Reviews: Lovely, Dark and Deep

Lovely, Dark and Deep,
Directed by Teresa Sutherland,
Starring Georgina Campbell, Nick Blood, Wai Ching Ho

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
(Stopping by Woods on a Winter Evening, Robert Frost)

The directorial debut of Teresa Sutherland, who, among other things, was the writer on the excellent Western chiller The Wind (which I reviewed after it’s Edinburgh Film Festival screening in 2019 – see here), drawing inspiration from the Robert Frost poem quoted above, this is an intriguing, slow-burning horror which crafts an increasing atmosphere of unease right from the start. We have beautifully filmed landscapes of the vast American wilderness filling the screen, but soon that alluring wonder of nature starts to transform into something else, just with the simple device of changing angles, to something less normal, less natural.

Lennon (Georgina Campbell) is a newly-minted park ranger, on her way to her first posting, something she has fought for a long time to earn. As she drives through the countryside to a national park to take up her duties, she stops the car on the isolated road for a moment, noticing a cut in her fingertip (from a nervous habit of chewing on her nails). When she looks up, she realises a young deer has wandered onto the road. It raises its head curiously, looking through the windscreen at her, its eyes seeming unnaturally dark. Her car radio suddenly lets out a shriek of feedback, static and garbled voices, startling her. When she looks back up, the deer has vanished.

On arriving at the headquarters, she and the other rangers are briefed by their chief, Zhang (Wai Ching Ho), before being helicoptered out to their remote locations, each given a territory of the enormous national park to patrol, with a Spartan hut (without even electricity). She’s soon settled in, and out on her rounds, checking sites, there for any hikers who need help. On one of her walks her radio starts to play up, at one point it makes static noises very much like her car radio did earlier – despite the fact she had just taken the batteries out to check them…

 

She has to put this to the back of her mind, however, when a distraught hiker batters on the door of her hut for help, before fleeing into the dark of the night-time forest; on catching up to him she finds he is in a disturbed sense of mind, seeking his friend who vanished from their camp. She calls in the other rangers and a large-scale search and rescue operation swings into action. Lennon, with a foot injured while pursuing the distraught man earlier, is ordered to stay at her camp in case the lost person comes there, while the others go off, but she disobeys this order, and in the process finds the woman, who is in a strange state, asking Lennon if she is real.

At this point it starts to become even darker and more bizarre – I don’t want to spoil any of that here, the build-up to that point does an excellent job of introducing Lennon (and hinting that she has deeply personal reasons for wanting this job – she lost her younger sister in just such a forest long ago) and setting up her post, as well as casually mentioning that a large number of people go missing in national parks each year (a normal bit of data, but here it gives you a little shiver, because you know it is going to be related to something in the film, eventually).

As with The Wind, there’s a strong element of “is there something supernatural, or is it all in her head?” about Lovely, Dark and Deep, which I liked (I think later it comes down more on one side of that than the other, though), and then there are hints of ancient folklore and that there is some secret here, one the rangers may even be aware of, but how are they connected to it, what role do they play?

While there are small but excellent turns from others such as Ho as her boss, or Blood as a fellow ranger near her territory, the vast bulk of this movie rests on Campbell’s shoulders, and she does a great job, managing to convey someone who can be organised and efficient and confident, as you’d expect a trained ranger to be, but at the same time nervous, eaten by memories of her sister’s disappearance years before and also sensing there is more in the woods than any training can prepare her for. An excellent, moody, atmospheric, psychological flick, with elements of the folk-horror about it too, perhaps even a tiny nod to Parisian-set horror As Above, So Below and even a little touch of some of the wilderness-set X-Files tales .

Lovely, Dark and Deep is available on streaming services from Blue Finch from March 25th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World

Do Not Expect Too Much From The End Of The World,
Directed by Radu Jude,
Starring Ilinca Manolache, Nina Hoss, Uwe Boll, László Miske, Dorina Lazar

The Golden Bear award-winning Radu Jude returns with an incredibly ambitious – not to mention lengthy, at a hefty two hours and forty three minutes – piece, which happily pays homage and also subverts elements of Goddard and the French New Wave with very modern, of-the-moment elements (not least digital tech, online social media) and filters it all through the appalling, endless grind of trying to make ends meet in the gig economy, cross-cut frequently with vintage film from the early 1980s of a woman taxi driver (a rarity back then), who share both a name – Angela – with our protagonist (played by Ilinca Manolache, who carries so much of this film) and, despite the decades between them, also share many similarities in their life and work demands.

Modern-day Angela is filmed mostly in her car, constantly driving from one task to the next for her wealthy employers (who naturally expect her to work incredibly long hours for a pittance, while they make far more money themselves), and the camera work here lends an almost video-blogging aspect to the film, as if the many scenes of a tired, grumpy Angela endlessly driving from job to job start to look like they should be part of her social media. Meanwhile she uses digital filters to appear as a bald-headed, mono-browed joke of a man, the sort who worships misogynistic hate-mongers like Tate (who she references in this persona), which she intends as a sort of joke, but which obviously also allow the put-upon Angela to indulge in some much-needed angry venting, and perhaps also a way of purging some of that same bigotry she encounters herself in her daily grind. That she’s running from job to job to record interviews with workers for a multi-national company who were injured in the job (for a work safety film!), while she herself is so overworked she falls asleep at the wheel, just adds to a relentless sense of a treadmill and little changing for most people, always at the mercy of the whims of the rich and powerful employers.

Jude employs an incredible array of visual styles and flourishes – from a sharply contrasted, documentary black and white to the washed out colours of older film stock for the 1980s Angela, to the artificial filters of the social media segments, making great use of cuts and jumps, but also unafraid to sometimes lock the camera into one view for a very long scene (one of the injured workers telling his story, then again, then again, multiple takes so the company can then edit his words to suit themselves, not the truth), making it a visual smorgasbord of cinema and modern multimedia.

It’s often in your face, rude and crude in places, and the feeling that between the 1980s and modern-day Angela’s world very little has changed, that if anything life has just become grimmer and harder for many more can be overwhelming (especially given the very long running time), yet it is leavened with a lot of dark humour and satire. In some places it is examining the way a lot of people have to live and work now, holding up a mirror in a way many social-realist directors would recognise, but in other moments it is holding up a dark, twisted, Funhouse distorting mirror, as much satire as it is commentary. It’s clearly not a movie for everyone, but many cinephiles will find this highly unusual and fascinating work.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: animation & artistic creation collide in Stopmotion

Stopmotion,
Directed by Robert Morgan,
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Stella Gonet, Tom York, Caoilinn Springall, James Swanton

I have been eager to see this film since Phil posted the trailer here on LFF; a lifelong love of animation (especially stop-motion work), and of horror, this film was calling to me. I’m delighted to report that I was not disappointed – this is one of the more unusual British horrors of recent years, delving into psychology, family ties versus our own urge to create our own path, and the lengths an artist will go to when creating something. Just how much of yourself can you pour into your creation without endangering your sense of self and the real world around you?

Ella (Aisling Franciosi) is a young animation artist, but instead of forging her own path, she’s spinning her wheels, helping her mother Suzanne (Stella Gonet) with her work. Her mother is a revered figure in the world of animated film – one friend comments how her work was required viewing at art college – but age and progressive illness have robbed her hands of their once finely tuned skills, so Ella is effectively now her hands, painstakingly setting up each frame of her mother’s final stop-motion film, millimetre by millimetre.

It’s work which requires a huge investment of time and attention, time she should be spending carving out her own artistic identity and work (as it opens the two women are even dressed alike), so Ella is chafing, and it doesn’t help that her mother is overbearing and seems quite uncaring about the demands she is making on her daughter, which increases her resentment. Interestingly Franciosi and Morgan opted to show this simmering resentment not through explosive anger, but through a far more nuanced and subtle performance. Just like the demanding art she works at,

Ella is good at keeping herself relatively still, emotionally as well as physical, instead allowing only small changes in expression and body language to hint as the growing tempest within her; it’s a damned fine bit of acting craft on her part. When illness puts her mother in the hospital, at first Ella considers finishing her film for her, but she really wants to create her own, and realises this is her chance at last. Her boyfriend arranges for her to borrow an empty apartment in an almost deserted block of flats to use as a nice, quiet studio space, and she sets herself up to… Realise that now she has the time, she’s not sure what story she wants to tell (I’m sure many of us who have created works have experienced that phenomenon, our best ideas seem to come when we don’t have time to work on them!).

It’s at this point she meets the only other person she ever seems to see in the building, Caoilinn Springall’s unnamed young girl, who with a child’s curiosity asks what she is doing and if she can look. And with that lack of filters that kids have she is quite blunt in telling Ella that her ideas aren’t good, and instead proposing some story ideas of her own. Slowly she starts to make a new story, a quite disturbing-looking one, about the figure of a woman in fear, fleeing through a forest, being pursued by a slow but relentless being, the Ash Man.

As the girl encourages her not just to change the story, but to start using, shall we say “unusual” material for creations, including raw meat, or organic items instead of the usual metal armature skeleton inside her figures. And it is at this point that Ella’s imagination and work and the real world start to overlap one another – the stress and resentment of looking after her ailing mother, of carrying out work for an ungrateful person, of feeling her own life has been left behind, finally starts to seep out from this seemingly quiet, centred woman.

This is a beautifully made film, and it is quite clear Morgan and his crew have gone to great lengths to craft each scene to be just so. Even at the opening of the film this is obvious – we see Ella in a nightclub, lit by flickering strobe lights, their periodic bursts making the dancers around her appear to be almost stop-motion figures themselves, while with each flash of the strobes Ella’s facial expressions change. It was a statement of intent made right at the start of the film, and one I felt they adhered to throughout.

It’s delightfully disturbing and unsettling viewing, the psychological elements, the stop-motion moments, the clever cinematography and use of sound and music (the soundscape is superb and compliments the visuals perfectly) all work together, while the creepy nature of inert items being brought to life is mined well, making nods to creators like the great Jan Švankmajer (“Prague’s alchemist of film”) and the Brothers Quay among others. Slowly building horror, disturbing, atmospheric, visually and aurally beautiful, this one is highly recommended.

Stopmotion from IFC is released in cinemas from February 23d, and on streaming from March 15th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Someone You Can Build a Nest In

Someone You Can Build a Nest In,
John Wiswell,
Published Jo Fletcher Books,
Hardback, Published April 2024
ISBN 9781529431339

I’ve heard of Nebula-winning John Wiswell before, but not actually had a chance to read him, until Jo Fletcher books spotted me talking about another book and sendt me an advance copy, thinking if I liked that one I might like this. They were correct, and I am delighted that they sent it to me out of the blue like that, as this was one of those rather lovely reads that you don’t just enjoy for good story and characters, but come away sporting a big smile and a warm feeling inside.

It’s your classic love story – monster is feared and hunted by locals, convinced she is devouring people (well, okay, she does sometimes, mostly bad people, or people trying to hurt her though, to be fair), hides in ruins in a remote, dank area (shades of Shrek’s swamp home) where she can have privacy and safety, and also because, although she can shape-shift into human form, she hates having to talk to people and doesn’t quite understand how interpersonal relationships work. And then, injured in her human guise, she is found and tended to by Homily, one of those kind-hearted people who tries to help others.

This has never happened before, and Shesheshen – going under the name Siobhan here – finds herself at first alarmed and wondering what is going on, preparing to defend herself, then slowly realising that Homily helps because, well, that’s just who she is. And as she finds out more about Homily, how her good nature is a reaction to the awful behaviour of most of her family, and how they treat her, the more Shesheshen, still not understanding fully these relationships, finds herself becoming very attached to Homily, and protective of her, in a way a monster really shouldn’t with a human…

As I said, it is the old love story – monster falls for kind-hearted human, who doesn’t know they are really a monster, both have their vulnerabilities and foibles that they share, as they slowly fall for each other in a queer, cross-species fantasy romance, but will it survive when the truth is revealed? Romeo and Juliet, but with monster hunters, people eating and psychotic, aristocratic relatives. And running through it, a delicious sense of dark humour – Shesheshen, hearing monster hunters mutter that they should have brought priests with them thinks, oh, yes, I like priests, they taste so righteous, or having warm memories of being an infant monster, kept warm in the next by being surrounded by her late father’s intestines (he was a very good father, she thinks nostalgically).

It’s about identity, not fitting in, but sometimes finding there are others you can not fit in with in a way you never expected, and how that can really change your life in the most unexpected of ways (although still with people eating – a monster girl has to eat, after all). An absolute delight.

If you are ordering this book, please buy from your local, Indy bookshop if you can – Jeff Bezos does not need more of your money! If you don’t live near a local bookshop, you can order directly from the website of many of them, or go through Bookshop Dot Org, which allows you to support independent bookshops of your choice.

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

Reviews: seaside terror in Punch

Punch,
Directed by Andy Edwards,
Starring Kierston Wareing, Alina Alison, Daniel Fathers, Jamie Lomas, Faye Campbell, Macaulay Cooper, Sarah Alexander Marks

That’s the way to do it!

The slasher sub-genre, like the found-footage one, is one I rarely visit much these days – not because I don’t like them, but more because for the most part they feel pretty played out these days. Every now and then though, someone does something a bit different, and when I heard about Punch, it got my attention – British slasher, for a starter, and using the iconic Mr Punch character? Oh, and it went down well with the FrightFest crowd? Oh yes, I was totally having a look at that!

Andy Edwards and his cinematographer, Max Williams, deserve kudos straight off for making the most of their location here, shot around Hastings. And yes, of course while Punch and Judy shows have been performed everywhere, including markets and fairs in towns and cities, today most of us associate it with the British seaside, and probably, if honest, the fading British seaside, a generations-old act that somehow kept going into the fairly recent era, but was always fading away (even when I was a kid many years ago, it was already something you saw far less than you used to).

And that fits this film perfectly, because this is the British seaside town out of season, when it is quiet, many of the businesses literally boarded up until the next summer season and the return of the tourists and day-trippers (which seem even less each year as the once popular seaside holiday is swapped for affordable foreign trips). Edwards and Williams really make the most out of this feeling of semi-abandonment, taking in garish, colourful signs for amusements and food places, most of which are closed for the off-season, their bright signage now more like mockery of a small town that, outside the summer, has little left to offer, especially for the local younger folk.

And after dark it all seems worse, not just run-down, but creepy – if you’ve ever walked through a funfair as they are switching off all the lights at the end of the night, you will recognise that feeling, where something that was bright and cheerful becomes creepy and scary. Then add in to that the unsettling figure of Mr Punch, who, despite being sometimes being seen as children’s seaside entertainment, is (and always has been, really) also a downright creepy and potentially scary figure himself…

Frankie (Alina Allison) is reluctantly back home, forced to take time off from her university studies to take care of her mother (Kierston Wareing), a mother who seems less than grateful her daughter came back home to look after her, and downright hostile to the thought she will soon leave again – you can feel the resentment bubbling through. Frankie finds more of that around some of her old friends in the town as she and her best friend Holly (Faye Campbell), and later her ex, Darrell (Macaulay Cooper), reluctantly drawn into their social circle, head out for a good time. While some are happy to see her back, there’s an obvious air of resentment from others – she made it out, made it to somewhere else, somewhere better, away from this dead-end with no prospects.

They’re reminded of an old local story about a killer in a Punch mask who is said to attack wayward youths (in the finest Slasher tradition, our killer especially hates youthful character who are having fun like drink, dancing, and sex). They all pretty much dismiss it as an obvious scare story told by parents to put teens and twentysomethings off of misbehaving at night, but we get glimpses of fading “missing” posters on the closed pier and seafront businesses (a nice nod to the missing posters in Lost Boys), and naturally there is a raving lunatic character around the town who delights in telling the kids how the killer will hunt them down. It’s all a silly, old story… Until the killings start…

As the Punch character appears, starting by picking off side character before slowly moving towards out core group of characters, the tension and creepy levels mount, and again the use of the location and season work well (an extended chase on a now empty pier at night, all the noisy lights of the amusement arcade playing to nobody except the victims and the killer make for an eerie setting). I should probably amend “slasher” to “basher” here, though, as the choice of weapon is a baseball bat! And to be fair, Mr Punch is known for walloping people, so that makes sense!

The mask and that creepy Punch voice add to the unease, and the film even drops in scenes which help explain how the killer (relentless but always slower than the running victims) manages to always catch up to them and find them (which was a nice wee touch, some movies don’t bother with that), and then, on top of the actual slasher (or basher) serial killing, the film also starts to infuse a touch of British Folk Horror into the proceedings – yes, this is a relentless man-in-a-mask killer, stalking youthful victims, but there’s more going on here, drawing on both the mythos of the Punch act and old traditions to add that frisson of folk element to the proceedings, which for me really added to the film.

It’s fun to see someone take the old slasher genre and give it a fresh twist, and for me especially fun to have it be a British location for a change (I know slashers can be set anywhere, but most of the really big ones that spring to mind are mostly US-set), and adding in the possible tradition/folkloric element of this unusual and unique (and often as creepy as he is entertaining) character like Mr Punch just gives more depth to the film, while the good use of those closed-up, out of season seafront locations imparts a distinct style and atmosphere to the whole film. I really wouldn’t be surprised to see another Punch follow this one.

Punch is released by Miracle Media via On Demand services from January 22nd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Books: Best of the Year for 2023

It’s that time again when I cast my eye back over some of my favourite reads of the year just gone, from science fiction to espionage history to biography to children’s picture books, and of course my beloved graphic novels (I don’t read quite as many as I did when I edited the Forbidden Planet Blog, but my comics DNA remains!). As usual, I am sure I will realise I’ve forgotten someone after I have posted this, but that’s usually the way!

And if you fancy trying any of these, please do consider buying from your local, Indy bookshop if you can, rather than the chains or the Giant Website That Shall Not Be Named (if you don’t have a local independent bookshop in your area, but would still like to support one, you can buy online via Bookshop.org)

Fiction

Lords of Uncreation, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tor / PanMacmillan

The third and final part of Adrian’s gripping Final Architecture series, dealing with a future where the human diaspora is spread across the galaxy after the destruction of the Earth by the Architects, a mysterious, unknowable, unspeakably powerful race appears from hyperspace and “reshapes” planets, as if making celestial sculptures. Along with other races the survivors on other colonies live in constant fear of their return, and desperate measures are taken, exploring the very fabric of the reality of the universe. Again we see this from the eyes not of great heroes, but our mismatched crew of an old salvage vessel, caught up in politics, crime and galactic destruction.

Despite the size of the book, this is a fairly quick read, as it is so damned gripping and rides along at a terrific pace. Said it before and I will say it again, Adrian is one of the UK’s SF writers to add to your shelves, if you haven’t already, I recommend him regularly in our bookshop.

Starter Villain, John Scalzi, Tor / PanMacmillan

This was an utter delight to read – Scalzi is in his “let’s have fun” mode here. Charlie has had a run of bad luck – he’s relying on a temp job after losing his other work while looking after his ailing father, his marriage broke up, he is back living in the old family home with nowhere else to go, and his siblings want to sell it now their father has passed on. It’s just him and his cats against the world. Then he learns his estranged uncle has passed on, a billionaire and corporate titan, who fell out with his father after his mother’s death, and has never been in touch since.

Now Charlie has inherited his uncle’s business and must arrange the funeral, at which a succession of odd character appear, including some who take to attacking the corpse to ensure he is really dead. It turns out his uncle’s business as just one side of his life, the other was, well, supervillain, complete with a volcano lair on an island (waters patrolled by smart dolphins who want to form a union to get better working conditions). Oh, and his cats are genetically engineered spy cats his uncle slipped into his life to keep an eye on him. And his uncle’s many rivals now scent opportunity as Charlie has to learn the business. Along the way Scalzi manages potshots at the “tech bro” mentality and the idiocy of many of the super-rich (who all assume they must be incredibly clever if they are so rich, of course). This left me smiling.

Dragonfall, L.R. Lam, Hodderscape

I’ve known L for a while as one of our Edinburgh writers, so I was looking forward to this (she had me at the promise of “sexy dragons”!), and as a bonus we had a triple-header of women writers for an evening event at our bookshop, with L, Hannah Kaner and Anya Bergman (see next choices), which I had the pleasure of chairing (great event). This is the start if a new “romantasy” (romantic fantasy, a growing subgenre), which does something interesting and different with one of the most fabulous of mythological creatures, the dragon, and also gives us a compellingly-crafted bit of world-building, including a society with a different take on gender norms.

Godkiller, Hannah Kaner, HarperVoyager

Hannah was also one of our guests at out evening of women fantasy writers event, and I absolutely loved her debut. We have a realm where the royal family outlawed the many gods that existed, which were destabilising society, with gods of all sorts, from the mighty, like fire gods or ocean gods, to tiny, like a god of lost sandals, each with their icon and altars for worship (which fuels their existence), and while many toe the king’s law in public, in private many wish again for their gods. As conspiracies grow across a troubled land, in the best tradition we have a misfit bunch shoved together on a journey.

Hannah brings the characters to rich life, especially on the emotional front – you will really come to care for them. Despite often harsh, brutal elements, there’s also a warm strand of humour woven into it. I’ve just been reading an advance copy of the second volume, Sunbringer, which will be published in February 2024.

The Witches of Vardo, Anya Bergman, Bonnier

We had Anya as part of our trio of women fantasy writers, although this is more historical fiction with a wee smattering of (possible) magic. Drawn from surviving Norwegian court records of witch trials centuries ago, the main characters here are all real people named in those documents, and it will often make your blood boil to read it and realise that, although this is fictionalised, there were women with those names who were treated this disgraceful way by a patriarchal power-base terrified of the idea of women getting ideas above their station.

There’s just enough in there that you could explain some of the more unusual moments away, but equally you could also decide there is indeed some magic involved, the writer leave it to the reader. There have been some great “witchlit” novels in the last year or two, but this one stands out, not least for the historical trial records which underpin it.

The Boys in the Valley, Philip Fracassi, Orbit

I enjoy a good, creepy horror, preferably something that takes the time to build atmosphere, and Philip does that superbly well here – set in a harsh, rural, winter in the US, I was sent this in the middle of the summer, but I still felt those cold winds! The sheriff and his posse seek help at a Catholic orphanage during a snow storm, dragging a hideously injured man they shot earlier, a man covered in arcane tattoos cut into his flesh, a man who should be dead.

He and others had been carrying out some sort of dark ritual, including sacrifices, when the sheriff took them. When the strange man finally dies of his wounds, it is as if the evil in him seeps out into the orphanage and everyone there, like an infection, changing behaviours, unleashing darkness. Delightfully creepy, in the Exorcist vein.

A Haunting on the Hill, Elizabeth Hand, Sphere / LittleBrown

Hand, an acclaimed writer, is, appropriately, a multiple winner of the Shirley Jackson Award; here she is revisiting Jackson’s classic masterpiece, the Haunting of Hill House. Cleverly she side-steps the obvious sequel, instead this is a theatre group hiring the house in the modern era, only to find strange noises and sights and thoughts. Like the original it eschews cheap jump-scare tactics or gore, instead this is psychological terror and atmosphere. I love the original and I have to say I really enjoyed this – ideal for those looking for a creepy, haunting tale on the long, dark nights.

Red River Seven, Anthony Ryan, Orbit

I knew nothing about this book in advance, when the publisher sent me a copy to look at, and within the first few pages Anthony had me hooked right in. A man wakes up on a boat, with no personal memories. He still has knowledge and skills he learned, but nothing about himself – his name, if he had a family, anything of that nature. Others wake up on the ship, save one who appears to have shot himself just before they woke. Each appears to have different skills, as if someone had assembled them as a team, but again no personal memories.

Each bears marks of recent surgery on their skull and torso, and a tattoo with a name (each is given the name of a writer). The boat’s controls are sealed, it is on an automatic course to … somewhere. A radio comes to life, and an artificial voice gives them strict instructions to follow, and will not answer their questions. I won’t say much more because of spoilers, but this has elements of Cube, John Carpenter and even Jeff VanderMeer in its DNA; I found it totally gripping. (full review here)

Infinity Gate, M.R. Carey, Orbit

I’ve been reading Mike’s work since his comics writing days, and here he is doing something new for him – his first foray into Space Opera, with a big, widescreen, multiverse of a setting. In a world very like ours, near future, wars and exhausted natural resources and pollution and environmental collapse, a scientist in Africa has created a portal to parallel Earths – potentially the way to save the world, giving access to near limitless resources.

But there is already a vast confederation out there, of cultures spread across the multiverse, and they really don’t care for anyone else poking their nose into portal technology… Along the way Mike layers in some nice references to racism, bigotry, imperialism and environmental issues across these different but parallel worlds.

Mr Breakfast, Jonathan Carroll, Melville House

I’ve loved Carroll’s works for decades; highly respected by those in the know, and among many other writers, it is a mystery to me why he’s not more widely known. He has a remarkable talent for creating stories that come at you in interesting, different angles than most. Here he has Graham Patterson, a failing stand-up comedian, whose life is falling apart. After one final, poor show, he decides to quit, buy a stupidly large truck, and drive slowly across the US to his family on the opposite coast where he will take up a more mundane job, giving up his dream. On his way he stops overnight in a small town, and is taken with the art on display in the window of a tattoo parlour, prompting him to choose one of their designs.

What he doesn’t know is that this tattoo is special, it gives the wearer a glimpse into alternative versions of their own life, then choose one (or remain in their current life). It doesn’t offer an easy way out – for instance, you may see a version of you that is successful, happy, but that doesn’t mean that life will always be that way, because, well, life. Along the way he starts taking photographs, and these start to weave themselves into the multiple versions of his lives as he attempts to decide who he wants to be.

More Perfect, Temi Oh, Simon & Schuster

Temi gives us a near future in a world very much like ours, but more so, where almost everyone is linked to the Panopticon, a neural net that links not just computers, as we have today with the web, but minds, sharing ideas, even dreams – never be alone! Not everyone loves this idea, and of course it is also wide open to huge abuses, but just as it is seen as odd not to have web access in today’s society, this anti-Panopticon group is viewed as eccentric at best, as a threat to society at worst, and we will experience this world through the eyes of a young woman finally connecting (as was her desire for years) and a young man who has been isolated from it all his life by his dissident father. Shades of the Matrix, Inception and Bill Gibson are woven in with a fresh perspective from Oh (and with a rich seam of diversity too) – she’s a writer to watch, I think.

Ritual of Fire, D.V. Bishop, PanMacmillan

I’ve known David for years through our comics connections (he is a former Tharg, the editor of the legendary 2000 AD comic), and he is also a regular in our bookshop, so when he had the first of his new historical crime novels set in Renaissance era Florence, I had to have a look, and I was hooked. This is the third in the series, and sees our main detective-like character, Aldo, sent out into the surrounding countryside to patrol, sent away from the city, just as a series of gruesome murders of influential Florentines starts, all seemingly linked to an insane religious zealot of a monk who had wreaked havoc a few decades previously, before being put to death.

It’s compelling, with some truly gruesome ends, and David kept me guessing right up to the last few pages as to which way he was going to take it – reading so much I often sense where a story arc is going, but not here, and that was refreshing and welcome. Looking forward to book four this summer.

Viper’s Dream, Jake Lamarr, No Exit Press

When an advance copy of this arrived, I had to have a look – billed as a “jazz noir”, one of my colleague rightly commented, this one must be for you. We follow Viper’s life through a changing Harlem, from the 1930s to the 60s, and the changing scenes around him. Leaving his rural life behind he thinks he will become a great jazz musician, but it turns out he’s terrible, so instead, after a stint working in a jazz club, he becomes a heavy for the owner’s sideline in drugs supplied to the musical fraternity, rising in the ranks, befriending many famous names (people like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis appear as background characters).

It’s a short but atmospheric tale, watching the world and the music scene change around him as the decades roll past, while a personal history recurs again to prompt his own story arc through this. You don’t need to know jazz to enjoy this book, it is a solid, period Noir tale, but if you do like jazz, it’s a bonus. (full review here)

The Second Murderer, Denise Mina, Harvill Secker

“The Montgomery’s money was so old there was a rumour that some of it still had Moses’ teeth marks on it”

One of Tartan Noir’s great crime writing queens, Denise Mina, turns to Raymond Chandler, with a brand-new tale of his iconic Philip Marlowe, one of the most legendary gumshoes of all time. I really wasn’t too sure about this at first – normally I am not mad on a writer doing a deceased writer’s characters, but I know Denise wouldn’t try this unless she thought she could do it both well and with respect for the original material, and indeed she does.

I adore the Chandler novels, and yes, I loved this too – it felt exactly like having that character and world again, but maintaining Chandler’s feel while never slavishly copying, bringing something of her own style to it too. One for fellow lovers of Chandler and classic Gumshoe Noirs.

Graphic Novels

The Hard Switch, Owen D Pomery, Avery Hill

Owen’s previous graphic novel, Victory Point (also Avery Hill), was one of my books of that year, so when Avery Hill had their annual Kickstarter for upcoming new releases, this is one I jumped at backing. Very different from his previous book, this is science fiction, set on a run down, working spaceship scavenging wrecks in a universe where the material that allows faster than light travel is running out – when it is totally gone, people will be effectively stuck on the planet and its solar system they are on, so everyone is scrambling to get what they can then settle somewhere before it happens, while law and order is eroding. This has a real Firefly vibe to it, and again the artwork is a beautiful, clear line style.

Why Don’t You Love Me?, Paul B Rainey, Drawn & Quarterly

 

Back when I edited the Forbidden Planet Blog, Paul’s serial Why Don’t You Love Me? Was one we shouted out many times. Fast forward several years and D&Q produced this lovely, big hardback collection of Paul’s fascinating series, a brilliant comic strip that has you thinking it is one thing, then another, then another, slowly revealing layers upon layers – it’s original, unusual and really draws you further and further into it to see where it is really going. It has, rightly, been appearing on best of the year lists all over the UK and US, and I’m delighted that this veteran of the UK Small Press comics scene is getting such wider recognition for his unique style of comics.

Transitions: a Mother’s Journey, Élodie Durand, translated by Evan McGorray, Top Shelf

“I thought I was open-minded… The news of my child’s gender change hit me like a tidal wave, sweeping away all my certainties. Sweeping away the comfort of my tidy little life.”

The ongoing discussions, debates – and sadly sometimes screaming matches – over the issues of Trans identity in our media can sometimes obscure the fact that, when you look past ideologies, social expectations and norms (and often prejudices which many of us probably never even realised we had), much of it boils down to something very, very simple, something that in one form or another we all do: a person trying to figure out who they are, how to live, how to be comfortable in that skin. Durand takes a mother suddenly finding out her girl actually has found herself identifying as a male for some time, now becoming a Trans man.

There is the initial shock and surprise, the mother wondering how this happened, did she do something wrong somehow? But then through a mixture of musings and performing her own research, she does what any good parent does – she tries to understand so she can support her child. A compelling mixture of informative and compassionate.

Alison, Lizzy Stewart, Serpent’s Tail

In lesser hands, this story of a now-famous artist recounting how as a young, naïve woman she met a famous, much older artist and fell into his orbit would be one where it was mostly concerned with the older, more sophisticated, experienced man taking advantage of a younger, less worldly woman, but Alison is far more nuanced. Although it doesn’t shy away from looking at that aspect of the relationship, it also explores a genuine relationship and romance, despite the age and social difference, and the way she is slowly encouraged to learn more about art, then develop her own, part of the path that lead to her later becoming an acclaimed artist in her own right.

It’s a fascinating tale, also an interesting take on that subject of the older artist and younger muse/lover, and one which I am glad to say does not relegate her to just being that, but explores her as an actual person and artist.

Big Ugly, Ellice Weaver, Avery Hill

When we’re younger, especially in our teens, we often think we’re clueless, that everyone else seems to know what they want to do with life, how to act in most situations, unlike us, but hey, when we are older, we’ll have it all figured out. Then, of course, we find out differently, and we realise actually although part of us still thinks others have a handle on life, unlike us, really they’re mostly thinking the same as us. Ellice creates a story of two siblings, sharing a home as adults after one goes through a rough time, that family dynamic of both feeling and wanting to be needed and help while sometimes resenting being needed, of casting back to youthful incidents that somehow you’re convinced are part of what marked your present, adult self, if only this had been different, if someone had done that instead of this your life today would be so much better…

It’s very recognisable stuff to many of us, while Ellice’s unusual art style reminds me (pleasantly) of stills from a cool animated film, with a nice mix of intimate panels and the odd double-page splash, drawing you in.

Non-Fiction

For The Love of Mars, Matthew Shindell, University of Chicago Press

The Red Planet has fascinated humanity for millennia, from deciding it was a sign from the God of War in antiquity, to early science fiction convinced life existed there, to our modern era where we have been mapping and exploring our near-neighbour. While this is a good popular science read, it is also much more – Shindell covers our scientific explorations and knowledge gained of Mars, but he also takes pains to put the planet into a cultural context, what it has represented to humans in our culture as well as our science, which makes this more human and approachable, and all the more interesting.

Making It So, Sir Patrick Stewart, Gallery / Simon & Schuster

I don’t read a lot of biographies, but, well, this is Patrick Stewart… Obviously there is the very important Star Trek element to this, but the other decades of his life are also compelling reading, from a childhood in a small town in rural Yorkshire, on the edge of poverty (outdoor toilet, hiding with his mum when the rent man came to call) through to being bitten by the acting bug, slowly realising that yes, actually working class lads from Yorkshire can go to drama school, not just the posh folks, the Old Vic, landing his dream job at the RSC, starting to get film work and more.

There’s a strong sense of humour running through it all, and he’s not shy of turning that humour on himself at some points (a couple of times it put me slightly in mind of Spike Milligan’s memoirs). Through all of it shines a love of storytelling, especially with Shakespeare, and the sense of a man who realises how fortunate he has been and is enjoying that life. (full review here)

Wise Gals, Nathalia Holt, Icon Books

This is a fascinating book about a fascinating, and often hidden, subject – espionage. The women here all served in the early incarnations of the US Intelligence services, during the scramble to create such departments as WWII raged (some served as spies and resistance leaders behind the enemy lines, risking torture and death), and then helped to set up the new CIA after the war. That in itself would be compelling reading, the tugs and pulls of war, politics and ethics all clashing, and the women themselves ranging from rural, small-town gals to sophisticated society ladies who spoke multiple languages.

What they had in common was a determination to do a good job for their country, and the bravery to see it through – although this also brings them smack into the incredible sexism of the era – they don’t get the pay or promotions or respect male counterparts do, despite often being as good or better at what they do, so they use their intelligence gathering training to construct data on why women are so important to the CIA to campaign for their rights. This is history, politics, culture and feminism all in one, absorbing read.

Camera Man, Dana Stevens, Atria Books

I’ve loved Buster Keaton’s astonishing silent comedy films since I was a child, watching them with my dad (we both still enjoy watching them!), so this was always going to grab my attention. But Stevens hasn’t created just a simple biography, although this does take us through Buster’s life, from childhood on the vaudeville stage, to the new medium of cinema, to his old age, dispelling myths along the way (such as him effectively disappearing into a bottle when his principal movie stardom faded, despite the fact he was very active in a number of fields for decades after this era).

What she has done is take his life and career, but also use it as a way to look at how entertainment, culture and society all changed across Buster’s lifetime, from the late Victorian period to the 1960s, how the newly evolving technology of film affected popular culture, how people like Buster innovated in that embryonic medium, through to the rise of the corporate studio systems, and to the emergence in the 50s and 60s of TV, which revived interest in these almost-lost silent classics. It’s as fascinating for those insights as it is for reading about the life of one of the first, great movie stars. (review here)

Children’s & YA Books

Bumble and Snug: the Shy Ghost, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books

I absolutely loved Mark’s Bumble and Snug series, and have been recommending it constantly in our wee bookshop, and am delighted to say quite a few of our younger readers have been just as delighted with them! In this third volume our bestest friend Bugpops are preparing for a magic show, when they befriend a ghost – but, as the title suggest, the ghost has a crippling shyness, and the thought of trying to do something in front of people is very scary, so of course they try to help them.

As with the previous books, there’s a lovely wee adventure here, a lot of humour, but also again an underlying theme of friendship and trying to be kind to others, to understand feelings, that we have them and so do others around us – it’s a good message for young readers to learn, but mostly as with the first two books, the main thing I took from this is just pure joy.

100 Tales From the Tokyo Ghost Cafe, Julian Sedgwick and Che Kutsuwada, Guppy Books

I had the pleasure of working with Julian and Chie at their event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last summer, following their previous collaboration, Tsunami Girl, which likes this is an intriguing mixture of both prose and manga. As with Tsunami Girl, the two forms overlap, compliment and indeed enhance the other, the manga performing some storytelling tricks that prose cannot, and vice versa, giving a very rounded view into the characters and the world(s) they explore.

Drawing on famous Yokai tales of Japanese spirits, folklore and myths, our main characters – avatars of the authors – are travelling through Japan to research these tales, each leg of the journey opening up other tales, but with a connecting narrative thread running throughout. There are even some rather lovely nods to characters from Tsunami Girl (you don’t have to read that to get this, but it will add to your experience if you have), in a book which presents rich, Japanese folklore in a very accessible manner, but also in one which is often deeply emotional and personal too.

Mexikid, Pedro Martín, Guppy Books

After chatting to some lovely folks from Guppy Books at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the summer, they very kindly sent me a copy of their edition of Pedro’s autobiographical graphic novel, Mexikid, and I am so glad they did! We’re back in the 1970s, with his large family (eight kids!) in a busy, busy household, and about to become more crowded as they are packing up for a road trip south of the border, back to Mexico – their abuelito, grandfather, something of a legend in the family, is going to be coming back with them to the US.

What follows is part family history, but also a gentle exploration of both Mexican and American lifestyles and cultures, and events which shape families and individuals, all delivered in a wonderfully warm, engaging and often very funny way, with much of the humour coming from a child’s point of view, and the tangled nature of family dynamics (something anyone from any culture can identify with!).

Sam Francisco, King of the Disco, Sarah Tagholm, Binny, Rocket Bird Books / Barrington Stoke

Oh but this picture book had me smiling and laughing – we finally find out what cats do when they are out all night long, and it turns out it is partying as DJ Sam Franciso spins the most awesome tunes around! Of course this does keep some others awake, including the street’s grump, Buzzkill Bill, who unleashes his dogs on the cat rave. Except the dogs join the party, as does everyone else!

Whose Dog Is This?, Andrew Sanders and Aysha Awwad, Macmillan Children’s Books

I loved Andrew and Aysha’s previous picture book, Where Has All the Cake Gone?, and this features the same father and young son, and a similarly tall tale as the boy seems to be inventing ever-more elaborate excuses to explain his naughty behaviour, which becomes ever more imaginative and convoluted (including stealing top secrets and the intervention of a brilliant spy dog, no less! It builds to a crescendo that, like the previous book, leaves you wondering if it was really all made up as an excuse, or if there was just a bit of truth to it, leaving you with a huge smile. I’ve read both this and the previous books at our regular Under Fives Storytime, and they went down well.

Rose Wolves, Natalie Warner, Top Shelf

This is a deceptively simple, beautiful tale, told entirely without words, the art carrying all of the story here. A young girl finds an unusual flower in the forest, a flower which blooms magically into an unusual creature, the Rose Wolf. The animal is missing a leg, just as the wee girl is missing an arm, and the two quickly bond, leading to an adventure to find out where they belong in the world around them. Reminding me a little of Slade’s Korgi series (also a wordless, all-ages comic), this is an enchanting, gorgeous, warm delight for both younger readers (the wordless nature makes it especially suitable for any with reading problems) and adults.

Ning and the Night Spirits, Adriena Fong, Flying Eye Books

Ning has trouble making friends with the other children in his village, and also wonders why the villagers always light lanterns to scare away night spirits. It isn’t long before he goes exploring and find he can make friends, starting with the night spirits in the forest. This is an utterly beautiful work, part picture book, part graphic novel in style, with the usual high standards from Flying Eye. Colourful, enchanting and gorgeous, this is ideal for those who adore Studio Ghibli.

Monster Support Group, Laura Suarez, Flying Eye Books

Channel some of your inner Addams Family with this gorgeously ghoulish tale of young Lowell – 12 years old and worrying about body changes. No, not just the usual ones, Lowell is turning into a werewolf!! He finds the local Monster Support Group where they “don’t judge witches by their warts, nor ghouls by their groans.” It’s a lovely little comedy-horror about growing up, changing, learning to be comfortable with yourself and finding the people who will accept you as you are, all with that Addams Family / Tim Burton twist to it. Made me chuckle!

French film festival: Anatomy of a Fall

French Film Festival 2023: Anatomy of a Fall / Anatomie d’une chute,
Directed by Justine Triet.
Starring Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado-Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth

The first movie I caught at this year’s annual French Film Festival (taking place in multiple cities around the UK this month) was Anatomy of a Fall, which bagged director and co-writer Justine Triet the coveted Palme D’or at Cannes (making her only the third female director to win the award, which is not a good look for Cannes, but that’s another story). At first glance you may assume this to be a fairly standard courtroom thriller / whodunnit: a husband in a rocky marriage dies in mysterious circumstances, his wife was the only other person in their mountainside chalet near Grenoble. Was is accidental, a fall while repairing the house? A deliberate suicide? Or a rage-fuelled murder? The suspicions of the authorities fairly inevitably settle on the author wife, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), and a courtroom battle looms…

Except this does not go the way I thought it might, instead leading us into a far murkier emotional mess of a relationship, of accusations and regrets and arguments. The couple’s world had been upset when her husband, Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), busy with other projects (teaching, repairing the house they intended to rent out for more income, trying to get his own writing career going), neglects to pick up their son from school, asking a babysitter to do it at the last minute. Arriving late, the babysitter and their son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) are involved in a bad accident, the effects of which leaves the young boy only partially sighted, which leaves simmering resentments and guilt over blame.

Sandra turns to an old friend, Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), who is now a lawyer, for help, as it is clear the police investigating the death do not believe it is an accident. With a prosecution looming, he starts interrogating her himself, trying to establish what could have happened, the state of the couple’s relationship, and bringing in his own forensics experts to counter those of the prosecution. Along the way this slowly drags every murky element of Sandra and Samuel’s life out into the unforgiving glare of the courtroom and public reporting, revealing aspects which do not paint her in the best light, giving ammunition to the prosecutor, who, lacking a smoking gun (so to speak), has to rely on these more circumstantial matters to convince the court of her guilt.

The courtroom drama, which in other hands may have been heavy-handed, or overly dramatic and over-played, here is handled deftly – despite what is going on, you feel sympathy for these characters, as every formerly private piece of their lives is pulled out and aired in public, being used by the prosecution or defence to pillory or defend them. It’s not hard to empathise at these points – even if we had done nothing, had nothing really bad to hide, which of us would want our most private moments with a partner or family or friends open to the scrutiny of total strangers, who will judge you on it? How easily could a heated argument between two people be taken by others later and used as “evidence” against them for other possible actions? How do you defend against that when it means having to tell of less than savoury moments by the other (now deceased) partner, does that make her look better or even worse?

Add in their young boy being dragged into this (he refuses the judge’s request not to be in the courtroom), having to hear all of these details of his parents and their unravelling life prior to his father’s death, and you have a very heady, emotional trip. And then there’s the matter of the audio recording Samuel made secretly when arguing with his wife…

Anatomy eschews the more usual flashback scenes you often get in these kind of films (save for one main scene, quite effectively handled, fading in as we hear the audio recording, then back out to the courtroom at a critical moment, leaving us only hearing the event with the jury, not seeing it, a powerful moment). Triet and Hüller make the brave decision to craft events and two lead characters who are simultaneously vulnerable, evoking sympathy, but at the same time also often quite unlikeable, clearly selfish, driven more by their own motivations and goals than being a couple or family, and this is sustained throughout. I think both deserve kudos for this – it’s no mean feat to give us characters like that, yet still make us emotionally invested in them, and it makes them dramatically more satisfying than a simpler good partner / bad partner dynamic.

It’s a two and a half hour film, but I never felt the length, it never felt like it was dragging, it remained compelling all the way through. A compelling and engrossing French film, deserving the attention it has rightly been receiving.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Mercy Falls

Mercy Falls,
Directed by Ryan Hendrick,
Starring Lauren Lyle, Nicolette McKeown, James Watterson, Layla Kirk, Joe Rising, Eoin Sweeney, Gilly Gilchrist

Rhona (Lauren Lyle) still deals with flashbacks to a childhood trauma in the Highlands, involving an injured horse and her father. Following his passing, she recruits several of her friends for a road trip north to the Scottish Highlands, with a plan to hike across the moors and glens until they find the old, family cabin, which her estranged father left to her. On the rural roads they pass a solitary female walker, Carla (Nicolette McKeown), trying to hitch a lift, who joins up with them where they have to leave the cars behind and set off on foot for a long hike to the cabin’s remote location.

The early, almost holiday-like feeling at the start of the hike soon starts to dissipate, as the group begin bickering, then some outright feuding with one another, with romantic and sexual tensions in particular rearing their ugly head, not helped by the interloper in their midst, Carla, who appears to be suffering from PTSD from the Afghanistan war. When these increasing tensions lead beyond arguing to a fight, an accident ensues, which becomes the pivot for the rest of the film, which descends into hunt, and a fight for survival.

I have to confess I had some problems with this film. On the positive side, I was pleased to see it didn’t go down the more predictable town folk get hunted by feral locals route, and instead took its own path, which I appreciated (nothing against the revenge of locals type story, but we have had plenty of those). And the cinematography is superb, with John Rhodes using the camera work to bring out the Scottish Highlands location for the best, with some amazing landscape and drone shots.

On the other hand the character’s infighting felt too forced, that it suddenly comes to a head when they are miles from the nearest town, in the middle of the isolated countryside, and it also suffers from that affliction of many such films, namely The Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make. There are a couple here in particular, including an absolutely pivotal one, where I simply found it hard to believe that all of the characters would agree with a single other person (one they don’t even know well) that they should do something they all know is wrong, and go along with it so easily. It felt very much like they do something purely because the film-makers decided this was how to move to the next phase of the story, and not because it made any sense in terms of characters or logical narrative structure, and it really irked me.

That said, the hunt and evade segment of the story that it leads to is handled very well, even if you can predict how some of the inevitable deaths will come (again that Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make, which usually leads to me shouting at the screen). Despite those niggles, this main part of the film proved to be good, ratcheting up the tension, and again making the most of the landscape and terrain to stage some significant moments, and I also liked the fact that much of the film is carried by two female leads (Lyle and McKeown). So a bit of a mixed bag, for me at least, but still a decent bit to interest the viewer, and worth a look.

Mercy Falls is out now on digital from Bingo Films

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Making It So – a Memoir

Making It So: a Memoir,
Patrick Stewart,
Published Simon & Schuster

Sir Patrick Stewart recounts scenes from his remarkable life and career, a winding path that has taken him from a young Yorkshire lad in a small town, in a house with an outside loo and days where he and his mum would pretend to be out when the rent man called, to a young man trying to make his way in the world, finding through much encouragement from others who see his potential, that a career in acting is not just for the “posh” folk, but someone like him too, to being a young student actor in the Bristol Old Vic, moving around repetory theatre work, learning his craft, his dream job of being at the Royal Shakespeare Company, then slowly being drawn into film and television… And of course, to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, not to mention leading the X-Men. And somehow still managing to keep his love of live theatre alive, still pushing himself into new works.

Despite my heavy reading load, I must confess it’s not often I pick up biographical works, but, well, come on, it’s Patrick Stewart. I think my first memory of him – although I wouldn’t really know who he was at this stage – was in the remarkable BBC production of I, Claudius, and of course I saw him appear again in films like Dune and, one of my all-time favourites, Boorman’s magnificent Excalibur, where his knight is the first to support the young Arthur (“I saw what I saw – if a boy has been chosen, a boy shall be king!”). And then there is the matter of being the skipper of a certain starship, a ship that is close to my heart and that of millions of others…

To his great credit, Patrick obviously understands that his Star Trek days cast a long shadow over his public perception, but as with his rightly-lauded stage work, he takes that (and clearly has appreciation for it and what it has given him) and uses it to not only explore Trek, but to take even those who mostly know him principally for that work, and introduce them gently to a far wider world (especially Shakespeare). Yes, of course, being an autobiography, this takes us through his life, from childhood to his eighties, and there’s a lot to love here (some of his early, childhood memories in Yorkshire put me in mind of Spike Milligan’s memoirs in places, there’s a humour underlying it that often made me smile, despite the fact some of that life was damned hard).


(two knights of the stage, Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Patrick Stewart, in their Waiting for Godot bowler hats, pic from Patrick Stewart’s Twitter)

But it’s the art and craft of acting and storytelling that are really foremost here, and Patrick’s love for acting, especially on the stage with his fellow actors and an audience, learning how to craft a character, explore the story and the emotions and motivations, how to express them, that’s what comes out most here, again and again. It runs through the entire book, from the earliest days right to the present, especially his deep love for Shakespeare, and what the Bard’s works can tell us of human nature, something he is still passionate about in his eighties (think of him doing daily online reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets during the onerous days of the Lockdown).

You can see the evolution of Patrick as a person and as an actor throughout these decades; indeed the one is often synonymous with the other – certain roles influence the actor’s state of mind (both for good and ill), while of course their personal experiences give them deeper insights into the world and humanity, which gives them new reservoirs to draw on when interpreting a character and bringing them so convincingly to life that we, the audience, believe in them. Rather wonderfully, it’s clear right to the last pages that this is still, in his eighties, a process that continues: he’s still learning, and taking those experiences to channel into his acting, which is a good thing for any artist, and not a bad thing for any person at all to retain that ability and desire.

There’s a lot of self-deprecating humour here – Patrick isn’t shy of pointing out when he made mistakes or simply didn’t know what was what. He recounts meeting Sting on the set of Dune and, being mostly a classical music fan, he had no idea who he was and thought he played in a police band for a moment (he chuckles and adds that Sting has now forgiven him). Given the sheer amount of talented people he has worked with during his long career, there are also, as you might expect, a lot of other now-famous names who crop up. Seeing a young actor whose performance he greatly admires – a young David Warner, on stage, then relating about getting to work with David much later (especially the powerful Chain of Command two-parter in TNG, where David played the Cardassian torturing Picard, most of the scenes just these two actors playing off each other’s strengths). Or the time he was working in theatre in the mid 1960s with a young Jane Asher, when her then-boyfriend Paul McCartney arrives to pick her up in his new Aston Martin, says hello to Patrick and explains Jane has told him he like cars, so here are the keys, grab your girlfriend, we’re going for a ride and you’re driving.

Naturally the chapters on making Star Trek are, to coin an old Vulcan phrase, “fascinating”. Patrick explains how unused he was to episodic television and the tight rush filming each episode required, how as the older actor in the cast he felt he had to set an example and tell his colleagues off for too much larking around on set, with them responding yes, they should dial it down a bit, but he in turn needed to lighten up (and he comes to realise yes, he should, much as Picard did too in later seasons). He also recounts how Roddenberry didn’t seem too keen on him at all, a cause for much regret because he admired what Roddenberry had created. How most of them thought the show would be a “one and done”, i.e. cancelled after one season, because nobody could recreate the lightning in a bottle that made the original Trek so beloved by generations, and how he wasn’t too worried about that because he would return to theatre.


(Sir Patrick Stewart in his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: the Next Generation, (c) Paramount)

As we all know, that was not how The Next Generation turned out, and as it continued and grew, so too did Patrick, not just as an actor inhabiting and evolving his character, but in his own life. His colleagues become a family, and some of them introduce him to the world of conventions, something that seems very peculiar to him at first, and now he’s come to enjoy them because he sees the faces of those fans and talks to some, and realises how much of an impact the show has had on so many of our lives, often inspiring us when we are at our lowest or darkest hours, and that to be a part of that is something to be treasured. I found the chapters where he discussed going back to that role for the recent Picard series especially fascinating – this was a character he had enjoyed but thought well over, reluctant to return to him, until the producers and writers explained how they wanted to explore Jean-Luc as the age Patrick himself is now, how that changed the man.

While there are many ups and downs, as in any life (loss of loved ones, marriages drifting apart, lost opportunities and regrets), the overall tone here is positive; this feels like it is written by a man who has looked back on all those experiences and realised that actually, he is fortunate and in a situation now, at this stage of his life, where he is more comfortable with himself, and realises his good fortune and appreciates it, both in his professional life, and in his personal life (not least with his wife Sunny, where his love for her and how she changed his life shines through). I was left with a big smile on my face as I read much of this, especially the final chapters. It’s an absolute delight of a memoir.

Reviews: Red River Seven

Red River Seven,
A.J. Ryan,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, ISBN 9780356520056,
Published October 2023

A man wakes up on what appears to be a small naval patrol boat. He has no memory of how or why he is there – in fact, he has no memory of who he is, what he does, where he went to school, the names of any of his family (if he even has a family). And yet his knowledge of the world and his own skills are still there, just his most personal memories are missing. And there are scars from recent surgery, both to his cranium and elsewhere on his body, close to where the kidneys are located. He doesn’t even know where the boat is sailing, as it is surrounded by a deep fog.

And then he sees the dead body, bullet wound through the skull, and realises the sound that woke him was a shot – from the looks of it, self-inflicted. On examining the body and the pistol, he notices he handles all of this professionally – was he a policeman or some other sort of investigator? The body has similar scars to his, and a tattoo reading “Conrad”. Looking at his own body, he find a similar tattoo reading “Huxley”. He soon finds several others in the lower decks, men and women, none of whom can recall any personal details, although all also seem to still recall their particular skills and knowledge, like him – it looks like one may have served in the forces, one was an explorer or mountaineer, one a scientist; all have tattoos to identify them in lieu of their own personal memories of who they are, such as “Pynchon” or “Plath” – all names of authors.

The boat is on its own course, all the screens and dials are blank, the controls are sealed away with little indication of where they are or why they are going to… Wherever they are going. When a satellite phone rings, the voice is artificial and terse, not answering any of their understandable questions, demanding to know their condition and telling them little, except they have to open a buoy which has been dropped ahead of them, which they reluctantly do. Information is drip-fed to them only in tiny increments via this phone link, and when a few of the ship’s screens come to life, they can now see their geo-location and realise they have been sailing off the east coast of England, approaching the Thames. But why they are heading that way, who put them there, what they are expected to find or do, is all a mystery…

I really don’t want to write more about the plot of Ryan’s (better known as Anthony Ryan, for his fantasy series) novel here, because this is one of those tales where the reader knows no more than the characters, and I don’t want to spoil the surprises as they slowly discover little pieces at a time (usually at a cost). I will say that it cracks along at a fair old pace – you’re dropped right into it from the first few pages, the pace, the bewilderment of the characters, the feeling that they are clearly on some sort of urgent mission, that something terrible has happened to the world and that their desperate mission and lack of memory is all connected to it, it all builds into a compelling read that I tore through in a few hours.

It evokes the influences of other works, notably films like Cube and Carpenter’s classic The Thing, along with touches of Jeff Vandermeer’s work, or Mike Carey’s Girl With All the Gifts, while still ploughing its own furrow, building tension, paranoia and a resigned, reluctant acceptance that no matter what horrors are revealed, their only course is to carry on. An excellent, fast-paced blend of horror, action-thriller and science fiction.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace,
Directed by Paris Zarcilla,
Starring Max Eigenmann, Jaden Paige Boadilla, Leanne Best, David Hayman

Joy (Max Eigenmann), is an undocumented Filipino immigrant in the UK, part of the all-but-invisible army of people who often do the most laborious, low-paying, manual work that is so necessary to keep everything in our society running, but with none of the legal safeguards others workers have the right to, ripe for easy exploitation, unable to ask anyone in authority for help. With her young daughter, the eponymous Grace (Jaden Paige Boadilla), she goes from one gig to the next, usually cleaning homes, cooking and tidying for wealthy families.

The pair appear to be living in a storage room in an apartment block, secretly, their domestic life as hidden as their work life, although when some of her rich clients are away on nice trips abroad, they sleep over in their homes, carefully tidying everything before the family returns (leading to some tense “will they get caught” moments early on), while Grace amuses herself by playing practical jokes, like swapping gravy granules for the coffee powder, one of the child’s few outlets for fun.

Behind on her payments to the fixer who arranges for the immigrants to get into the UK for a large fee, she is feeling desperate, when she is offered what seems like the perfect opportunity – housekeeping duties at a large, isolated mansion, while also looking after its terminally ill owner, an elderly gentleman, Mister Garret (the always-excellent David Hayman). Garrett is dying of cancer and is largely comatose – his niece, Katherine (Leanne Best) is taking care of his affairs meantime, and offers Joy not only a large wage, but paid in cash, no questions asked, and free lodgings in the large country house.

Best does an amazing job of showcasing the casual condescension of the very wealthy, upper parts of society towards immigrants like Joy, giving her Katherine that arrogance that clearly thinks “I am a nice, inclusive person” while being anything but (yes, phrases like “you people” will be deployed). Joy, of course, simply has to nod, smile and say “yes, miss” to all of this because Katherine has all the power. Joy is also dismayed to see how Katherine treats her comatose uncle, forcing his daily pills prescription into his mouth, holding his nose to make him swallow while still asleep. This is all further complicated by Katherine not knowing about Grace, who has to hide her presence.

What starts as an interesting drama about vulnerability, exploitation, race, class and privilege starts to morph into more of a thriller and horror, drawing on the Gothic tradition and also the classic Old Dark House, very effectively using both the grand house location, and the small but excellent group of actors. Snooping around secretly, young Grace finds some disturbing, hidden facts about the house and those who have lived in it, and there are hints that perhaps the medicine Katherine is giving to her uncle may not be what she claims. Hayman, when he does waken from his coma, essays an especially fine performance, managing to take us from twinkling-eyed, gentle, loving older uncle figure to radiating menace (a simple scene where he tells Joy not to call him “mister” but “master” is powerful and chilling).

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Raging Grace 04
(Director Paris Zircalla with some of his cast, on stage after the EIFF screening, pic from my Flickr)

This was one of the EIFF screenings I really wanted to catch, and it did not disappoint, with some amazing performances from the small cast (young Jaden stealing many scenes as Grace), and beautifully shot, making the best use of that large, creaking old country home location, mixing horror and drama. The subtexts about past colonialism and echoes in modern day exploitation of immigrants is well done and powerful, and as the director remarked at a Q&A after the screening, much of what was seen on screen is drawn from what many experience in their day to day lives, and it is something that applies not just to the immigrant experience but across society, where those in the poorer-paid jobs are often badly treated and seen as disposable. A brilliant, Gothic-tinged horror-drama with some serious social commentary woven into its structure.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

FrightFest – To Fire You Come At Last

FrightFest 2023 – To Fire You Come At Last,
Directed by Sean Hogan,
Starring Mark Carlisle, James Swanton, Richard Rowden, Harry Roebuck, Stephen Smith,
Severin FIlms

Debuting at this year’s recent FrightFest, Sean Hogan’s To Fire You Come At Last may be short, but it certainly delivers, drawing on the influence of classic British folk-horror movies. It’s a nice, clean, simple set-up: Mallow, the local squire (Mark Carlisle) and his manservant Pike (Richard Rowden) have enlisted Holt (Harry Roebuck) to arrange the carrying of the coffin of the squire’s son Aldis (Stephen Smith), Holt having been his best friend. The squire has sent his man to obtain villagers to carry the coffin across the moors to the church, but none want to come, as the moors (of course!) have an evil reputation for witches and mysterious black dogs that signify impending death (shades of the old Black Shuck legend). All they can get is Ransley, a local drunk and ne’er do well, forcing the squire to also assist in the carrying of the casket.

It’s against this backdrop of lonely moorland our four men set out with their macabre burden, Holt warning that with only four of them they will not likely make the churchyard before dusk, and they really don’t want to be caught on the moors after dark. The squire arrogantly chides him for foolishness and superstition, and the four continue, but Holt is correct, darkness falls while they are still treading this lonely, rural path, the blackness of the countryside at night, dispelled only in small pools of light around them from their lanterns.

And they start to hear noises – is that a dog growling somewhere in the gloom? Footsteps? As the darkness and thoughts of local folklore play on their nerves, the men bicker among themselves, and soon accusation are flying too – connections each had to the deceased (even the lowly drunk, Ransley), until it seems they have all committed sins that may leave them vulnerable to Damnation, and therefore ripe for the picking for whatever dark, supernatural forces roam the moorland at night. Except the squire, who insists he is a good, upright man (so you just know this arrogant aristocrat is hiding a secret!).

This short film is split into four acts, each slowly ratcheting up the tension rather splendidly. It’s shot in a crisp black and white, which is particularly effective once night falls – four figures burdened by a wooden coffin, illuminated only by carrying lanterns, the world around them almost invisible, black darkness, the odd skeletal tree coming into view as the lamp light reaches it, the only other features the stars in the nocturnal skies above them. It’s a great choice, aesthetically (props to cinematographers Paul Goodwin and Jim Hinson), giving the film a simple but very effective look, and it also works well for a small budget, enhancing the look of the film without the need for expensive sets or locations to match the 17th century period.

A highly effective, atmospheric short that draws on the fine Brit folk-horror tradition.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films