Tuesday, 20 June 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Uncanny Magazine #16; Lineage, by C H Clepitt; Exiles of Ascension, by Drew Cordell; Man of Two Planets, by Judith Rook

Uncanny Magazine, issue 16

Growing up, I loved reading short stories in a whole bunch of magazines. Some were publications that came and went - others endured and became touchstones in the sci-fi and fantasy world.
Interzone was one of the magazines that most connected with me - and it's Interzone that Uncanny most reminds me of. It bristles with style, verve and attitude, not shying away from cocking a snoot at the powers that be, while embracing a modicum of silliness too with its love of Space Unicorns. But then, frankly, who couldn't love a Space Unicorn?
This latest issue features some smashing short tales - and some challenging essays too. Both LGBTQ issues and liberal resistance to the election of the latest US president feature strongly here, but eloquently expressed and argued.
Of the stories, I loved Sun, Moon, Dust, by Ursula Vernon, in which a farmer is bequeathed a legendary sword filled with spirits ready to offer their powers to help him conquer the world - only he's got some potatoes to harvest and isn't really aiming to conquer anyone. It's at first light-hearted and comic, and then touching as the story, like the farmer's plants, digs its roots in.
I also loved Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time, by KM Sparza - though it's a challenging read. It tells the tale of a transgender individual bitten by a vampire, and the consequences - and changes - that brings. It's a bubbling mass of blood and desire, despair and anger, and there are issues of non-consent that aren't quite confronted head-on in the text. It's messy - not in the sense of the story construction - but in the way in which the vampire's victim grapples with her life, looming death and potential unlife. It's the kind of read that makes you think about the issues within - and that makes it a top-notch story in my mind.
There are other stories which aren't quite as successful - John Chu's Making The Magic Lightning Strikes Me features a bodybuilder who alters his form through surgery and drugs to fit his illicit job of moving people from country to country with no questions asked. Elsewhere, the story dwells on the main character's love of theatre - and on the complex, fractured relationship with the friend who shows concern for his well-being, and perhaps love. For me, the different elements in this story just didn't quite come together - so while there was much that was compelling, the story didn't quite click into place.
The issue is rounded out by essays looking at gender issues in Deep Space Nine, how to get involved in politics, poems, interviews and more. If you haven't checked out Uncanny, it's well worth doing so - not as hard to track down as a Space Unicorn, and just as fabulous.

AI Rating: 5/5

Lineage, by C H Clepitt

CH Clepitt has a knack of making you want to read more.
Lineage - subtitled A Beginning - does just that. This is a tale of vampires and vagrants, in which a down-on-her-luck girl who makes bad choices in boyfriends ends up caught between gang bosses and something a whole lot more dangerous - and the key to her survival lies in, fittingly enough, her blood.
For Emma, the lead character, has an ancestry - a lineage - that marks her out as more special than she believes herself to be.
It's a touching tale - full of neat little touches, such as the explanation for why vampires don't go out in daylight being that natural sunlight shows them as they would look at their true age.
The end - without offering spoilers - gives a launch point from which I want to know more, and look forward to finding out where this tale will go next.
It's only a short story - probably about 5,000 words or so - but great for a quick read for the bus or train.

AI Rating: 4/5

Exiles of Ascension, by Drew Cordell

There's no messing around in this novella from Drew Cordell - the action comes at you right from the start faster than the deadly missile that's launched at the crew of the International Space Station who form the cast of the piece.
Now, first off, you should know this is a prequel novella that serves as a lead-in to Cordell's novel series, so if you're expecting everything to be neatly wrapped up by the time you read The End, then this isn't the place to look. Rather, this serves to introduce the world of the series, highlight its dangers and keep your pulse pounding.
There are explosions aplenty, some bad choices that leave characters facing the most perilous of consequences, and questions that linger after the finish of the book.
I wish it perhaps had answered one or two of those questions within these pages - but heck, leaving me wanting more is exactly what a prequel novella should do. I should get on with reading the follow-up!

AI Rating: 4/5

Man of Two Planets, by Judith Rook

This book leaves me in quite the quandary. You see, it's really not aimed at me.
This is the second book in Rook's Circe series, and it's a tale of... well, partly romance, partly space opera, partly an exploration of a future society in which personal desire feels restricted, and yet in which sexuality is explored.
There isn't a huge amount of action - instead, the book is driven almost by the kind of courtly behaviour of Arthurian times but driven into a future of societally-approved marriages and rules that rebellious hearts want to break.
Some of it is tough reading - and there's some necessary spoilers to mention here to point that out. There's hints at incest, there's a rape scene in which the victim appears to enjoy being attacked, and there's a scene where a woman tries to win a man's friendship by torturing his colleague - an offer he spurns, and yet when her plan is foiled, he suddenly feels desire for her because now he feels he can dominate her.
In short, this really isn't the book for me - but that doesn't mean it isn't the book for someone who these themes appeal to. It's not a lack of ability that means I don't warm to it, just that it is about things that I don't connect with. If those themes draw you in, you can absolutely add a star to my rating.

AI Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 18 June 2017

On The Table Is A Gun, by Leo McBride

There have been a few news stories that have weighed on my mind in recent times. This piece was written in the wake of the 2016 Pulse shooting in Orlando. And then I left it untouched, because I wasn't sure this was my place to say anything. And yet, the news stories of shootings keep coming, and the spillover affects the country I live in too. So I publish this, On The Table Is A Gun, because it feels like I should.

On The Table Is A Gun
By Leo McBride

Two people sit in a room called America.
On the table is a gun.

“That’s my gun,” says one,
“You need a gun to defend yourself.”

“I don’t need a gun,” says one,
“if you don’t have one on the table.”

On the table is a gun.

“Pick up that gun,” says one,
“so you can protect yourself from me.”

“What if you take my gun?” says one,
“Then I gave you the gun to hurt me.”

On the table is a gun.

“I own that gun,” says one,
“because everyone else has one.”

“I don’t have a gun,” says one,
“and I’d feel safer if no one else did.”

On the table is a gun.

“Control who buys the guns,” says one,
“and stop the criminals from having one.”

“I stole that gun,” says one,
“How are you going to stop me?”

On the table is a gun.

“If we both had guns,” says one,
“then we’d both be equal.”

“If neither of us had guns,” says one,
“then we’d both be equal.”

On the table is a gun.

“You need to plan your escape,” says one,
“because I have a gun.”

“I wouldn’t need to escape,” says one,
“if you didn’t have a gun.”

Two people sit in a room called America.
Outside, everyone waits to see.

On the table is a gun.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Discover author Jason Nugent and his sci-fi adventure, The Selection

Jason Nugent is a fine chap. He's been awfully supportive since I started dipping my toe into this writing world - and he's a fine writer too, as readers of my book reviews will know from my reviews of his collections Almost Average and Moments of Darkness. And now he's got his debut novel out, The Selection, which is sitting on my Kindle waiting patiently in my reading list. But to help spread the word about his novel, he's got a special offer running - so here is a blog post to tell you a little bit more about it. Go on, splurge that dollar! 

For a limited time, grab the thrilling young adult scifi adventure novel “The Selection” from author Jason J. Nugent for only .99!

Humans colonized the planet Kepler 186f after Earth’s near total global collapse. Soon after, supply missions ended leaving the colonists to themselves, renaming the planet Anastasia and building a new society far different than Earth’s.

As population imbalance threatened stability in the settlements, a horrific and brutal institution known as The Selection was created.

Centuries later, haunted by the screams of his dead older brother, eighteen year-old Eron fears the unknown terror waiting for him and all boys his age in The Selection. He has thirty days to survive to Victory Point and reunite with his crush Mina. He will have to endure brutal circumstances and forge unlikely alliances if he’s to survive The Selection.

Time is short. Threats are constant. Survival means life. Failure means death—or worse.

Between June 9th and June 11th, you can get this action-filled story for only .99! Go to mybook.to/the-selection today before time runs out!

Jason Nugent was born in Cleveland, OH in 1974. He moved to rural southern Illinois in 1992 and lives there today with his wife, son, and mini-zoo of three cats and two dogs.

Jason is the author of two collections of dark fiction short stories: "(Almost) Average Anthology" and "Moments of Darkness” and the young adult scifi novel “The Selection.”

Jason has written for Sum'n Unique Magazine and game missions for an independently produced video game titled "Status Quo."

He writes regularly on his blog almostaverageblog.wordpress.com and can be found at jasonjnugent.com.

Friday, 2 June 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Books with advice for writers and self-publishers

Self-Publishing and Libraries, by Denise Weldon-Siviy

Stop. Wait. Before you open the first page of this book, I'm going to make a very important recommendation. Go get a pen, go get some paper. You're going to want to make some notes as you go through this book - because wow, does it have a wealth of useful information.
Without a doubt, Denise Weldon-Siviy knows her stuff, and in the case of this book, that is all about opening the doorway to libraries for authors in the self-publishing world.
To start with, Weldon-Siviy sets the scene by discussing the nature of the self-publishing world. A lot of this authors will already know, but it sets a good baseline for the rest of the book, which looks in detail at the requirements for self-publishers to get their work placed into libraries.
This isn't a step-by-step guide for you to follow in order to get from A to B, it's not as simple as that. Rather, it enlightens you to the whole process and the essential steps to take in order to be considered.
There is generally useful information too - such as how to approach some of the review locations that libraries pay attention to.
This is an incredibly thorough book that will reward re-reading. And, like I say, take notes, you're certain to find them useful. Now I'm off to set about getting on the library shelves!

AI Rating: 5/5

Self-Publishing and Libraries is available on Amazon

Original Fantasy: A Practical Guide to Writing Genre, by Emily Craven

Emily Craven is a passionate advocate of writing and self-publishing - and of learning the craft of a writer.
This book is a close look at the process she went through in writing a fantasy novel under the mentorship of Isobelle Carmody, and it's both insightful and surprisingly personal.
There are a lot of vague rules discussed in the world of writing - how you should show not tell, how you shouldn't overwrite, how you should pay attention to what characters can perceive rather than have them describe things they can't see. This takes that process and applies it to Emily's Priori novel, and seeing how those steps are applied is a great way for writers who might struggle with the general concepts to understand them in practice.
It is of course especially useful for those wanting to write fantasy, discussing such issues as the importance of worldbuilding and how to reveal that, and how to approach issues of naming characters and locations.
It is perhaps at times a little too specific in relation to Craven's own work - but then it's a great companion volume to a more general work. Don't think of this as the first book you pick up about writing so much as the one you pick up afterwards to try to put flesh on the bones of the concepts whirling around your head.
You can also follow the work on the Priori Podcast site, which turned the novel into an audio performance with a cast of actors, which might be a handy site to visit as you read the book and see how the final work turned out after all that polishing.

AI Rating: 4/5

Original Fantasy is available on Amazon.

The Self-Publishers FAQ, by Jacqueline Church Simonds

This book does exactly what it says - offering a lengthy list of frequently asked questions for those entering the self-publishing game.
It's pretty darn brilliant - it's hard to think of a question that isn't covered here in some way, though admittedly the book is a couple of years old and a couple of things in the market have changed since then. That's no fault of the book, the market moves pretty fast, and the vast majority of the information here is still completely on the mark.
The Q&A format is better suited to looking up as specific questions come to you rather than as a regular read-through. The quantity of useful info is so large that it can almost be overwhelming on a single read, but break it down into chunks, and take notes as you go and it's incredibly helpful. This is the sort of book that might be better in paperback form, so you can break out the highlighter and post it notes for markers.
I've been in self-publishing for a couple of years now and I wish I'd read this before I started - it would certainly have smoothed the path and help me avoid some of the mistakes along the way.

AI Rating: 4/5 (though if there's an updated version, I reckon you can add a star)

The Self-Publishers FAQ is available on Amazon.

Successful Self-Publishing, by Joanna Penn

Joanna Penn is one of the big names in self-publishing, and for good reason. I've reviewed one of her fiction books before - a few years ago now - but I've been a regular follower of her website, which is ceaselessly helpful in regards to advice for writers.
This book gives a great overview of the process of publishing and marketing your book. This isn't about writing the book, it picks up after the point at which you've written The End and your editor has carefully ticked off every element within.
In some ways, it's a lighter read than some other books on the subject, not being quite so stuffed with details as others. That said, the book itself is only a starting point, with lots of helpful links to outside websites for more information. Think of the book as the tip of the self-publishing iceberg, and the gateway to a host of websites recommended by one of the foremost experts in the field.
On its own, it's a little lighter than I hoped - but if you make the effort to go beyond the pages to the linked websites, you'll find it well worth an extra star.

AI Rating: 4/5

Successful Self-Publishing is available on Amazon.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Inklings Press: The Movie!

Something quite remarkable has happened. When, along with friends, we set about creating Inklings Press, we never quite thought we'd be where we are today, with a bunch of anthologies under our belts already and another having its submissions window about to shut - it's gone really well, we have to say.

But among the things we never thought we'd say back then is... here's our movie!

It was created by the team over at A&M Animation - it's their first stop-motion movie, and we're delighted that they took up the challenge to bring Herc The Orc to life!

You can find out more about the creation process - including seeing pictures of the sets they created and how they went about filming the short movie - right here: https://amanimationblog.wordpress.com/

Now, to create our special edition dolls, I say!

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Gift of the Winter King by Naomi Kritzer; Odin's Eye by Maria Haskins; and Gathering Storm Magazine issue 2

Gift of the Winter King and other stories, by Naomi Kritzer

There's nothing quite like that moment when you discover an author who you've never read before - and who turns out to be rather brilliant.
This was the first time I'd read anything by Naomi Kritzer - yes, yes, I'm late to the parade, I know, she did after all win the Hugo Award for best short story in 2016. Still, this was my first time reading her work. And it felt magical.
There's a delightful clarity in her writing. It's not overly weighed down with flowery description or laboured in any way. She just tells the tale, with a light, masterly touch.
The opening story is a great example - of a young woman who discovers the unusual ability to bring computers back from the dead. If I could borrow her for that dead laptop over there, I'd be happy to slip some money her way... but it's a fun tale, deftly handled and with a twist at the end that suddenly makes you sit up with an ooooh.
A couple of the stories riff off her work in her novels Fires of the Faithful and Turning the Storm. I've not read those - so a little of the impact of the stories here was perhaps lost on me, though the story Magefire stands on its own merit while having the feel of a marvellous Easter egg for readers of the novels.
There are a couple of pieces that didn't quite land with me - such as The Price and The Manual, but the latter particularly plays around with form in a way that might not have resonated with me but such experimentation is heartily to be encouraged.
There were two standout stories for me. In The Witch's Garden is a story in a fractured world filled with people with fractured minds, whose memories and minds have been tinkered with. There are artificially enhanced animals, and the story itself is a twisted version of the Snow Queen fairy tale, wrapped up with slavery and sadness, despair and, ultimately, hope. It's a thought provoking piece, and haunting.
As good as that is, it's surpassed by St Ailbe's Hall. Again, the artificially enhanced animals feature here - but more prominently, with an animal capable of walking and talking and having been rescued from its owners who used it for menial chores. The question at the heart of this story is what if that animal were to show up at church and ask to worship alongside the others in there who call themselves Christian. Faith is an issue that recurs in this collection - the title story also dwelling on the subject - but St Ailbe's Hall is a powerful tale told without preaching and exploring the issue of belief. It's worth the price of admission on its own.
All told, the collection is a solid four stars - but if you are a fan of Kritzer's novels, the tie-in value for some of the stories will add an extra star for you.

AI Rating: 4/5

Odin's Eye, by Maria Haskins

I can't pretend to be anything other than a fan of Maria Haskins. She has a way of slowing down the pace of a tale to let you think more carefully about its elements that I don't know how she manages in the space of a short story.
Now, fair warning, I have featured in a short story collection alongside Maria - her story Tunguska was next to my tale The Secret War in Tales From Alternate Earths - so putting that out there for full disclosure. But I've been fond of her writing for a while and the work here is no exception.
The opening story, Mimir's Well, plunges us headlong into a world of AIs and loneliness with some wordplay that Brian Aldiss would be proud of, while the world of Live and Virtually Returning has the Messiah emerging from clone technology in a warped world that feels like it could be out of a Pink Floyd landscape. There's faint horror here too, in The Child, with a world of customised faces and the mental trauma of a mother grappling with issues of identity, or Lost and Found, with an expedition facing an inexplicable danger on an alien world.
My favourite story of the collection is On Our Way, a subtle tale of maybe love, maybe aspiration for more than the grey of a ruined world. To try to sum it up is difficult, but it's a softly told, thoughtful tale, and plays on my mind after reading it.
That description could sum up quite a lot of Maria's writing for me - she shifts one's world view and makes one consider broader horizons.

AI Rating: 4/5

Gathering Storm Magazine, issue two

Gathering Storm is a new player in the fiction market - and I really rather enjoyed their first issue. The production is elegant, the artwork beautiful, and there's a mix of material included. There's poetry, a link to some interactive fiction that spirits you out of the magazine to a website, and a selection of short stories.
The emphasis on those is very much on the short. Heck, one item featured, Cream, is little more than a three-paragraph joke. Micro fiction, you might say. The length of such can make the whole seem rather insubstantial, and a couple of the stories come to a conclusion just when you want them to be getting going.
That is, of course, one of the consequences of flash fiction at times - it's hard to pack a whole world and its accompanying story into a short word count. That said, a couple of the stories here really hit the mark, such as Chantal Boudreau's A Distaste For Dust, which features a housekeeper with the kind of dedication to her job that one ought to beware of.
But I truly loved The Greatest Show on Earth - a pointed satire as clowns get to vote for who will be their leader under the Big Top. Lena Ng does a marvellous job of poking holes in democracy with a delicious closing couple of lines that I won't reveal to avoid spoiling. You really should read this story - it's a work of brilliance.
Overall, for me, the collection left me wanting a bit more substance. It's quite short as a collection and considering the length of the pieces, it doesn't occupy your time for long. That said, as a magazine it's on the right track and I look forward to future issues.

AI Rating: 3/5

Saturday, 13 May 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Red Fist of Rome, by John Caligiuri; Shadow Over Avalon by CN Lesley; Unwilling From Earth by Andrew Maclure

This week's review column sees guest author Brent A Harris reviewing The Red Fist of Rome, while I cast my eye over Shadows Over Avalon and Unwilling From Earth

Red Fist of Rome, by John Caligiuri

Red Fist of Rome is alternate history the way I like What-Ifs: Walk that dog, show me how it happened. It’s not enough to say: Rome defeated the Vandals and survived; here’s my story set in the far future. Everything is the same except the streets in America are all named after Roman generals. Instead, show me where history went awry. Author John Caligiuri does this, and does it well.
Set over the course of several years in Rome’s waning years, it follows Tribune Lucius Bernius and his eclectic band of stalwarts. Some may scoff at the unlikely sidekicks – a Mohawk Native, for instance. But it gives the book a wider-world feel to its scope. (And it’s not like there aren’t other famous alternate histories that have clashed eagles. Chalk this character up to Vikings and pre-Columbian contact theory). The Tribune’s tale finds his legion coming in conflict with corpulent aristocracy, the Huns, Franks, Vandals, and ultimately, Rome itself. Lucius lends his honor and aid to real-world General Flavius Aetius who, in our timeline, was successfully assassinated by Rome’s Emperor Valentinian. Of course, it wouldn’t be alternate history if the story stuck to the historical script.
I enjoyed this book. The cast of characters is great. Each one brings their own life and perspective into the fray. The history is alive, even as it twists into Caligiuri’s new timeline. I particularly liked Dr. Phokus who made me wonder if the Starship Enterprise got stuck in the past and Bones himself made do with Roman life. I also enjoyed the interplay and wit each of these characters has with the other. After all, if history can hang on one person being in the right (or wrong) spot at the right time, then what happens when you have a whole army—the whole Red Fist of Rome?
There were several curious moments, and the idea of the continent-hopping cast may be a stopping point for some. My only real concern lay in the opening chapters of the book spoiling the ending and sometimes italics could be better used for internal dialogue, but that is being addressed. It was odd to start with the end of the story first. I get that it’s alternate history and we should know what’s different, but it also took a major bit of the tension and anxiety build-up from the story knowing what happens and who survives to the (almost) end. The subsequent chapter takes a bit to get through because of the abrupt rewind to the past. But by the end of chapter 2 the book becomes difficult to put down.
Caligiuri creates a stunning new Roman world of dynamic characters and open-ended conflict that teases further tales. If you like What-if’s, alternate timelines, Roman historical fiction, or a relevant story with solid characters, then make The Red Fist of Rome your next destination.
Don’t be Roman loose looking for a copy, you can Caesars here: https://www.amazon.com/Red-Fist-Rome-John-Caligiuri/dp/0986397571/
AI rating: 5/5
Brent Harris himself is an author of alternate history, with the forthcoming A Time of Need, also available through Insomnia Press. When he’s not busy making bad puns, he spends time with his wife and two kids out in the desert of Southern California. You can verbally punch him at www.brentaharris.com

Shadows over Avalon, by CN Lesley
Shadows over Avalon is a curious beast. Scoop up a handful of Arthurian myth and recast it in a future world - a fine enough idea, and one done in scintillating fashion in Patricia Kennealy-Morrison's Keltiad series or the fabulous Camelot 3000 graphic novel. 
Here, we have a story told in two time periods. Arthur lives in an underwater city where he is being used as part of a breeding programme that he tries to withhold from - using his powers to keep his body temperature too high for his sperm to be viable because he doesn't want to bring a child into this strange world. When able, he researches in the city's archive for the history of a War Maid, Ashira, who is in a forced marriage with the warlord Uther. Fans of Arthurian myth will already see where some of the story's connections are going. 
Ashira finds herself the victim of all manner of circumstances - without spoiling too much, the forced marriage is just the beginning of her tribulations, as she finds herself caught up in the world of the mysterious Nestines and comes to terms with her own powers. 
The world is an imaginative one, but I struggled at times to follow the action, which wasn't always clearly described. More problematic for me was the abusive way in which female characters were treated - Ashira coming to enjoy her abuser's attention, for example. There are shades here of the start of the relationship between Daenerys and Drogo in Game of Thrones, and that was just as troublesome. Daenerys rose after that to take power, but it feels as if Ashira is more often a victim of her circumstance rather than one to take command. If that's an issue for you, then this book won't sit well with you, but if you can bear with it, the story ultimately shows Ashira's strengths. 
AI Rating: 3/5

Unwilling From Earth, by Andrew Maclure
You know that old adage about not judging a book by its cover? It's still as true as ever. I wasn't drawn in by the cover of this book, and it sat on my Kindle for a little while. That was my mistake. 
Unwilling From Earth is a delight. Right from the off, you can see the author is tipping his cap firmly in the direction of Douglas Adams. Our erstwhile hero, Mark, lives a dull life in IT. Worse, he gets the job that the IT department palms off on him when he's not around to argue about it. And so he finds himself in a basement office, shuffling archives in an office with a wobbly door and aided by the worst helper in the company. The Adams references are as obvious as the BEWARE OF THE LEOPARD sign Mark pastes in his office. On the bright side, the worst helper in the company does agree to going out for a date with Mark, an uncommon experience in his life. Beer is quaffed.
And then comes an odd man with his odd ways and his odd not-very-human appearance. Which perhaps isn't surprising because he isn't very human. Before Mark knows it, he's off on a journey into space and pitched into an interstellar war with some very unexpected companions. I won't say more for spoilers, but let's just say that Mark is as clueless as Arthur Dent when it comes to women. 
There's a real spark and zest to this novel, along with sharp observation. It may not be the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, but it's certainly something you might read while waiting to be seated there, and that's no bad thing. 
AI Rating: 4/5