Friday, 22 July 2016
Liquid Gambit, by Bonnie Milani
Of all the gin joints in all the worlds... this is one you might have to make sure you visit.
Welcome to Hell, the last human station on the edge of deep space, and more particularly, welcome to Rick's Bar, the lower decks dive run by an opportunist with a moral streak, with a penchant for making money and a habit of spacing slavers.
If this sounds like it has more than a hint of Casablanca about it, you're right - though if you're looking for a line by line comparison, I'm not your man, being one of the few never to have seen Bogart playing shell games with the Nazis. But such a part of a cultural tapestry as it is, you can tell there's a connection, and you can feel the love of the author for the movie.
This Rick is a dangerous type, he's Lupan, the part-human, part-wolf DNA species that also features in Bonnie Milani's Home World (reviewed on this blog here). This story is set in the same universe, but at the other end, far from the events in the novel. One of the notable parts of that novel was the way in which it expressed different forms of communication, the Lupans there being able to tell a lot from people's scent. And so it is here, with Rick's nose able to sniff a path through the dangers of a space station built on lies, power plays and illicit deals, even through the gut-burning alcohol he serves to the surly mob he calls his customers.
Then in through his door walks the woman who is going to change his life, or maybe get him killed.
Bonnie Milani crafts a sleek, taut novella here. It's not too long, you'll zip through it quickly enough, not least of all because the writing makes you want to keep turning the pages. I loved Home World, with its broader canvas and bigger story but this is more tightly written, focused sharply on its end goal. It's witty and sassy, with the sense that Rick could as easily punch someone or kiss someone on the next turn of the page, endlessly dancing on the edge that divides success and disaster.
In the end, I heartily recommend you give it a try. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
AI rating: 5/5
Liquid Gambit is available on Amazon.
Tuesday, 19 July 2016
PERENNIALS, by Bryce Gibson
Sit down for a moment, and imagine yourself on a front porch, its paint chipped and fading, in the slow heat of a Southern summer. Picture the sun going down, and the day reaching that moment between light and dark when suddenly the porch doesn't seem quite so safe any more and thoughts turn to stepping inside and closing the door. Perennials lives in that moment of disquiet in a place you call home.
Bryce Gibson has crafted a murder tale rooted in the rural world of the South, where families all know one another, where a serial killer stalks in a community that believes such things happen somewhere else, not here, not with us, in a place where you peer from behind twitching curtains and gossip about the moral failings of others.
This killer is hunting down a surprising target - people who share their name with plants. Mary Gold is the first we encounter, but not the last, and teenagers Dusty Miller and Nandina Bush fear they may be targets on the list.
The burn is slow in this story - deaths happen quickly but then we settle into the story of Dusty and Nandina, their blooming romance and the branches of family history that reach out across the landscape in which they live. Pieces of the puzzle are shown to us, but not slotted into place. Not yet. This story takes its time until, late in the game, things pick up pace, so fast that the innocent teenagers can't seem to follow what's going on until it may be too late.
There are some oddities in the writing - for example, Dusty's parts of the story are written in first person, while other characters are in the third person, which is a little jarring when you switch, and there are some parts of the story which happen off-camera, even towards the climax, which feel like they might have been part of the central narrative.
But there's a great deal to like here. Gibson has an elegant, easy style, and his characters feel very real, especially his central duo, tiptoeing towards love, feeling it is the biggest thing in the world even in the midst of fearing for their lives. Keep an eye on this writer, whose career shall surely grow.
A copy of Perennials was provided in exchange for an honest review.
AI rating: 4/5
Sunday, 17 July 2016
This article previously appeared in The Tribune on July 15.
A NEW craze has swept the world in the past week – if you haven't noticed, invisible creatures now surround us all, and they can only be seen by those whose phones can spot them. Pokemon has returned, and this time, it's offering a virtual world right beside our own. Time to delve into some of the podcasts that have sprung up to guide us through this new world.
Pokemon GO Podcast
If you want to learn something of why this new version of Pokemon has become so popular, you could do far worse than listen to the Pokemon GO podcast, hosted by Beau York, Joseph Ard and Patrick Bailey. They are almost boundless in their enthusiasm and really get to the heart of what makes the new game so popular. For the uninitiated, the game loads into your phone and uses its GPS settings to point you to where you can find Pokemon characters in the real world – and see them in augmented reality, little computer generated images superimposed on your phone's camera view.
The side effects of this are getting people out and about rather than stuck at a console at home, and actually meeting other players and connecting socially. Beau York tells of some of the encounters with complete strangers that have come about through playing the game, such as meeting another grown man and each bluffing for a few seconds before admitting they just wanted to get their phones out and compare which Pokemon they've got. There are gym locations too which lead to players gathering there to build up their Pokemon. However, there are different sides that players choose to be part of, and only one team can control a gym at a time, which leads to one story with a group of players gathering at the gym and noticing a car lurking down the street which they suspect has players from another side. In the end, one player stands up and shouts at the car “This is our turf!” before the car sheepishly shuffles away.
It's a smashing show, full of useful tips for players, such as looking for water-based Pokemon in real-life water locations, or ways in which you can get the starting character you want, and while it's all splendidly geekish, there's a real passion for the game in the hosts. A great listen.
This show, hosted by LC and Ty, is perhaps the opposite of the previous podcast. It's only four episodes in, but gosh, the hosts sound so bored with it all already. Where the Pokemon GO podcast bursts with enthusiasm, this show sounds dreary. They rate Pokemon characters in what they describe as always an interesting part of the show, but they barely sound interested themselves. It feels like a show that's going through the motions in order to make a show, which is a shame, because these guys clearly know their stuff. If you're a hardcore Pokemon player, maybe the knowledge they have to share is more meaningful for you, but it's far from a place to start. They also cover different aspects of the Pokemon world beyond the game, such as the TV shows and movies, so a wider perspective can be found here too.
Wired: Culture Podcast
The previous shows have been created by fans – but this one is a look at Pokemon by people drawn into the game as newcomers. The show title gives away where this show is going as they call out “Halp, We Can't Stop Playing Pokemon Go!”. The show doesn't just talk about Pokemon, they also cover the movie release of The Secret Life Of Pets and... well, you can just tell they want to get talking about their new augmented reality game. And before too long there they are, chatting about how you can see people out on the streets looking for Pokemon, how businesses are gaining money from the game – such as pizza places finding more customers calling in because their store is at a Pokemon location, and even the evolution of the game becoming used for dating. All this within a week of it being launched. Co-workers are suddenly talking and hanging out together as they hunt Pokemon, but it can also prove disruptive – with conversations interrupted by a phone alert of a nearby Pokemon or people stopping in the street or, worse, zigzagging across the road through traffic in their hunt. If you want a broader discussion of the implications of how a game is changing people's behaviour, then this is a fascinating listen. Taxis, for example, have started offering to drive people around slowly enough to catch the creatures they are looking for – there are real world effects that this game is having, and that is most definitely a new development in the gaming landscape.
Got any podcasts you'd like to see featured in the review column? Contact @chippychatty on Twitter.
Tuesday, 12 July 2016
Summer is here, and thoughts are turning to travel for many, now that children are out of school. This week, we dip into the world of travel podcasts.
For many, cruise ships are a destination in themselves, let alone the ports that they call in at. For would-be cruise travellers, Cruise Radio is a smashing podcast.
There are detailed reviews of the many cruise ships available to travel on, news updates on the latest changes to ships and their routes, and a look at some of the destinations the ships visit.
It’s a pleasant show, full of expert knowledge by those in their field. If a cruise is on your to-do list, you should easily find a review available of the ship you are due to travel on, and a lot more besides, including more than a few useful hints and tips for the cruise traveller.
Doug Parker, host of Cruise Radio
This appears to be a great idea, but it seems to be hampered by not putting enough effort into it. The show essentially provides a series of short podcasts centered around notable locations to visit around the globe. Think of it as an audio guidebook for cities such as Paris, Los Angeles, and many more. The trouble is that sometimes it comes across as simply reading some facts from some of those guide books. I tried out the show on Barcelona – whose description starts off by saying how the city is nestled on the shores of south-eastern Spain. South-east? Not in my atlas! Listening to the show itself, there is useful material, sure, but pronunciations are off, and it all comes across as lacking in-depth knowledge of the destination. In short, the show is still useful, and certainly lighter to store than a hefty guidebook, but back it up with some reading to get the most out of your destination.
Zero To Travel
The love of travel is at the heart of the Zero To Travel podcast, which positively evangelises about the possibility of travelling for a living. If ever you’ve dreamed about being able to travel the globe for a job, then this may well be the show for you. However, while the enthusiasm here is boundless, sometimes that comes across as being too pushy. The show I listened to – “How To YouTube Your Way To More Travel + 3 Steps To Getting Anything You Want” – spent way too much time pushing the producer’s “Paradise” Pack that you sign up for just blah blah blah. Seriously, it felt like being subjected to a constant hard sell. Get through the first half hour of the show and you actually get to some good stuff, if you’ve not had enough of someone trying to sell you things by then. The latter part of the show has a guest appearance from a YouTuber who turned her channel into a way of getting to live in her dream destination in Brazil. Making money on the move, she’s happy to share bits of advice to those who might have their own dream. Some of those tips are things such as having a template for your videos to fall back on so you don’t always wrack your brain trying to work out what you’re going to do this week, making sure you get the visuals set up right on your page so you look professional, but more than anything, if you have a passion for something, don’t overthink whether or not you should do something about it, just do it. Just doing it is advice the show itself could have listened to for the first half, rather than just selling it. Stick with the show, though, and you too might feel there are possibilities to live your travel dream.
Got a suggestion for inclusion in a future column? Tweet it to @chippychatty.
Sunday, 10 July 2016
Naked Truths About Getting Book Reviews, by Gisela Hausmann
Before you peep beneath the cover of this book, let me tell you about the only important thing that it doesn't tell you... make sure you have a pen and paper next to you while you read. In fact, take that paper, scrumple it up and throw it away and replace it with a notebook. You see, this book is so full to bursting with good ideas that you're going to have lots of to-do lists by the time you're done.
If you're an author, then reviews are crucial. This book gives a no-nonsense guide to going about the process of getting those reviews.
☑ How to find Amazon's top reviewers.
☑ Ways to approach reviewers.
☑ Mistakes made by authors in approaching reviewers.
☑ Ways you can search for other reviewers - on the likes of Goodreads or finding book bloggers.
☑ How to approach newspapers and other traditional publications.
☑ The truth behind some of those rumours about ways in which Amazon disqualifies reviews.
☑ Advice you can give to those who might ask what to include in a review because they haven't written one in a while.
The last point is particularly useful. There are so many different stories doing the rounds in author groups about different myths to do with reviewing that it is incredibly helpful to get some straight answers from an authoritative source of someone who has been there and done it.
There's also some unexpected information - such as it being useful for authors who receive a review to go to Amazon and mark it as helpful. I'd heard stories on some author groups saying you shouldn't connect in any way with a reviewer, but it makes sense that marking a review as helpful is an acknowledgement by the author in the time and effort someone has taken to write a review.
All the information is presented clearly and methodically, and by the time you're done, you'll have that to-do list fully loaded up. Now, to see if I can make the most of what I've learned from this and see if I can drum up a few more reviews for my own books!
AI Rating: 5/5
Naked Truths About Getting Book Reviews is available on Amazon.
Saturday, 9 July 2016
The Light of Dark, by D Gail Miller
The Light of Dark definitely stands out from the crowd. Indeed, it is a curiosity, in a field of its own.
Describing its genre will tell you that right away. It's an Amish romance sci-fi dystopia conspiracy thriller. Just read that back again and let that sink in. Religion plays a large part in the storytelling too - which some will take as a recommendation, others a dissuasion, but good to know before you go in either way.
The story is told in four different sections - titled for the characters from whose perspective it is told from: Leah, Tobias, Bethany, Jesse. Leah is a young Amish woman and mother who seemingly (spoiler alert) ends up killing herself. The others are her children, left behind with that truth, behind which lurks a revelation of something far more mysterious, far more dangerous.
Quickly, a pattern is established in the format of the stories. Each of the four characters is in love or on the way to falling in love. Thoughts turn quickly to marriage, even with the likes of young Jesse, all 14 years of age that he is and drawn toward the beautiful Dinah. The romance, and the early intrigue of how our first central character, Leah, goes from a warm, if impishly mischievous, party of the Amish community to a victim of suicide, is well told.
Slowly, at first, things take a more sinister turn. Amish teenagers are going missing, it seems, and outside the community, the talk is of war threatening to engulf the globe. From the inside of a Bible flutters a piece of paper containing the ten commandments from the Georgia Guidestones, sometimes referred to as the Illuminati commandments. At this point, quite a tantalising tale is in prospect. Alas, the second part of the book throws too much in there. All kinds of conspiracy theories get chucked at the reader - climate change being a hoax designed to create a weapon to attack the people, government working hand in hand with the New World Order and only being kept in check by a few dedicated Christian law enforcers, Muslims being used to flood Europe and bring in Sharia laws to undermine Christianity... heck, even Princess Diana being part of a conspiracy to create the Anti-Christ from within the bloodline of the British monarchy. Yes, some of those may well offend. Much of these are detailed in lengthy speeches to the young Amish of the tale, by a rock star being used by the conspiracy, by an FBI agent trying to track down devil worshippers, a man running a shelter in a busy city. Often, the characters listen with disbelief to these speeches. Frankly, reader, so did I. And yet such outlandish tales go uncountered, indeed some of the elements begin to take place (which, I shall not say, so as not to spoil). Mind control saps at the ranks of the Amish community, except for those who can steadfastly resist thanks to their belief in God.
These latter portions, to me, are where the book goes off the rails a bit. It throws too much in, and the sheer weight of conspiracy theory just seems unbelievable, and isn't delivered in a way that could encourage you to suspend your disbelief. After such a promising start, and with such an easygoing, enjoyable writing style, that's a shame. A simple tale filled with love and mystery descends into overblown dystopia, with the characters rarely at the centre of matters, but merely grist to the apocalyptic mill. It feels like we are on the sidelines of the action, following observers without impact. The writer certainly has an engaging style, and for that this book gets three stars.
AI rating: 3/5
The Light of Dark is available on Amazon.
Tuesday, 28 June 2016
This article featured previously in The Tribune Weekend section on June 24.
Election season is in the air, but how do we talk about the race to win the vote? The first of our podcasts this week – looking at words and how they are used – dips its toe into the electoral pool.
A Way With Words
What are the words that really drive you mad? The ways of describing things that really seem over the top? Well, the way we describe elections today once worked up writers into quite a later back at the end of the 19th century. The podcast A Way With Words highlights writers back then who complained about the way that elections were being described – particularly the word “campaign”.
The writers at the time took issue with elections being dressed up in the language of the military and warfare, one calling such speech “inflamed newspaper English masquerading as eloquence”, adding” “An election has no manner of likeness to a campaign or a battle; it is a mere comparison.”
The show is great at tearing into examples of language usage such as those above and others raised by callers. Hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett are witty and exceptionally knowledgeable, especially as they deal with questions raised by callers when they haven't had the chance to research the material beforehand. It's a loose, relaxed, chatty show, and ideal listening to wile away a lunch hour.
They also highlight examples which might infuriate us today – but who knows how the future will look back on these uses of language considering we routinely talk of campaigns and election victories nowadays.
One of those I sincerely hope doesn't take hold – apparently in the tech industry, workers are sometimes referred to as having “graduated”. Sounds good, right? Alas, this is some horrible management-speak for someone having been fired, where they have “graduated” to no longer working with the company. I may be joining the ranks of those 19th century writers when it comes to phrases like that.
The Grammar Girl podcast also picks up on the subject of graduation – but from a different angle, asking the question why is something that is the end of your studies so commonly referred to as a “commencement”.
The root of it reaches back in history – and there are a couple of possible answers. One suggests that it represents the start of students' new lives in the world, but another more interestingly goes back into medieval times when teaching was a guild. Students were the apprentices to the teacher, and at the end of their studies, they were initiatied into the master of the arts guild, the commencement of their careers as masters of arts.
This particular show also hands out tips on grammar, such as how to use the word “it” - and how not to.
Host Mignon Fogerty certainly knows her stuff, and there's a lot of knowledge passed along in the 15 minutes or so of the show. It's probably not a background listen – this is one to pay attention to if you want to make the most of the information provided. Think of it as a 15-minute exercise for your brain!
The New Yorker Poetry Podcast
Lastly, something relaxing but still very much with a focus on getting the most out of your word power.
The New Yorker website has a podcast section devoted to poetry. The format is simple, a poet reads a classic poem, and then one of their own works, having been introduced by the host beforehand and taking the time to discuss the strengths of each poem, the history behind their writing, and the personal importance it has to the reader.
The most recent show featured Northern Irish poet Nick Laird reading The Moose by Elizabeth Bishop, and it's a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere in which to enjoy a poem that is far from relaxing itself.
There are regular shows, all excellently produced, hosted by Paul Muldoon. The analysis can get a little over-indulgent at times, but if you can't indulge yourself when sharing your favourite poetry, when can you? At about 15 minutes per show, it's a quick listen that's very well worth the time of those of us who truly love words.