Archive for December, 2011

Dead Harvest

December 29, 2011 6 comments

Dead Harvest is a detective horror story with a neat little twist; the lead character, Sam Thornton, is dead and damned, doomed to roam the earth as a ghost. His soul belongs to the powers of hell and he has been cursed to collect the souls of sinners and send them to the demons. Urban fantasy1 is tricky genre to get right; mix in too much of the supernatural and the tale becomes a clichéd creature feature, mix in too many mundane elements and the spooky parts seem gimmicky and false. Dead Harvest pulls of the rare feat of getting it exactly right; Sam’s power to possess the bodies of the dead (and the living) makes consistent sense, as does his doomed (and tear-jerking) backstory.

Like any good detective story, a young lady turns Sam’s world upside down, and the tale quickly becomes an action-movie inspired romp. As the main characters run from one dangerous situation to another, we grow to care about the supporting cast and learn more about this world where heaven and hell are so very close to an unknowing (and often uncaring) human race.

The retro styled cover tells us that the tale is hardboiled

It’s pretty rapidly paced; the peril is layered on pretty thick and it’s this sense of urgency that really draws the reader in. The story takes place over a few short days, lending a leanness and speed to the whole thing. A good mystery story keeps the reader guessing, and though some of the twists seem obvious, the devil is the details. (I’m not going to tell you if I mean that literally. Read it for yourself and see.)

Fans of the Harry Dresden series and those who like their modern-day fantasy with a twist of hardboiled detective story will love this (as will fans of Good Omens and In Nomine). I firmly expect this page-turner to do well, and am pleased to hear that a sequel is already in the works.

1: A clunky term that usually means ‘set in the real world, with supernatural elements’. Typically with a healthy dose of horror story staples like ghosts and werewolves thrown in for good measure.

Categories: Books, Reviews

Rare Exports

December 26, 2011 Leave a comment

It is the season for Christmas related things, so let’s talk about Rare Exports, a rather charming action/adventure movie dealing with the true origins of Santa Claus. Unlike the usual Hollywood schmaltz starring some TV comedian, Rare Exports takes the clichéd ‘Santa Movie’ idea and puts a distinctly Finnish spin on the whole affair.

All the elements of the traditional Santa Movie are here; a little boy believes in Santa (despite no one else doing so), there’s a local bully causing said little boy a load of trouble and the whole thing is set in a bleak social setting, where only the true meaning of Christmas can save the day.

Sounds hum-drum so far, but Rare Exports is nothing of the sort; the little boy who believes in Santa does so because he realises the terrible truth about Father Christmas, and the dark and deadly secret that lurks in the nearby mountain. The bully is just another boy, looking out for his father, and the bleak setting is the border between Finland and Russia.

Jorma Tommila plays the ‘grown-up’ and does so very well. He also happens to look like several people I know.

In short, this is a mix of ‘secrets man should not know’ horror and ‘Christmas time fare’, and the blend works fantastically well. Imagine, if you will, what you would get if The Thing and The Santa Clause had a baby. Now imagine it with more white bearded, naked old men and you’ve got a good idea what this is like.

The father and son pairing that the movie hangs on works so well because the actors actually are father and son. The characters are believable and react to insane circumstances in believable ways, and though the bulk of the movie is in Finnish, the subtitles don’t get in the way of the action at all. In addition, the movie is filled with little gags and references that make it a joy to re-watch. The “Safety Instructions” are especially fun.

This little Finnish film has been around for a while; it started life as a series of internet shorts and has been doing the rounds in foreign language cinemas for some time now. With any luck, the recent DVD release will give this cracking little movie a much deserved following. I heartily recommend this to anyone looking for an antidote to overly sentimental seasonal entertainment.

Categories: Geek, Movies

Comic Conventions, 2011

December 22, 2011 2 comments

This year I did something I never did before, not once, but twice. I went to a comic convention. This may come as a surprise to some of you, as you know I happen to be a massive nerd. But it’s something that had never really appealed, I like comics but waving my comic-fan-boy flag around seemed a little redundant.
That was until I found out about Thought Bubble and Canny Comic Con.

Thought Bubble has a steadily growing reputation of being the number one indie comics festival1, and I can see why. The sheer amount of creative talent, split across two halls, is incredible. In addition to the not terribly long queues of people waiting to get things signed by comic-book super stars the place was jam-packed with talented people from every level of the industry. I spent a chunk of time chatting away with indie creators such as Jess Bradley, Chris Webb and Huw Davies , and got a chance to grill more established types such as Graham McNeil1 and Andy Diggle.

Darth Vader, a Stormtrooper and the littlest bounty hunter at ThoughtBubble 2011

In addition to wandering the stalls, talking to cool people and spending my entire income on very pretty pictures, there were panels and cosplayers. The panels I found fascinating, and wished I had time to take in more. The cosplayers? Not as much of a distraction as I thought they might be, and I was incredibly impressed by the sheer level of detail involved in some of the costumes.
All in all a warm, friendly experience, dripping with talent and cool things. I’m definitely doing ThoughtBubble in 2012, hopefully for both days, though my bank account may not thank me for it.

My other convention was Canny Comic Con , a small, but perfectly formed event. In contrast to the festival at Leeds, this small, North East England based convention was all about encouraging the local talent, something that the region has by the truck-load. There was a strong focus of getting people into comics here; though it was aimed at the comics nerds, there was plenty to do for all the family and there was even a chap dressed as a Mega City Judge handing out old copies of 2000AD.

The focus seemed very much about raising awareness and encouraging local talent, and this is a good thing, there’s much more to Geordie comic-book creators than Viz and Bryan Talbot, though it was lovely to see both of those there. I really do hope to see it grow in size and popularity next year.

1: If San Diego Comic Con is the Cannes of Comic Books, Thought Bubble is steadily becoming the SunDance Festival, apparently.
2: Who’s a very nice chap, and was very tolerant of me being a raving fanboy.

Categories: Geek

The further adventures of Torchwood

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Earlier this year, Torchwood: Miracle Day‘s launch was accompanied by a trio of tie-in novels1. Previous releases have included books written by the likes of genre favourites such as Dan Abnett and James Moran, so it came as no surprise that this batch featured work by some of the more notable and ‘upcoming’ authors.

Long Time Dead by Sarah Pinborough is the most intriguing of three, as it stars recurring villain Suzy Costello. Fans of the show will recall that Suzy is a girl who just won’t stay dead, and in this, she’s back again, raising hell. Pinborough delivers a nicely chilling story of murder, other-worldly horror and science-gone-wrong with some lovingly delivered moments of utter creepiness. Just enough is left to the imagination to be nicely chilling, and though the tale runs across fairly predictable lines, the characterisation of the confused yet completely crazy Costello is superb. One to pick up by an author who’s worth checking out.

First Born features the return of well known characters from the series

James Goss’s addition to the series, First Born is the best of the bunch. It features former Torchwood agent Gwenn, her husband Rhys and their new-born baby girl on the run. The small family swiftly finds itself in a remote welsh village with a sinister secret and twisted problems. The tale is told from multiple perspectives, and Goss makes the characters compelling and endearing. Fans of the show will find a lot to love here and it’s the sort of science-fiction horror that Torchwood does well.

Man who sold the World is the weakest of the three, and suffers from the fact that the main character, Rex, is the least established Torchwood hero. (He’s only been in the recent series.) It’s a neat little sci-fi thriller, but Rex comes across as unlikeable (rather than headstrong). Author Guy Adams is a very strong writer who seems to have had the toughest deal here, and though it’s a reasonable adventure, the main characters simply don’t carry the story far enough. I was quite disappointed by this, but I do hope we see Rex again, should they do another set of spin-off novels.

1: You may have noticed I like tie-in novels. This is because I’m a big fan of shared creative works, and I find the idea of being invited to play in someone else’s creative sandpit to be highly appealing. Creating a world from whole cloth is one thing, but telling original tales in a more established setting is something else entirely, and allows for a depth often missing from single-creator works. I do wonder if some people are snooty about tie-in fiction because they feel foreknowledge is required to enjoy them. This is rarely the case, as a good tie-in writer can cater to both new and experienced readers at the same time.

Categories: Books, Geek Tags:

Gaunt’s Ghosts

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Salvation’s Reach is the latest book in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series of novels. As a review of one book in series of thirteen would be a bit useless to those of you who’ve aren’t familar with them, let’s take a quick look at the series as a whole.

The books are set in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, and focuses on the fate of a specific regiment of Imperial Guardsmen; The Tanith First and Only. These are just regular guys, armed with fairly standard equipment and weapons, facing an uncaring galaxy filled with hostile monsters and hidden horror. They are humble riflemen, doing their duty to protect their civilisation, with very little hope of long term survival. Those familiar with the Sharpe series may recognise some elements here; the first few stories were pitched as ‘Sharpe in Space’. It’s a fair summary, though not a very descriptive one. The two are very different from each other in many respects, however, both are character-lead action dramas with high body counts.

The series began life as a collection of short stories in the magazine Inferno1, and this means they tend to have an episodic nature. This is actually rather handy, as it means you can digest the stories in bite-sized chunks. (I recommend reading them on an e-reader whilst travelling). You can put them down for a while, but the stories are deeply more-ish.

Grim. Dark. Gothic. And a page turner. Stock up on them for a long journey.

The earlier books in the series (collected together in an anthology called The Founding) are also the weakest, but no less interesting. As the first anthology concludes, you can tell that the author, Dan Abnett, is just starting to get into the swing of things. The writing begins with at a pretty good quality, but as the series progresses, the narrative gets much better and becomes much more fun. It’s intensely satisfying to see an author whom you like to begin with improve, and the Gaunt’s Ghosts delivers this in spades. Each anthology improves on the other, as we learn more about the world they are in and the people that surround the regiment.

As this is a tale of war and warriors, the body count is very high. Abnett fiendishly keeps key characters around long enough for you to become familiar and fond of them. He’ll hint at dark fates for his characters (after all, this is a war story), and just when you think your favourites are safe, something awful happens to them. It’s part of the fun. The churn of shocks, bluffs, revelations and funerals are the life-blood of this series. As you become more convinced of the indomitability of certain heroes, something happens to change everything. It’s grim. It’s dark. But it’s also about people surviving in extraordinary ways. Gaunt’s Ghosts is a series about heroes, but flawed, fractured heroes who keep going. “Only in death does duty end” as the books so succinctly put it.

So what about Salvation’s Reach ? More shocks, more revelations. More people die and we learn more about the world. Is it the same as the last dozen? Not a bit of it, because part of the appeal of the series is it uses the massive galaxy it’s set in as a backdrop to the drama. Did I devour it during the spare moments? Of course I did, it’s what I’ve come to expect from the series. Did it leave me wanting more? Yes. More please.

1: An ambitious short story magazine, with a focus on the Warhammer and Warhammer 40K worlds. Sadly, like many anthology periodicals, it’s no longer around. However, the same people behind Inferno do produce a regular e-zine called Hammer and Bolter, which fulfils the same sort of purpose. Which is good, as short story anthologies allow both readers and publishers to find new talent.

Categories: Books, Geek, Reviews Tags:


December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Christmas is coming, a geeks everywhere are wondering if there is a slightly odd present that they can give to a loved one in order to open someone’s world to the wonderful weirdness that we nerds take in our stride.

One of the comic-books I love to give to non-comic fans is Grant Morrison’s We3, which can inaccurately described as Watership Down meets Short Circuit1.
This gripping, intelligently written and beautiful drawn tale is a showcase for the sort of quirky stories that work brilliantly well in the graphic-novel format; a sentimental action story about a bunny rabbit, a dog and a cat on the run from a US military. Why are they on the run? Because they’ve been wired into enormously powerful war-machines. The story begins with an Army commander realising what a terrible idea this was in the first place, and demanding the project be ‘terminated’. One of the scientists can’t bear to hurt the poor wee beasties, and lets them loose instead.

It’s the sort of absurd tale that can only be well realised by the sort of talent working in comics today, in this case, Grant Morrison, who’s well known for his weird stories filled with warmth, emotion and utter freakiness. Morrison has written some very well regarded mainstream comic books in recent years, and his back catalogue is filled with brilliant yet odd stories.2 His best work is always his strangest and We3 is no exception.
Artist Frank Quitely draws the three animals in a way that reminds us that these are the sort of creatures we have as pets. The artwork is always sympathetic and makes us believe that they are innocent creatures trapped in a man-made nightmare, doing what they can to escape. It’s the sort of thing that works well in a comic-book, and though I would love to see We3 on the big screen, I doubt it would have the same sort of impact.

This is a book that will extract a tear and a smile from any but the most hardened of comics reads, and as a way to showcase precisely what the medium can do, it’s ideal. It’s also cheap, and short, and a great stocking-filler.

1: If you’ve not read the novel, Watership Down then you should. It’s one of those books everyone should read. The same cannot be said for the 80’s move Short Circuit, which is not as good as you remember.
2: RomCom pastiche Kill your boyfriend and tabloid parody Big Dave spring to mind. Big Dave featured special envoy Terry Waite punching aliens for justice.

Categories: Comic Books

The Nightmare Man

December 5, 2011 Leave a comment

The BBC has a long history of delivering quirky and intelligent drama, be it science-fiction, crime stories, thrillers or something else entirely. One example the springs to mind is 1981 drama The Nightmare Man1 adapted for television by genre hero Robert Holmes 2.

This short, 4-part drama contains all the elements you need for a classic British creepy story; a remote Scottish island, a new arrival and of course, a mystery that needs solving. In this case, a series of bizarre murders, caused by some sort of weird thing. As the cast get bumped off in gruesome ways and more mystery gets stirred into the plot, the tale gets darker and more bizarre with every turn.

The series features familiar faces looking much younger than you're used to

This is classic eighties telly, and proves the point that you don’t need a big budget to achieve a strong story, The Nightmare Man was shot on location in Cornwall with a cast that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched something made by the BBC.
Though the pacing is slow (a common feature for dramas made last century), this lends the series a much needed feeling of claustrophobia. The Nightmare Man is just the right size. Too much longer and we’d want to know more and if it was any shorter some viewers would be confused. 3

Fans of spooky stories with a distinctly British edge will enjoy this. If you’re a fine of the likes of Steven Moffat or Warren Ellis, I’m confident that’ll you get a kick out of this.

1: Based on a book called the Child of Vodyanoi by David Wiltshire. The story is apparently inspired by the Howard Hawk’s 1951 movie The Thing from Another World; the same movie which inspired both John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien. Or to put it another way, the story has an excellent heritage.
2: Robert Holmes wrote some of the more popular and well-known episodes of Doctor Who, including Spearhead in Space, which introduced us to John Pertwee as the third Doctor and the Autons and The Talons of Weng Chiang, which gave us Tom Baker in a deer-stalker doing a Sherlock Holmes impersonation. Holmes also wrote scripts for police drama, Juliet Bravo.
3: TV Tropes calls this British Brevity. If you’ve never seen the TV Tropes website before, I should warn you that it’s a massive time sink.

Categories: Reviews, TV