the visual element adds a lot in describing other lands and cultures. With Delisle spending a good, long time in Burma (his wife is working for Médecins Sans Frontières there and he and their baby go along). Travel Lit, for me anyway, has always worked best when the writer is immersed into a country and culture most of us won’t get to know, which is harder and harder to do in our modern era of easy global travel. Burma, however, with its dreadful repressive regime of ‘the Generals’ remains inaccessible and secretive, so as with his previous works on China and North Korea Delisle is, like the best Travel Lit writers, exploring a place largely hidden to most of us and its fascinating.
Deslisle’s artwork is fairly simple but effective and enjoyably easy on the eye, whether he is describing Buddhist monks, the friends he makes locally or the rich heritage of that troubled country. Its often laced with humour, from Delisle preparing for foreign travel by checking the language options on his Star Trek DVDs to cultural misunderstandings and the way he depicts the tyrannical Generals (small, self important uniformed dwarves) pokes fun at people who deserve to be ridiculed – a small act which would cause dreadful consequences for a Burmese citizen though. As he settles into life in Burma there are constant reminders that he can’t take for granted those freedoms we have in Western countries; giving an interview to a Western magazine he finds out later he may inadvertently cause problems for friends he is teaching art and animation to as the repressive authorities will associate his comments with them. Trips into the countryside afford Delisle the chance to draw both simple village life scenes and glorious temples at holy sites.
Throughout it all the invisible shadow of Aung San Suu Kyi looms, referred to by locals simply as ‘The Lady’, never seen in her home imprisonment but a constant presence. Its funny, its charming, its moving in places and it explores a culture most of us will never get to experience directly. Absolutely wonderful stuff and a book I’ve been recommending to non comics readers to show how diverse and accessible the medium is.
The name’s Slade, Sam Slade. That’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you, tin head! Ah, Sam Slade, one of my earliest and happiest of 2000 AD memories. An old detective who hunts down errant robots, he is dispatched to a world built and ‘manned’ by robots in anticipation of human colonists – all of whom vanish never to be heard of again after landing. So Sam is sent by unscrupulous colony bosses, his lightspeed shields sabotaged so he arrives at Verdus some decades younger (his young pilot is regressed to a foul mouthed infant) and has to face down an entire planet of comically insane robots.
Wagner and Grant deliver a great science fiction gumshoe character with piles of often sarcastic humour (a 2000 AD trademark, SF and smartarse humour) while Ian Gibson comes up with some of the weirdest, whackiest and simply brilliant robot designs (a cast of thousands!) I’ve ever seen. Now collected into a huge, great value omnibus like the Judge Dredd Case Files series. Sure, some of this comes from it being a nostalgia trip for many of us, but nostalgia aside its still a bloody brilliant bit of Brit comics writing and art.
Okay, technically this is a children’s picture book rather than comic, but the two forms have a lot of overlap and one of our favourite comics creators, Sarah McIntyre, produced the art for Morris, a delightfully gross, disgusting monster that will make boring old adults feel sick while children (and big kids at heart, of course) will laugh and love it. Simply wonderful – and disgusting! – fun.
Like Kleist’s Cash book this is another work from Europe that I was waiting and hoping someone would translate into English and thankfully Fanfare/Ponent Mon stepped up. Its not the easiest read – the whole comic is Linthout, a hugely successful comics creator in Belgium, essentially trying to work through the turmoil of emotions caused by the suicide of his son. Losing a loved one is immensely hard, losing them suddenly harder still, but to lose a child and to suicide? How do you continue as a parent after your pride and joy has ripped themselves from your life by their own hand? Linthout’s art here is a deliberately rough and unfinished style, sharing some of the artist’s own sense of being bereft and rudderless, filled with conflicting emotions of deep sadness and anger.
His mental breakdown and increasing sense of unreality sometimes throws up scenes which seem almost humorous – a feeling emphasised by his art style, which has a humorous comic look to it – except of course, given the theme it isn’t funny at all, its sad, its disturbing. Throughout the rough artwork his son is a constant presence, but when seen its only ever as the chalk outline left by the police around his body after he leapt to his death, giving him a cartoony, almost Gumby-esque look which again, under other circumstances, would be humorous; the conflict between that humorous look of many images with the sadness of the events and feelings the portray is quite unsettling, as indeed it should be, and I’d assume that was part of Linthout’s intention, sharing a tiny fraction of the confusion and turmoil his mind is suffering as it tries to understand and process what has happened to his boy. I found it quite difficult to read to be honest; too upsetting sometimes, so I had to read it in little bursts, but I’m glad I did, its a remarkable, personal work from a European creator most of the Anglophone world (including me) won’t be familiar with, trying to come to terms with what must be every parent’s worst fear, losing their child.
Honourable mentions also go to Jamilti and Other Stories by Rutu Modan (UK edition again), which may not be up there her Exit Wounds but which still had some fine short gems in the collection of early work and a couple of nice little tricks on the reader too (not least those locked lips on the cover and what they actually denote when you read that story). I didn’t pick up Jeff Lemire’s Complete Essex County as I already had the original three volumes, but if you haven’t got those then I’ve also got to recommend the complete edition which came out in 2009 as a book you really should have.
Crumb’s The Book of Genesis also has to get a mention – its certainly not my favourite, but where I found some sections irritating that’s not Crumb’s fault, its his co-author who he is adapting (presumably Almighty God) and my own dislike of organised religion which made it difficult for me. And endless ‘this person begat this person who begat that person who lived 460 years and 460 years were his days’ is a bit wearisome (it may be the word of God if you are a believer, but man, that deity needed an editor badly). But that aside it’s a major work by one of our major, influential cartoonists and while the original stories he is drawing from (literally) may be, in my view, badly written and the religious beliefs of the characters want me to loose Richard Dawkins on the nearest Bible Class, the artwork is superb and a reminder of what a bloody good artist Crumb is. Yes, it is Crumb so there are a lot of very large bottomed women wandering the Holy Land, but still his art is a joy and the heavy black and white suits the Old Testament work very well. And he also gets props not just for the scope of the work but for a graphic novel which achieved widespread coverage well outside the comics sphere, hopefully getting some more non comics folk to dip their toes in the medium
This was a lovely surprise, a present from Leo and his wife Peggy and, I have to say, one of the most enjoyable books I read all year. I’ve been lucky enough to read Leo’s previous autobiographical works and I was delighted when he told me he was working on this new volume, which mostly covers more recent years. Leo opens with a short discourse on Comedy and his old friend, The Absurd, as if giving a cosmology lecture but instead of matter and anti-matter in the creation of the universe he discusses Comedy and the forces of Anti-Comedy and that oppressive Almighty Power, to which one should always make a certain two-fingered gesture.
This opening had me laughing out loud, rather disconcerting other passengers on the train I was on at the time, but I didn’t care. Leo makes a serious point about the events and the grim-faced, usually humourless people who can and do make life for everyone more miserable and how it is Comedy’s role to fight those forces (an assertion I completely agree with). Its not a flippant point, its serious, but delivered in a wonderfully humorous way. I could imagine the spirits of Buster Keaton, Spike Milligan and Bill Hicks nodding their agreement with him. There’s a lot of travel in this volume as Leo and Peggy are involved in various exhibitions and conventions at home and abroad. Its interesting to learn about the ways Leo has experimented with various folks over the years to achieve the best possible quality prints of some of his original work, which is too fragile and too susceptible to the ravages of age and environment (aren’t we all?) to travel for exhibitions; contemporary artists will almost certainly pick up some ideas for exhibiting their own work from his experiences.
Often these exhibitions involve more of the great and the good in the Brit comics community and it’s rather wonderful to read about some very famous names who all pitch in with suggestions and help for exhibitions. Leo also discusses his work for the Guardian and the approaches of the BBC for the Comics Britannia series, for which his presence was pretty much essential, and his own wariness over contracts with the media but how it all worked out. Its funny, it’s a nice insight into the life of one of our most esteemed comics creators, but mostly its simply a delightful read, mixing anecdotes and art, serious points and humour. It left me with a big smile on my face. The book itself is lovely – actually hand-bound, a rarity in this day and age, making it all the more special (and urging me to enjoy the tactile sense of it, running fingers along the spine, sniffing the paper). Of course this also means it is produced in a fairly small number and is quite pricey and, while its well worth it (as well as being a great read, it’s a highly collectable tome any bibliophile would love to have on their shelves) obviously not everyone who would love to read it could afford it, but don’t despair, because Leo has generously had the text placed onto his site for everyone to enjoy and you should take advantage of that.
Since Mike’s previous Felix Castor novels have all featured on my earlier Best of the Year picks it won’t be a surprise to regular readers that his latest one is again one of my faves. I admit it, I’m quite addicted to this series, although not for the first time I wonder where on earth Mike gets the time to pen multiple comics series and prose novels. Through the previous novels featuring our down-at-heels freelance exorcist Mike has provided not only a gripping story but built up the background around Castor and the other characters, a world almost like ours except the supernatural is real, the dead sometimes walk and there are other, more dangerous things out there.
Like a powerful demon welded to the soul of Castor’s best friend, kept safely caged for years and now loose and cutting a swathe through London. Driven by circumstances Castor is forced to return to his old employer, a ruthless scientist who experiments on the undead, werekind and ghosts with a total lack of morality. With more blood and guilt on his hands Mike seriously pushes Castor into events and actions which are totally gripping. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, its one of the best series going right now.
Another real world meets supernatural series that I’ve been addicted to and another book from a scribe also noted for his comics work, Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series of novels, which have taken the often cliché-ridden vampire genre and given them a real Mean Streets edge to them, more Scorcese meets Chandler than Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer. Sadly this is the final book in the series and although I’ve been addicted to the series since the beginning I have to admit I think Charlie is right to contain it within a set limit and not simply keep going endlessly. It certainly piles on the dramatic tension – with the end coming, Pitt down and out (and indeed living in the sewers at the start), the various Manhattan vampire groups at war, the love of his life now vampirised and living in a vamp community now run by someone he despises, its all to play for and in the unflinchingly brutal world of street violence Charlie depicts you know that you can’t take the survival of any of the characters for granted, not even Pitt himself.
Its all rapidly going pear shaped in the Manhattan vampire world, with Pitt pulled every which way in his attempt to get to where he wants, making deals and double deals and all the time trying to work his own angle, his one aim to get back to his girl, knowing fine well that there’s every chance that even if he makes it to her against the odds she may well tell him to crawl right back down that sewer pipe. Add in a Romeo and Juliet romance with star-crossed mortal and vampire (Huston gleefully riffing on Twilight, perhaps, in his own inimitable style?) and you’ve got a vamp tale told in hardboiled Noir style. Many characters are going to be changed, maimed or even dead before the end of this and its hugely compelling.
Neal is one of the consistently best from the impressive roster of top class SF writers we’re lucky enough to have right now in the UK, one of my go-to writers for solid, inventive SF that also delivers a ton of action, not to mention some quite devious nastiness. Especially when Prador are involved. This follows on from events in The Voyage of the Sable Keech, with the Old Captain Orbus trying to overcome the last few centuries of his mis-spent past and personality changes brought about by the Spatterjay virus and the Prador Vrell now infected by the virus and mutating rapidly. Their paths will cross, drawing in the Prador Kingdom and the Polity, uncovering secrets, risking a new war and awakening something ancient which should be left well alone. Its fast paced, gripping, often downright brutal (although like Richard Morgan the violence rarely feels gratuitous, there’s a moral dimension and consequence to violent actions and pasts), solid right down the line.
The end of human civilisation has come, almost every single person wiped out in a short space of town. Towns and cities are deteriorating without maintenance and a few shattered survivors find a quite space in a country house, unsure why they were spared or what to do next, whiling away the time and their trauma swapping stories over some good beers at night. Ale is central to this apocalypse; it’s the social glue that helps the disparate survivors bond together and it’s the trigger for flashbacks to the better times before the end of the world. The aroma of a particular beer, its colour, its taste and how its bound in to memories of happier times, drinking a pint of this or that real ale on a warm, summer day in a pub’s beer garden, idly passing a day with the woman you love, talking, drinking, kissing…
But that world’s gone, isn’t it? And our survivors know their supplies are running low, but are loathe to face the reality of their situation or to go foraging for more because in the distance over the city there are shapes that aren’t birds… When a mysterious rider arrives and takes shelter for a few days with them he seems to know all about each of them and what they lost as the world of mankind crumbled. When he leaves they are all given the strong urge to set out on a quest – a very British quest. The world has ended and they are going to seek out the last pub in existence which their mystery guest told them about. Where there is endless food and beer and its safe. The world ended and the last great haven – if it actually exists – is a pub!
It sounds light-hearted, a bit Shaun of the Dead perhaps, but while there is humour it soon becomes dark and very nasty. Tim Lebbon is, after all, noted not only for his good tastes in fine beers but for writing some very dark fantasy works, full of horror elements and those are present here on the journey to the fabled last pub, braving the world that has passed and gone wild – and worse than just wild, there are things that simply shouldn’t be, but are… It’s a very British end of the world tale – even the chapter headings are drawn from the names of real ales – with real, creeping horror mixed with the mundane but lightened by the glow of warm memories of days now gone. Unusual and brilliant. But it will make you very thirsty.
This collection of short stories by Peter Beagle is a treasure chest of wonder; the award winning writer is probably still best known for The Last Unicorn and it is a pleasure to see Tachyon publishing more of his work. A peaceful king thinks about war as a way to be remembered, an old Jewish uncle paints an angel who comes to model for him, a middle aged American changes into the last, true Frenchman, a brother’s thoughts change the world to the dismay of his family, a criminal fleeing on a snowswept moor takes shelter by the fire of an old minister who tells him of being spirited away to Faerie… I really can’t do Peter’s writing justice; he’s not really a writer, he’s one of those rare breed of scribes who I think the old Scots term makkar suits, what Borges once referred to as a maker of words. Elegantly crafted glimpses into a variety of worlds; here is an author who gets praise from the likes of Ursula Le Guin – that should tell you all you need to know.
Jesse’s debut novel arrives with a recommendation from the quite excellent Jeff VanderMeer. Now that would be enough to pique my interest anyway, but when I picked it up I didn’t know that, but I had an instant feeling about it, I just knew this was a book I wanted to read. Taking old fashioned fairy tales long before they were cleaned up for children’s book Jesse spins a medieval, down and dirty, violent, often vulgar tale of the Brothers Grossbart, part of a line of grave-robbers, fighting, killing and stealing their way from the Germanic lands southward to ‘Gyptland’ to ransack the legendary tombs. Creatures in the dark woods threaten, demons can gobble souls, a moonlit monastery is deserted save for the dead, a witch resides in her cottage, a man monk raves in such a manner the Brothers assume he follows their own perverted form of worship… The action is brutal, the supernatural elements dealt with fairly matter of factly, the humour often vulgar, the language often very coarse – its not for the easily offended, but I loved it. Fantasy all too often can drown in clichés; Jesse takes the genre by the seat of its leather britches and kicks it solidly in the backside. An author to watch.
As I’ve noted a number of times over recent years we’re pretty much spoiled for some excellent science fiction and fantasy at the moment and space simply doesn’t allow me to list all of the other books which I really enjoyed this year, so quick honourable mentions also go to God of Clocks by Alan Campbell (a satisfying if slightly rushed end to his debut trilogy which was inventive and often disturbing), Charlie Stross’s Wireless, an enjoyable smorgasbord of his shorter fiction and Mike Cobley who moved from his fantasy roots to science fiction with the first part of a great new series, Seeds of the Earth. And throughout the year as usual that stalwart of the British science fiction publishing scene, Interzone magazine (and its darker sister Black Static), delivered some quite brilliant short SF, some from established names, some from authors totally new to me who I will be watching for in the future; still the place to check out fresh, new SF writing.
On the screen front its hard to ignore Cameron’s visually impressive Avatar; the story and characters are totally predictable, you can pretty much figure out early on how it will all work out, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you are dazzling the audience with astonishingly rich visuals that immerse them into another world. And JJ Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek overcame my old Trek fan cynicism at the thought of seeing other actors in those iconic roles to deliver a real shot in the arm to a tired franchise and successfully reboot it. Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was not his best work, but even a flawed Gilliam movie is still more interesting than many other directors at their best and, as always, was a delight in terms of imagery and rampant imagination.
But to be honest those weren’t my favourites – actually no less than three of my favourites of the year I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival and, sadly, two of them have still to gain general releases in the UK, while the other has gone on to great acclaim. Duncan Jones low budget British SF flick Moon was terrific; yes, I guessed the twist in advance, but it didn’t matter, it was well played and put together. I even appreciated the fact they had gone back to the old ways of physical effects even for the Lunar exteriors, giving an almost Gerry Anderson, Space 1999 feel to those scenes. Jones and his crew talked to the audience after the Festival debut and their enthusiasm for it was very clear and that carried over into the screen. (full review here)
The other two which I loved were both animated works, both quite different in style and target audience. Brendan and the Secret of Kells, a gorgeous, traditionally animated (no 3D CGI here) all-ages feature from Ireland centred around one of the glories of Western literature, The Book of Kells and like that remarkable work showcased some beautiful artwork (see the full review here). Also at the Festival I caught another traditional form of animation, this time stop motion, with the low budget Australian film, unusually an animation aimed squarely at an adult audience, Mary and Max. What could be a dodgy area – a growing long distance friendship between a lonely young girl in 70s Australia and a single, middle-aged man with mental health problems in New York, is actually a lovely, bittersweet tale and its infuriating to me that its done so well on the international festival circuit and yet is still to get a proper release in the UK — it got a fairly limited release in some US cities, I think (a full review can be found here); Kells did get a release in Europe (it was a combined Franco-Irish funded work) and its native Ireland but still, months later, hasn’t had a general release in the UK. Perhaps distributors are convinced that if it isn’t CGI and 3D then no-one will come to see it, which is short-sighted and means a lot of people are missing out on some wonderful films.
While I was off last week I managed to grab a few hours to pick out some of my favourite graphic novels and books (and a handful of movies) for my annual best of the year feature for the FP blog (there are a number of other Best of Year picks up from several other contributors I asked/harassed into sharing some of their faves too) and thought I would repeat it on here. Of course, I’m sure I missed out several I meant to mention but the list was getting too long and taking up too much time already so I had to draw the line:
I meant to post my own Best of the Year choices before the end of 2008, but Christmas, birthday and New Year all got in the way, as did my own propensity to keep adding to the list so it just kept getting longer and longer… (I couldn’t help it, everytime I looked at my bookshelves I kept realising there was another book or comic I had to mention). Still, finally here it is with apologies to anyone who I meant to include and simply forgot to get in there (a lot of 2008 went past in a bit of a blur for me):
I’ve been a huge fan of Richard’s work right from the start (with the powerhouse Noir-SF Altered Carbon) and have been eager to see what resulted when he put aside science fiction for his first foray into fantasy – especially as he intended to bring his hard-boiled Noir edge to the genre. I wasn’t disappointed – some damned good action contrasted with the horror of the actual combat, giving the reader the thrill of the combat and action mixed with guilt at the disturbing consequences of it all. Add in some clever commentary about racism, sexism and religious intolerance, not to mention a very sexually active gay lead hero and you have an intoxicating combination.
Edinburgh, Scotland, the near future. The Faith Wars are years past with religion not exactly banned but highly frowned upon by public and governments alike, being blamed by most for the rash of wars and troubles which extended out from Iraq on into the 21st century. When a priest operating out of a normal house in the city if found dead is it a straight murder or the start of a new faith (or anti-faith) series of atrocities? Ken, one of the smartest commentators on contemporary politics and society in modern SF, draws in conflicts from the Middle East, religious zealotry, secularism and politics and along the way manages to throw in a Creationist park with robot cavemen in New Zealand, nods to Scottish history, hints of the future (like the Space Elevator) and also gets to indulge himself in a proper Edinburgh detective novel too. Bloody brilliant.
Charlie continues to carve out a hugely impressive name for himself in SF&F. Like Ken’s Night Sessions this too involves detectives in a near-future, independent Scottish Republic, but there the similarity ends. Called to investigate a bank robbery the police arrive at what turns out to be an old nuclear bunker (coincidentally a real location, right across from my old college). The bank job was carried out by orcs; the bank is a virtual one in an online game. The detectives are about to charge the company with wasting police time before they are informed just how much ‘real’ money the virtual items are worth and how much these games contribute to the economy (which means political friends to lean on the cops). From there Charlie, with much dark humour, mixes in reality, virtuality and even some hi-tech possible espionage. Genius.
Disch is one of those authors that everyone in SF&F respects and yet few have actually read (I’ll confess to only having read a fraction of his work myself). This is a posthumously published short story collection following his suicide on July 4th of this year. In most short story collections, even by the best writers, there are always a few tales you just don’t care for as much as the others. This is the rare exception: each of the tales – some only a few paragraphs, others several pages – are clever, intricate jewels, from an unusual take on vampires and immigrant culture to family life post-Rapture to a cunning visit to the court of Oedipus and Jocasta (the cleverest I’ve read since the great Brian Aldiss tackled those famous characters a few years ago), a seductive water sprite, why the Christian God doesn’t have a wife, extreme performance art and the eponymous Wall of America itself, a Homeland Security construction across the northern border to keep those troublesome Cannucks out which artists turn into the world’s largest outdoor gallery. It’s a wonderfully diverse selection of intelligent works, elegantly written, clever and sometimes rather biting.
There were a lot of other damned fine SF&F books I picked up in 2008; it was another very good year for some seriously high quality writing in the genre. There isn’t enough room to list every one I enjoyed this year, but I’ll just briefly have to give special mentions to the Temporal Void by Peter F Hamilton (the second of his current trilogy and like many of his other books a massively thick tome and yet one that still flies past at a great pace), The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi (following on from the excellent Old Man‘s War; what seems like pulp Starship Troopers boy‘s space war yarn turns out to be clever and bloody gripping), Bloodheir by Brian Ruckley (the second part of his Godless World, some damned fine hard heroic fantasy), Small Favour by Jim Butcher (I don’t know how but Jim makes each successive Dresden Files novel better and better; I am addicted to them now) and Half the Blood of Brooklyn by Charlie Huston (short, sharp and nasty, Charlie continues to mix 70s era Scorcese with vampires; like shooting heroin with a .357 instead of a needle).
And also on the SF&F front I need to give an extra special mention to Interzone (and sister publication Black Static) which continues to fly the flag for short, new SF from established writers and new talent, as well as the usual mix of interviews, reviews and features (the December issue is available now and has some terrific short stories; Aliette de Bodard‘s Butterfly Falling at Dawn is particularly intoxicating and Gord Sellar‘s Country of the Young was one of the most interesting angles on aging versus artificial eternal youth I‘ve read since Jack Deighton‘s thoughtful Son of the Rock).
I can’t resist a good French film with Juliette Binoche; this multi-character flick may have the Queen of French Cinema as the sister to a dancer lamenting the turn of his life as his health deteriorates while awaiting a transplant but around this Klapisch weaves several different tales and characters all overlapping one another (think the excellent and intricate Short Cuts), life, love, death, regret and hope all set in the beautiful City of Light.
Hard to say any more than others have already said – Nolan (who I’ve admired since the brilliant Memento), free in this second film from having the handicap of needing to include an origin story, creates a more complete and satisfying work here, the dark anti-hero hero and Heath Ledger’s psychotic Joker.
Folman’s unusual animated documentary has rightly created a buzz on the film festival circuit and finally got its UK and US release just a few weeks ago. Exploring memories and dreams Folman talks to former comrades about their time in the Israeli army during the war in the Lebanon in the early 80s, with the animation allowing the viewers to move into the nightmares and dreams that have haunted many of them since then; I won’t go into it again since I posted a review of it recently here.
Another documentary and another flick which established its reputation first on the film festival circuit, acrobat and tightrope walker Philippe Petit, following a stunt involving walking a high wire strung between the towers of Notre Dame in Paris, reads about a massive new structure being built in New York – the Twin Towers and determines to break in covertly just as it is finished and walk a tightrope between the roofs of these colossal structures. Rightly, I think, the film avoids discussion of the eventual fate of those now iconic buildings on 9/11, although archive footage of the early construction showing the massive foundations and the ‘basin’ have eerie echoes of what we saw after their destruction. Petit comes across as arrogant and selfish quite often, but if he wasn’t he’d never have managed such a magnificently mad but astonishing feat. It isn’t for those who suffer vertigo, but it is amazing; a man, on a wire suspended above New York.
I love Bill’s work and was delighted when the Edinburgh Film Festival announced that it would be screening this, just a few weeks after it debuted at a festival in New York. Even better Bill was there in person to chat with the audience before and after the film, then he created little thumbnail sketches for each and everyone present on the way out; there’s a longer review I posted to be found back here on the blog.
Honourable mentions also go to Elegy, Le Voyage de Ballon Rouge, Hellboy II: the Golden Army, the belting piece of hi-octane that was Quantum of Solace and the animation anthology Peur(s) du Noir.
Whenever we hear that Edginton and D’Israeli are collaborating on a new project we tend to get pretty excited – they are firm favourites with a number of the FP crew. Stickleback collects two recent related stories from 2000 AD concerning the eponymous mis-shapen master criminal. Richard reviewed it recently so I won’t go on about it too much now – suffice to say I thought it was a superb bit of Victorian Steampunk (love those giant robotic tanks which look like a cross between 19th century robots and Fred Dibnah’s steam traction engine), magical fantasy, horror (a demonic Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley complete with zombie cowboys and Indians) and crime, its Lovecraft meets Charles Dickens, with multiple references to spot throughout (including even one from Carry On Screaming!) while D’Israeli’s new style of art is brilliantly atmospheric. Even better than their Leviathan outing; here’s hoping we see more of Stickleback.
I wasn’t familiar with Nate’s work prior to reading this, but I was quickly taken in by it. Using a lot of black and some scratchy inks his art conjures up the worlds of a brother and sister with mental health problems (in addition to family problems and the usual high school teen problems); the way they see and interpret the world is quite different from others around them, which can be alienating for them, especially in a conformist world that demands we all see things the same way or else be judged to be abnormal. Swallow Me Whole doesn’t judge, doesn’t preach, it shows different ways people can see their world and who is to say which version is right? And although we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover I think I have to also mention that Top Shelf have printed Swallow Me Whole in a small hardback format that is rather lovely.
Alison rightly won many plaudits last year for Fun Home; this collection of several year’s worth of her Dykes to Watch Out For strip is a different kettle of fish though, an ongoing, multi-character, open-ended series, almost like a soap opera (but in a good way – I normally hate soaps, but I loved this). I’ve read some of Dykes before, but this was my first really concentrated burst of them and it made a huge difference to read so many back to back. With our lesbian leads and their friends aging in real time its very easy to get sucked into their lives and for anyone past the age of 30 who remembers some of the real world events going on as we pass through the years here there’s a real touch of empathy with the characters, with the ‘I remember that’ factor and also the emotional empathy as we see the characters getting older and having to deal with exactly the same things we all have to, from losing beloved pets to losing family members and welcoming (and worrying about) new ones, health, jobs, wondering what happened to the groundbreaking neighbourhood bookstore as the relentless march of the chain bookstores threatens them, wondering, as they get older, what happened to their youthful fire (one day street activists fighting for equality, another day they are worrying about mortgages and weeding the yard) and why the younger generation of lesbians are often so different from them (good lord, some even vote Republican!).
It’s a substantial collection covering a number of years and I found the best way was to read a little chunk at a time, moving through the 90s and into the 2000s; after a little while the cast became like old friends and I found myself eager to read another batch. I should also mention the cartoon intro Alison created for the collection which had me laughing my arse off and showed that while she’ll handle heavy subjects as well as humorous she’s also quite happy to poke fun at her own and her character’s foibles too.
I’ve been a huge fan of Alex Robinson for years, not least for Box Office Poison (the BOP scenes set in the bookstore made him a particular hero to the bookseller community), so I was really looking forward to this. When the central character is persuaded to try hypo-therapy to give up smoking he wakes up in his teens, reliving his high school years. What starts off as a bit of a humorous trip with a warm touch of nostalgia (the sort of feeling I get from watching an 80s movie like The Breakfast Club these days) starts to bring in the whiff of regret than any reader over the age of 35 will probably empathise with – was that really our youth, did we do that, why didn’t we do the other, where did it go and how did it lead to us being what we are now? Then the final reel takes us into a very emotional space, bringing a real lump to the throat…
Okay, technically this is a reprint so perhaps I shouldn’t have it in my main list, but dammit I love this series and have shelled out now for all four volumes (I’m currently reading the fourth and final one over the holidays) and I think Neil’s work often benefits from re-visiting it to see little details and layers missed on previous reading while the over-sized pages of restored artwork let you feast visually on the numerous contributing artists, most especially the Ramadan chapter with art from P Craig Russell, a mix of the Arabian Nights and wonderful, colourful fantasies like The Thief of Baghdad. The linkage between the Golden Baghdad of flying carpets and genies and the modern, war-torn city still gets me. The only problem I have with these volumes is that because they are so damned huge its like trying to hold a Times Atlas up and its pretty strenuous on the wrists – these really need a home with a proper library room and a large lectern to rest it on (when I finish book 4 I think I should get a piece of tempered glass, lay it on top of them and used them as a coffee table).
I loved Hannah’s debut work, a detective tale with lovely, painted artwork, with a damaged shamus and his partner, who at first seems like a voice in his head, making the reader think perhaps he’s dead and Britten just thinks he still talks to him, but actually he turns out to be a teabag (“a teabag with needs”) advising and chastising his lonely partner as he accepts a case of possible society murder from a beautiful and rich widow. I loved the story and its old-fashioned British setting, perfectly realised by the lovely art. I was lucky enough to meet Hannah in person at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August and I’m really looking forward to seeing more work from her in the future; you can read an interview with Hannah here on the blog.
The Sands of Sarasvati, Petri Tolppanen and Jussi Kaakinen, based on the novel by Risto Isomäki, (Tammi Publishers)
I only posted a review of this a couple of weeks ago so won’t say too much again here, except to say this was my first ever graphic novel from Finland and I really enjoyed this near-future piece of science fiction, mixing ancient civilisations, contemporary environmental concerns and geology, all executed in a style reminiscent of the better adult BD from Europe; here’s hoping Tammi make a deal with a UK or US publisher or distributor so it can be made more easily available in 2009.
Another artist who was new to me, I thought Tim’s work had a deceptively simple charm which starts as very all-ages friendly before moving into a very dark place as the fisherman’s straightforward life which he is perfectly content with is destroyed by loss and grief and the self-destructive actions they drive him towards which could cost him and those around him everything. I think anyone who’s lost someone important to them will recognise his mix of utter despair infused with a fire of anger at the world for what its done to him, what its taken away and how awfully easy it is for that combination to drown your soul and blind you to the love still around you.
As with the SF&F books there were far more good comics crossed my desk than I have space or time to write about here, so I’ll conclude this (already longer than I meant it to be) Best of the Year with a few quick, honourable mentions which have to go to the ongoing (and very welcome) reprint series of classic 2000 AD strips, especially the Complete Judge Dredd Case Files (“Chopper for Oz!”) and the total nostalgia trip I had from re-reading the Complete Ro-Busters (collecting the original Starlord then 2000 AD strips and introducing us to Hammerstein and Ro-Jaws, two of the best robot characters in comics) which I’ve been loving (and oh, Kev O’Neill, Mick McMahon and Dave Gibbons art to luxuriate in!).
Props also to Classical Comics – I’m not the target audience for these literary adaptations but I still really enjoyed them (and think they are perfect for getting younger readers into the classics and as study guides for teachers to use); Jon Haward’s Macbeth and Declan Shalvey’s Frankenstein both contained some cracking art which should excite the most reluctant reader. Sticking with the classics mention should also be made of Alan Grant and Cam Kennedy’s interpretation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which raised the profile of Robert Louis Stevenson (one of my favourite authors since childhood) and comics in Scotland with plenty of mainstream media coverage (not to mention being a major part of the National Library of Scotland’s comic art exhibition in the spring of 2008; how satisfying to see comics taken so seriously by the NLS).
The Galago anthology of Swedish underground comics, From the Shadow of the Northern Lights, also opened up my eyes to some new (to me and I imagine to many English language readers) artists, Jeff Lemire’s third Essex County volume drew me right back into that series (all three highly recommended), Veronique Tanaka’s ‘silent’ and unusual work Metronome was a fascinating exercise in fairly minimal storytelling with repeating similar frames which created almost a feel of animation. Andy Winters’ Septic Isle was a nice twist on the war on terror (with right wing nutters as the protagonists rather than religious zealots) and I really must give a mention for Alex Irvine’s serious effort with the Vertigo Encyclopedia as a great reference work on DC’s mature readers imprint.
Overall its been a year with some bloody good books and comics to enjoy on all sorts of subjects, from new talent and established favourites, fascinating new works and some quality reprint editions of classic material (such as the fine hardback of Bryan Talbot’s Tale of One Bad Rat). And I haven’t even touched on the seemingly always expanding range of online comics which are increasingly becoming something we all need to keep an eye on for new works and new talent – the Dean Haspiel-edited Next Door Neighbor series on Smithmag has been a real treasure trove of short works by numerous creators and Kevin Colden’s intriguing Fishtown drew me in then made the jump to print (as is one of my faves from 2007, La Muse). I’m quite sure I’m forgetting to mention some of the creators whose work I’ve enjoyed this year, but I’ve already rambled on far longer than I originally meant to. Mind you, over-long ramblings aside I think that itself can be seen a positive statement on the SF&F and comics scenes – there were simply more good books and comics than I could realistically cover here even I wrote umpteen more paragraphs and I’m sure there will be some outstanding works coming our way in 2009.