Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1) by Deborah Harkness

Title: A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1)
Author: Deborah Harkness
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2011

This is one of those books that I really, really wanted to love, because I have this thing for academics who stumble onto earth-shattering secrets. Also, I still hold out a hope that I'll find depictions of vampires in fiction that will fill me with happiness. I'd heard that this book was basically Twilight for academics and I'd hoped that the comparison would be a load of pigs' bollocks.

Unfortunately the comparison to Twilight is all too apt, and anyone who's read Meyer's books will see the similarities. And, possibly, love it for all the same reasons (if they're a fan). I'm not a fan of Twilight even if I have to grudgingly admit that I'm glad it's spurred people who wouldn't ordinarily read into picking up more books other than Meyer's.

I digress...

Deborah Harkness can write, and she does so well, but by gum, where the hell was her editor to rein her in? A large part of this book was food porn, as Diana Bishop pontificates over what to feed her vampiric consort. The story takes aaages to get off the ground, and, much like my suffering through Outlander, I kept reading in the hope of seeing the story take off.

It doesn't.

Essentially, Diana Bishop is the last scion of a long line of respected witches, who prefers logic and reason to employing her unpredictably strong magic. She prefers the life of quiet academia to the adventures that resulted in her parents' untimely sticky end. And then she meets pretty-boy vampire Matthew, and the two proceed to a tsundere-style relationship until they finally admit their love for one another.

Matthew dominates and bullies, and is the typical alpha male I'm sure scores of avid female readers of urban fantasy love and crave. Except he does absolutely nothing for me. We're introduced to a bunch of other species. We're introduced to a Chosen One trope, though Diana's hardly a Harry Potter. She manifests all sorts of super powers but doesn't seem to be too fazed.

And then there's the effing book. I call it the effing book because FFS if I were a bookworm. Actually, I lie, I'm a complete book freak, and if there was a supposedly magical manuscript that only I could find or call up in the stacks ... and I'd let it slip through my fingers, I'd be a lot more freaked out by the mystery and a lot more adamant to get to the bottom of it than Diana Bishop, who seems to be more concerned about yoga, rowing and the freaking SALAD she's feeding a vampire than she is about the effing book everyone's getting their knickers in a twist about.

Okay, that was a effing long sentence, but yeah, I spent half my time while reading wanting to throw my iPhone at the wall out of pure frustration.

The bottom line is there's stuff that's going down, but the characters spend most of their time waffling, even when there's clear and present danger ... and they have zero sense of urgency. There's talk about family planning FFS... The effing book that's mysteriously vanished... and they're swanning about in the French effing countryside. Eating ... and comparing notes on fine wines. ARGH.

I think Harkness is probably a very fine travel or foodie writer. If you like that sort of detail on nearly every page, you'll love this book, I suppose. I just got really tired of waiting for things to get off the ground ... and then even when they did (and by now these super-duper magical occurrences were happening as effortlessly as they would in that TV series Charmed) ... and there's a monster a minute, with whiffs of inter-species xenophobia to boot...

Mainly, I feel that the book got off to a promising start but was then bloated with unnecessary detail to the point where I suspect the author wasn't really sure *how* she was going to end the novel... But that's just my inner editor whispering thoughts into my head. Don't mind me. I'll just sit here in my corner whimpering on about how Twilight killed the vampire.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy #1) by Robin Hobb #review

Title: Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy #1)
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Voyager, 1996

The first time I read Assassin's Apprentice must've been not long after the book first came out. I took the book out at the library and fair gobbled it down, along with the other books in the trilogy. To put it mildly, Hobb's writing keeps me up way past my bedtime. There are very few authors who can successfully manage that feat.

Yet even though I'd read the first three, I was aware that she'd written not only a second, but was busy with a third trilogy all featuring my dearly beloved Fitz and his friends Nighteyes the wolf and the enigmatic Fool. I simply had to revisit the setting, which meant I wanted to dip into the first trilogy again. Boy oh boy, I felt like I was stepping into that world with fresh eyes, and it was just as an emotive journey as it was before.

In a nutshell (and without giving too much away) this is a story about a young boy who's the bastard son of a king-in-waiting, who is trained to be a royal assassin, to do the king's "quiet work". Of course the events that transpire and the characters one encounters along the way are far more varied and unexpected. This is one of those books where you put your life on hold and live Fitz's life with him as he grows up, navigates the complexities of life at court, which includes a murderous uncle who's eyeing the throne though he's not quite next in line in the succession. To make matters even more pressing, their kingdom is under assault by seaborne raiders – the Outislanders. Fitz never knows a moment of true peace.

Fitz is not only an assassin, but he's also gifted (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with two forms of magic – the Skill (which allows him to influence men's minds and communicate telepathically) and the Wit (which allows him to communicate and bond with an animal). The former is a magic practised mainly by the reining Farseers and the other is a reviled art that, if he's discovered to be in possession of it, will mean his death.

What makes this world for me is the how Hobb populates it with three-dimensional, authentic (and often quirky) characters whose whose motivations often place them at odds with each other. How the hell she even manages to keep all their timelines straight is absolutely stupefying, because every small clue, *every* detail she writes in, is often vital to the rest of the tale.

Unforgettable characters such as Chade, King Shrewd's older half-brother and master assassin; Burrich the stablemaster, who raises Fitz; Molly Chandler, the secret love of Fitz's heart; the Fool; Lady Patience... I fell in love with all of them, all over again, and getting to know them again made them feel like old, favourite friends.

For those looking for an insta-epic with clearly defined plot and HEA, this might not be the book for you. The storyline feels like real life – messy, inconvenient. Fitz makes many decisions that he'll later regret. There are times when you will want to yell at him to either do or do not ... Oh, and the consequences... Every action has its consequences, and Hobb *doesn't* pull her punches.

The world building is detailed, highly textured and yet again, you feel as if you're *in* the story as opposed to skimming through. I am reminded quite solidly, that this is one of those books that I will recommend to those wishing to get into fantasy for the first time, and that Robin Hobb is a master wordsmith who is partially responsible for having inspired me to tread this path of fantasy author myself. Though I'd read this book before, I feel I gained a lot more detail (and a greater sense of awe at Hobb's skill) the second time round. Who knows, in a decade or so, I'll do it all again.

Introducing Skolion – another way of looking at the publishing game

Once upon a time (possibly around about 2006 or 2007) I read this article by author Ian Irvine, and I thought to myself, "How difficult can this really be? I'm going to do better." I had my literary heroes, like Neil Gaiman, JRR Tolkien, Poppy Z Brite and Storm Constantine, among others, to look up to. I was in the process of writing my first novel, Khepera Rising, which back then I thought was just the dog's bollocks, and I'd soon be able to quit my shitty job as a newspaper sub-editor and live the high life as a successful (and wealthy) published author.

Yes, I can hear you laughing.

In fact, I'm laughing at my own naïve self.

My journey as a published author has been a long slog of trying to crawl out of the slush pile, and having moderate success in selling to an assortment of small presses and eventually self-publishing a few myself too. (Not to mention the countless rejections.) I consider myself lucky if I sell three or four copies of my novels each month. It's no reflection on my writing – it's just that I'm not writing the next FSoG or The Hunger Games. My career as editor has been far more financially viable than author...

And it's taken me a few years to make peace with the fact that I'll only ever have a small, niche readership, and those are the people for whom I'll continue to write stories.

Not too long ago, an author who, many years ago, was my introduction to SFF and remains a beacon in the literary world, Ursula K Le Guin, made a speech at an awards ceremony (and you can read the whole thing here), but this is the gist of what she says that resonates with how I feel about the stories that *must* still be told.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. 

Truth be told, the overheads for producing books are hellish, and the competition in the market is fierce. The big publishers are going to be in it for the money. They will publish those books they know will sell to as many people as possible (celeb bios, cook books, self-help, politics, religion...) Sadly, this means that there are many of us whose voices will not be heard, who won't be given the same opportunities as those who're writing to satisfy trends.

That's not to knock the trends – they do fulfil a function (and keep publishers afloat). As much as some of us would like to frown at the Twilight franchise, I've lost count of the readers who gush on about how Meyer's books have introduced them to reading, and that they've become voracious readers since they first visited that tiny town called Forks... And some of those Twilight fans have gone on to read my books, so who am I to complain?

But Le Guin has also gone on to investigate another publishing model – one that has become increasingly attractive to me, that of the publishing co-operative.

Anyone with a computer and the right software can publish a book now, which means that more books are being published each day than ever before. Readers are spoiled for choice, yet the problem comes in that not all books that are author published are quite ready or of a sufficient quality to pass muster. Small presses have, for the past decade, tried to find that happy medium between self- and traditional publishing, but anyone who's been keeping an eye on developments recently will see how many of these small presses have either imploded spectacularly or simply wasted away. And woe betide those who try to get their books into brick-and-mortar stores – I promise you, the returns alone are the death knell for most. Putting out many titles in the hope that some are a success also doesn't work. The shotgun approach sucks. Exceptional voices get lost in a torrent of merely adequate writing. There aren't enough sales to keep these companies afloat – as they too still have overheads (paying editors, designers...).

You try writing edgy urban fantasy featuring a bisexual black magician then see your book compete with the three raunchy paranormal romance titles released by your publisher the same week... No prizes for guessing which novels will receive the most marketing push from your publisher's social media...

Hence the inception of Skolion. We're a core group of SFF authors and folks with media savvy who have a great love of SFF. We understand that the traditional and small press models are untenable, and that although self-publishing is an option, it's so much easier for us to work together, pooling our skills and experience. Between us, we boast editors, designers, media gurus, marketing experts and a general understanding love for our genres. Our aim is to create the kinds of books we want to read. Our aim is to make good books. We might not be the next Twilight, but we want you to know that when you pick up one of our books, it will be something special, something different – a work of art made with love and passion that is most certainly not a commodity. Most importantly, we aim to empower our authors and put them in charge of their diverse stories that are told authentically.

At present, the co-op is by invite only, and we are keeping it low key so that our growth is sustainable. But if you're interested in what we offer, and want to keep up to speed with our doings, you're more than welcome to follow us on Twitter or like our Facebook group.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Velvet Goldmine (1998) #movies

In 1984, British journalist Arthur Stuart investigates the career of 1970s glam superstar Brian Slade, who was heavily influenced in his early years by hard-living and rebellious American singer Curt Wild. (IMDB)

I admit that I rewatched Velvet Goldmine in the wake of David Bowie's passing. It was purely out of nostalgia. This was also one of the few films I saw on the big screen way back when it first came out, possibly with an ex of mine during a time when we ourselves thought we were terribly glam wearing makeup and being all gothic and beauteous.

So, yeah, there's a big pile of nostalgia attached to this.

I wasn't a Bowie fan back then, however now I realise what an impact his music and style had on the goth scene – and how most of the bands that I look up to now were heavily influenced by the man. Glam rock was never quite my thing but I've gained an appreciation for it in my dotage.

I'll also admit that my interest in this film is very much for the visual elements (beyond perving at Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor. Gosh darnit, I admit it. This film is all about perving at those two. I am a shallow, vapid creature who doesn't much care for Christian Bale.

There's really not much of a story, if you aren't dazzled by fangrrrling. Singer Brian Slade has an affair with guitarist Curt Wild. Everything goes south in a narcotic haze and then Slade fakes his own death at the height of his fame – and everyone's pissed off at him and his career nose-dives. Then there's some sort of hush-hush cover-up with intimations about a man who fell to earth a-la Bowie while the dull-as-dead-woodlice reporter tries to find out what happened to his hero way after the fact. And everyone damaged by Slade has his or her turn to Bare All The Uglies. There are even Men In Black. We never find out why there are Men In Black. And I'm fine with that. Really I am. Save that I don't think these magical elements were played up enough.

(There're also those who say that the film hints at Bowie's connection with Iggy Pop – I'd rather say they're inspired by the two. And the next person who sagely advises me of this fact can go blow themselves – I've heard that tired pony trotted out by folks so often I'm like meh. Tell me something new.)

Granted, there are magical interludes in the film – music videos within the narrative – that most certainly add a glamorous touch (and for those alone make this film worth watching). Yet at the end, once the glitter and grease paint has smudged off, and the sun has robbed night of her splendour, we're left with the ugliness of the people in the story. And perhaps that is the story – that we paint our faces to be what we're not and in that way become trapped. We create an ideal we can never live up to. The fairytale prince is ephemeral. He is not who you want him to be. And he's bound to disappoint you.

In the end, he is just as sad as running mascara after you've spent the last half of the night talking to God on the Big White Telephone.

Okay, I'm getting all heavy-handed with my clichés etc. This is a pretty film. I'll take it out, dust it off, and watch it once in a while just to feel that sick pulse of enjoying pretty boys wearing make-up shagging and prancing around in too-tight pants. Because it makes me happy-sad, and reminds me of my own stupid young adult years when I wanted something I could never have. That wasn't even real.

I'll leave you with that. You probably won't enjoy the film for the same reasons I do, nor feel disappointed with it for the same reasons I do. Maybe it's also because the film reminds me of who I never got to be. And also that the dream invariably turns to ashes in your mouth.

PS, I'm also really not in a very intellectual mood of present, so feel free to disregard everything I've written here as the ramblings of a middle-aged maggot.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Starship Troopers (1997) #review

Humans in a fascistic, militaristic future do battle with giant alien bugs in a fight for survival.

I admit freely that the first occasion I saw this film, I spent most of my time hiding behind the couch. I was squeamish, and I didn't (at that stage) handle gore all too well. (Also, I'd yet to see the Alien films, so I can be excused, I think.) I shrieked like a little boy with his willy slammed in a car door.

Pretty much all I recalled from the first viewing was a lot of gore, explosions and missing limbs. I didn't recall the satire too much. Granted, fast forward a good decade or so later, I find I was more fascinated with the social commentary than the action. So far as old SF films go, the actual production of Starship Troopers holds up well (and in fact better than the rejigged CGI for Star Wars episodes IV to VI). Perhaps it's because to a degree Starship Troopers still feels a bit old school that helps. Movement is also so fast in some of the action sequences that if there is dodgy graphics, it's over too quickly for it to be out and out annoying.

The characters are, for the most, forgettable and pretty much cardboard cut-out. There's the yawn-worthy prerequisite love triangle, the dick-measuring rivalry between two males, and it's all very much a much of a muchness. Nothing groundbreaking. Johnny Rico wants to go kill himself some bugs 'cos they blew up his home town. He'll break a few hearts along the way and inspire some others. Pretty much stock-standard hero's journey. I could probably check all the boxes if I wasn't so god-damned utterly lazy and ill-inclined to make the effort.

Two words, however: Clancy Brown. I love me some Clancy Brown. Pause a moment to bask in the gorgeous baritone of that man's voice.

Okay. Enough fangrrrling.

What the director Paul Verhoeven says about society is far more interesting than the film's actual narrative. And the way he draws parallels between contemporary American society and Nazi Germany, though a bit heavy handed, are chillingly close to the bone. But that's about it. His motives are so dog-damned obvious it's kinda like getting slapped upside the head with a floppy bratwurst.

And I'm pretty sure your average movie goer won't have the socio-historic context to draw those parallels because they'll be too busy cheering on all the ultra violence. And gore. And missing limbs. And explosions and shit.

Sorry, I'm jaded. Social media has taught me much about the human race (which is probably why I live like a hermit at the bottom of Africa).

This is a solid piece of SF cinema, that's quite self-aware about its message. But it's not a film that's having me flail about in transports of joy. Most importantly, it didn't irritate me, like most films do nowadays. In hindsight I'm glad this film was made during a time when cinema wasn't overly reliant on CGI to make up for the deficits in most scripts nowadays. It means there's slightly more meat to the bone here. And Verhoeven had to pay attention to his work.

Will I watch this film again? Meh. Maybe. Will I tell you to? Meh. Was this eye-achingly awful? Nope. But it wasn't The Event Horizon, and nor was it Alien or Fire Fly, if you catch my drift – all of which I'll most likely revisit when the time comes.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Dane Cobain has No Rest for the Wicked #guest

Today I hand over my blog to Dane Cobain, who's chatting about the books on his radar. Who knows, maybe you'll find a little something here to pique your interest – I've always maintained you can tell a lot about people looking at the books they read.

Hi, folks! My name’s Dane Cobain, and I’m the author of a supernatural thriller called No Rest for the Wicked and a book of poetry called Eyes Like Lighthouses When the Boats Come Home. Today, I’m stopping by to talk about something we can all enjoy – books!

I pick up books from an eclectic collection of sources, from charity shops, book exchanges, friends and birthdays to PR agencies, publishers and authors. The only thing that they have in common is that they’re all physical copies – I collect books, and I have around a thousand of them in my house, spread out across a couple of rooms.

So, without further ado – here are a few highlights from my ‘To Be Read’ (TBR) list!

Ray Bradbury
Here, I’m talking specifically about Fahrenheit 451, although I’ll probably move on to some of his other work afterwards. Despite this being a classic, I’ve never got round to reading it, which is a shame – it’s one of the more modern classics, but it somehow passed me by. Now that I’ve got a copy, I can’t wait to get started!

Stephen King
I have about twenty Stephen King books in my collection, and all of them have come from charity shops – I’m thinking about trying to pick up his complete bibliography without looking anywhere else. I’ve read four or five of his books, but I have at least a dozen more of them to get started on – I also have the first five books of the Dark Tower series, and so I should probably get started on that, at some point.

Hugh Laurie
You’ve probably heard of Hugh Laurie as either one half of Fry and Laurie or as the actor who played House in the series of the same name. He’s a talented man – he also makes music, and he’s published a couple of books. I’ve got The Gun Seller, and I can’t wait to get started.

Stieg Larsson
I recently read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I thought it was pretty good – good enough for me to pick up the other two books in his Millennium trilogy. Again, these ones are from charity shops – you see them everywhere.

R. L. Stone
When I moved out of my old place, my housemate was getting rid of a load of their old books, including their Goosebumps collection. I rescued them before they made it into the bin, and so now I have a collection of forty or so Goosebumps books to work through.

Oli Jacobs
Oli is a local author, and he performed at the spoken word night party that I held for the launch of Eyes Like Lighthouses When the Boats Come Home, my book of poetry. When we were there, he gave me a copy of one of his collections of short stories, which I’ll be reading and reviewing in due course.

George R. R. Martin
It took me a while to get round to reading the books that Game of Thrones is based on, and I didn’t watch the show because I wanted to read the books first. Now I’m powering through both – I’m just coming to the end of A Clash of Kings, the second book, and I’ve been waiting until I’ve finished reading it to start the second season.

Colin Dexter
Recently, I’ve been working my way through the Inspector Morse books, although not in any particular order. This is another author who’s all over the charity shops – I’ve read a couple of his books, but I want to finish the rest of them off.

Claire Riley
I picked up Odium, Riley’s zombie novel, at a book-signing event in the summer of last year. Somehow, I still haven’t got round to reading it, but I’m looking forward to getting started!

Gary Vaynerchuk
Vaynerchuk is a social media thought leader and an industry influencer. I went along to the launch event for his most recent book, #AskGaryVee, and my ticket came with a couple of free copies. I can’t wait to get started!

So now that you know which books I’ll be reading this year, I want to hear from you. Leave a comment to let me know what books you’re looking forward to reading, or tweet me (@DaneCobain) with your thoughts. I’ll see you soon!

About No Rest for the Wicked
When the Angels attack, there’s NO REST FOR THE WICKED.
Father Montgomery, an elderly priest with a secret past, begins to investigate after his parishioners come under attack, and with the help of Jones, a young businessman with an estranged child, Montgomery begins to track down the origin of the Angels.
The Angels are naked and androgynous. They speak in a dreadful harmony with no clear leader. These aren’t biblical cherubs tasked with the protection of the righteous – these are deadly creatures of light that have the power to completely eradicate.
When Jones himself is attacked, Father Montgomery knows he has to act fast. He speaks to the Angels and organises a final showdown where he’s asked to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Dane Cobain is a writer, poet and musician from a place you've probably never heard of, somewhere in England. When he's not writing books, he's reading and reviewing them on his book blog - - or working at his day job in social media marketing. Find him at or follow @DaneCobain on Twitter.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

In discussion with Bloody Parchment's Matt Hayward

In the last of our interviews with SA HorrorFest Bloody Parchment finalists, we've got Matt Hayward stopping by my spot today. (BTW, if you're yet to purchase your copy of Bloody Parchment, it's over on Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords – do support our wonderful authors.)

Welcome, Matt. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I'm an author/musician living in the mountains of Wicklow, Ireland. My music career has been kind, and I've gotten to play and write with such people as Edie Brickell, Malfunkshun, Clannad, Nick Pollock (My Sister's Machine), and many others. My band Lace Weeper released our debut album in March of last year which featured Nirvana drummer Chad Channing on a couple of tracks and was nominated for album of the year.  I also put out my first solo EP in December and Alan M Clark, who did books covers for so many in the horror field, provided artwork for me. That was a huge honor.

What gives in your story? 

I wanted to write a story set in a time when Rock N Roll was something new and exciting. I included a lot of homages to tracks I enjoy, and scattered them throughout the tale like a soundtrack. I enjoy pulp for pulp's sake, it's what I like to read and what I enjoy writing, so a monster story with teenagers smoking cigarettes and driving fast cars in a small town is all I set out to do, just something entertaining, like a quick rock song.

Why do you love about reading and writing speculative fiction?

Mostly, I want characters that draw me in and stay with me long after the book's been put away. In terms of setting, I know a lot of people want to find the latest twist on old tropes, and that's great, but I really do enjoy the standard settings and creatures. Vampire in a small town? I'm in. Zombie apocalypse? Sure. As long as I connect with the characters and get to see them pull through.

Is there a novel or movie that you feel has been the most influential on you, that you keep coming back to? 

For writing, it's strange, I get influenced by different kinds of mediums. Comedians, for example. People like Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Doug Stanhope, they've all had a massive impact on what I write about, even though they themselves never touched horror fiction or horror. But I like their content, and I try to carry the torch (in my own way), talking about issues I feel are important but putting them into a horror setting. I like the pulpy b-rates when it comes to movies and that impacts my writing a lot. So yeah, social commentary mashed into a slab of b-rate gore.

How do you approach the writing process? 

Richard Laymon called it 'BIC' in his novel A Writer's Tale. Butt In Chair. I do one-thousand words a day, and edit on weekends. That's about it for me, no acts of voodoo or strange prayers, just four or five pages a day and leave the work at work as much as possible. I found Joe Lansdale and Joe Hill's tips on writing to help a lot.

Not content to conquer the rock music world via Lace Weeper and his own phenomenal solo work, Matt Hayward has now turned his attention to dark fiction, and how much richer we all are as a result. Brain Dead Blues is everything you’d expect from a rock star turned horror writer, documenting not only facets of the music world but also the darkness that can result from obsessions both creative and violent. I have long been a fan of both the music and the man behind it. Now I’m a fan of his writing too. - Kealan Patrick Burke, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of THE TURTLE BOY, KIN, and SOUR CANDY

Follow Matt on Twitter.