Preludes and Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman

preludes and nocturnes cover

Graphic novels should, it feels, appeal to me a whole lot more than they do. As it is, I read so fast the artwork tends to get lost, and it’s tough to make myself slow down enough to savour it. It works, then, to go back for rereads – like this, of a series that I rather adore.

I love Neil Gaiman’s work anyway, but never more so than with his tales of the Endless: Death, Dream, Desire, et al. The first collected volume is wholly centred on Morpheus, the ‘Sandman’, the King of Dreams.

We start when a cult’s ritual to summon and bind Death (Dream’s big sister) goes awry, and it’s the dreamlord who ends up trapped in a bubble for decades. Meanwhile more than one world starts to fall apart. Fair enough to assume Morpheus will escape, but can he fix everything his absence has caused in the worlds?

And so we set off on an extremely dark and bloody tale that takes our hero to hell and worse. There’s no shortage of cameos, tying this into the wider DC universe: from Arkham Asylum and a few familiar inmates, to a certain John Constantine, and a character that would go on to spawn (pun intended) further comics and a whole TV series: Lucifer Morningstar (looking not very much like Tom Ellis, and a great deal like David Bowie, as it happens…!).

Talking of looks, the artwork… to be honest, doesn’t do a great deal for me here. It’s fine, but it’s not as special as my brain remembers or I think the series deserves. It does improve, but at this point in both the series and the decade, it’s all just a bit so-so.

The story, however, is where it’s at. Gaiman also draws heavily from myth, from Cain and Abel to the Fates, and much more. It makes a lot of sense that Dream is so key to story telling, and all stories are part of it. I love the interplay, the different strands, the way all these realities clash and combine.

Much as I adore the overreaching story (in 11 volumes or so) I’d have to agree with the author in his afterword that these opening chapters are him finding his feet. It’s only towards the end that I really felt we were starting to settle into the characters.

But, the best is very definitely still ahead, so well worth dipping a toe into the beginnings…!

Trade Paperback: 240 pages / 8 sections
First published: 1989
Series: Sandman book 1
Read from 31st March – 6th April 2019

My rating: 7/10 – and so much more love for the rest of the series

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Hellboy (2019)

hellboy poster

When the Blood Queen, Nimue (Milla Jovovich), first tried to usher in an Age of Monsters, it was King Arthur (yes, that King Arthur, as the voice over tells us!) and Merlin who stopped her. Unable to end her unnatural life, they settle for dismembering her and sending the caskets of her pieces (arms, head, etc) to be buried at the four corners of the world.

Rescued as a spawnling at the end of World War II and raised by Professor Broom (Ian McShane), Hellboy (David Harbour) is about to have his ‘teenage’ angst moment, wondering why he helps the humans kill the ‘monsters’, when he himself is so obviously part of the latter group. And of course, a sorcerous little voices isn’t shy of pushing that thought into his head…

This is a reboot of the Hellboy series, following two films starring Ron Perlman in the titular role. He was so good, even if the movies were a bit mixed, it was a tricky prospect thinking of anyone else stepping into those boots. In fact, I’d say David Harbour (previously the sheriff in Stranger Things) is one of the best things about this adaptation, capturing the look, the snark, the entire attitude.

Alas, reviews were not promising going in to this – but it does help having low expectations. It’s not actually bad, just a bit overly-busy and slightly odd in tone. It is, however, very comic-book-esque, which fits rather well with the source. I think that sways how people find the whole thing.

Still, it was far from perfect. It loses points from me because it rehashes the story I’ve already seen. I was going to say the fantasy-leanings were a bit fresher, but no, we’ve had faeries and goblins and that kind of thing in both of the previous attempts. Ho-hum.

Harbour was good, but the rest of the cast did very little for me except hurt my ears with atrocious, plummy and fake English accents. Why?! Although of course it’s tough not to like Ian McShane being very himself. His voice-over at the beginning is a high point, detailing daft fantasy things with a lot of swearing and a very non-fantastically sensibility (“They were call the dark ages for a f-‘ing good reason”).

Ah yes, the swearing. This is a 15 and they do seem to be going to town on the blood splatter and cursing to try and make the most of it. There were a few points that did make me wonder just how awful you’d have to get for an 18 rating.

So… yeah, and no. It wasn’t awful, by any stretch. I was plenty entertained. But I couldn’t say it was a good movie, or even the best they could have made. Disappointing? A little. But no regrets on having seen it.

Released: 11th April 2019
Viewed: 14th April 2019
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10

The Dresden Files: Dog Men – Jim Butcher

dresden files dog men cover

“Get up, Dresden.”

(Story by Mark Powers, Art by Diego Galindo)

The Dresden Files is one of my all-time favourite series, but it’s been a long wait since the last novel. So, despite not being a huge fan of graphic novels, I absolutely jumped at the chance to nab a copy of this. I hadn’t even known that there was a canon-approved series of graphic novels, but you don’t need to have read the rest before this – or even the main series, really, but why wouldn’t you?

“I was ready. I was confident. Usually that means I was f-‘ed.”

Harry Dresden is asked by senior Council member, Listens-to-Winds, to accompany him on a case. Of course, it’s as much a ruse to get Harry away from his self-recrimination and nightmares, although it says a lot when a grisly murder scene and some non-human monsters are less bad than his nightmares!

The artwork here is pretty good, but given my previous attempts with the format were the gorgeously illustrated Sandman set, this was unlikely to compete. In fairness, some of the bigger ‘location’ panels are great, but I wasn’t desperately impressed with the depiction of Harry himself – limitations of any pictorial adaptation of a series, your readers have their own mental images!

The character still comes across exactly as he does in the main books, though – all pop culture and offbeat humour, offsetting the rage and fearsome power. The story is fairly slight, with rather two-dimensional supporting characters, and a little heavy on the lessons for our hero. Still, while we’re waiting impatiently for the next novel in the series, it was really nice to check back in again with the best wizard called Harry 😉

NetGalley eARC: 146 pages / 6 issues
First published: 2018
Series: Dresden Files graphic novels book 7 (collection of issues 1-6)
Read from 3rd-18th February 2018

My rating: 7/10

The Chalk Man – CJ Tudor

chalk man cover

“The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves.”

Short version: It, without the demonic clown.

Eddie Adams thinks his past is tightly locked up in his head. But as childhood friends and old memories start to come out of the woodwork, is it finally time to face up to the past? Because in 1986, five pre-teen friends have their idyllic summer holiday shattered first by a horrific accident, and then the discovery of a dead body. But the chalk stick figures – they were just a game. Who, then, has sent each of them a letter 30 years later, with just that single stick figure drawing?

There was something in the description of this that called to me, despite the fact that I rarely read dark thrillers these days. But, oh, this spoke to the teenage me who adored Stephen King books – and it really is somewhere between Stand By Me (aka The Body) and It – although as I say, without those supernatural elements. They aren’t missed: this is a gripping enough mystery without bringing in anything other worldly.

The chapters alternate between 1986 and 2016, and both strands follow Eddie as his life goes from perfect childhood to tinged with terror and darkness. It’s very well done: both plotlines are equally intriguing, adding to the other, so the flip back and forth never left me wishing for the other segment. I did prefer the earlier segments, though, as the mood that’s conjured is just brilliantly evocative of those 1980s childhood summers that some of us remember (albeit with less, y’know, dead things!), and some have grown to love from watching Stranger Things.

I did think I’d guessed the ‘whodunnit’ early on, only for the whole thing to swerve in an unexpected direction – hurrah! Still, as the mysteries start to be unravelled at the end, there were just a few bits that seemed perhaps a little too coincidental, so I’m knocking a mark of for that.

Otherwise, though, I gobbled this in just two days – it really was that gripping! Absolutely recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 342 pages
First published: January 11th 2018
Series: none
Read from 6th-7th January 2018

My rating: 9/10

Alien: Covenant (2017)

The Covenant: a colony ship, heading to a remote planet to allow its cargo of 2000 sleeping colonists to start a new life. When it hits a damaging neutron field, synthetic life form, Walter (Michael Fassbender, once again the only interesting character in the whole piece), wakes the crew to help deal with the disaster. Shaken by tragedy, a mysterious signal leading them towards an even more habitable planet than the one they were aiming for seems like a dream come true. But given this is a sequel to Prometheus (2012) and a prequel to Alien (1979), the audience is more than aware that the dream is far more likely to be a nightmare…

I had low expectations and yet somewhat high hopes for this movie. I thought Prometheus was a horrible mess, confusing in its attempt to come up with some (un)godly backstory to the classic franchise, and executed sloppily from start to finish. Covenant surely couldn’t be any worse, right?!

Well…!! It seems like a lot of attention has been paid to the complaints from last time, so sure, this story is a bit less mystical and vague, and ‘woo’ – we have the classic xenomorphs back (I wasn’t *that* fussed, tbh!). Alas, every single other problem seems to have been ported across wholesale: crew I don’t care about in the slightest, thus making the peril they face less than gripping? Check. Clunky plot holes and/or events that fit the joining up of narratives more than logic? Check. Drippy Ripley-wannabe utterly failing to impress as Sigourney Weaver’s successor? Oh, triple check. Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

Set 10 years after the Prometheus went missing – although while the crew all seem aware of this fact in retrospect, they still all do the “It’s impossible that there’s human life out here!” without a single ‘what if…’ crossing their tiny brains – there is still a bit of a gap to explain what happened between the two. A few flashbacks attempt to bridge this, but I was still left with a sense of “Hmm, is that really likely?!” – even in fiction as wild as this, you still expect people to act like people, unlikely random coincidences to not happen every time, and a whole extra stage in a creature’s lifecycle not just to crop up because the first prequel skipped it but it needs to come back!

But, the bulk of the ‘now’ of the movie should make up for this, and while it’s not dreadful for a slasher-horror gore fest, I loathed the lazy ‘crew bonding’ device of making them all married to someone who gets picked off – so, oooh, we’re going to feel for them! Urm, no. Someone is killed off at the very start, but as we hadn’t even met the character at that point it’s really hard to care, and the hysterical spouse reaction is jarring until we get the explanation. Would the story have been any different if that character had survived? Not much. Yes, it changes the actions of another two characters but it just struck me as the laziest possible way to stimulate those motivations and ‘feels’. I don’t care for the obvious manipulation.

I will allow that this film looks gorgeous – the design has always been a very strong element with even the prequels. And, I will also allow that my own disappointment that this wasn’t better is leading me to be very harsh. But… meh. Something about this whole movie just struck me as reactive and a bit lazy, and overall desperately unsatisfying.

And yes, I will still go see the third planned prequel: I might be being harsh, but Covenant is better than Prometheus, so hope springs eternal! o_O

Released: 12th May 2017
Viewed: 12th May 2017
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10 – disappointing

Agents of Dreamland – Caitlin R Kiernan

“Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert.”

Mysterious meetings in small town desert diners, shocking photographs, secret agents, time travel, space fungus, kool-aid cults… for a short novella, there is a heck of a lot packed in here!

I’d previously read Caitlín R Kiernan’s novel, The Red Tree, following a recommendation based on the terrific House of Leaves (Mark Z Danielewski) – and while not quite as mind-bending as the latter, it shared that sense of disquiet and reality-breaking. Agents of Dreamland has quite a similar tone: unease and creeping levels of horror.

With such a short volume, we’re thrown into the action immediately and left to fend for ourselves a bit in terms of figuring out what’s what. Who is the mysterious Signalman, who is he waiting for, and why does he fear her? Perhaps knowing that ‘Dreamland’ is another name for Area 51 might give some clues…!

Chapters jump back and forth on the timeline a little – so you have to pay attention to the title dates, which is generally something I hate, although it does serve its purpose here – revealing slightly earlier events even more remotely in the desert locale, from the point of view of a young teenager saved from the streets and brought to a different kind of purpose. Even without the subsequent revelations, this would have its own kind of chill.

I did fear at one point that the ‘short’ would feel ‘unfinished’, but no: while there is a lot of scope for continuation, and a wider tale that is hinted at, this is an almost perfectly formed slice of story. It does perhaps take a couple of (short) chapters to get going, and it’s slightly unfortunate that the core idea is familiar to me from something I read a few years back – it would be more shocking otherwise, I imagine – but overall this is a great short fiction from an author I intend to read more of. Recommended for fans of Twin Peaks and The X-Files.

NetGalley eARC: 112 pages / 11 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 24th-27th March 2017

My rating: 8.5/10

Life (2017)

Ultra-short view: Gravity meets Alien.

When a Martian soil sample is sent back from Mars for study aboard the International Space Station, excitement is global as the first signs of extraterrestrial life are discovered. Unlike anything on Earth, the collection of cells grows at a phenomenal rate. Just what you want to be stuck in a tiny confined space with, right?! o_O

It’s a little hard for me to be objective about Life, as I’m really not a huge fan of horror or monster movies, and this is firmly in that genre. That said, it would also include Alien and Sunshine, and while I’m not entirely sure where I’d rank this out of those three, it’s also not a total also-ran.

There’s not a great deal can be said without spoilers. Let’s see: the cast – including Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson – is reasonable, with some nice human asides before everything kicks off. Having watched a lot of the Tim Peake footage from the real ISS, this is making a reasonable attempt at verisimilitude, which I appreciated – things like the effect on the human body of being in space for over a year, or just the confined living spaces.

Possibly the reason this didn’t – hah! – really grab me is that it’s a pretty predictable, single-strand story, with plenty of added gore. If you like this kind of movie it’s reasonably slickly done, but I wouldn’t be rushing to recommend it to everyone.

Released: 24th March 2017
Viewed: 24th March 2017
Running time: 103 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10