Media Consumption 2017

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books / comics / film / sitting in the dark with strangers

Here’s a list of the media I consumed in 2017, as that’s basically what this blog is for now. First up, Sitting in the Dark With Strangers, the ranked movie list I’ve kept up for about ten years now. Some of the release dates on these are a little hinky, depending on when the movie became available here in Canada.

Angamaly Diaries

1. Angamaly Diaries

Baby Driver

2. Baby Driver

Jagga Jasoos

3. Jagga Jasoos

The Big Sick

4. The Big Sick

War for the Planet of the Apes

5. War for the Planet of the Apes

Good Time

6. Good Time

Free Fire

7. Free Fire

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

8. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Logan Lucky

9. Logan Lucky

Atomic Blonde

10. Atomic Blonde

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion

11. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion


12. Rangoon

A Death in the Gunj

13. A Death in the Gunj

The Beguiled

14. The Beguiled


15. HyperNormalisation


16. Trapped

Blade Runner 2049

17. Blade Runner 2049


18. Dunkirk

Tiger Zinda Hai

19. Tiger Zinda Hai


20. Colossal

John Wick: Chapter 2

21. John Wick: Chapter 2

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

22. Star Wars: The Last Jedi


23. Daddy

Murder on the Orient Express

24. Murder on the Orient Express

Get Out

25. Get Out

Lady Macbeth

26. Lady Macbeth

Goon: Last of the Enforcers

27. Goon: Last of the Enforcers

Five Came Back

28. Five Came Back

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

29. xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Thor: Ragnarok

30.Thor: Ragnarok

Lipstick Under My Burkha

31. Lipstick Under My Burkha


32. Logan

The Lego Batman Movie

33. The Lego Batman Movie

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

34. Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

35. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Spider-Man: Homecoming

36. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Kong: Skull Island

37. Kong: Skull Island

Bareilly Ki Barfi

38. Bareilly Ki Barfi

A Cure for Wellness

39. A Cure for Wellness


40. Newton


41. mother!


42. Coco

Wonder Woman

43. Wonder Woman


44. Okja

Toilet - Ek Prem Katha

45. Toilet – Ek Prem Katha


46. Polybius

Badrinath Ki Dulhania

47. Badrinath Ki Dulhania

Commando 2: The Black Money Trail

48. Commando 2: The Black Money Trail


49. Raees

Death Race 2050

50. Death Race 2050


51. Split

The Fate of the Furious

52. The Fate of the Furious

Michael Bolton's Big, Sexy Valentine's Day Special

53. Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special


54. Geostorm

Judwaa 2

55. Judwaa 2


56. Baadshaho

The Babysitter

57. The Babysitter

Another Wolfcop

58. Another Wolfcop

Ok Jaanu

59. Ok Jaanu

Girls Trip

60. Girls Trip

Jab Harry Met Sejal

61. Jab Harry Met Sejal


62. Baywatch


63. Raabta

The Dark Tower

64. The Dark Tower

Olaf's Frozen Adventure

65. Olaf’s Frozen Adventure


Some notes:

• As of press time I’ve not been able to see some critical darlings like Phantom Thread, The Florida Project, The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name, I, Tonya, etc. Given my love of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, Phantom Thread would most likely have ranked very high for me.

• My overall amount of films watched this year might have been an all-time high at 201. Having a podcast about Bollywood films and living with someone who has another film podcast will do that to you. Speaking of Indian films, it is downright criminal the lack of attention paid by the Western critical establishment to Baahubali 2 this year. While it didn’t end up cracking my top ten, it was an achievement that will be talked about for years, even if the tastemakers in Williamsburg, Toronto and Silver Lake aren’t paying attention.

• In addition to the films noted above, I’m still interested in seeing the following, in no particular order:

  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • The Disaster Artist
  • Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri
  • I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  • The Square
  • Brawl in Cell Block 99
  • Molly’s Game
  • Darkest Hour
  • The Post
  • The Villainess
  • Blade of the Immortal
  • Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
  • The Trip to Spain
  • Secret Superstar
  • Tubelight
  • Hindi Medium
  • Anaarkali of Aarah
  • Haraamkhor

Next, here’s a list of the books I read this year, again in no particular order but minus a few I’d read before, or for work. Stars are for exceptional quality.

  • Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle
  • Flashman in the Great Game, by George MacDonald Fraser
  • *Sudden Death, by Enrique Àlvaro
  • *All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
  • The Borrowed, by Chan Ho-Kei
  • *Maunder, by Claire Kelly
  • *Flashman and the Dragon, by George MacDonald Fraser
  • The Handover, by Elaine Dewar
  • *In The Woods, by Tana French
  • *Faithful Place, by Tana French
  • October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, by China Mieville
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson
  • A Small Town in Germany, by John le Carré
  • Don’t Disturb the Dead: The Story of the Ramsay Brothers, by Shamya Dasgupta
  • *The Ghost Box, ed. Patton Oswalt
  • Saturn’s Children, by Charles Stross
  • *Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, by Norman Ohler
  • *Get In Trouble, by Kelly Link
  • In Search of New Babylon, by Dominique Scali
  • *Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
  • *American Tabloid, by James Ellroy
  • *The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
  • Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff
  • Purity, by Jonathan Franzen
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

For comics, my purchasing of single issues continued to decline, but I’ve still been enjoying Saga, Lazarus, The Black Monday Murders, and Sex Criminals. I really liked the first trade of Rock Candy Mountain, and I’m looking forward to the next collection. I’ve also really been enjoying the hardback collections of Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin even though they’re expensive.

For TV, I kept up with Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, Riverdale, Master of None and Stranger Things. I’ve started watching Wormwood, which could either go here or in the movie section, and it’s quite good. I enjoyed The Good Place on Netflix, and would like to catch the second season, as well as Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I’ve not caught up with the new Star Trek yet, but I hope to soon once the season has finished. I also enjoyed what I watched of MST3K: The Return. Who has time for TV when there’s so many movies to watch?

For video games, I played Fallout 4, Mafia III, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Persona 5, Battlefield 1, Crusader Kings II, as well as HomeScapes and some other trash on my phone.

I continued playing more board games this year, with lots of Scythe, Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, Machi Koro, Abyss, Quartermaster General, Kraftwagen, all kinds of things.

For podcasts, I’ve abandoned quite a few shows done by cultural elites in New York and comedians in L.A. My tastes have become weirder and weirder still, and as the podcast form grows and shifts, the more independent shows are what interest me most. I’ll give a special mention of The History of Rome by Mike Duncan, all 179 episodes of which I mainlined through the summer and fall of this year. It is an astonishing achievement.

  • ’80s All Over
  • The Age of Napoleon
  • Bollywood is For Lovers (natch)
  • Chapo Trap House
  • Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Addendum
  • Defunctland
  • The Dollop
  • Dune Cast
  • Finders Keepers
  • Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff
  • My Brother, My Brother, And Me
  • Revolutions
  • The Secret History of Hollywood
  • Seen and Heard in Edmonton
  • Slow Burn
  • Split Screen Podcast
  • Shut Up and Sit Down
  • Trash, Art and the Movies
  • You Must Remember This

For YouTube channels, I’m mostly keeping up with the following:

  • Bright Sun Films
  • CGP Grey
  • Defunctland
  • Disney Food Blog
  • Distinguished Spirits
  • DSNY Newscast
  • Jim Sterling
  • JusReign
  • kaptainkristian
  • Lindsay Ellis
  • Moviebob
  • The Nerdwriter
  • No Pun Included
  • ProZD
  • Shut Up and Sit Down
  • Super Bunnyhop
  • Trekspertise
  • Tried and Refused Productions
  • Yesterworld Entertainment

This is where the lion’s share of absent-minded watching has gone in our cord-free household.

I continued to mostly buy Hindi music for the podcast and old vinyl, but I enjoyed Thundercat’s Drunk, They Came From Rue Morgue (a synthwave compilation), and Offa Rex’s The Queen of Hearts.

Hopefully 2018 is better than 2017.




Media Consumption 2016

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books / comics / film / sitting in the dark with strangers

Here’s a list of the media I consumed in 2016. Let’s start off with “Sitting in the Dark With Strangers”, which is a list of movies I’ve been doing for like ten years now. While I technically watched 122 movies this year (according to letterboxd) these are the ones that would count as being 2016 films, although a few of them technically came out in at festivals in 2015. My list, my rules.

1. High-Rise (dir. Ben Wheatley)

Hail, Caesar!

2. Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Handmaiden

3. The Handmaiden (dir. Chan-wook Park)

The Nice Guys

4. The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black)

The Lobster

5. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

Raman Raghav 2.0

6. Raman Raghav 2.0 (dir. Anurag Kashyap)

The Neon Demon

7. The Neon Demon (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)


8. Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven)

Udta Punjab

9. Udta Punjab (dir. Abhishek Chaubey)


10. Dangal (dir. Nitesh Tiwari)

Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921)

11. Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) (dir. Shakun Batra)

Midnight Special

12. Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Everybody Wants Some!!

13. Everybody Wants Some!! (dir. Richard Linklater)

10 Cloverfield Lane

14. 10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Trachtenberg)


15. Befikre (dir. Aditya Chopra)

The Age of Shadows

16. The Age of Shadows (dir. Kim Jee-woon)


17. Snowden (dir. Oliver Stone)

Pee-wee's Big Holiday

18. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (dir. John Lee)


19. Dishoom (dir. Rohit Dhawan)

The Love Witch

20. The Love Witch (dir. Anna Biller)

Into the Inferno

21. Into the Inferno (dir. Werner Herzog)

Shin Godzilla

22. Shin Godzilla (dir. Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi)

La La Land

23. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)

Love & Friendship

24. Love & Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman)


25. Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)


26. Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller)


27. Aligarh (dir. Hansal Mehta)

Star Trek Beyond

28. Star Trek Beyond (dir. Justin Lin)

Doctor Strange

29. Doctor Strange (dir. Scott Derrickson)

League of Gods

30. League of Gods (dir. Koan Hui On)

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

31. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (dir. Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone)

Brahman Naman

32. Brahman Naman (dir. Qaushiq Mukherjee)

Dear Zindagi

33. Dear Zindagi (dir. Gauri Shinde)

The Magnificent Seven

34. The Magnificent Seven (dir. Antoine Fuqua)

Belladonna of Sadness

35. Belladonna of Sadness (dir. Eiichi Yamamoto)

Eye in the Sky

36. Eye in the Sky (dir. Gavin Hood)


37. Airlift (dir. Raja Menon)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

38. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (dir. Gareth Edwards)


39. Fan (dir. Maneesh Sharma)


40. Keanu (dir. Peter Atencio)

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

41. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (dir. Karan Johar)


42. Warcraft (dir. Duncan Jones)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

43. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (dir. David Yates)

Central Intelligence

44. Central Intelligence (dir. Rawson Marshall Thurber)

X-Men: Apocalypse

45. X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Bryan Singer)

Captain America: Civil War

46. Captain America: Civil War (dir. Anthony and Joe Russo)


47. Shivaay (dir. Ajay Devgan)

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

48. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (dir. Nicholas Stoller)


49. Ghostbusters (dir. Paul Feig)


50. Wazir (dir. Bejoy Nambiar)

Sanam Re

51. Sanam Re (dir. Divya Khosla)

Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal: The Movie

52. Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie (dir. Jeremy Konner)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

53. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder)


54. Mastizaade (dir. Milap Zaveri)

Some notes:

• Unfortunately, as of this writing I haven’t had a chance to see Moonlight, the most critically acclaimed North American film of the year. It looks pretty good, though.

• One notable absence from the 2016 list would be Green Room, but that’s because I saw it last year at Dedfest. If I needed to slot it on this list again, it’d be somewhere in the #12-15 region. It’s a great film.

Movies I’d still like to see, in no particular order:

  • Swiss Army Man
  • Hell or High Water
  • Moonlight
  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Nocturnal Animals
  • Sing Street
  • The Conjuring 2
  • Neerja
  • Hunt For the Wilderpeople
  • American Honey
  • The Accountant
  • Train to Busan
  • The Edge of Seventeen
  • The Wailing
  • Weiner
  • O.J. Made in America
  • Gods of Egypt
  • In A Valley of Violence
  • Always Shine
  • The Mermaid
  • HyperNormalisation
  • Nuts!

Next up, here’s a list of all the books I was able to read this year. Way less than normal, and I don’t know what to think about that just now. Stars are for exceptional quality.

  • *A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James
  • *The Cartel, by Don Winslow
  • Bats of the Republic, by Zachary Thomas Dodson
  • The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson
  • & Sons, by David Gilbert
  • Flashman’s Lady, by George Macdonald Fraser
  • Changeless, by Gail Carriger
  • *Flashman and the Mountain of Light, by George Macdonald Fraser
  • Flash For Freedom!, by George Macdonald Fraser
  • *Martin John, by Anakana Schofield
  • City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg
  • Flashman at the Charge, by George Macdonald Fraser
  • The Wheel Keeper, by Robert Pepper-Smith
  • House of Spells, by Robert Pepper-Smith
  • Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett
  • Kino, by Jurgen Fauth
  • *Slade House, by David Mitchell
  • Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys
  • We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • *The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks
  • Necessary Evil, by Ian Tregillis
  • Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
  • March Violets, by Philip Kerr
  • The Pale Criminal, by Philip Kerr
  • *Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente
  • *A German Requiem, by Philip Kerr
  • Culdesac, by Robert Repino

For comics, I continued to enjoy Saga, Lazarus, and The Wicked and the Divine, while The Black Monday Murders, Doom Patrol, Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye, Shade The Changing Girl and Mother Panic were fun new books. My comics intake continues to decline, with Mother Panic being the closest thing to a main-line Big Two comic. I am singularly uninterested in most of what DC and Marvel put out these days, which is a marked shift from back when I worked at the comic store.

My interest in television continues to dwindle too. I liked Silicon Valley, Game of Thrones, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Stranger Things, Black Mirror, Love and A Very Secret Service.

For video games, I played a fair amount of Avengers Academy on my phone, and I really enjoyed Yakuza 4 and 5. Sid Meier’s Civilization VI has been great, and Beyond Earth was okay, as was Massive Chalice and Transistor. I’m enjoying a replay of L.A. Noire right now, one of the most innovative and best games of this century.

I played a lot more board games this year, with highlights including The Gallerist, Scythe, Kraftwagen, The Networks, Concordia, Pandemic: Iberia, Pandemic: Legacy, Inis, and The Grizzled.

For podcasts, in addition to enjoying working with my girlfriend on the amazing project that Bollywood is For Lovers has become, I enjoyed the following:

  • Archive 81
  • Chapo Trap House
  • Chuski Pop
  • Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
  • The Dollop
  • Finders Keepers Records
  • The Greatest Generation
  • KCRW’s The Business
  • Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff
  • King Falls AM
  • My Brother, My Brother and Me
  • Punching Cardboard
  • Revolutions
  • The Secret History of Hollywood
  • Shut Up and Sit Down
  • The Split Screen Podcast
  • Trash, Art and the Movies
  • Whistlestop
  • You Must Remember This

For YouTube channels, I kept up with CGP Grey, Cool Ghosts, ETC Show, First We Feast (Hot Ones), GoodBadFlicks, JusReign, kaptainkristian, Moviebob, Nerdwriter, No Pun Intended, NerdCubed, Rahdo Runs Through, Regular Car Reviews, Shut Up and Sit Down, Super Bunnyhop, The Dom, Trekspertise, Watch It Played and WhatCulture. I think YouTube has almost entirely eclipsed the idea of casual TV viewing in our house, as we are cord-cutting millennials.

I mostly bought Hindi music to go alongside Bollywood is For Lovers, as well as expanding the vinyl movie soundtrack collection but this year I did pick up the new Justice, Carpenter Brut’s Trilogy, Magnetic Systems, Sohail Rana’s Khyber Mail and Run The Jewels.

I also ran on the treadmill some, and continued to go outside on occasion.

Media Consumption 2015

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books / comics / film / sitting in the dark with strangers

Here’s a list of all the media I consumed in 2015. First off, Sitting in the Dark With Strangers, my yearly list of movies in order of how much I liked them. I saw most of these in theatres in regular release, but I’ll mark off ones that I saw on VOD or at a film festival. Some of these would be considered 2014 movies, but they didn’t make their way to Edmonton in time for the list last year.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road, dir. George Miller
  2. The Forbidden Room, dir. Guy Maddin
  3. Gangs of Wasseypur, dir. Anurag Kashyap (saw on VOD)
  4. The Duke of Burgundy, dir. Peter Strickland
  5. Bajirao Mastani, dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali
  6. Green Room, dir. Jeremy Saulnier (saw at DedFest)
  7. The Big Short, dir. Adam McKay
  8. Dil Dhadakne Do, dir. Zoya Akhtar
  9. Creed, dir. Ryan Coogler
  10. The Hateful Eight, dir. Quentin Tarantino
  11. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, dir. Dibakar Banerjee (saw on VOD)
  12. Jupiter Ascending, dir. Andy and Lana Wachowski
  13. The Martian, dir. Ridley Scott
  14. Furious 7, dir. James Wan
  15. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, dir. J.J. Abrams
  16. Bridge of Spies, dir. Steven Spielberg
  17. Bombay Velvet, dir. Anurag Kashyap (saw on VOD)
  18. Kingsman: The Secret Service, dir. Matthew Vaughn
  19. Paddington, dir. Paul King
  20. American Ultra, dir. Nima Nourizadeh
  21. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, dir. Christopher McQuarrie
  22. Spy, dir. Paul Feig
  23. Ant-Man, dir. Peyton Reed
  24. CHAPPiE, dir. Neill Blomkamp
  25. Ex Machina, dir. Alex Garland
  26. Tokyo Tribe, dir. Sion Sono (saw on VOD)
  27. Baahubali: The Beginning, dir. S.S. Rajamouli
  28. The Last Five Years, dir. Richard LaGravenese (saw on VOD)
  29. Sicario, dir. Denis Villeneuve
  30. Going Clear, dir. Alex Gibney (saw on VOD)
  31. Avengers: Age of Ultron, dir. Joss Whedon
  32. Tomorrowland, dir. Brad Bird
  33. Dilwale, dir. Rohit Shetty
  34. The Final Girls, dir. Todd Strauss-Schulson (saw on VOD)
  35. Tevar, dir. Amit Sharma (saw on VOD)

Two movies that I found really interesting that were re-released in 2015 were Crime Wave (1985) and Roar (1981). Both of those are worth seeking out, and I’ve linked to my reviews of each at The Pulp.

Movies I still need to see, in no particular order:

  • Mississippi Grind
  • NH10
  • Piku
  • Macbeth
  • Amy
  • Bhajrangi Bhaijaan
  • Straight Out of Compton
  • Clouds of Sils Maria
  • Crimson Peak
  • Spectre
  • Sisters
  • The Revenant
  • The World of Kanako
  • The Connection
  • Hard to Be a God
  • Dangerous Men
  • R100
  • Wild Tales
  • What We Do in the Shadows
  • Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
  • It Follows
  • Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
  • A Girl Walks Home at Night
  • In Country
  • When Marnie Was There
  • The Look of Silence
  • Turbo Kid
  • Queen of Earth
  • Bone Tomahawk
  • Love 3D
  • Beasts of No Nation
  • Yakuza Apocalypse
  • Anomalisa
  • Best of Enemies
  • 99 Homes
  • The End of the Tour
  • The Tribe

Next, here are all the books I read this year, in chronological order. Links are for books I’ve reviewed on the blog, and stars are for exceptional quality.

  • *The Peripheral, by William Gibson
  • *Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray
  • Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming
  • The Rise of Ransom City, by Felix Gilman
  • The Hunter, by Richard Stark
  • *Mort(e), by Robert Repino (interview with the author)
  • Humans 3.0, by Peter Nowak
  • Both Flesh and Not, by David Foster Wallace
  • When Everything Feels Like the Movies, by Raziel Reid
  • Hothouse, by Boris Kachka
  • *Magic For Beginners, by Kelly Link
  • Artful, by Ali Smith
  • *Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, by Sara Gran
  • *The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King
  • Bollywood: Gods, Glamour, and Gossip, by Kush Varia
  • *The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan, by Robert Hough
  • Consumed, by David Cronenberg
  • Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks
  • The Mystics of Mile End, by Sigal Samuel
  • *The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
  • *The Unwinding, by George Packer
  • Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser
  • Virtual Light, by William Gibson
  • Tenth of December, by George Saunders
  • Bollywood: A History, by Mihir Bose
  • *Last Friends, by Jane Gardam
  • The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes
  • Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, ed. Kier-la Janisse (interview with the editor)
  • A Kill in the Morning, by Graeme Shimmin
  • *Royal Flash, by George MacDonald Fraser
  • Black Butterfly, by Mark Gatiss
  • *The Power of the Dog, by Don Winslow
  • The Man in the Wooden Hat, by Jane Gardam
  • Soulless, by Gail Carriger
  • *Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham

For comics, I enjoyed Sex Criminals, The Fade Out, Fatale, Lazarus, The Wicked and Divine, SEXCASTLE, The Outside Circle, Hark! A Vagrant, Bitch Planet, Manhattan Projects, and Casanova. My comics reading has steadily decreased over the past few years.

For TV, my further-dwindling list of shows I can kind of keep up with/limited series is Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Master of None, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Archer, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Silicon ValleyAnother Period, and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

I still need to get around to Mr. Robot, Deutschland 83, The Man in the High Castle, The Jinx, Halt and Catch Fire, Sense8, Fargo, and a few more things. TV is hard, man.

For video games, I mostly screwed around with ones on my phone this year, like Fallout Shelter, Subterfuge, Neko Atsume, Star Wars Card Trader, and DomiNations, but I had some good times with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and finishing up Dragon Age: Inquisition. I’m interested in a few more, like Transistor, Just Cause 3, Fallout 4, The Witcher 3, Sunless Sea, Vietnam ’65, Darkest Dungeon, Massive Chalice, and Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, but I’ll check back in with these after I get a new computer and maybe a console. There really hasn’t been anything yet worth the $400 for a new PS4, and I’m mostly just looking out for the next Persona game at the moment.

I had a much better time this year playing board games, which have almost completely eclipsed their digital counterparts for me. Fury of Dracula 3rd Edition, Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, Viticulture, Abyss, A Few Acres of Snow, Orléans, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Samurai Spirit were standouts. I’m looking forward to The Networks, Scythe and The Gallerist, once I get my hands on them in 2016.

Here’s a list of podcasts I enjoyed this year, and I would be remiss to not point out that my girlfriend and I started one of our own this year, Bollywood is for Lovers:

  • The Black Tapes/TANIS
  • Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
  • The Dollop
  • El Diabolik’s World of Psychotronic Soundtracks
  • Journey Into Misery
  • KCRW’s The Business
  • Limetown
  • NPR: Planet Money
  • Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men
  • Revolutions
  • Shut Up & Sit Down
  • Split Screen Podcast
  • Trash, Art and the Movies
  • You Must Remember This

For Youtube/Vimeo channels, I enjoyed Bob Parker’s TV retrospectives, as well as the continued output of CGP Grey, Cool Ghosts, ETC News, Everything is Terrible!, Filmmaker IQ, Funhaus, Jim Sterling, JonGetsGames, JusReign, Los Angeles: The City in Cinema, Oliver Harper, Rahdo Runs Through, Regular Car Reviews, Shut Up and Sit Down, Super Bunnyhop, The Dice Tower, WatchMojo, and Willingdone.

I didn’t buy that much in the way of new music this year, but the new album by The Decemberists was decent. Their concert at Winspear in the summer was fantastic. We’ve mostly been picking up movie soundtracks on vinyl.

I continued to go outside occasionally this year.

Followup Questions: An Interview with Kier-La Janisse, editor of Satanic Panic!

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books / film / role-playing games

Last month I reviewed Satanic Panic, a collection of essays examining the decade-long freakout over supposed Satanic influences across American media. It’s a fantastic introduction to the social mores of the period, and sheds light on a lot of the country’s Puritannical tendencies, and how they’ve continued on. Kier-La Janisse, author of House of Psychotic Women and co-editor of the collection, has agreed to answer some questions about how the book came to be:

Kier La Janisse

Short Bio: Kier-La Janisse is a film writer and programmer, the founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and Owner/Editor-in-Chief of Spectacular Optical Publications. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, co-founded Montreal microcinema Blue Sunshine, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival in Vancouver (1999-2005) and was the subject of the documentary Celluloid Horror (2005). She has written for Filmmaker, Rue Morgue and Fangoria magazines, has contributed to The Scarecrow Movie Guide (Sasquatch Books, 2004) and Destroy All Movies!! A Complete Guide to Punk on Film (Fantagraphics, 2011), and is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012). She is the co-editor (with Paul Corupe) of Spectacular Optical Book One: KID POWER! and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s.


This Nerding Life: The “Satanic Panic”, to me, is almost entertaining as far as moral panics go, as for the most part every single claim by the most fanatic has either been proven wrong, or just become obsolete. Was there a particular movie, band, etc. that got singled out for being Satanic that you find funny in retrospect?

Dream DeceiversKier-La Janisse: Well the Filthy Fifteen list that the PMRC came up with is pretty funny – it’s such a random mix of musical artists (Sheena Easton is on the list!) and even though its focus isn’t occultism (only 2 songs are rated “O” for Occult) it was definitely tied into the Satanic Panic and politicized a lot of metal bands probably for the first time. And Ozzy, I mean as far as I know he’s a Christian! The poor guy was singled out constantly and he just looks confused the whole time. Of course there was a lot of funny stuff coming out of the Christian camp- VHS scare tapes, Chick comics – but more than anything I look at the era now with sadness. While people tend to remember the goofier aspects of the Satanic Panic, it was all quite grim. I mean, that Judas Priest doc Dream Deceivers about the James Vance case, that is just horribly sad and tragic. It’s sad for the kids who felt that lost at the time, but also sad for the bands who had to go on trial because they were accused of causing the suicides of their fans.

TNL: What sort of submission process did you lay out for authors when putting together this book? Was there a lot of material that couldn’t fit into the collection?

KLJ: About half the people we solicited material from based on their expertise/interests, and the other half were selected from the open call. The call asked for proposals for essays or interviews, with a thesis statement, working title, opening paragraph and proposed bibliography. And a CV of course. Obviously we were trying to get a rounded picture of the era, so we wanted chapters on many different types of pop-culture and how they were affected, and how they affected the real cases in return. It was also important to us that people weren’t just bashing Christians because they thought it was funny. We did end up toning down some language like that. We wanted Christian writers involved too. So we have Satanists, atheists, Christians and agnostics all writing for it. Not that we asked people about their religions but some of them offered up this information. The book turned out bigger than originally planned, so we actually made room for everything rather than cutting stuff out. Of course that’s not to say the book is comprehensive – for example the McMartin case is examined through the HBO film Indictment, but there are dozens of similar cases that weren’t mentioned, that would have been if the book were encyclopedic. So as thorough as the book is, there is still much more to write about.

Satanic Panic cover

TNL: Can you think of any modern-day concerns that we will look back upon with the same knowing eye as we do the Satanic Panic? Or was there something about that time period that made it ripe for such a moral outcry? Would today’s interconnectivity be helpful or hurtful when it comes to modern day Panics?

KLJ: The war on terror obviously is the modern day counterpart. Even for the most liberal people I think it’s hard not to be affected by all the fear-mongering about Middle Eastern cultures that we are inundated with. The beginning of the Satanic Panic wasn’t that much different in theory from the fears about rock ‘n’ roll or comic books in the 1950s, but the amount of kids being hurt or hurting themselves during the period are what make it stand out. But if you look at statistics, teen suicide rates had actually gone down in the ’80s compared to the ’70s, it’s just that the media was reporting them more. So it did create this hyper awareness and fear in parents that is totally understandable.

I think the interconnectivity today can help things spread faster but also won’t let them gestate and fester in enclosed communities as easily. So people get outraged really easily but they’ve forgotten and moved onto something else two days later.

TNL: Near the end of the book, essayists weigh in with moral panics about Satanism around the world, like Canada, England and Australia. Apart from Quebec, did you find this particular witch-hunt to be centred in the English-speaking world, or were there similar backlashes in other countries and languages? This is the part that I’d love to see more research on, perhaps in a Return of Satanic Panic sequel?

KLJ: Yes, the Satanic Panic as we know it is an English speaking territory phenomena, including South Africa where it also spread to in the ’90s. Even in the Quebec chapter you’ll notice it took on a slightly different form in terms of a fear of cults rather than Satanism outright. We hoped for more international submissions of course, but we didn’t get any convincing proposals that actually connected to what was happening in the US at that time. But it’s possible those examples are out there.

TNL: Satanic Panic is the second book in Spectacular Optical‘s slate of pop-culture essay collections. What inspired you to go the small-press route with these books?

KLJ: Well, Spectacular Optical isn’t a small publisher I pitched on the book as an outside party, it is my publishing company that I own. I created the company to publish these kinds of books through which I can showcase other writers I admire. If I write my own solo books, I’ll still pitch them to other publishers so that it’s not a conflict of interest, but the print arm of Spectacular Optical exists to support (and pay) freelance writers.


Thanks again to Kier-La for taking the time to talk with me. Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s can be found at Spectacular Optical‘s website, and wherever good books are sold.

Review: Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (2015)

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books / film / role-playing games

Satanic Panic cover

While it may have laid down roots in the late Sixties and Seventies, with the blockbuster success of films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976), or with the resurgence of interest in occult matters after the founding of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, the “Satanic Panic” is really a relic of the Eighties. It was a time when such seemingly innocuous things as rockstars prancing around in tights and big hair, half hour toy commercials masquerading as cartoons or kids rolling dice while sitting around a table were taken as portents of a coming battle for the soul of the world.

The second in indie publishing company Spectacular Optical‘s slate of pop culture analysis texts, Satanic Panic is an essential resource for understanding this momentary mass hysteria, exploring in depth both the causes of the craze and the effects it had on Eighties society and beyond. The book is a collection of essays from twenty-odd contributors, examining the way paranoia about Satanic worshippers and a rising interest in the occult influenced the publishing world, film, music, and television. Satanic Panic then goes on to demonstrate a variety of evangelical Christian reactions to a supposed rising tide of evil entertainment, as well as the Panic’s eventual spread across the globe.

Running through the collected essays is a sense that while the Satanic Panic played out as another front of the culture wars, there were some real victors behind the scenes. These include publishing houses that profited off of Satanic narratives, either fiction or non-fiction; film distributors who were able to make a quick buck off the craze, with movies of varying quality; a network of evangelical Christian operatives creating melodramatic illustrated tracts, cheapie VHS tapes about how to keep Satan out of the home; lecture circuit engagements with supposed former Satanists-turned-speakers; and the music industry’s solution to encroaching black and heavy metal, “white” metal. It was especially fascinating to learn about some of the more extreme responses to the manufactured Panic, as aside from my having read Jack Chick’s mordantly hilarious Dark Dungeons tract, I basically knew nothing about these going in.

Other pieces in the book focus on the media narrative surrounding and feeding the Satanic Panic, with special notice given to a few highly influential TV broadcasts, like the 1985 20/20 episode on “Devil Worshippers”, and Geraldo Riviera’s 1988 special featuring Anton LaVey’s daughter Zeena Schreck. One criticism I have about this aspect of the collection is how many of the pieces in the book end up talking about these two landmark events, but this is something that must have come about with so many of Satanic Panic‘s contributors attempting to set their own works in context of the age. A later piece, about an HBO TV movie dramatizing the McMartin Preschool abuse trial, might have benefited from inclusion earlier on in the collection, as that landmark court case is also mentioned often early on in the book without much in the way of explanation. Still, the film and media criticism on display in the book is excellent all around.

The last few articles in the collection focus on the Satanic Panic’s spread across the globe, with an extremely interesting look at avant-garde artist Genesis P-Orridge’s battles with would-be censors in England, painters and authors like Rosaleen Norton falling under suspicion in Australia, and the appropriately over the top Quebecois Catholic reaction in Canada. It was fascinating to see how the influence of the Panic took a longer time to disseminate across the world than I’d thought. If there’s anything this collection lacks, it’s more examinations of Satanic Panic’s influence, like in places where English isn’t the dominant language. Still, the glimpses we see of the worldwide hysteria are very informative and well-written. Most of the articles feature a good bibliography for further reading, as well.

The full force of the Satanic Panic of the Eighties was long over by the time I was able to understand such things, and as such I found Spectacular Optical’s second book to be invaluable and fascinating. While I think modern society likes to think that such moral crises are in its past, recent events like Gamergate last year and the racist politics currently being peddled by the Conservative government here in Canada show that peoples’ passions can still be inflamed with the right amount of spin and media attention. Satanic Panic, then, is not only a superbly entertaining piece of pop culture study, it also presents an object lesson in the wisdom (or lack thereof) of crowds.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Late to the Party: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes (2013)

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Shining Girls coverIn 1989, a university student and aspiring journalist named Kirby Mazrachi is horribly attacked and mutilated by a would-be killer while walking her dog on the beach of Lake Michigan in Chicago. Her attacker seemingly disappears into nothingness, and by 1992 Kirby finds herself slowly becoming obsessed with tracking him, using the resources available to her via an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times, and her friendship with a retired crime reporter named Dan Velasquez.

Meanwhile, in 1931, a drifter named Harper Curtis has arrived in Chicago, taking up residence in a mysterious House, which is supplied with seemingly infinite food, drink and money. It’s a hobo’s dream! But, as it turns out this House has called the psychopathic Harper into its service, and sends him spiralling through time with a dark purpose: to seek out and kill “shining girls”, women throughout the history of Chicago who are incrementally making life better for all around them, especially other women. Harper collects totems from these women after each attack, items requested by the House, and further messes with the timestream by leaving artifacts from the wrong historical era at each crime scene. The intentions of the House are unknowable, unfathomable, but once it becomes clear that Kirby survived her encounter with Harper, the stage is set for killer and would-be victim to settle the score once and for all.

I’ll give it this much, the book has a killer tagline: “The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die Hunts The Killer Who Shouldn’t Exist.” Unfortunately, this book completely fell apart for me, with the undoubtedly intriguing premise unraveling almost before my eyes.

First, the good parts. Beukes has undoubtedly done her research on Chicago, and the book provides the reader a wealth of information on the city’s history, architecture, and sports teams. This is especially evident in scenes focusing on Kirby and Dan working together on sports stories at the newspaper, as they hang out in locker rooms and the press box at Wrigley, the office bullpen, and the paper’s archives. These scenes feel very lived-in, and give the reader a great sense of the newspaper world. The author also demonstrates her skills very effectively when it comes to the quick character sketches of the “shining girls”, and we really feel invested in them even before they come into contact with the murderous Harper (great name for a villain by the way </politics>). Speaking of the book’s antagonist, I really enjoyed how much damage was inflicted on his body throughout the book. There is a visceral thrill to seeing how this absolute monster gets the shit kicked out of him on his jaunts through time.

Now for the bad parts. Ultimately, I don’t think this book lives up to its high-concept premise. The problem, for me anyway, stems from the House. There is a fine line Beukes is walking here, as the motivations of the place probably shouldn’t be too clear to the reader, or, for that matter, its catspaw Harper Curtis. Snuffing out the lives of these promising women throughout history should be enough for the reader to want to see Harper taken down, but when I stopped to think about it, I really had no idea why any of the plot was happening.

In laying out the book’s Manichaean cosmology, Beukes is committed to resolving every paradox that the time travel shenanigans brings about, and in doing so she doesn’t really show us what kind of impact the Shining Girls have on the world, or what they would do without Harper’s involvement. There is of course the impact their deaths have on their friends and families, but it’s never clear what the House “wants” apart from that.


Harper, in his psychopathic desire to inflict as much pain as possible, even stops one of the girls from shining altogether, essentially scaring her enough as a young child that she develops mental problems, drug addiction, and family trauma. If the House allows him to do this, what is the point of his mission, then? Couldn’t he just go around preemptively stopping girls from ever achieving their destinies, kind of like an evil version of Scott Bakula’s character from Quantum Leap? We aren’t really given evidence either way.


So while the attention to detail is there, and the violence is well-realized, ultimately the basic premise of the book didn’t work for me. It reminded me of the movie Looper, which was so focused on making sure the internal mythology of time travel made sense that it neglected to have much in the way of a story. The writing style also seems halfway between contemplative literary fiction and a Dean Koontz-esque thriller, and this also began to wear on me after a while. Come to think of it, the story does remind me of a darker version of one of the two Dean Koontz novels I’ve ever read, Lightning.

The Shining Girls is slated to become a TV show soon, and I think this format might work a little better for it than the novel.

Late to the Party: Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser (1969)

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Musical Accompaniment: “The Rake’s Song”, by The Decemberists

Flashman cover

Harry Paget Flashman is basically a real asshole, but he’s an entertaining one to say the least. After getting kicked out of Rugby School in the late 1830s for “excessive drunkenness”, the young, rich and completely cowardly Flashman joins the army in relative peacetime with the hopes of getting a nice easy job with a pension (the uniform’s attractiveness to the opposite sex is a nice bonus). Unfortunately for our cad of a hero, he soon finds himself in the position of having to marry a relatively rich Scottish man’s daughter, Elspeth, after hooking up with her after a carriage ride. As he’s obviously married below his station, Flashman loses his cushy position in the 11th Hussars and finds himself instead in Afghanistan. Like every military adventure in Afghanistan, this works about as well as expected and Flashman finds himself present at the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842.

Flashman is the first of the “Flashman Papers”, a series of memoirs written by the eponymous hero long after his retirement from his Majesty’s service. This is an entertaining narrative conceit, as real-life author George Macdonald Fraser adds footnotes to go alongside the main character’s systematic dismantling of his sterling(ish) reputation of being a hero and a true-blue Englishman. A parody of the classic English military hero, Flashman is a coward, a toady, and a lecher; he’s greedy, lustful and doesn’t care for the social mores of the time unless they help him get a leg up (or over). Flashman exists in a kind of liminal space for the reader, who are themselves presumably pretty ignorant of early Victorian social culture, but he’s also capable of some pretty abhorrent things, including buying slaves, allowing comrades to die without lifting a finger, and, at one pivotal juncture, rape.

Flashman has its origins in the novel Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, which to my knowledge has faded into the distance much more than the Fraser books, which started in the late Sixties. There, Flashman is a relatively minor character who’s most notable for being a bully, and for the drunkeness incident. (Rugby School is actually where the sport was invented, and it’s a pretty posh Grade 4-12 facility these days). So imagine if Biff Tannen from Back to the Future went on to star in a series of movies where he never really became a better person, and instead kept on being a douchebag who ends up covered in unearned glory for accidental military exploits. That’s kind of what we’re dealing with here.

I found Flashman very interesting in light of the current vogue for discussing “likeability” in fictional characters. While he does some terrible things in this book, the confessional tone and the snappy writing makes you like the guy in spite of yourself. That being said, I completely understand how other people might not be able to get over some of the events as presented, though, and I’m interested/kind of dreading to see how equally delicate topics like slavery (Flash For Freedom!, 1971) and Settler/Aboriginal relations in North America (Flashman and the Redskins, 1982) are handled in the subsequent novels. (Myself, I couldn’t get over Thomas Covenant’s similar actions in Lord Foul’s Bane, so I know from experience that this kind of material doesn’t work for everyone.) The tone of Flashman reminds me somewhat of Ian Fleming’s early Bond novels, but while we’re supposed to kind of like the brutish Bond, and be shocked by the shitty things he does, with Harry Flashman it’s the exact opposite. The greedy, cowardly and lustful Flashman kind of shines a new light on England’s colonial adventures in Afghanistan, and invites the reader to wonder why we’d root for any of these people, much less our “hero”. If one of Queen Victoria’s most beloved, most rewarded subjects is completely undeserving of any of it whatsoever, what does that say about his contemporaries?

Still, the research that went into this book was occasionally confounding to me, as I don’t really know much about English military history from this time. I confess, some of the names and dates got really confusing once Flashman made it to Kabul, and I felt the book drag a little there. I much preferred the sneaking around and trying to sleep with other mens’ wives to the back-biting among the English commanders.

I’m absolutely positive that Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde must have been fans of the Flashman novels, as the use of well-researched and archly funny footnotes comes up often in their books as well. A cursory Google search tells me that the meta nature of this story has made its insertion into other Steampunk, Victoriana and alternate histories like the Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman and The Peshawar Lancers by S.M. Stirling a fun Easter egg for those who are in the know.

Review: The Mystics of Mile End, by Sigal Samuel (2015)

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Mystics of Mile End cover

The study of the Tree of Life is one of the most hallowed and important facets of Jewish mysticism. The allure of “climbing” the tree, of learning more and more and eventually ascending into another form, is so enticing, that the study of this branch of Kabbalah is for the most part only allowed to be undertaken by married men over the age of forty. Such is the danger of losing oneself to the beautiful dream.

Sigal Samuel’s debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End, follows the fortunes of the Meyer family of the eponymous Montreal district. When his wife dies after being hit by a car, professor of Jewish mysticism David Meyer turns almost completely inward, and his actions and thoughts become constant sources of anxiety and anguish for his two children, Lev and Samara. Adding to this family chaos is the forbidden study of the Tree of Life, which effects each of the Meyer clan in its own way, leading the younger child Lev into a life of Hasidic isolation, David into confronting his faith, long left shattered after his wife’s untimely demise, and Samara into, well, you’ll have to read to find out.

The setting of Mile End is interesting, and somewhat unique in the current CanLit scene, which feels awash in Atlantic province miserablism, Prairie province family sagas, and northern territory survival stories. Mile End wears the culture clash at the heart of the novel as a badge of honour, with cloistered Hasidic Jewish inhabitants often brushing up against over-caffeinated hipsters on fixie bicycles. We spend most of our time learning about the area in Lev’s opening segment of the novel, which is told in his charming, eager-to-please voice, somewhat reminiscent of Ava Bigtree from Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! or Gray from Corinna Chong’s Belinda’s Rings. Lev even takes up with one of the more colourful denizens of Mile End, local weirdo Katz, whose doomed attempts at his own versions of the Tree provide a sense of there but for the grace of God goeth the rest of the cast. Lev also becomes friends with a local boy named Alex, whose ultra-rationalism in the face of all the mysticism is a useful tonic for non-believers.

My favourite part of the book belongs to Samara, who is a bit of a cipher for the prior two segments. It is through her eyes that the true cost of subsuming one’s being into the pursuit of knowledge, into ego death and transcendence, entails for those of us stuck back in the mortal plain. The writing recalls both Henry Roth and Philip Roth in this regard, as the religious awakening undergone by Samara echoes the former’s Call It Sleep, and the vulgar state of her corporeal remains resembles that of the wayward daughter from the latter’s American Pastoral. In Sigal Samuel’s hands, one should count themselves lucky to not encounter the mysteries of Kabbalah, as they seem to invade the body like a disease leaving only brokenness in their wake.

There are a few writerly tics that mark this off as a first novel, with all that entails. Samuel, to my mind, relies a little bit too much on lists and emails written by her characters, and a few of the late-game revelations seem a bit too pat, especially those involving a family friend. Still, for a first novel, The Mystics of Mile End is exceptionally crafted and a fascinating look into a place and people sorely under-represented in the current Canadian literary scene. Highly recommended for anyone interested in modern-day Montreal life, the conflict between religion and science, or families undergoing strain.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Also, I work at the press that published Belinda’s Rings.

Review: Consumed, by David Cronenberg (2014)

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books / film

Musical Accompaniment: “The Purple People Eater”, by Sheb Wooley

Consumed cover

“Electronic stores in airports had become their neighborhood hangouts, although more often than not they weren’t there at the same time. It got to the point that they could sense traces of each other among the boxes of electric plug adapters and microSD flashcards. They would trade notes about the changing stock of lenses and point-n-shoots at Ferihegy, Schiphol, Da Vinci. And they would leave shopping lists for each other in emails and text messages, quoting best prices spotted and bettered.” (12)

Naomi Seberg and Nathan Math are a globetrotting couple of freelance photojournalists tracking down weird stories in the realms of medical technology, crime and academia. They stumble upon what might be the scoop of their lives when they come into the orbit of Celestine and Aristide Arosteguy, neo-Marxist philosophers of commodity fetishism who are household names in their native France. When Celestine’s body is found horribly mutilated, some parts even eaten, and Aristide flown the coop, Naomi sets off to track him down in his last-known whereabouts in Tokyo. Meanwhile, after investigating an unorthodox eastern European breast doctor, Nathan finds himself with a bad case of Roiphe’s disease, a sexually transmitted infection that he decides to investigate by going to meet the physician whose name it bears. While at first these two stories don’t seem to have a lot in common, eventually Nathan and Naomi peel back the layers to uncover a strange psycho-sexual conspiracy that criss-crosses the globe.

Consumed is the first novel from David Cronenberg, the Canadian filmmaker whose works include such classics as Videodrome, The Dead Zone, A History of Violence, and Crash, among many others. As such, the publication of this book caused a minor stir in Canadian literary circles, eventually netting the author the front page of Quill and Quire magazine in addition to reviews, interviews and retrospectives in basically every major publication.

I wish I could say I liked this book more, but it was a real disappointment. Cronenberg’s keen eye for human fraily and body horror (something he basically invented) are certainly on display in Consumed, but unfortunately these concepts are tied to some of the least interesting and stock characters I’ve read lately. Naomi and Nathan are almost interchangeably dull, with journalistic and sexual ethics that they abandon at the drop of a hat, and a curious fetishization of cameras and other tech that wears incredibly thin while reading. Now, two seemingly bland characters either being parts of a whole, or merging together somehow is a big part of many of Cronenberg’s films, like the twin gynecologists found in Dead Ringers, Seth Brundle and a housefly in The Fly. The inverse can be found with the almost split personality of Tom Stall, Viggo Mortensen’s character in A History of Violence. So I’m sure these two ciphers we’re saddled with throughout the course of the novel were created with this in mind, but there’s a big difference between watching a movie with a boring half-character and reading a book, inhabiting their thoughts. As I noted above, and in the quotation that begins this review, I’m sure the ad nauseam recitings of different camera settings, cell phone purchases and photo editing software found throughout the novel are supposed to say something about Nathan and Naomi, but whatever the message is, the medium through which it’s delivered is deadly dull (shout out to Professor Brian O’Blivion on that one).

Speaking of O’Blivion, as a respite from Nathan and Naomi’s fawning over whatever they last bought at an airport kiosk, we do get two mad scientist characters, a classic archetype for Cronenberg. Aristide Arosteguy’s weird blend of commodity fetishism and plain regular fetishism is at least interesting, and a sequence in which he details the events spiralling out of a failed Cannes Film Festival judging session is probably the highlight of the book. In Toronto, Dr. Roiphe could be a second cousin to Videodrome‘s Marshall McLuhan stand in O’Blivion, or perhaps Dr. Paul Ruth, Patrick McGoohan’s kindly psychic researcher in Scanners. What is a little bit disturbing and regressive, though, is the continued degradation and transformation of every female character in the story with no equivalent male undergoing the same. I found this to be a little out of character for Cronenberg, who doesn’t usually stick to any gender bias in his body horror tales. Scanners were unisex, as were the unfortunate viewers of the Videodrome signal, and everyone got off on car crashes in Crash. The STI Nathan Math gets is hardly comparable to what happens to Naomi, or Roiphe’s daughter, and he eventually just shuffles off the stage into irrelevance anyway, so why bother? The overall effect recalls Cronenberg’s earlier exploitation flicks like Rabid or Shivers, with maybe a touch of the bad divorce story of The Brood.

So, with Consumed, what we’re getting is a late-period Cronenberg work, a story that is desperately uninteresting despite its salacious subject matter. I will say that interest did pick up for me about halfway through, once we start to realize the depths of the depravity on display. I just wish I hadn’t had to read 120 pages of boring to get to what kind of ends up being a Cronenberg spin on a Tom Clancy cyberthriller, with weird character names Pynchon left sitting on a shelf somewhere.

Review: The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan, by Robert Hough (2015)

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Musical Accompaniment: “Bully in the Alley”, one of the sea chanties in the Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag OST (Nils Brown, Sean Dagher, Michiel Schrey and Clayton Kennedy.)

“As I said, it was a pretty little place, with no way to fend off the unwashed likes of us. Still, every man amongst us believed the people living in that pretty little Spanish town had it coming. We believed it because we were filthy and hungry and to a one we’d been born poor. We believed it because we’d braved their hot woods, because we’d survived their insects, because we overcame the tight-chested feeling that comes when thick jungle rubs against you. We believed it because we wanted to, morality being a thing dreamed up by men, and put to use when and only when it’s convenient.” (58)

The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan cover

It’s 1664, the height of the Age of Sail. Benny “Magic” Wand is a professional chess player, a hustler, really, who immediately (within two pages!) finds himself shipped out of England and on to Jamaica in lieu of jail time after getting caught plying his trade once too often. Upon arriving in Port Royal, the “wickedest city on earth”, Benny joins the human flotsam that populates the place in the off-season, living on the beach and eating beached turtles, and, well, waiting for something to happen. The name on everyone’s lips in Port Royal is the same: Henry Morgan. When will the famous English privateer return to Jamaica? And where might his next raid against the Spanish be headed?

Luckily, Morgan returns not too long after Benny arrives in Jamaica, and he immediately begins crewing up for an attack on the small town of Villahermosa, which our hero opines upon in the quoted passage above. Benny starts off at the very bottom of the barrel, a scrub boy, but soon his hard-won knowledge of tactics marks him as a useful tool for Morgan’s ongoing war in the Caribbean. The two men then start a strange friendship, one marked by rivalry over the chessboard as much as it is adventure on the high seas and back alleys of Port Royal.

Robert Hough’s latest novel is fantastic, a perfect realization of swashbuckling action and tense interpersonal conflict. This shouldn’t surprise anyone too much, considering how great his last novel, Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, was. Where Dr. Brinkley had many different viewpoint characters detailing its story of unchecked capitalism running rampant over a small Mexican town, the eponymous Man Who Saved Henry Morgan, Benny, is our sole narrator of events this time out. He’s a clever and engaging companion, always trying to figure out a new angle and make a name for himself. The real mystery at the heart of the book, though, is Morgan. At times, the story recalled to me Paul Thomas Anderson’s film The Master, as it has a similar interplay between two strong personalities, one an open book to the audience and the other a cipher.

In addition to the psychic war that eventually results between Wand and Morgan, Hough, like he did in Dr. Brinkley, also transmits some interesting economic ideas in the text. Hough is interested in how economies, especially those shackled to boom and bust cycles, can be hijacked by individual interests. Where Dr. Brinkley’s radio tower first brought prosperity to its small town, then chaos, revolution and confusion, the world of Port Royal is much more cyclical. Unlike the tony streets of St. Jago, where Morgan lives with other wealthy plantation owners, Benny’s environs are completely dependent on the plunder brought back from sacked Spanish holdings. When times are good, the pubs are full, the “knocking shops” are busy, and everything proceeds smoothly in the frontier economy. As the money leaches away, though, more and more men finds themselves back on the beach at Turtle Crawles, waiting for the tide to come in. It’s a kind of Great Man economic theory, albeit one that shows how precarious such cults of personalities can become, especially when the man at the top becomes more and more unhinged.

I’ve been reading a lot of great Canadian historical fiction lately, between this book, Ian Weir’s Will Starling and Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, even going as far back as Patrick de Witt’s The Sisters Brothers. While Boyden explicitly deals with Canada (well, really, the territory that would eventually be called Canada once European colonization completely takes hold), I find it interesting that Hough, Weir and de Witt are writing stories that take place outside of the country. I guess I’m kind of lumping de Witt in here unfairly, seeing as how he lives in the States now, but isn’t it just the most Canadian thing ever to excel in telling the stories of others?

The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan is a must for fans of historical adventure yarns, especially fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean films who’re looking for something meatier, more full of well-researched detail on every page, or those who enjoyed the marketing blurb-mentioned Master and Commander, but are looking for an outlaw, unofficial narrative. But aside from that, it will also appeal to readers who’d like to see a tight little character sketch of a relationship between two men who are descended from drastically different circumstances.