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Friday, February 14, 2020

Comic Cuts - 14 February 2020

We survived Storm Ciara with only an overturned bin and a loose fence panel to show for gusts of wind that I'm told reached 60-70 mph. In fact, the weather was so reasonable on Saturday that we spent the afternoon in the garden attacking the tangle of trees that have formed an impenetrable barrier between the garden (a mossy/grassy square with ivy growing rampant) and the road.

There are two pluses to this: it's a formidable sanctuary for nesting birds during the spring/summer months, as it is too tangled for local cats to have any chance of sneaking in; and it cuts down the noise of traffic, especially that deep, low bass rumble of buses and trucks as they slow to take the blind corner that we're on.

We've let it grow out of control for a couple of years, but it's desperately in need of a pruning and now is the time to do it, while some of the branches are bare of leaves and we don't have anything else requiring disposal. It's unfortunate that the local council has cut the number of garden waste bags that we can put out over the winter months. It used to be eight, but now it's only four a fortnight.

Well, we filled four bags easily on Saturday and had to drag the rest of the branches we'd cut down into a slightly sheltered cove between the front porch and the house next door. Having disposed of those bags during the week's 'green' collection, I'm filling a bag a day just to get rid of the tangle that's blocking the view out the front window. We have some spare bags, but it might be a month before we can tackle the rest of the pruning.

Incidentally, the fallen tree in the pic above is just one that I came across when I was out for my morning walk on Monday. It just goes to show what strength the storm had. I'm thinking we were lucky to get away with only that one bit of minor damage.

The next book from Bear Alley Books will be the Rocket index. The full title will be Rocket: The Space-Age Weekly, it will have a long, detailed introduction – as usual – with plenty of biographical info. on the various folks involved in its production.I had the first run-through finished on Tuesday evening, and I've spent the last two days (it's Thursday evening) rewriting and doing some tidying up of a couple of chapters I still had in note form. I should finish the rewrites Sunday, and I'll be doing some scanning and thinking about layouts from Monday. Fingers crossed!

Below the pic I'm reviewing Treadstone. There are spoilers, so don't look if you don't like that kind of thing.

It took two attempts to watch Treadstone. I made the mistake of watching the first episode at a time when I had a ton of other things to watch. By the time I got to the second episode, all I could remember was that Kerry Godliman had suddenly turned up and sung Frere Jacques to an oil rig roughneck. I then watched the second episode thinking, "It'll be fine, I'll pick up the various plot lines without too much trouble."

No. No I didn't.

So I've deliberately left it a while, watched a couple of palate cleanser series and taken a new run at it. It made more sense, but jumping into about over half a dozen different storylines isn't going to earn it any fans.

The show is a spin-off from the first Jason Bourne movies, Treadstone being a  CIA black ops programme to create soldiers and assassins who will obey orders without question. To do this, they are broken physically and psychologically and rebuilt with new identities. The programme was said to have been shut down at the end of The Bourne Identity, but another successor programme (Blackbriar) was still running.

In the TV series, similar programming methods are being used to create sleeper agents known as cicadas in the early 1970s. In 1973, a CIA agent, John Randolph Bentley, whilst investigating the programme has been captured by Russians involved in it. Unaware that nine months have passed, he breaks free of his captives, evades the clutches of Petra Andropov, who has been bonding with him even as she breaks him, and returns to the CIA. Fearing they believe he has been turned, Bentley goes on the run, returning to his place of captivity to look for clues that eventually lead him to Budapest.

In the present, journalist Tara Coleman, who was fired for writing articles about a nuclear programme known as Stiletto Six, is contacted by the CIA. A senior North Korean wants to meet her, warning her that cicadas are being activated and there is a connection to Treadstone. He asks Coleman to protect his daughter and, soon after, he is killed by a SoYun Pak, the wife of a young Korean named Dae who is rising through the ranks at his job.

Doug McKenna is sacked from his job on an oil rig; discovers he has fighting skills he was unaware of. His cicada programming is on the fritz and he flies back to his home and his wife, Samantha, only to have a Treadstone "cleaner" attack him. Samantha admits she is a former Treadstone programmer.

At the CIA, Ellen Becker is following up a bizarre shooting that takes place in a convenience store. The shooter, Stephen Haynes, appears to be highly trained and highly effective. She sends agent Matt Edwards to investigate and Edwards finds himself in a situation where teaming up with Haynes might get him the answers he is seeking.

Meanwhile, a much older Petra Andropov has been looking after Stiletto Six for decades. When her husband discovers the nuclear missile hidden under their farmyard barn, she kills him and tries to reconnect with her handler Yuri, only to find she has been forgotten.

OK, so I've simplified the plot so that you can follow it. There are seven main plot threads, with each episode weaving drunkenly between all seven. Creator and Executive Producer Tim Kring is no stranger to multiple storylines, having been the creator of Heroes, which stitched together an amazing and critically acclaimed first season from the character arcs of its ensemble cast. That worked because each thread was very different to the others.

Here, I fear, it didn't work. While the individual characters may be engaging, they're all going through the same thing – the breakdown of their cicada training. By the third or fourth episode, I'd already decided that the show needed to simplify and concentrate on fewer characters: kickass Korean housewife SoYun, ex-journalist Tara, old Petra and CIA operative Matt, perhaps. I'm pretty sure you can take out the whole 1973 storyline and Doug McKenna's storyline without damaging the plot and get the show down to a tighter, less confusing eight episodes.

No news if this is going to get a second season. There are dangling threads that need to be picked up and some characters who I would be happy to see again.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Rebellion Releases (2000AD)

This week's release from Rebellion Publishing is the latest Prog of 2000AD... things hot up a little next week with a Megazine and a Treasury collection featuring Hugo Pratt, so keep an eye out for next week's column.

2000AD Prog 2168
Cover: Joel Carpenter

JUDGE DREDD: FUTURE CRIMES UNIT by Rory McConville (w) Jake Lynch (a) Jim Boswell (c) Annie Parkhouse (l)
BRINK: HATE BOX by Dan Abnett (w) INJ Culbard (a) Simon Bowland (l)
THE ZAUCER OF ZILK: A ZAUCERFUL OF SECRETS by Peter Hogan (w) Brendan McCarthy (a+c) Len O'Grady (c) Jim Campbell (l)
PROTEUS VEX: ANOTHER DAWN by Michael Carroll (w) Henry Flint (a) Simon Bowland (l)
FERAL & FOE by Dan Abnett (w) Richard Elson (a+c) Joe Elson (c) Annie Parkhouse (l)

Friday, February 07, 2020

Comic Cuts - 7 February 2020



Today's column has a soundtrack, which you're welcome to play as you read.

We went out to the first gig of the year this week – a nice surprise as tickets had sold out almost the moment they were announced. We put our names on the returns list and some tickets became available late last week, which is how we came to be watching Phil Wang at the Colchester Arts Centre on Tuesday.

I can't remember where we might have first seen him. I remember him being a regular on Matt Forde's Unspun series on Dave, and appearances on Live at the Apollo, Would I Lie to You, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown and elsewhere. I think he was forever cemented in our memories wearing a very revealing yellow tracksuit as a tribute to Bruce Lee on Taskmaster.

By co-incidence, we missed the repeat on his show on Radio 4 because we were out seeing him live. Wangsplaining was a pilot that came out about nine months ago. If you missed it, it's on the iPlayer if you want to give him a try.

This was only the second date of the tour, which means he had plenty of energy and seemed to be enjoying himself. The first half of the show was a little looser than one might expect as Wang was running in some material and being generally chatty and friendly, notably with a young lad in the front row who had a badge the size of a dinner plate announcing that it was his birthday. He's genial and self-effacing and had the audience on side from the start.

The second half was tighter, as this was the show proper – the hour from Edinburgh, so it was run in and didn't have the quite obvious jumps of the first half. That part of the set ended on a random notion that even Wang admitted he had no way to get into or out of as part of a routine. The latter half all slotted together nicely with a smart, dry wit that kept the show bubbling along.

Wang turned 30 in January, and jokes about his aches and pains don't really land when the audience is skewed old (I'm almost twice his age!) and sitting tightly packed on uncomfortable seats. I'm more on side with his talk of waking up with one inexplicably aching ball. Why? And why just one?

If you get a chance, go see Phil Wang. You might not learn the reason behind his one-sided ache but you will discover a few things about his desire for corks below the beltline.

I've become slightly obsessed with a band called Thank You Scientist. They're an American jazz-prog band that I discovered a few weeks ago. When I was doing the initial research for the Rocket index, I decided to check out some podcasts about the best prog of 2019 and Thank You Scientist's Terraformer album was mentioned on a show. I found the title track on Youtube and thought it was superb – lots of complex time changes, guitar shredding and a big band vibe at the same time. Plus, Salvatore Marrano has the most distinctive vocals since Geddy Lee. And the track features some storming fretless guitar work from Tom Monda. And there should be more electric violins in rock music – back in the 1970s we had Eddie Jobson in UK and Simon House in Hawkwind.

I was hooked enough to pick up the album, and I've now also found their previous two albums (Maps of Non-Existent Places and Stranger Heads Prevail); these three LPs have been the soundtrack to the writing of the new book.

Speaking of which, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel for the writing of the Rocket index. Most of the introduction is written, the index itself is done and I've started thinking about what I need as far as illustrations. There's still some way to go, but I'm hoping to have the book out in time for Bear Alley Books' ninth anniversary in March. It'll be our 32nd book! Blimey!

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Commando 5303-5306

Brand-new Commando issues 5303-5306 — out today! Featuring a triple bill of Ian Kennedy covers alongside a supersized Neil Roberts offering!

5303: Stan’s War

Former Commander Editor Calum Laird returns for his first credited, rip-roaring Commando yarn! Stanislaw Kowalski was fighting when the Nazis invaded his Polish homeland. Determined to get back into the fight, he joined the British Army only to be caught up in training. Luckily for the Polish fighting fury, Churchill ordered the formation of a new fearsome unit we know as the Commandos! Now if only Stan could keep his temper in check!

Story: Calum Laird
Art: Morhain & Defeo
Cover: Ian Kennedy

5304: Action Stations!

Everybody’s favourite two Kennedy’s join force in issue 5304 ‘Action Stations!’ With Ian Kennedy’s dark yet vibrant cover encompassing Cam Kennedy’s stunning interiors of RA Montague’s naval narrative. Sub-Lieutenant Ned Black was fresh to the Corvette named Nimbus, but the North Atlantic ocean during World War Two was no place for greenhorns and weaklings as the roving wolf packs of U-boats where about to teach him!

Story: RA Montague
Art: AC Kennedy
Cover: Ian Kennedy
Originally Commando No. 676 (1972).

5305: Supertank

They said the Landkreuzer P.1000 Ratte was never built, it was just blueprints, not even a prototype. But British tankies, Lieutenant Joseph “Bull” Bulloch, Sergeant Matt Evans and Trooper Euan McIntosh knew better! For they hadn’t just seen it, they had been inside it — and driven the monster tank into battle!

Story: Iain McLaughlin
Art: Khato
Cover: Neil Roberts
 
5306: The Unknown Enemy

Lieutenant Tom Gifford was tasked with aiding and protecting Colonel Vincent Vardon, a commander vital to the war effort. But when they’re driving through war-torn Italy a sudden rockslide strands them in enemy territory, Tom knows he’s in trouble! Then when a friendly half-track of America troops turn up, Tom thinks his luck as finally turned — or at least he did before he realises there’s something fishy going on.

Story: Staff
Art: Philpott
Cover: Ian Kennedy
Originally Commando No. 1496 (1981).

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Rebellion Releases (2000AD)

This week's releases from Rebellion Publishing.

2000AD Prog 2167
Cover: Brendan McCarthy (Len O'Grady colours)
 
JUDGE DREDD: FUTURE CRIMES UNIT by Rory McConville (w) Jake Lynch (a) Jim Boswell (c) Annie Parkhouse (l)
BRINK: HATE BOX by Dan Abnett (w) INJ Culbard (a) Simon Bowland (l)
PROTEUS VEX: ANOTHER DAWN by Michael Carroll (w) Henry Flint (a) Simon Bowland (l)
THE ZAUCER OF ZILK: A ZAUCERFUL OF SECRETS by Peter Hogan (w) Brendan McCarthy (a+c) Len O'Grady (c) Jim Campbell (l)
FERAL & FOE by Dan Abnett (w) Richard Elson (a+c) Joe Elson (c) Annie Parkhouse (l)

Kingdom: Alpha and Omega by Dan Abnett & Richard Elson
Rebellion 978-1781-08753-4, 6 February 2020, 144pp, £15.99. Available via Amazon.

The latest collection of 2000 AD’s latest breakout success from the mind of NYP bestselling SF and Warhammer author Dan Abnett! After dragging Gene to their faltering cryogenic space station and abandoning his pack to the swarming insect “Them”, the masters are how holding Gene in idyllic V.R. suspension. Rescued before execution by an old friend, and joined by a terrorist working to undermine the master’s grip on the world below, Gene forms a tenuous alliance.  The three must work together to infiltrate the master’s security systems and steal the codes to their massively destructive arsenal. But Gene might not be prepared for what else he finds…

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Eric Frank Russell cover gallery

The first science fiction story that really had an impact on me was Eric Frank Russell's 'Alamagoosa' which I remember reading when I was about 12 years old, a fabulous and hilarious story that looses nothing however many times I read it.

I was inspired to revamp this old gallery (from 2008) after reading Into Your Tent by John L. Ingham, a highly detailed biography of Russell, which I heavily recommend to anyone who likes his work. It takes a little while to get into the meat of Russell's life – there's a lot of family background in the first 50 or so pages and Ingham has gone into it in overly meticulous detail (and, yes, that's coming from me, a man who is not known for his brevity) – but I've found learning about his life and discovering / re-discovering his stories a real joy. If you can find a copy (it was published by Plantech (UK) in 2010 as a paperback original at the cheap price of  £9.99), grab it.

When I wrote a little introduction to this gallery back in 2008, I said "Russell published far too little and there's a fair amount of work that remains uncollected—I'd love to do a volume of 'The Early Eric Frank Russell', for instance, to rescue a few of his pre-1950s tales that have never reappeared. They're mostly of archaeological interest only, but I still think it would make a nice collection. Indeed, he's one author I'd love to have a set of 'Complete Stories of...' volumes for on my shelves. Maybe... one day..."I think that still holds true.

One thing I learned from Ingham's book was that some of the paperbacks I had on my shelf were not the definitive versions of the texts, e.g. the latest printings of Wasp are based on the cut text of the American hardback, rather than the complete text of the British hardback. So my old Panther paperbacks have the complete text while the later Methuen and Gollancz editions are abridged. Something to watch out for and a good excuse for me to update my gallery, I thought.

NOVELS

Sinister Barrier (in Unknown Worlds, 1939). Kingswood, Surrey, World’s Work, 1943; revised, Reading, Penn., Fantasy Press, 1948; London, Dobson, 1967.
Cherry Tree Book 407, nd (1952), 190pp, 1/6. Cover by Terry Maloney 
Methuen 0413-58870-X, (Feb) 1986, 201pp, £2.50. Cover by Terry Oakes

Dreadful Sanctuary (serial: Astounding, Jun-Aug 1948). Reading, Penn., Fantasy Press, 1948; London, Museum Press, 1953; revised & abridged [by Russell], New York, Paperback Library, 1963; revised [updating Fantasy Press text] London, New English Library, 1967.
Four Square 1719, 1967, 255pp, 5/-. 
Mandarin 0749-30073-6, (Jul) 1989, 255pp, £3.50.
Sentinels From Space (as The Star Watchers, in Startling Stories, 1951). New York, Bouregy Curl, 1953; London, Museum, 1954; as Sentinels of Space, New York, Ace, 1954.
Methuen 0413-15640-0, (Nov) 1987, vii+227pp, £2.95. Cover by Alan Craddock

Three to Conquer (as Call Him Dead in Astounding Science Fiction, 1955). New York, Avalon, 1956; London, Dobson, 1957. [Note: all book editions follow Avalon text, cut by  c.5,000 words from serial version]
Corgi S596, 1958, 224pp, 2/6. Cover by John Richards
Penguin 2005, 1963, 202pp, 3/6. Cover: 'Orange Blossom' by Max Ernst (1930)
Methuen 0413-15650-9, (Nov) 1987, 211pp, £2.95. Cover by Alan Craddock

Wasp. (abridged) New York, Avalon, 1957; (unabridged), London, Dobson, 1958.
Panther 1487, 1963, 143pp, 2/6. Cover by Richard Powers
Panther 1487-X, 1968, 143pp, 3/6. Cover: photo
Methuen 0413-48850-2, (Feb) 1986, 175pp, £2.50. Cover by Terry Oakes [Avalon text]
Gollancz 0575-07095-1, (Apr) 2000, 175pp, £9.99. Cover: design [Avalon text]
---- [imp.], (Jan) 2001, 175pp, £9.99. Cover by Jim Burns [Avalon text]


The Space Willies (based on the story Plus X). (abridged) New York, Ace, 1958; (unabridged) as Next of Kin, London, Dobson, 1959; edited & abridged, University of London Press (Pilot Books 44), 1964.
Mayflower A14, (Jan) 1962, 160ppm 2/6.
Sphere [SF Classic 13] 0722-17542-6, 1973, 160pp, 30p. Cover by Chris Foss
Mandarin 9743-30072-8, (Jul) 1989, 181pp, £2.99. Cover by Angus McKie
Gollancz 0575-07240-7, (Jun) 2001, 181pp, £9.99. Cover: design
---- [imp.], 2002, 181pp, £9.99. Cover by Chris Moore

The Great Explosion (incorporates the story ...And Then There Were None). London, Dobson, 1962; New York, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1962.
Panther 1625, (Jan) 1964, 144pp, 2/6.
?? Gollancz, 2010

With a Strange Device. London, Dobson, 1964; as The Mind Warpers, New York, Lancer, 1965.
Penguin 2358, (Oct) 1965, 155pp, 3/6. Cover by Allbert Gleizes
Mandarin 0749-30102-3, (Oct) 1989, 154pp, £2.99. Cover by Peter Elson

Design for Great-Day, with Alan Dean Foster. New York, Tor Books, 1995.
(no UK paperback)

OMNIBUS

Entities: The Selected Short Novels of Eric Frank Russell (contains, Wasp; Sentinels from Space; Call Him Dead; Next of Kin; Sinister Barrier; Legwork; Mana; The Mechanical Mice). NESFA Press, Sep 2001.

COLLECTIONS

Deep Space. New York, Fantasy Press, 1954; London, Eyre Spottiswoode, 1956; also with one story omitted, New York, Bantam, 1955
(contains: First Person—Singular; The Witness; Last Blast; Homo Saps; The Timid Tiger; A Little Oil; Rainbows End; The Undecided; Second Genesis. NOTE: First Person—Singular omitted from some editions)
Mandarin 0749-30103-1, (Oct) 1989, 249pp, £3.50. Cover by Peter Elson

Men, Martians and Machines. London, Dobson, 1955; New York, Roy, 1956
(contains: Jay Score; Mechanistra; Symbiotica; Mesmerica)
Corgi S424, 1957, 190pp, 2/6. Cover by John Richards
Panther 1890, Jul 1965, 191pp, 3/6. Cover by Josh Kirby
---- 1890-5, 1968, 191pp, 5/-. Cover by ?


Six Worlds Yonder. New York, Ace, 1958
(contains: The Waitabits; Tieline; Top Secret; Nothing New; Into Your Tent I’ll Creep; Diabologic)
(no UK paperback)

Far Stars. London, Dobson, 1961
(contains: The Waitabits; P.S.; Allamagoosa; Legwork; Diabologic; The Timeless Ones)
Panther 1691, Jun 1964, 128pp, 2/6. 


Dark Tides. London, Dobson, 1962
(contains: The Sin of Hyacinth Peuch; With a Blunt Instrument; A Matter of Instinct; I’m a Stranger Here Myself; This Ones On Me; I Hear You Calling; Wisel The Ponderer; Sole Solution; Rhythm of the Rats; Me and My Shadow; Bitter End)
Panther 1599, Nov 1963, 128pp, 2/6. 
----, (Dec) 1964, 128pp, 2/6.

Somewhere a Voice. London, Dobson, 1965; New York, Ace, 1966
(contains: Somewhere A Voice; U-Turn; Seat of Oblivion; Tieline; Displaced Person; Dear Devil; I Am Nothing)
Penguin 2722, 1968, 188pp, 4/-. Cover by Carl Strüwe


Like Nothing On Earth. London, Dobson, 1975; expanded, London, Methuen, 1986.
(contains: Allamagoosa; Hobbyist; The Mechanical Mice; Into Your Tent Ill Creep; Nothing New; Exposure; Ultima Thule)
Methuen 0413-60010-6, 1986, 159pp, £1.95. Cover by Terry Oakes [adds Allamagoosa]

The Best of Eric Frank Russell, introduced by Alan Dean Foster. New York, Ballentine, 1978.
(contains: Mana; Jay Score; Homo Saps; Metamorphosite; Hobbyist; Late Night Final; Dear Devil; Fast Falls the Eventide; I Am Nothing; Weak Spot; Alamagoosa; Into Your Tent Ill Creep; Study In Still Life (n-f))
(no UK paperback)


Major Ingredients, ed. Rick Katze. Framingham, MA, NESFA Press, Sep 2000.
(contains: Editor’s Introduction (by Rick Katze); Eric Frank Russell (by Jack L. Chalker); Allamagoosa; …And Then There Were None; The Army Comes to Venus; Basic Right; Dear Devil; Diabologic; Fast Falls the Eventide; Hobbyist; Homo Saps; I Am Nothing; Into Your Tent I’ll Creep; Jay Score; Last Blast; Late Night Final; A Little Oil; Meeting on Kangshan; Metamorphosite; Minor Ingredient; Now Inhale; Nuisance Value; Panic Button; Plus X; Study in Still Life; Tieline; The Timid Tiger; Top Secret; The Ultimate Invader; The Undecided; U-Turn; The Waitabits; The Man Who (Almost) Never Was (by Mike Resnick))
(no UK paperback) 


Darker Tides: The Weird Tales of Eric Frank Russell, ed. John Pelan & Phil Stephensen-Payne. Seattle, Midnight House, Jul 2006.
(contains: The Sin of Hyacinth Peuch; With a Blunt Instrument; The Ponderer; Rhythm of the Rats; Me and My Shadow; Displaced Person; Vampire from the Void; Hell's Bells; The Big Shot; Appointment at Noon; Take a Seat; Bitter End; Down, Rover, Down; A Divvil with the Women; I Hear You Calling; I'm a Stranger Here Myself; A Matter of Instinct; It's in the Blood; Poor Dead Fool; Seat of Oblivion; Sole Solution; Storm Warning; This One's on Me; Wisel)
(no UK paperback)

NON-FICTION

Great World Mysteries. London: Dobson, 1957; New York: Roy, 1957
Mayflower, 1962, 160pp.
Mayflower, 1967, 160pp. Cover by Victor Kalin
Mayflower-Dell, 1967, 160pp, 3/6. Cover by Victor Kalin

The Rabble Rousers. Evanstown, Ill.: Regency, 1963.
(no UK paperback)


The ABZ of Scouse: How to Talk Proper in Liverpool Vol. 2 (as Linacre Lane). Liverpool, Scouse Press, 1966; also as Lern Yerself Scouse Volume 2: The ABZ of Scouse, Liverpool, Scouse Press, n.d..
Scouse Press, 1966. 
---- [later ed.], n.d., 121pp, £1.95. Cover: design

(* That last one really is Eric Frank Russell writing in the guise of Linacre Lane, Bachelor of Scouse; I believe it only came to light when some of Russell's papers were donated to the Science Fiction Foundation by his daughter in 1994.)

(* Originally published 20 July 2008.)

Friday, January 31, 2020

Comic Cuts - 31 January 2020

I've put in a fairly solid week of work on the Rocket index, writing up the backgrounds of many of the reprints and digging up what I can on their creators. Some are big name strips that will be recognised by most – Flash Gordon, for instance – but others are far more obscure, such as the two Dutch reprints carried by the paper.

I'm taking a break writing about the last of the original British strips in order to put together this column and thinking back on the week. There haven't been too many distractions – a visit from a chap named George who wanted some advice on the book he is writing, and a trip down to the doctor for another blood test are all I have on the calendar.

The latter is due to elevated levels of sugar in my last blood test, which was done because the previous blood test had shown a low level of HDL cholesterol. Well, the latter didn't get a mention this time, so seems to have sorted itself out. I'm sure the blood-glucose measurement is probably also an aberration – it just happened to be high that morning when they did the test – but I'd rather keep an eye on it than ignore it. We shall see what happens when I go for a review at the tail-end of next month.

This comes at a time when I'm feeling rather chuffed about losing some weight. I lost half a stone last year and hope to do at least the same this year. I've already lost the couple of pounds I put on over Christmas, and a couple more, so the slightly brisker walks and a bit of time on an exercise bike seems to be paying off.

I said last week that my tablet had died following an attempted Windows update. Well, the good news is... it's alive! Playing around with the USB stick I had been using as an external hard drive to the tablet, I discovered that it locked itself into a safety mode: I could read files but could not write or delete anything. Following this up, I found that ScanDisk's advice was simply that there was no way to unlock it as it entered that mode when it detected potential problems or damage.

I spent a very satisfying few minutes taking a hefty rock to it to make it unreadable before throwing it away.

But before that I was able to copy off the temporary files and folders associated with the Windows update onto another drive, and plugging that in to the tablet caused it to reboot and revert back to its previous pre-update mode. It seems to be working fine and I've subsequently bought a micro SD card to make sure that it has plenty of free space in the future. And a new USB stick.

We're about to take a look at The Man in the High Castle. The review is full of spoilers, so hop to the end of the column if you don't like that kind of thing.

And so it ends. One of my favourite TV shows of the past few years finishes with season four and does so in style. Although based on the Philip K. Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle has moved far beyond the hints of alternate realities offered by the book and made the slipping between worlds of Julianna and the portal created by the German Reich to breach another parallel world central to these last two seasons.

The premise of the novel—what if the Axis powers had won the Second World War and now controlled a divided America—is still central to the storylines of all the characters. A new resistance has grown in Japanese-controlled Pacific States, the Black Communist Rebellion (BCR). The resistance against the Reich, who control the Eastern territories, is being battered and losing ground. They need more weapons and their leader, Wyatt, does a deal with the BCR: weapons for aid in an attack on leading Japanese figures.

The attack is only a partial success, leading to swift reprisals. During the attack, Robert Childan, an antique store owner who has adopted a Japanese lifestyle and ingratiated himself with the Crown Princess, is snatched by the BCR and offers to help, informing the BCR leaders that the Princess is pressing for the Japanese to withdraw from America to concentrate their forces in Manchuria.

Reichsmarshall John Smith is still obsessed with Juliana Crain, who transported herself to another dimension just as Smith shot her at the end of season three. She now works as an aikido teacher, teaching (amongst others) Smith's son, Thomas, who has survived in this dimension. His father (alt-Smith, for want of a better way of avoiding confusion) is a mild-mannered salesman who ends up dead when a Nazi agent travels from the Reich to kill Juliana and to spy on Thomas and pass back news to the Reichmarshall.

Juliana decides that there is no alternative but to kill the Reichmarshall.

Meanwhile, the BCR decide that they need to make a bold move to prove they are not a broken force. They decide to attack the oil supplies the Japanese desperately need to maintain their armies in China. They manage to pull off a major coup, forcing the Emperor to announce a withdrawal from the US. But while the BCR celebrate, John Smith sees this as an opportunity to unite the whole of America under one flag—the swastika.

While this is the broad outline of the show, its strength has been its characters and their personal lives. John Smith is torn and desperately trying to balance two lives: in one he has his two daughters, one of whom reviles the life she is forced into in the Reich and wants to escape to the Neutral Zone; in the other he has his beloved son, who wants to join up to fight in Vietnam.

In the Pacific States, Inspector Kido cautiously investigates the murder of Trade Minister Tagomi, knowing that there is a conspiracy to scapegoat an innocent man and close down the case. He, too, is having problems with his son, who uses opium to blot out the memories of his past actions.

And then there's Robert Childan, a selfish and slippery man who falls in love with the Japanese way and a Japanese woman. Just when you think he might have redeemed himself and is given a chance to make a new life...

What of Helen? John Smith's wife is forced back to the Reich. As she desperately tries to integrate back into society, she is treated with suspicion and no little contempt. She suspects her husband is having an affair but then learns about the alt-dimension and her husband's trips there. Will she help Juliana thwart Smith's plans to become Reichsführer of an autonomous North American Reich?

OK, so these are major spoilers if you haven't begun watching the show yet, but I wanted to emphasise that The Man in the High Castle is so much more than just an alternative history. Yes, its world-building has been impressive, but equally so has its character building and its development of multiple storylines  that have woven together into an immensely satisfying whole. Thankfully, as Amazon is a streaming service, you should easily be able to get all forty episodes for the foreseeable future and given how easy it is to accidentally sign up for Amazon Prime, you might find yourself with a free pass to watch the whole lot before you cancel your subscription.