Friday, 29 August 2014

Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human / review by Tim Atkinson

With fantasy these days increasingly resembling the long tail of YA fiction, it’s a post-Potter world in which we’re living now.

And Apocalypse Now Now (Century, pb), the debut novel by South African Charlie Human, exemplifies that shift. Cannily positioned on the cusp of YA and proper grown-up fantasy, it owes a sizeable debt to J.K. Rowling’s creation, even when it’s reacting against it. Indeed, much of its appeal comes from its simultaneous celebration and subversion of the usual teenage wish-fulfilment tropes against the colourful backdrop of Cape Town.

Its schoolboy protagonist, the spectacularly named Baxter Zevcenko, finds himself on a mission to rescue his girlfriend from forces unknown, acquiring plot tokens and magical powers on the way. So far, so Potter.

But his school – a pivotal and vividly described location for the novel’s early scenes – is no Hogwarts, reeling from the impact of gang warfare and the aftermath of a pupil’s murder. Baxter himself is thriving there, masterminding a porn distribution network with his friends and accomplices.

His Holden Caulfield-style first-person narration is one of Apocalypse’s triumphs. Despite his porn business and general air of superiority, Baxter’s funny, insightful and crucially, he’s likeable. He surprises himself as he discovers he’s willing to move heaven and earth for the people he cares about.

This is fortunate, because that’s exactly what he has to do.

Baxter’s school experience prepares him well for the only marginally more dangerous and Darwinian supernatural underworld of Cape Town to which his quest takes him. En route to finding his girlfriend, he meets African legends walking the earth, experiences psychic flashbacks to his Boer ancestors, tangles with occult Government operatives and parasitic spiders, and – as advertised in the title – finds himself staring the end of the world in the face.

Our hero’s adult guide through this world, Dr Jackie Ronin, is another of the book’s trump cards. An approximate hybrid of John McClane, Catweazle and Dr Gonzo, this special forces veteran and self-proclaimed occult detective is a great foil for Baxter and a confirmed scene-stealer.

Reviewing a first novel is essentially looking for promise – and there’s much promise to find in Apocalypse. It’s cute, fast-paced and offers an appealing mix of old, new, borrowed and blue (movies). And it’s always pleasing to encounter a modern-dressed fantasy not mining the exhausted seams of Norse or Greek mythology for inspiration.

But it’s not quite the complete package.

Structurally, considerable time is spent in the first few chapters introducing the school, the conflicts within it and Baxter’s gang of friends, only for all this to be sidelined for much of the kidnapping which starts fifty pages in. It isn’t a long book, but even so it feels like two plots – the home front and the quest – have been stitched together in a way that you can still see the joins.

Apocalypse’s brevity also exacerbates the sense that Baxter’s assumption of his ancestral powers hasn’t been properly earned. He doesn’t have to work for his magic, and even poster boys for wish fulfilment like our Harry have to do that. The final showdown manages to amplify this power-trip to ridiculous proportions while also being a tonal misstep into Michael Bay-does-giant-robots territory.

These slips, together with some plot contrivances that don’t bear too close investigation, bear out a sense that Human lacks full control of his material. Yet the quality of the narration, the novelty of the setting and the subversive homage of the premise combine to make Apocalypse a punchy read and an auspicious beginning.

Looking forward to reading the sequel? You bet.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #48: out now!

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #48 features six stories, twenty-two reviews, and a grumbly out-of-date editorial. The fiction includes epic punk fantasy (“A Thousand Eyes See All I Do” by Charles Wilkinson), Oulippean island adventure (“Beatrice et Veronique: Into the Island” by Antonella Coriander), meetings with the almost-dead (“The Collection Agent” by John Greenwood and “Contractual Obligations” by Howard Watts), self-published silliness (“I Couldn’t See Past the Spider” by Stephen Theaker) and even some genuine wisdom (“The Riches” by Tim Jeffreys).

Books by Charlie Human, Carrie Patel, Eviatar Zerubavel, Matthew Hughes, Ian McDonald, Katherine Addison, Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, Joe Schreiber and Henri Vernes are reviewed, and there are also reviews of comics (A.B.C. Warriors, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Luther Strode), films (Edge of Tomorrow, Ernest et Célestine, Godzilla, Maleficent), and television programmes (From Dusk Till Dawn, Game of Thrones, The Tripods, True Detective). Plus a game (Injustice: Gods Among Us) and an album (Indie Cindy by the Pixies).

Here it is: free epub, free mobi, free pdf, print UK, print USA, Kindle UK storeKindle US store.

These are the bakers of those tasty doughnuts:

Antonella Coriander has (in this reality, at least) only ever been published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, to her great dismay. Her story in this issue is the second part of her ongoing Oulippean serial.

John Greenwood’s stories have appeared in Bourbon Penn and Rustblind and Silverbright, but his most recent fiction for our own magazine seems to have been all the way back in 2010, when the long-running (and much-missed) saga of Newton Braddell came to a conclusion in #32. He returns to the front of house in this issue with “The Collection Agent”.

Charles Wilkinson’s publications include The Snowman and Other Poems (Iron Press, 1978) and The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions, 2000). His stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990, Best English Short Stories 2, Midwinter Mysteries, Unthology, London Magazine, Able Muse Review and in genre magazines/ anthologies such as Supernatural Tales, Horror Without Victims, The Sea in Birmingham, Sacrum Regnum, Rustblind and Silverbright and Shadows & Tall Trees. Ag & Au, a pamphlet of his poems, has come out from Flarestack and new short stories are forthcoming in Ninth Letter and Bourbon Penn. His story in this issue is “A Thousand Eyes See All I Do”, which may somewhat surprise readers after the quiet horror of the previous stories we have published by him.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their five pets. In this issue he reviews the film Maleficent. His website: www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the cover art for this issue and a story too, “Contractual Obligations”.

Jacob Edwards belongs in truth to Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but we’re happy that he dabbles with us. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at: www.jacobedwards.id.au. In this issue he reviews Edge of Tomorrow, Ernest et Célestine, Star Wars: Maul – Lockdown and The Tripods.

Stephen Theaker reviews too many things to list in this issue, but given that he has another twenty unfinished reviews on the go perhaps he should consider making them a bit shorter, hm? Or not trying to review absolutely everything he reads, hm? No one is interested in what he thinks about Sabrina the Teenage Witch: 50 Magical Stories! Anyway, his work has also appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism and the BFS Journal. His hobbies include the creation of new authorial pseudonyms and watching the arguments in Kickstarter comment threads.

Tim Atkinson makes his TQF debut in this issue with a review of Apocalypse Now Now. Tim lives, reads and works in the West Midlands. Sporadically he jots down thoughts about SFF and more at www.magpie-moth.blogspot.co.uk.

Tim Jeffreys is another Tim making his first TQF appearance in this issue, with the story “The Riches”. He is a UK-based writer of horror and speculative fiction, whose work has appeared in various anthologies and magazines.



Bonus! To celebrate this new issue, all our Amazon exclusive ebooks will be absolutely free this week: Professor Challenger in Space, Quiet, the Tin Can Brains Are Hunting!, The Fear ManHoward Phillips in His Nerves Extruded, Howard Phillips and the Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta, Howard Phillips and the Day the Moon Wept Blood, The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon.

As ever, all back issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy / review by Stephen Theaker

Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel, 121 mins), directed and co-written by James Gunn, begins with a boy, Peter Quill, saying goodbye to his dying mother. Running in tears from the hospital he is abducted by aliens. It’s the beginning of a life of adventure, and that’s where we meet him next, a couple of decades later. He’s a dumbcracking rascal, going by the name of Star-Lord, on the trail of an ancient relic. So are Yondu Udonta (a merc, his former boss), Ronan the Accuser, and Nebula and Gamora (the adopted daughters of Thanos). And Star-Lord has two bounty hunters on his own tail: tree-like Groot and Rocket, a cybernetically-enhanced raccoon. After causing a scene on a peaceful planet, Star-Lord, Rocket, Groot and Gamora end up in space prison, where they meet Drax the Destroyer, an implacable enemy of Thanos. At first, the five seem to have little in common, but they will become… the Guardians of the Galaxy!

The original Guardians of the Galaxy stories were set in the 31st century; this film adapts the short-lived Abnett and Lanning series about a present-day group that nicked the name – though the film leaves out Quasar, Mantis and Adam Warlock, and reduces Cosmo the psychic space dog to a non-speaking role. If none of those names mean anything to you, it might seem strange that such a little-known comic has made it to cinemas ahead of, say, the Flash, the Teen Titans, or Wonder Woman, and it is strange, but this isn’t a second-string film. The special effects are spectacular, both big (giant spaceships in battle) and small (Groot’s glowy spores). The cast plays it with gusto, but they hold tight to the hearts of their characters. The use of music is inspired: Star-Lord’s prize possession is a mixtape made by his mum in the eighties, and classic (and some not-so-classic) tracks are dropped into the film at the perfect times. And it has a post-credits scene that left me gobsmacked. Wish I could watch a film like this every week.  ****

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Theaker's shorterly reviews

Hi chums!

You may notice that my reviews for our blog and zine, rarely very lengthy, get quite a bit shorter in future. It's not a general policy change for our publication: we're as happy as ever for reviewers to work at their own preferred length. It's just a change for me as a writer. I've been leaving an awful lot of reviews unfinished, because I don't have a lot of time to write, and it's been bugging me.

For one thing, the backlog has been a drag on my reading, because I don't want to start reading other books that are for review and thus add to the pile. And I think a timely hundred-word review is more use to everyone than a five hundred-word review that arrives three years after the book. I'll probably end up writing about the same amount in total, just spread across more items, and with reviews appearing more promptly.

As part of this change, I'm adding star ratings to my reviews. They're not universally popular, but if you're only writing a hundred words or two, a star rating saves a lot of time, saying quickly and clearly exactly how good you thought something was. I thought about returning to our old ten-point scale, but it doesn't have the equivalent of three stars, which I think is the perfect rating for something you enjoyed just fine but didn't adore.

Anyway, hope that's all okay. Just wanted to let you all know!

I Need a Doctor: the Whosical by Jessica Spray and James Wilson-Taylor / review by Stephen Theaker #edfringe

I Need a Doctor: the Whosical, by Jessica Spray and James Wilson-Taylor, showing daily as part of the Edinburgh Fringe at the Pleasance Above during August, is a comedic musical starring two performers, Jess and James, whose hopes of staging a Doctor Who show have been thwarted by BBC red tape. Hoped-for guest stars from the Whoniverse have sent their apologies and only the two of them are left. Undeterred, they press on. Jess will play the companion, and James will play everyone else: the Exterminators, Da Masta, Amy Wand, K-10, and a doctor (not the Doctor), cleverly dodging copyright concerns in an adventure through time and space. The songs are catchy (I even bought the CD), the performances are energetic and joyful, and with jokes about Tennant-fancying and fanlore this works as well for big kids as little ones.  ****

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

I Killed Rasputin by Richard Herring / review by Stephen Theaker

A film, I Killed Rasputin (1967), has been made of the memoir of Prince Felix Yusupov, who claims to have killed Rasputin, the dangerously influential Russian monk. Well, he claims to have kicked off the process with a bit of poisoning, before shooting and drowning finished the tenacious Mad Monk off. Or did it? Was any of the story true? An American journalist has his doubts, and comes to interview the elderly Yusupov (played by Nichola McAuliffe), though the prince’s wife Irina (a niece of the executed tsar) often chips in. This is the story of I Killed Rasputin, a new play by Richard Herring, showing during August at the George Square Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s a very funny piece, cleverly staged – the windows of the prince’s apartment double as windows into the past, scenes playing out behind the fog of transparencies. To some extent it’s the dramatisation and exposition of a theory, but it’s an interesting theory and it works with the characters, illuminating rather than overwhelming them, taking us further into the heart of the foolish man who says he did it. Even now he is plagued by the Mad Monk: the play begins with him seeing off Rasputin once again, this time with a waste basket! Though at first it came as a slight disappointment that Herring wasn’t playing Rasputin (I thought that was him in the poster), the cast is excellent, right down to the prince’s dog, showing wit and versatility. And though I saw a fairly early show in the run, it felt well-rehearsed, the quick changes passing off without a hitch. I do recommend it, though families should be warned that the 12+ rating in the Fringe guide is a bit off – I’d put it at 15 at least, thanks to swearing and simulated (albeit jokey) sex. Otherwise, if you’re in Edinburgh this month, be sure to catch this play. ****

Monday, 4 August 2014

Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Ian McDonald’s Empress of the Sun (digital audiobook, Audible, 10 hrs 40 mins), read by Tom Lawrence, is on the whole a audiobook of two sides. One deals with Everett Singh, off on an airship, Everness, that can slide between alternative Earths with a rough and ready crew. In this adventure they find themselves on an Earth where the dinosaurs never died out, and their evolution and development continued, to the point where they were powerful enough to re-engineer most of the solar system into a great torus around the sun.

The other side of the book concerns the alternative-world Everett who has taken his place back home, and his efforts to avoid detection. That’s not the kind of thing his cyborg powers make any easier, especially when you add best friends and potential girlfriends to the mix – it’s hard to resist showing off. He is originally from a world ruled by the Thrin, who powered him up and sent him off to make trouble elsewhere, and they aren’t too happy that he has gone off-mission.

A lot of the book’s fun comes from the efforts of the two boys to interact with members of the opposite sex: bolshy captain’s daughter Sen on one side, snarky schoolgirl Noomi on the other. One girl shows her interest by making crude comments on the ship’s deck, the other starts a Facebook page devoted to the cyborg’s bum, asking people to vote on snapshots taken while he’s keeping goal. All the awkwardness should resonate with a teenage readership, and at least amuse older readers.

The reading by Tom Lawrence is good, the characters easy to tell apart, the narration moving from action to comedy to drama without ever running into trouble. I wouldn’t be in a hurry to listen to or read earlier or later books in the series, of which this is the third instalment – it’s aimed at a younger audience than me, and it doesn’t push my particular buttons. But I don’t begrudge the time I spent listening to it, and I finished the whole thing over the course of two or three days, pretty much the fastest I’ve ever listened to a full-length audiobook novel.