Sunday, 12 May 2019

Be afraid... be very afraid... of mums: A Mother's Day remembrance

It was my mother who taught me fear. Better yet, we got to be afraid together.
I was the kind of kid who loved reading comic books and science fiction, fantasy and anything a little bit weird - still am that kind of kid, just add a few decades.
But it was fear that brought the pair of us together. You see... she loved horror.
My dad was never into horror - to this day I remember the disgust in his voice one weekend when I watched Army of Darkness while he was in the room, definitely not his cup of tea. So when my mum wanted to watch horror movies... well, that's where I came in.
She didn't like watching horror movies alone, so junior me was her company.
Hammer Horror movies are my first memory of watching such films as a kid - seeing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee battle it out as Van Helsing and Dracula, or in any number of a bunch of other roles in that era.

Steely-eyed and brandishing a crucifix - Peter Cushing at his finest.

And so I discovered vampires - and later, when Peter Cushing appeared in Star Wars, gasped at him being a bad guy instead of our earnest hero.
Earnest heroes were in vogue around then - other movies I remember from around that time were the Quatermass movies, with the gruff professor of the title fighting all manner of alien beings.

"I can assure you this is not what I ordered from the menu!"

Then there were the Val Lewton movies, such as the exquisite Cat People starring Simone Simon, or I Walked With A Zombie. That era of movies also brought what is still, to this day, one of my favourite horror movies - The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise, a story recently evolved into a Netflix drama, The Haunting of Hill House. We both shrieked through the black and white horrors, often scarier than modern-day movies because without special effects, the horrors remained in the imagination, which can conjure up creatures far more terrifying than anything on screen.

The Haunting - so terrifying because the monsters are in your head

We used to watch these late at night, usually a Friday or Saturday night. Back then, there were only three channels to watch - and late-night Friday and Saturday on ITV in the UK was when the horrors came out to play. 
The choice of movies was sometimes... eccentric. But that could be good - odd things surfaced such as the Australian horror movie Harlequin, with Robert Powell as a messiah figure... a deadly one. 
Creaky old American horrors also showed up - which brought gems among them such as Them! - in which giant radioactive ants menaced the nation, and along with them, British horrors such as The Day The Earth Caught Fire - to this day one of the best representations of the press in sci-fi movies.

"Movie outfit? No, this is my regular clothing."

As time went on, there were other scares to come. My mum was a Stephen King fan, and in 1979, that meant the mini-series of Salem's Lot. I was seven that year, and to this day, I can still see Danny Glick floating outside the window... 

Seriously, dude, do NOT let him in. You're on the second floor, for crying out loud. 

Then came the movie that took me several attempts to watch, because it scared me so much. 
Alien really was the movie that made me hide behind the sofa. 

From left to right, you're not getting a payrise, you're about to become a superstar, you're about to lose your head.

It all seemed so convincing. The crew of the Nostromo weren't polished, smooth heroes. No square jaws. Just a dingy, run-down ship and a bunch of people who make mistakes. Death came inevitably, but these people felt like folk you might know, that you might see on the street around your house. They might be deep in space, but it brought the terror close to home. 
By this time, I was hooked. And it was thanks to my mum. 
In later years, she told me my grandmother did the same with her. As a child, my mum was dragged along to the cinema to see every scary movie that came to Derry. 
There are many things that get handed down in life - a love of horror doesn't often get listed among them. 
My mum's no longer with me - but it's Mother's Day today, and it seems to me there can be no better way to remember her than to settle down and watch a horror.
Thanks, mum - oh, and when your granddaughter's old enough? She'll be staying up with me to hide behind the sofa too. 
Happy Mother's Day. 

Saturday, 20 April 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Redemption of Sisyphus, by Eric Michael Craig; Extra-Curricular Activities, by Yoon Ha Lee; Always Gray in Winter, by Mark J Engels; Decimation: The Girl Who Survived, by Richard T Burke; Little Book of Verse, by Claire Buss; Top Ten, by Alan Moore

Welcome back to my regular round-up of book reviews - this week, we have Hugo finalists and classic Alan Moore comics, the finale of a series I've been loving this year and even some poetry. That said, time for the reviews...

Redemption of Sisyphus, by Eric Michael Craig

One of the highlights of my reading year so far has been the Shan Takhu Legacy series, by Eric Michael Craig. The first two books earned their five-star reviews, with the first book, particularly, already looking a likely contender for my top books of the year list - and it's only April.
So does the finale live up to its predecessors? It absolutely does, bringing a slam dunk of a finale to the series yet still offering the tantalising promise of something more in future.
When we left off, the pieces were all in place for an almighty space conflict. While one group of humans tries to unravel the mystery of an alien presence, a manmade AI assumes control of political and military structures in an attempt to destroy that alien being, all to save mankind no matter what the price.
Even at this late hour in the series, there are twists galore, as the conflict widens to new horizons. Sacrifices are made, heroes are made... and die.
Very much in the mould of Niven and Pournelle's classic blockbusters - or one for the fans of the Expanse series - this is a real page-turner. The end, when it comes, is as grand as all that went before it. A smashing sci-fi series, I heartily recommend it.

AI Rating: 5/5

Redemption of Sisyphus is available on Amazon here.

Extra-Curricular Activites, by Yoon Ha Lee

One of my favourite sci-fi characters of all time was the Stainless Steel Rat himself, Slippery Jim diGriz. He was a scoundrel and an adventurer, a ne'er-do-well who shone, a cat who always landed on his feet. Were he updated to the modern day, he might well be the lead character of this novel. 
Shuos Jedao is a military officer turned spy, a warrior in a trader's vessel, a plunderer of pirates and with a weakness for good-looking men. 
He launches into an adventure to track down a lost ship. Where is it? Behind enemy lines, of course! Oh, and there might be a traitor involved. With links to Jedao's past. 
Swiftly painting a picture of Jedao's universe with cultural depth, the author really creates a fun adventure. It's a riproaring piece of fiction, and I really enjoyed it. 
I did have one quibble - I really liked the LGBTQI representation, and part of that was one character taking the pronoun "they" rather than he or she. However, we didn't get much more detail about that particular character for a while, so it was hard to form much of an image of who this person was, leaving a hazy, fuzzy unknown as I continued to read, which threw me out of the story a little until I just decided to roll with it. Such representation, after all, is rare enough that it is absolutely a positive.
Quibble aside, I'm looking forward to reading more in this setting. I'll be sure to dive into the Machineries of Empire series it spins off from (and which is already on my Kindle).

AI Rating: 5/5

Extra-Curricular Activities is available on Amazon here.

Decimation: The Girl Who Survived, by Richard T Burke

The future world of Decimation is a dangerous one - especially for women. 
Richard Burke tells of a world where pregnancy is a death sentence. A virus has resulted in childbirth being fatal, which leads to the decimation of the title, population dropping by 10% at a time without a new generation to replace the old. 
Into this situation is plunged the admittedly implausibly-named Antimone Lessing (though I do hope the surname is a tip of the hat to the splendid author Doris Lessing). She is a teenage student aiming to take part in wheelchair athletics after recovering from an accident that cost her the use of her legs - until she finds out she is pregnant. She doesn't know how or when she conceived - but she knows her future holds only death. Until the miraculous happens... and she becomes the girl who survived. That, however, is only the beginning of her troubles.  
As dystopias go, this one is particularly rough on women. Aside from the slow death that Antimone is sentenced to, we glimpse other characters - prostitutes and drug addicts - who are raped and impregnated as part of efforts to try to find a cure. The policewoman investigating Antimone's case aside, there's perhaps not a single female character who isn't affected by violence or cruelty in some fashion - and that can be pretty rough to read at times. As we hop around the stories of some of those characters, I kept wanting to come back to Antimone's story, however, and see how she would find her own way out of her situation. She was very refreshing as a character - and I was very much rooting for her throughout as she tried to find salvation for herself... and perhaps for the world.  

AI Rating 4/5

Decimation: The Girl Who Survived is available on Amazon here.

Always Gray in Winter, by Mark J Engels

There's a bit of genius at the heart of Always Gray in Winter. A secret has been simmering under the surface of history - and it's about to bust loose. Pawlina Katcynski is a werecat, from a family line of such beings, and that's bringing her trouble because old rivalries put her squarely in the sights of another clan. 
The story erupts from the pages as if it were an anime or manga creation. There are larger than life characters, and everything moves at such pace that the plot becomes a bit of a blur at times. There were moments I wasn't quite sure what was going on or if we'd dropped into a flashback or not as the timeframe wasn't terribly clear but on the book galloped regardless. 
We also have quite a large cast that we could have taken a little longer to get to know, pieces of dialogue in broken English (deliberately so, with characters from Polish and Korean backgrounds), and a bit too much military dialogue that assumes the reader knows what it means.
That sounds like I'm being negative, but I'm not, it's more that if you find these things jar you, stick with it because there is a fun ride here. 
I really liked the family dynamic at the heart of the story. The werecats are bonded by being outsiders to the rest of the world, they are hunted and subject to experimentation, but despite it all, they function as a family, playing hockey together, griping at one another's annoying habits and being there when needed. 
All in all, I liked this - I'm giving it three stars because of the confusing passages, but a fan of anime, of military sci-fi or, indeed, of furries might well add an extra star. 

AI Rating 3/5

Always Gray in Winter is available on Amazon here.

Little Book of Verse, by Claire Buss

I don't often read poetry, but I have read work by Claire Buss before, so when I saw this on a bargain offer, I picked it up. 
Not long ago, I'd read a collection of poetry by a famed "Tumblr poet" and was unimpressed by the bumper sticker nature of some of the work. It was flimsy, lacking substance. Condensing emotions and concepts into just a few words is no easy task - goodness knows it's a talent I don't have. It is a talent that Claire Buss certainly does have. 
She gives us a glimpse into her life, the life of a mum, a writer, an observer. There's a tenderness in moments, and a heartache in others. 
There is substance here, and I feel better for it having crossed my path. 

AI Rating 4/5

Little Book of Verse is available on Amazon here.

Top 10, by Alan Moore, Gene Ha and Zander Cannon

Lately, I've been reading through some classic Alan Moore work - Watchmen, V for Vendetta and the mighty Halo Jones - but I'd never actually read Top 10. 
It was time to remedy that. I'd heard great things - it's kinda hard not to hear great things about Alan Moore work, let's face it - but never actually picked it up previously. 
From the off, it's at once very different from a lot of Moore stories and yet hits familiar beats. The cast is a disparate group of cops, super-powered police to look after a city full of super-powered people. Everyone has powers here, from the blind taxi driver steering by Zen to the prostitutes being hustled in and out of the police station on a regular basis. 
The storyline takes the approach of a police procedural - think Hill Street Blues with superheroes. The cops get cases, they go to investigate, and cases that seem very different start to come together with a common thread that brings us the core storyline. That takes a while to come together, though, so at first it all seems a bit by-the-numbers and not much like Moore's other work. 
With such a large cast of characters too, it can be hard to get to know the cops going about their business. One or two we barely get to know at all - so it's hard to feel much for them when it all starts to go down.
Throw in some threads so loose I don't think even the author remembered they were there to tie up - seriously, what happened to The Rumour or the Ghostly Goose plotlines in here - and it's all a bit underwhelming, particularly when you know what Moore is capable of. 
What is without doubt is that the artwork by Gene Ha and Zander Cannon is sensational - and packed with little Easter eggs of familiar-looking characters from other publications. 
It's an interesting read, but quite dense - and doesn't have that revolutionary tear-down-the-walls edge of so much of Moore's other work. That said, there is much in here that hits home, and political points that lurk not far under the surface. Alan Moore, as ever, knows the score.

AI Rating: 3/5

Top 10 is available on Amazon here.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Join an Easter Egg Hunt - and win free books!

Attention book lovers! I've got a challenge for you - join the Sparkly Badgers Easter Egg Hunt! I wouldn't offer a challenge without a potential reward, though - pictured below are a host of books available as prizes, including one from me, Tales From Alternate Earths 2.

So, how can you take part? Read on, below!

Do you like to read? Do you like FREE books? Come join the Sparkly Badgers Easter Egg Hunt on Facebook. All you have to do is stop over on the event page, we give you the first website, and off you go. Look for an egg on each website that links to the next one in line. Collect the letters and unscramble the anagram. Then tell us the answer to be entered in for a chance to win eBooks from some eggtastic indie authors.

You can check out each author on the event page too to find out where you can discover more of their work. Do join in, and discover a host of great new authors. 

Monday, 1 April 2019

MEET THE WRITER: Matt Dovey, on short story writing, podcast work and lessons learned in writing

At the start of this year, a chap I follow on Twitter, Matt Dovey, said that one of his things he'd like to do this year that he hadn't done before was be featured in an interview. So asked, so done. I said hey, come visit the blog and tell us about your work. And what intriguing work it is. Matt is a short story writer, with work published in the likes of the short story anthology Sword and Sonnet, and part of the team over at the Podcastle fiction podcast site. He also has a new story up today at Diabolical Plots - you can read that here. But hey, let's hear him tell you all about his work...

Hi Matt, and welcome to Altered Instinct! You’ve had quite a range of short stories published – and I know some authors who say they would struggle to condense a whole idea into a short story; what is it about the short fiction format that you most enjoy?

Thank you for having me!

Short fiction just suits my brain. I am forever being distracted by the next idea. Once my brain gets going on something, it obsesses over it, burns through its fascination with it fast, and then gets bored and wants to move on to the next thing. I'm going to have to fix that one day if I want to write a novel, but basically: short fiction lets me move as fast as my brain's fascinations, both as a reader and a writer.

This is also the only reason I have never yet gotten a tattoo: there's no idea I won't be bored of within six months.

I also think there's something pure about stripping down an idea to its absolute essentials. Short stories require merciless focus on the key moments and primary implications of a story. That allows them to be neat and tidy in a way I find very satisfying, even with an ambiguous ending.

I really loved your story Bone Poet & God over in the Sword and Sonnet anthology last year. For those unfamiliar with it, it tells a story of runic magic carved into bones, and the different factions that seek out such bones – the scavengers and those more respectful, but what I’d love to ask you about is the characters in there. The lead character’s a bear, there’s a family of badgers… what prompted you to make the choice of having animals as the central characters?

Honestly, the initial idea was entirely mercenary. Aidan famously loves bears, Elise ran Shimmer (RIP) for years with its badger motif… it started as little more than a drive to appeal to them both. (The religious aspect was for Rachael.) I suppose calling it "mercenary" is maybe a little facetious and harsh on myself: I needed a starting point to start churning ideas, and "what do the three editors like" seemed as good a set of prompts as any.

At a deeper level, I grew up on the Redwall stories. That was the first fantasy series I really sought out and consumed like it was oxygen, at around 6/7 years old. It was a shared love of Redwall at that age that led to me first meeting my future best man, as it happens (along with a healthy dose of correcting a stranger: "don't you mean Martin the Warrior, not Martian the Warrior?" as he wrote a book report. I have been on-brand my whole life). And, y'know, I live in the depths of the English countryside: I'm seeing owls and pheasants and robins and hedgehogs and badgers and voles and deer on an almost daily basis, and they've all got so much character. I enjoyed doing it so much with Bone Poet that I'm certain I'll pull a similar trick again. There's a half-finished draft of Sir Fuzz-a-Lump the Badger Knight round here somewhere, in fact.

That’s a really good anthology, full of splendid stories – what are the other stories in there that stood out to you and what was it that you loved?

It really was a phenomenal volume. It seemed like such a narrow, specific call, but the range of invention was staggering. I know I'm biased, but it really is worth a read.

Two in particular stood out for me: Dulce et Decorum Est by S L Huang posed a difficult, honest, human question about the nature of violence and war, and how the people we love most of all are still strangers to us in some ways, and how it is sometimes impossible to reconcile all the aspects of a person because we are made of contradictions and illogic. I love that it didn't condescend to offer answers, either: it just let the question echo, and was all the more powerful for it.

The other is This Lexicon of Bone and Feathers by Carlie St. George which is such an astonishing burst of fun it's impossible not to love it. It has so much energy and invention and goddamn voice. It was rattling around my heart for days. It's like mid-90's Tarantino directing Mass Effect.

I was very struck by a piece you wrote about a story you felt you made a mistake with. Readers of this blog can read more about that at length on your website (and it’s certainly lengthy but a very thoughtful response), but I’ve got a couple of questions about that – first, how hard was it for you to separate any feelings of defensiveness about the story to more openly listen to concerns; and second, it’s been some months now since you reassessed that story, how have your processes changed since then to examine things from other perspectives?

Yeah, that was a learning experience. I was very lucky with that situation, in that I was warned privately over email by a friend just after publication rather than being called out on Twitter, which gave me the space to process and get over that kneejerk defensive reaction in private. I don't know what I did to engender the good will that gave me that grace, but I'll be forever grateful for it.

It doesn't really matter how hard was it for me to get over that defensiveness because it shouldn't be about me. But I will say that the kneejerk defensiveness does not ever help. Getting called out is hard, because it's being presented with evidence that you hurt people. That's a difficult fact to assimilate into your self-image, and you instinctively want to reject it. But your self-image is always, always less important than the harm you caused to others. Even if, in the first flush of the mistake and fallout, you don't agree with what's being said ("I didn't mean it like that!" or whatever excuse your brain has), shut the hell up and listen. Because once you calm down you probably will agree with it, and keeping quiet and taking it all on board is the only way to avoid causing more harm in the moment. Disagreement and argument and denial only increase the hurt. Don't do it. Absorb it and contemplate it first.

Maybe you will turn out to disagree with it, but approach that in a measured way a few days down the line. You need to remove yourself as an individual from the equation as far as possible when responding to harm caused, and that takes time and cooling down. (I want to emphasise that I still absolutely agree with the criticisms I received.)

Processes: I'm ashamed to say that the whole damn thing just proved how much I was one more oblivious, well-meaning mountain of privilege. I thought I was special (don't we all?) and magically empathetic enough to avoid all these mistakes on my own. Turns out I'm not, who'd have guessed? I warrant the same is true for everyone. The world is too complex to understand all its nuances. I've learnt humility the hard way through this.

So I have started engaging with sensitivity readers when I know I'm brushing on topics outside my lane. I've got a forthcoming story at Cast of Wonders this year about a couple of gay teenagers that I sold just before the mess I made last year, and I asked for a hold to be put on it while I got sensitive eyes on it. Said sensitive eyes pointed out some stuff that had gone completely over my head and would have made the whole thing a really bad, entirely unintentional metaphor for AIDS. I'm still nervous about that one coming out, because now I'm more conscious of the potential for harm (and anything bad left in it is still entirely my fault), but it could have been a lot worse. I'm impossibly thankful to my sensitivity readers on that one, and to Marguerite at Cast of Wonders for understanding and accepting my request to pause without hesitation (as well as a few other details she caught later).

In terms of longer fiction, have you got something cooking? Give us a few hints about it – if you can! Side by side with that, what are your goals for publishing this year?

Hahahaha yeeeeeah, about that. I really should get round to that. I still feel like I'm learning too much, like I've got too far to go on my craft before I can dive into that, but… you never learn until you're doing it, right? At some point I'm just going to have to get on with it. There's not anything brewing right now, but it is a direction I want to go in - will go in. It's just finding an idea that can keep me occupied for 4-6 months of first-draft.

The current song of my brain weasels is that I've not yet broken into the really big name magazines - I've got a solid stable of good pro publications, enough that I actually have to look up the number these days (20!), and 2015 Matt would be astonished at my achievements - but it's human to always be looking up at the next ledge, isn't it? I want to be consistently landing at the awards-nominated venues like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Apex and, of course, the Big Three of F&SF, Asimov's and Analog. The happy news is I just sold a flash to Analog at the back end of last year, The Movement of Other Starfish, so I'm making progress on that count!

What were some of your favourite books to read as a child? Which were the first books you remember falling in love with?

Well, Redwall mentioned above, of course - and interestingly, I've only recently come to the revelation that they're fantasy novels, aren't they? I just accepted them as they are at the time. I've got small kids now, 5 and 6, and it's astonishing how much of kids TV is science fiction and fantasy. It's simply the natural order of things at that age. No-one ever gets into speculative fiction; some people just get out of it. (The fools.)

The Alchemist's Cat and Pratchett's Bromeliad Trilogy (Diggers etc.) stick out, and Joe Dever's Lone Wolf game books too - I can vividly remember getting the Sommerswerd while sat quietly in the corner of a family wedding. David Edding's Belgariad was the first Proper Fantasy Series I read, though by the gods it does not hold up today, and I started on Discworld at 11 with Interesting Times--and that has been my absolute favourite series ever since. It's not an exaggeration to say that Discworld is this atheist's equivalent to the Bible, because so much of my moral underpinning comes from Pratchett's obvious outrage at the injustices and iniquities of the world. Vimes is my favourite character, and Night Watch is the very best of him.

What has been your favourite reaction from readers?

I'm going to have to cheat horribly and offer two answers here, because they're both such different reactions that I love for different reasons and you cannot make me choose between them no you can't no you can't.

Firstly, the comments on the Escape Pod forums for The Ghosts of Europa Will Keep You Trapped in a Prison You Make for Yourself, because it's the first time I had proof that I'd achieved what I'd set out to do--which is to say, make people cry. I'm an absolute sucker for a sacrifice story, I'll cry at 'em more often than not (goddamn Iron Giant, gets me every single time), and I wanted to capture some of that lightning for myself. Looks like I managed it for at least a few folks.

Secondly, this blog post by Alex Acks on my co-authored (with Stewart C Baker) ridiculous fantasy story from the No Shit! There I Was anthology is the post that has carried my ailing confidence through many a dark night of the soul. I can't read that post without grinning all over again. It's happening right now.

Away from books, what are your loves when it comes to TV and movies? (Altered Instinct will plant a flag on behalf of Quantum Leap, Babylon 5, Stargate, The West Wing and Star Wars, and fight to protect it!)

Probably my favourite TV series is Breaking Bad (and lately Better Call Saul) because it did such an astonishing job of being character-driven. Everything in that series flowed organically from the first decision, and it built to such a crescendo of tension. There's a scene towards the end of everything where Jesse is having dinner with Walt and Skylar and if you were coming in fresh, it'd go over the top of your head. But after 4½ seasons it was dripping with comedy and conflict just from the notion of those three sharing that moment at that point.

It's not particularly representative of my tastes, mind you, as everything else is as spec fic as you’d expect. Star Trek, obviously (TNG is my series, though I'm going through DS9 again right now and continue to believe Discovery will eventually come good), and Game of Thrones and Farscape and Orphan Black and Firefly and so on and so forth. Also Sharpe, because Sean Bean. We used to play Sharpe at lunch when I was about 10 and we'd shout at people for not pretending to load their musket properly. I have never not been a nerd.

Films, I'm big on the classic trilogies, Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Back to the Future (we had a DeLorean on our wedding cake) and Lord of the Rings. There are too many others to list.

I'm going to take this opportunity to shout about Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice on the gaming front, too, because it is the most astonishing experience I've had in thirty years of playing games. It's an extraordinary artistic achievement. It is very dark, though, so check for content warnings before you go in.

I'll happily join you in Sharpe fandom! Putting on a different hat, you are an associate editor over at the very splendid Podcastle – for readers who don’t know what that is, for shame! But it’s a splendid podcast for audio fiction. When it comes to receiving submissions, what are your big turn-offs in a story when it arrives for consideration? And conversely, what kind of things give you the oooh yes goosebumps in a submission?

I love PodCastle. I'm so proud to be there, because it's doing so much good trying to do things right, and the people involved are such wonderful people.

I don't want to be negative, so I'll just concentrate on what I love: for me, personally, that's voice. Sheer force of character through narration. Cooking Creole by Alyx Dellamonica is a good recent example, or anything by Malon Edwards (or Rabbit Grass, or We Are Sirens, or…). I'll forgive a lot of sins if something can pull me in with an assured voice. It doesn't even need to be something as overtly stylised as any of those, but just confident in itself. It's something I'm trying to protect in my own writing these days--if I'm not careful I polish the life out of a manuscript, but I think the rawness of your instinctive voice has value. It's when you're at your most you, bringing what no-one else has.

In terms of writing for audio, are there differences you feel stand out? For example, do you find stories with less dialogue work better to avoid confusing the listener, or perhaps does a first person perspective draw people in more?

As above, I think it comes down to voice, really. That'll engage you like nothing else (especially because it makes it easier for the narrator to have fun with it, and you can really notice that). Not getting too carried away with stylistic fanciness, either, and making sure there's no grammatical ambiguity, because it's much more of a pain to rewind to parse a sentence than it is to just scan backwards with your eyes.

Where can readers follow you to find out more about your work?

Everything I've had published, and a few things I've put out myself just for the heck of it, is always on my site at as soon as it can be. A lot of it is on Curious Fictions too, if people are feeling generous and want to tip.

If you want to follow and find out more about every passing banality that goes through my head, good news! That's exactly what Twitter was invented for. Well, not for my head specifically, but you get the idea. I'm @mattdoveywriter there.

A traditional question here at Altered Instinct – what are you reading at present, and what is the best book you’ve read in the past year?

Right now I'm listening to The Poppy War by R F Kuang, which starts with the cosy structure of Fantasy School (which I always love) but by halfway has already turned to something much darker. And I gather there's worse to come yet. It's an awfully good book.

I've not long mainlined both the Lady Astronaut novels (The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky) back-to-back, because oh my god I adore the Space Race aesthetic in all forms (Hidden Figures! The Race for Space!) and it ticked all those boxes and more. They both do an amazing job of rendering Elma York's anxiety, and in the second book especially I was starting to feel a painful amount of second-hand embarrassment at all the well-meaning-liberal stuff. It makes the 2013 novelette a lot more painful in hindsight, too.

Many thanks for the chat, Matt, a pleasure to learn more about your work!

Want to keep up with Matt's work? You can follow him at his website, on Facebook, or on Twitter

Friday, 29 March 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Light's Eyes, by Yvette Bostic; 250 Things You Should Know About Writing, by Chuck Wendig; Gunsmoke & Dragonfire: A Fantasy Western Anthology, edited by Diane Morrison; Horror by Cathbad, by Cathbad Maponus; The Life of Captain Marvel, by Margaret Stohl

It's time for another review round-up with Napoleon-era fantasy, Weird West gunslingers, Captain Marvel origin shake-ups and more. 

Light's Eyes, by Yvette Bostic

Light's Eyes is the second in the Light in the Darkness series from Yvette Bostic (third if you count the short prequel novella, which you really should read as part of the series) and picks up right from where the first book left off. 
It's a story of superhuman beings battling against demons during the Napoleonic War, trying to foil demonic plans to throw the world into turmoil and subvert it to their dark will. 
Now let's be honest here - this is book two. If you're interested in how this is then you're already invested. You're not going to start here. Or to quote Captain Mal Reynolds, "You can't open the book of my life and jump in the middle."
Go back to the start, begin there and I'll meet you back here once you've caught up. 
Caught up? Good. Well, this one has more of the same fast-moving adventure - but with a twist. There are new enemies to bolster the old, and new allies to help our band as they fight on the side of the angels. 
I particularly liked that the heroes keep coming to the aid of those who find themselves often trampled on by life - the occupants of a brothel, the villagers about to be steamrollered by demons, those without power on their side. 
A resolution to it all remains, of course - which on the evidence of this book will be suitably epic. 

AI Rating: 4/5
Light's Eyes is available on Amazon

250 Things You Should Know About Writing, by Chuck Wendig

For anyone who has followed Chuck Wendig on Twitter or at his blog - and if you haven't, you should - he's refreshingly free of BS when it comes to advice on writing. 
He's helpful, supportive, and doesn't waffle on about airy fairy matters. He's a sit your butt down and write kinda guy - and his 250 things you should know is in the same vein. 
It's a 250 Commandments he says you should feel free to ignore, a Desiderata with added swearing. For those who suffer a lack of motivation, or run into writer's block, having this by your computer would be no bad way to start your day. Pick it up, give yourself a jolt of unfettered writer roar, then do what the man says. 
Sit your butt down. And write. 

AI Rating: 4/5
250 Things You Should Know About Writing is available on Amazon.

Gunsmoke & Dragonfire: A Fantasy Western Anthology, edited by Diane Morrison

Out on the trails of the Old West, there are hidden places. Shadows off the path, a mystery at the far end of the journey. In those dark spaces, the weird can be found. In those places, this anthology exists, spinning tales of fantasy and horror, out there where a six-shooter may not be enough to save you. 
There might be dinosaurs lurking there, or dragons - maybe the ghosts still walking the town they used to frequent. 
I loved the range of imagination on show here. There's Joachim Heijndermans' tale of a gunslinger in a town he might be better off not picking a fight in, in When The Bell Strikes Three, the kind of story that feels like it's still lurking in The Twilight Zone, resting its boots on a boardwalk rail as the music starts to play. 
There's The Case of the Vanishing Unicorns, by James Blakey, the kind of mystery a mid-West Poirot might have loved to solve. 
I also enjoyed No-Sell, from Ricardo Victoria, taking the theme and running with it, for in a Wild West world where magic is commonplace, what use is a gun? And what would the equivalent of a snake oil salesman do with one if he had one?
Sara Codair takes the theme to the plains of Mars, with a particularly poignant tale of a broken marriage, and the tests the partners face as they try to keep their community alive. 
Then there's Brent A Harris' tale of Bass Reeves, the black lawman who inspired the legend of the Lone Ranger, here having to take on a dragon, a cracking tale of adventure. 
Diana Paxson offers a tale of an artist that offers a simmering feeling of Lovecraft to it - and there's even a Robert E Howard story, with Solomon Kane swinging into action. 
There are more than two dozen tales in here - so of course some stand out to me more than others, such is the way of anthologies. 
One note I should make - I appear in the anthology twice, once in the list of folks who backed the Kickstarter, and once as a character! I'm polishing glasses behind the bar for Robert Lee Beers' reprinted tale of time travellers arriving just in time for the San Francisco earthquake... I fear some of those glasses might get broken. 
All in all, this is a smashing way to discover a host of authors in the Weird West genre - with some great stories to read along the way. Joachim Heijndermans' story was my favourite, with Sara Codair's not far behind, but pick it up, find your own new author to love. 

AI Rating: 5/5
Gunsmoke & Dragonfire is available on Amazon.

Horror by Cathbad, by Cathbad Maponus

Horror by Cathbad is a collection from an author whose work I've enjoyed before. Here, you'll find a trio of novellas, and a bunch of short stories - some of which are super short, not even a page long. 
That said, the book doesn't skimp for length on the whole, with the stand-out stories being the novellas, Killing Dreams and Axe. 
Killing Dreams is the pick of the bunch, and it starts out the collection, telling the story of a detective trying to track down the supernatural killer of a series of criminal lowlifes. It's gruesome, it's messy, and it's gleefully fun. The identity of the killer - and the resolution - are nicely done too, with surprises in the outcome from Cathbad. 
Axe is more straightforward, a blood-filled chopfest as an axe-wielding killer makes their way through a host of unsavoury characters. 
It could do with a little bit of typo checking, but this is splatterworthy fun for a dark night's read. 

AI Rating: 4/5
Horror by Cathbad is available on Amazon

The Life of Captain Marvel, by Margaret Stohl, Carlos Pacheco, Marguerite Sauvage and Artgerm

I picked this up for free as an Amazon Prime borrow - so I can at least be glad I didn't spend any money on it, which is a good thing.
After all, what did Captain Marvel need as her movie was heading to the screens? A retcon! No, no, she did not need that. And yet here it is.
Once more the story of Captain Marvel has been messed with, and c'mon, surely Carol Danvers has had enough of a messed-up journey to deal with. From being Ms Marvel, through losing her powers, becoming Binary, back to Ms Marvel and now with the Captain title, her hither-thither history has been a bit of a mess. This doesn't do anything to clear it up, just adds on a new reason why she got her powers and saddles her with the crappiest family and childhood upbringing it can manage. Abusive father? Yup. Mother who doesn't stand up for her? Yup. There are twists in here that I won't reveal but they make the situation make even less sense.
Throw in a waste-of-space brother character who serves as nothing more than an anchor to keep Carol around, and a drippy, slightly stalkery love interest, who takes to blaming Carol the instant bad guys show up and its hard to care too much about this.
Oh and panic attacks. Now she has panic attacks too. Because that's a surefire way to help undercut the wham-bam heroics that Kelly Sue DeConick brought back to the title.
I honestly can't fathom why Marvel felt the need to retcon Carol ahead of the movie - especially as the story here doesn't match up with the story in the movie - but I think you can probably safely ignore this title on the assumption it'll be undone again in a couple of years' time.

AI Rating: 2/5
The Life of Captain Marvel is available on Amazon.