Friday, 31 October 2014

But I Digress | My Little Alien

"It started with one word. One word appearing slowly against the blackness of space: ALIEN."

It did indeed—for me, and I can't imagine how many millions of other admirers of the aforementioned franchise.

That quote, in case you were wondering, comes from the back cover copy of Alien: The Archive: a beautiful new book that's taken pride of place on the coffee table in the corner of the spare room the other half and I spent the autumn turning into a lovely library.

It's a massive thing—The Archive rather than the library—and not half as expensive as it is expansive. No surprise, I suppose, since it's the first official book about all four of the films. That said, it did surprise me. I was expecting a collection of film stills and a bit of behind-the-scenes business; a few storyboards and prop shots, possibly, printed on great big glossy pages. 

(Knowing me, as I do declare I do, I'd have bought the book on that bare basis, if Titan hadn't kindly sent a complimentary copy along, What can I say? I have Alien on the brain.)

Make no mistake: The Archive has all that, but it's so much more than just a book of pretty pictures; of illustrations and annotations. It begins with an overview of the franchise so far, by way of an involved interview with its star, the wonderful Sigourney Weaver. The remainder is arranged according to the four films featured. The pages devoted to Alien take in, for instance, an extensive introduction based on interviews with the cast and crew, followed by briefer pieces about sketches and concepts, building the world, casting the characters, making the models, filming the effects, and a fair few other things. Aliens,  Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection all receive the same detailed treatment.

It's an incredible compendium—and, considering that Christmas is coming, a great gift idea, if your friends or family members are fans of the franchise. Not a few of the folks we've had over to see our lovely library have spent longer looking at this book than admiring the room I renovated, and I don't even begrudge them their distraction.

If you've got Alien-friendly gamers to get gifts for, also consider Alien: Isolation, which I finally completed this week. I don't have a huge amount to add to the more responsible reviews out there, except to say that the save system, though archaic and fundamentally frustrating, in many ways makes the game: the tension that is Isolation's single greatest strength is never tighter than when you're hunting for the save station's distinctive beeping after surviving a couple of close encounters with you-know-who.

Also, the aesthetic? Pitch perfect. The sound design? Superlative. Isolation is the best Alien game there's ever been by far. It'd have been a better eight hour experience than it is a twenty hour epic—the mechanics wear more than a little thin during the mediocre middle act—but Isolation, like The Archive, exceeded my every expectation.

Now I have a couple of classes to teach this evening, and a party to attend afterwards, nevertheless, I know what I'll be doing during the wee hours of Halloween.

"It started with one word. One word appearing slowly against the blackness of space: ALIEN."

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Guest Post | "Short Fiction in the New Publishing Reality" by Gail Z. Martin

Not too long ago, people were quick to say that short fiction was dead. They pointed to the demise of several long-running, celebrated fiction magazines, and to lackluster sales for anthologies, and concluded that the long form had won.

As Mark Twain once said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Whether you bless ebooks or curse them, one thing they have given us back is the viable short story and anthology. Authors discovered that writing short stories and selling them on Amazon and other online platforms was a good way to keep existing readers happy and bring in new readers with a low-risk opportunity to sample the wares. Anthologies do exceptionally well on Kickstarter because multiple authors each with his/her own fan base can quickly gin up support and boost the signal for the project.

Never has a corpse returned to the land of the living quite so quickly.

Ebooks and online bookselling has substantially altered the business of publishing and continues to send shockwaves through the industry. But by creating a viable and potentially profitable way for authors to bring short fiction to market, the incentive exists for authors to write short form. Whether they are contributing to a Kickstarter anthology or bringing their self-published short stories to market independently, authors are no longer limited by the number of paying venues for short fiction and the time-consuming effort of pitching a story, sometimes multiple times before finding it a home. Stories can also tackle timely issues more easily, since the time-to-market is decidedly shortened.

A funny thing happened when people began reading on smart phones and tablets. All of a sudden, they discovered that they liked reading a story they could finish in the car pool van or on the train in the way into work, instead of always being stuck at a good part and not being able to get back into a full book for hours. Mobile device readership is growing, especially in the under-30 demographic, and those readers enjoy bite-sized fiction, stoking a demand for more short stories.

Short stories have also become a promotional tool for novel writers, in addition to being an end in themselves. I’ve been part of four Kickstarter anthologies in the last year. Each of them featured one of my short stories as part of the anthology. In addition, backers received a three-pack of stories from my two short story series if the anthology reached specific dollar goals.

What this meant was that thousands of new readers got a sampler platter of my short stories based on my book series, introducing them to me and my worlds. Sites like Wattpad take this a step farther, enabling authors to reach millions of members with free short fiction to garner comments and build audience.

A year ago, I began writing two series of short stories related to my novels. The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures are prequels to my Chronicles of the Necromancer series. That series is currently on hiatus as I write the Ascendant Kingdoms books, but loyal readers wanted more in the Winter Kingdoms world. By serialising what are essential three prequel books into stand-alone short stories with a larger plot arc, I’m able to give readers what they want without foreclosing future publishing opportunities, and earn a nice side income to boot.

Likewise, my Deadly Curiosities Adventures began as a universe I created specifically for anthology contributions. When Solaris Books liked “Buttons”, the story I contributed to Magic: The Esoteric and Arcane, and asked for a book series based on that story, the short stories continued in anthologies and direct to ebook on Kindle/Kobo/Nook. The short stories aren’t required reading to enjoy the books, but they do add additional details and background that fans of the series will find interesting. They take place before, after and in between the novels. I bring out a new short story in either my Jonmarc Vahanian or Deadly Curiosities series once a month. I’ve also written an original Deadly Curiosities novella and posted it free on Wattpad to reach a new, mobile device-intensive audience.

Thanks to ebooks and Kickstarter, short fiction has a promising future. From being a moribund format to becoming the hot new thing, short fiction has rebounded with vigour that would be the envy of any zombie master. Here’s to new opportunities.

***

Gail Z. Martin's Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with never-before-seen cover art, brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more. Each article comes complete with extra excerpt links for stories and books by author friends of hers, plus a special 50% off discount from Double-Dragon ebooks, but just like Trick or Treat, you’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies! Hit up AscendantKingdoms.com for all the details.

In the interim, enjoy an excerpt from her short story 'Buttons,' a bonus bit from her contribution to the Kickstarter-funded Athena’s Daughters anthology, and—last but not least—an excerpt from Jean Rabe's novel The Cauldron, also by way of Wattpad.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Book Review | The Voices by F. R. Tallis


In the scorching summer of 1976—the hottest since records began—Christopher Norton, his wife Laura and their young daughter Faye settle into their new home in north London. The faded glory of the Victorian house is the perfect place for Norton, a composer of film soundtracks, to build a recording studio of his own.

But soon in the long, oppressively hot nights, Laura begins to hear something through the crackle of the baby monitor. First, a knocking sound. Then come the voices...

***

Maybe you haven't heard of it—maybe you weren't born yet; maybe you're based elsewhere—but in Great Britain, the summer of 1976 went down in history. It was the hottest single season since records began some 400 years ago, and people in these parts weren't prepared. There were droughts. Deaths.

It was an indescribably violent time, all told. Hate crimes were a daily affair many commentators attributed to the incredible temperatures. "What a world to bring a child into," (p.1) as our couple comments on the first page of F. R. Tallis' haunting new novel. But that's exactly what Christopher and Laura Norton plan to do. Indeed, on the day they decide to spend their once-substantial savings on "a substantial Victorian edifice [...] concealed in a pocket of London's complex topography," (pp.1-2) their infant daughter is born. They name her Faye, meaning belief—which, though they have in her, they lack, alas, in one another.

A year later, the Nortons have settled into their new property nicely, but things between Faye's parents have gone to pot in short order, and a terror more malignant than the recent uptick in temperature is about to make its malevolent presence felt.

After The Sleep Room's success, it's a smart move on Tallis' part to focus in his new novel on another pseudo-scientific subject—in this instance Electronic Voice Phenomena. "It seemed a ludicrous idea, the dead communicating with the living through the medium of magnetic tape, but at the same time Christopher's mind was not entirely closed to extraordinary possibilities." (p.83) As an explanation for the voices he's been hearing recently—voices accidentally recorded in the course of composing the score for a forthcoming science fiction film—EVP isn't ideal, but it's the best of a bad lot... and rather that than face the fact that he might be losing his mind.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Book Review | Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz


Sherlock Holmes is dead.

Days after Holmes and his arch-enemy Moriarty fall to their doom at the Reichenbach Falls, Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase arrives in Europe from New York. The death of Moriarty has created a poisonous vacuum which has been swiftly filled by a fiendish new criminal mastermind who has risen to take his place.

Ably assisted by Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard, a devoted student of Holmes's methods of investigation and deduction, Frederick Chase must forge a path through the darkest corners of the capital to shine light on this shadowy figure, a man much feared but seldom seen, a man determined to engulf London in a tide of murder and menace.

The game is afoot...

***

The great detective and his greatest enemy are dead—or so it is said.

"After the confrontation that the world has come to know as 'The Final Problem,' [though] there was nothing final about it, as we now know," (p.4) Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have absented their respective roles, each for his own secretive reasons. So what's Scotland Yard to do when London is rocked by a series of crimes so indescribably violent that they rival the Ripper's?

Why, hand over Holmes' role to Inspector Athelney Jones: a man, you might remember, much maligned by Dr Watson's depiction of him as a total dolt in 'The Sign of the Four.' Since then, however, Jones has "read everything that Mr Holmes has ever written. He has studied his methods and replicated his experiments. He has consulted with every inspector who ever worked with him. He has, in short, made Sherlock Holmes the very paradigm of his own life." (p.146)

And in our narrator, Frederick Chase—apparently the pick of Pinkerton's Detective Agency—Jones' Holmes has his Watson.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Book Review | The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins


The job of the skin is to keep things in…

On the buttoned-down island of Here, all is well. By which we mean: orderly, neat, contained and, moreover, beardless.

Or at least it is until one famous day, when Dave, bald but for a single hair, finds himself assailed by a terrifying, unstoppable… monster! Meaning: a gigantic, evil beard!

Where did it come from? How should the islanders deal with it? And what, most importantly, are they going to do with Dave?

***
Beneath the skin of everything is something nobody can know. The job of the skin is to keep it all in and never let anything show.
So begins The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, award-winning cartoonist Stephen Collins' first graphic novel proper, and it is as dark and charming a parable as the poetry of its first panels portends.

The eventual originator of the evil beard is a drone called Dave. Not literally a drone, however his behaviours are practically mechanical. In that, Dave is not dissimilar to the other strangely hairless inhabitants of Here; like them, he lives in almost constant fear of There.

Happily, his job at A&C Industries occupies his thoughts during the day, and in his downtime, Dave draws. He draws the pedestrians that pass his house; he pencil sketches pets and post boxes; but by and large his subject is the street. "It was just so neat," you see. "So... complete."

Not such a remarkable fact, that, for "Here, every tree was perfect. Every street was perfect. Even the very shape of Here was perfect." Tellingly, the island bears a certain resemblance to an immense egg—and a delicate thing it is, protected by a shell only so strong.

It wouldn't take much to break it, basically, and the imagined mayhem of There is no more than a stone's throw from the coast:
The houses [Here] were rock-bottom cheap and showed windowless walls to the great dark deep for a very good reason. Because Here, the sea was a thing to fear. The sea led to There. There was disorder. There was chaos. There was evil.
Or so They say. Though "nobody had ever even been," really. "No one alive, anyway. The stories were enough for most people, including Dave." Like the one about the fisherman's son who stole a boat on a boast. "They said There took his tidiness away. Swallowed his boundaries whole. Mixed his [...] befores with his nows with his nexts." Thus the state of perpetual terror Dave and the other people who live Here exist in.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Book Review | TimeBomb by Scott K. Andrews


New York City, 2141: Yojana Patel throws herself off a skyscraper, but never hits the ground.

Cornwall, 1640: gentle young Dora Predennick, newly come to Sweetclover Hall to work, discovers a badly-burnt woman at the bottom of a flight of stairs. When she reaches out to comfort the dying woman, she's flung through time.

On a rainy night in present-day Cornwall: seventeen-year-old Kaz Cecka sneaks into the long-abandoned Sweetclover Hall, in search of a dry place to sleep. Instead he finds a frightened housemaid who believes Charles I is king and an angry girl who claims to come from the future.

Thrust into the centre of a war that spans millennia, Dora, Kaz and Jana must learn to harness powers they barely understand to escape not only villainous Lord Sweetclover but the forces of a fanatical army... all the while staying one step ahead of a mysterious woman known only as Quil.

***

Three teens from three times run rampant in 17th century Cornwall in the frenetic first volume of Scott K. Andrews' TimeBomb trilogy, a paradoxical romp which, whilst engaging and entertaining, promises a little more than it delivers.

To wit, TimeBomb begins quite brilliantly, with a fleeting glimpse of future New York: a sprawling city in which forty-storey superstructures are "dwarfed by the looming organic skytowns that twined sinuously up into the cloud base." (p.3) Here, we meet Yojana Patel, the determinedly independent daughter of... a powerful politician, I think?

We can't be certain because Andrews doesn't dally. In a matter of moments, rather than give her pursuers the satisfaction of catching her, Jana has thrown herself off the roof of a great skyscraper.

Death, in her day, is merely an inconvenience—she has a state-of-the-art board embedded in her head to that exact effect—but this particular passing doesn't happen as planned. Jana, in fact, never lands.
Instead, a second or two into her fall, she felt a tug upwards. Her first thought was that it was a freak gust of wind momentarily slowing her descent, but the tug increased. It felt as if the gravity that pulled her down was fighting an opposite force that wanted to pull her skywards. 
She opened her eyes and gasped. She was hovering in mid-air, surrounded by a halo of coruscating bright red sparks, like some kind of human firework. [...] Jana was so surprised by this that it took her a moment to realise that the world around her was darkening, as if a huge cloud was blocking out the sun. (pp.16-17)
In short, she goes into freefall—through time as opposed to space—before awakening, shaken, in the present day. Here, Jana joins forces with runaway called Kaz, who has been drawn almost inexorably towards Sweetclover Hall. As has Dora Predennick, a quiet Cornish lass from the past who, "in spite of all her natural meekness, humility and stay-at-home unadventurousness [...] was very formidable indeed when she was angry." (p.31) And having been forcibly transported over a time bridge, as she sees it, Dora's... pretty pissed.