Saturday, 13 January 2018

BOOK REVIEWS: Elvira Wonders, by Sanna Hines; Monkey's Luck, by Bonnie Milani; Just A Minor Malfunction issue 3; Bloodchild, by Octavia Butler; Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A new year, a new selection of books up for review. First up, regular guest Brent A. Harris reviews Elvira Wonders, by Sanna Hines, before I hop in with my latest round-up - including two Black Panther graphic novels as the countdown is on to the new Marvel movie. 

Elvira Wonders, by Sanna Hines

Elvira Wonders is, at times, an unfocused entangling of the lives of too many characters overstuffed into a disarray of storylines. It doesn’t know what story it wants to tell, so it instead tells all of them. I got the sense in reading this, that perhaps Hines had hoped to create a TV series out of the town of Elvira. If so, that makes sense. There’s a loose thread involving a murdered fairy that could connect the pilot to the end of the first season, with subsequent chapters/episodes producing their own mini-threads and soap-opera antics before stumbling back to the murder mystery bits.
Now that it’s been quite a few years since True Blood has left the air, this book may quench the thirst of those looking for more Sookie Stackhouse. And make no mistake, Elvira Wonders takes its cue from the series: Fae, Werewolves, Vampires, Ghosts all exists as obstacles to each other on the streets and entangle in the sheets. Fans of the former who’ve run out of mystical material may wish to sink their teeth into Sanna’s story.
However, where True Blood takes its time developing the monsters, mayhem, and ahem – romantic encounters, Elvira Wonders takes everything at once and plunges it into the first book. Every fae and fable that exists in stories lives in the sleepy town of Elvira – whose residents decide to capitalise on the mythic creatures by opening sightseeing tours. However, not all of these creatures get along, and the tourism is threatened by infighting and murder.
It’s therefore up to Josh, car mechanic, ghost hunter, and Fae investigator (nobody is just one thing in this town, it’s an odd mixture for sure) and full-time leer-er of Elviran women, to solve the murder of a Red Fairy. Why the police are unconcerned over the death is a bit odd, nor do the Fae themselves lend a hand. So, it’s not surprising Josh gets distracted by relationships, as do all the other denizens of the city, while the story dissolves into a dozen characters, toys around with different genres (romance, horror, family drama, etc) until Josh basically stumbles onto the murderer. At no times are the characters tasked with providing reasons or motivations behind any of their actions, nor is the reader asked to consider any deep themes or dwell on any subject matter. It’s Vampire Diaries for the page.
Elvira Wonders isn’t a deep look into social strata, nor does it take time to flesh out any of its characters like the Stackhouse novels do. However, Elvira reads briskly, the characters function as quick go-to figures that are easily distinguishable from one another, and the world-building is fun and at times a good type of campy. It’s not a serious book – one of the most consistent storylines is the continued destruction of a Hummer and another features a writer who constantly complains about her critics. It’s a book that could be read through in one or two sittings. If you’re missing some Sookie, and you want something fast and light, I would check out the Wonders Elvira has to offer. 3.5 Stars, rounded to 4.

AI Rating: 4/5
Brent A. Harris 

Monkey's Luck, by Bonnie Milani

Bonnie Milani is a smashing writer. If you haven't discovered her before, then really, you have a treat awaiting you. I still say the best place to start to discover the universe she has created is her novel Home World, but Monkey's Luck is a rollicking bit of action to jump into too.
Kat is a wayward refugee, survivor of torture and space marine, caught up in a whole new world of hurt when the spaceship she's serving on gets blasted to hell and pitches her into an uneasy alliance with the ship's only other remaining crew member and a menacing Lupan named Romeo.
Lupans recur regularly in Bonnie's tales - an offshoot of humanity with wolf DNA wrapped in the mix. Both Kat and the other crew member have their own altered DNA cocktails going on, each bringing with it certain behaviour patterns and strengths - or weaknesses.
This is one of the nicest things about this tale - in that, despite rattling on at a fair old pace with explosions aplenty, there's a consideration at the heart of it of what makes us who we are, and what drives us to fight, or to love.
There's romance, betrayal, drama and stakes that grow increasingly higher as the story goes on - all told, my only complaint is that I wish it was longer so we could spend more time with this intriguing trio.

AI Rating: 5/5

Just A Minor Malfunction, issue three

Twitter's a wonderful place for connecting with authors - and it was out in that digital playground that I discovered the Just A Minor Malfunction magazine.
It's reached its third issue, and it's bristling with tales from contributors. Now, as devotees of short stories anthologies know - and goodness knows I'm one - some stories you'll love more than others, but there's a good mix in here.
The opening tale is a cracker, Left To Her Own Devices, by James Armer, about an expedition to a planet where the ship's AI is perhaps more adventurous than the crew. I really liked this one, pulling together some neat character work in its short span and doing what good sci-fi should do, making you ponder wider horizons.
Editor Michael S Alter has two tales of his own here - both good, but the pick of them is The Disappearing Cube, a story of a science experiment into folding space that has unexpected consequences for the scientists involved.
If you're looking for light-hearted tales, then Kim M Watt's Anatidaephobia, which certainly fits the bill.
A couple of the stories feel a little underdeveloped, but all told this is a nice addition to the magazine landscape. I'll certainly be looking to go back and check out issues one and two, so look for reviews of those in the future as I play catch-up.

AI Rating: 4/5 

Bloodchild and other stories, by Octavia E Butler

I feel it is a terrible sin of omission on my part that until now I have never read any works by Octavia Butler.
I mean, sure, everyone has their gaps in their reading history, where there's an author here or there who you've always meant to get round to reading but just haven't. But Butler has been a glaring hole in my reading - until now.
She freely admits in her introduction to this short story collection that novels are where her heart truly belongs, but this is a good way to delve into her writing, a gentle starter with the main course ready and waiting to follow, if you will.
There are seven stories and two essays in this collection, kicking off with the award-winning title story. Bloodchild is a complex story of interdependent relationships, with humans being used as hosts to nurse the infants of an alien species, but at a cost. There are questions of what one is willing to exchange in order to survive, issues of abusive relationships and personal sacrifice, all heady topics swirling within the confines of a short story.
Award-winner that it is, though, personally I prefer another story in the collection, The Evening and the Morning and the Night. It's a story of a society where a drug created to cure ailments such as cancer has after-effects, with the descendants of those who took the drug affected by a condition which can cause them to "drift", losing touch with the society around them and slipping into dangerous psychosis. Told from the perspective of the children affected by this disorder, as they face a future which seems inevitably to slip towards madness and death, it's a deeply poignant tale of how society deals with those it cannot cope with, and what happens to those individuals themselves - whether they can carve out their own future in a world that offers them none.
These two stories stand out above the others, but there's still plenty of great reading to be had in the collection. There's no binding theme - though a recurring focus is on issues of biology and illness. One nice feature is that each story has notes after it with the author detailing her thoughts on the tale. For example, she addresses the fact that many think Bloodchild is about slavery - it isn't, though talk in the story of selling people hints that way. It's more complex than that, though, and very much worth discovering if, like me, you've been lagging behind on exploring Butler's work.

AI Rating: 5/5


Black Panther, A Nation Under Our Feet, books one and two, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

With the new Black Panther movie looking astonishingly good from its trailers, a timely Amazon sale sent some of the recent comics starring the King of Wakanda tumbling my way. 
Well, I suppose from 2016, so not the most recent - but the run by Ta-Nehisi Coates has been raved about by fellow fans of T'Challa so it was about time I took a look. 
I've long been a fan of Black Panther - I tend to gravitate towards heroes who aren't mighty gods or universe-menacing Phoenixes - and so the combination of genius scientist and stealthy warrior has long appealed. 
I'll confess, though, that I'm awfully glad that I bought book two at the same time as book one. Coates takes his time to find his feet with his story - or rather, more to the point, he has a big story to tell but sometimes in volume one rushes through the actual telling, and you end up piecing a couple of the parts of the tale together in your head rather than reading it on the page. He's much more in his stride by the second volume, so if you find yourself put off a little by the opening collection, stick with it, it comes together much better as the issues go by. 
The story itself tackles the tale of Black Panther as king, fighting to hold together his kingdom from threats within and without. He isn't all-seeing or all-wise, rather he's a man underneath the legend, making political choices that might not always be for the best, but are mostly made with the best intentions. 
The tale tackles issues of nationalism, identity, monarchism and democracy - weighty matters that go beyond the usual supervillain hokum of many comics. Sometimes, that strays into territory of infodumping, but as I say, the method of telling the story keeps improving. 
I'm not terribly sure it will serve as a great introduction to readers for the Black Panther movie - but it's a powerful look at the world the comics character inhabits - with a wider landscape than his stories are often afforded. 

AI Ratings
Book one: 3/5
Book two: 4/5

Friday, 5 January 2018

My top podcasts of 2017

A version of this article appeared previously in The Tribune on January 5.

As the New Year begins, it’s time to look back over the very best of the past year – and in the podcasting world, there have been a lot of great shows to check out 
With some tough decisions made, then, here are my top five podcasts that I reviewed in 2017. 

Ear Hustle
Ear Hustle is a show that gives the microphone to prisoners at San Quentin prison. The show I reviewed talks about the SHU, the security housing unit – though the one featured in this show is not at San Quentin but at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California.Solitary. It talks to four prisoners who have spent prolonged periods in solitary confinement – and it’s a world away from the one we know. “It’s the hole, the dungeon, the box,” as co-host Antwan Williams says. 
Solitary confinement is just that – cut off from human contact – and the prisoners talk about the effect that has on people. From starting fights with guards just to feel some human contact, to finding ways to extend just the slightest tip of your finger through the grill of the door to be able to touch the fingertip of another prisoner to have some kind of contact with a friend. 
There are prisoners who struggle to put full sentences together because they say they become so disconnected – who struggle to remember what they’re talking about during a sentence. 
“Your mind can trick you into adjusting to the immediate conditions,” says Antwan Williams – a prisoner himself – and you can hear that in the conversations with other prisoners. There’s a mix of bravado and fear, and you can hear how hard the experience is in the voices of those being interviewed. Sometimes the conversation is broken, disjointed, such as that of one prisoner who spent 19 years in solitary. 
There’s also some talk of what it’s like to come out of solitary – the adrenaline rush that goes with it, the strutting across the prison yard after you’re out. And there’s even some talk of what it’s like to kiss a woman again after being a prisoner for so long – you hear the almost adolescent delight of the prisoners talking about that, saying that it’s like having a first kiss again.
This really is a brilliant podcast – it’s only half an hour or so in length but it packs a lot in there and really opens your eyes to a world we perhaps choose not to look at. It certainly makes you wonder about the life behind bars of those closer to home. 

The Vanished

A show looking squarely at the issue of missing people – and it’s a powerful, painful show to listen to. The episode I listened to focused on the case of Mimi Lewis, who was just 14 years old when she disappeared from her home in Kosciusko, Mississippi. She was later found dead, and those are just the bare facts of a story that touches on a host of issues of law enforcement, child protection – even the language we use – that end up stacked against the young people who find themselves in impossible situations.
The show features a long discussion with Sandye Roberts, of Halos Investigations, a group that aims to help children in danger of going missing. They talk first of all about how the label of runaway gets too easily applied – as if the missing child is just off on a Huckleberry Finn style adventure instead of at risk from predators, smuggler and more.
In the Mimi Lewis case, it appears the police simply didn’t investigate. She was just a runaway. And then she was dead.
Roberts highlights the risks that children face – increasingly. From websites that trade in children’s bodies to smugglers that turn towards trafficking in people rather than drugs because they can sell people’s bodies more than once, it’s a horrific, harrrowing tale – and it’s one that’s all too common, as common as the chat software on the games that children play.



S-Town is a new show from the creators of Serial and This American Life. And it’s an oddity.
Ostensibly, this starts out as a real-life crime show in which the host, Brian Reed, is asked to come to the town of Woodstock, Alabama, to investigate a murder. It then takes a very, very different course.
Reed was invited to come to the town – the S-Town of the title, but that’s just an abbreviation of the curse word used to describe it by John B McLemore, a cranky old man who tinkers with clocks, drinks cheap whiskey and berates the world for all that is wrong.
He tells Reed of abuse of people across the state by police officers, he talks about the land he has where he keeps stray dogs as the unofficial animal shelter of the area, he hangs out with his buddy as he sharpens his chainsaw. And he presses Reed to investigate a murder that doesn’t appear to have happened.
Reed tries to find out more about the murder – but there’s nothing. No trail, no newspaper reports. Nothing. He begins to think McLemore might have made it all up. And so begins the real journey of the show, examining McLemore himself.
Now, there’s no two ways about this, I’m going to have to give a spoiler for the events that happen in the show. You see, in the second episode, McLemore commits suicide. The news of this comes to Reed as he’s mid-investigation and it changes the whole path of the show. Suddenly, it becomes about McLemore, who he is, his sexuality, his lack of a will that leads to all sorts of family contention, the rumours of quantities of gold that he owned. It becomes, in essence, a look at mid-American life, and the secrets that we keep.
S-Town was released recently in a block of episodes, so you can binge listen to the first seven episodes already. It’s a slightly uneasy listen – McLemore invited Reed to investigate a death, but it was never his death. Or his life. At times, this feels slightly voyeuristic, disrespectful even. But the story that is told really makes you think about what lies behind the faded facade of Americana, and what goes on in those small towns out there.

Modern Love

I’ve reviewed Modern Love before – it’s an excellent show – but by chance a remarkably fitting companion piece to S-Town was the show I reviewed featuring a reading by actress Laura Dern of a piece by Rhonda Mawhood Lee. She reads about a pastor speaking to her parishioner, a 78-year-old man who had fallen in love with a 28-year-old man – to the shocked reaction of his church.
The show includes reaction to the piece – but one of the concerns is again that, unfortunately, the story comes after the fact. Ned passes away. So is his story someone else’s to tell? Ought we to be discussing, no matter how compassionately, their sex lives, their loves?
It fits into the same territory as the discussion of McLemore above – and while I have no answers to the questions it raises, it is beautifully done and thoughtfully executed.
Modern Love is very well worth a listen – even when it raises awkward questions.

Faculty of Horror
One of my favourite podcasts is Pseudopod – a podcast giving readings of horror stories. It was one of my podcasts of the year last year and a regular listen for me. So when they gave a shout out to Faculty of Horror, it had to go on my review list – and I’m awfully glad to find them.
Faculty of Horror is hosted by Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West, who analyse a host of horror movies across the episodes they’ve recorded.
The first show I encountered focused on rape revenge movies such as ‘I Spit On Your Grave’. 
I was somewhat wary of trusting a show I’d never listened to before to cover such movies in a non-exploitative way – heck, such movies themselves don’t really do that – so I chickened out and listened to the previous episode, an in-depth study of the brilliant movie ‘The Descent’.
If you’ve never seen ‘The Descent’, it’s a fantastic horror movie from Neil Marshall, whose most recent career highlights have been becoming the go-to guy for the big battle episodes of ‘Game of Thrones’.
It follows a group of women as they explore a cave system on an adventure holiday. Except the cave system they’re exploring isn’t the one they thought they were – and they’re not alone down there. 
The hosts are incredibly knowledgeable. The information about the movie just trips off their tongue in a way that shows the depth of their knowledge of the movie. The analysis is great, taking in everything from the set design through to feminist readings of the film.
Geek that I am, I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about this movie – but the hosts went far beyond what I thought I knew. They are engaging, the production is excellent, the analysis is on an academic level and... well, I probably shouldn’t have chickened out on that first show, right?

Editor's note: I'm always on the look out for more podcasts to review - so if you have a podcast you'd like reviewed, or have a suggestion of a favourite I should check out, drop a note in the comments below. 

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Find me on Goodreads - and ask me a question

Like most authors, you can find me over at Goodreads. Click here to swing on over and find me. Also like most authors, I'm always happy to answer questions from those who follow my work. One of the nice things about Goodreads is that you can pitch questions to authors and see what they say - and here are the questions I've answered so far over there. Feel free to ask more - either in the comments below or over on the site. And hey, tell me about your work too if you're an author, would love to hear more. 

Leo McBride I love Heinlein too, without a doubt. It's funny, a couple of my stories have had Heinlein mentioned as an apparent influence so maybe he's in there in the back of my brain nudging away at how I write without me thinking about it. I think probably in terms of listing the influences, I came to reading Asimov and Clarke earlier - I was reading their work before I was a teenager, while I came to Heinlein a little later, more in my 20s. And I guess that early connection is what stuck with me. How there haven't been more movies based on Heinlein's work is beyond me, though! Fantastic writer.
Leo McBride A little from column A, a little from column B. I wouldn't say I rigidly plan the outline - but I do start with a solid idea of where I'm going to end up and some of the beats along the way. But then I start to write and see where I go with the wiggle room that I've got. That can bring some surprises along the way - in the short story The Last Sorceror, for example, one of the characters took certain actions that shocked me as I was writing them but completely fit her character. Had I planned that, I probably wouldn't have put that on paper, but her actions were a natural outgrowth of the situation in the process of writing. So, a structure, certainly, but with room to change things around on the fly.
Leo McBride Hmm, good question - I think I probably enjoy the writing process for short stories more, but prefer the full-length process (that I'm still working on!). The short form you can have fun with, dive into a story, create a world quickly and tell one story, one moment in time. The longer from requires, I find, more thought, more planning and connecting the dots to tell the larger story. Not sure how good I am at that yet, we'll see when the first novel is done!
Leo McBride Good question! I tend to find horror overlapping quite often - in Lazarus Soldiers, for example, I have cloned soldiers fighting against a surging mass of cloned flesh, while an in-progress story called Skitter has a sci-fi tale set in the sewers of New York. There are sci-fi greats throwing in horror elements too, of course, from HP Lovecraft to the first Alien movie, that haunted house in space where we first meet Ripley. I like the unknown, and that unknown can be in the far future or the here and now, but the unknown is reaching out into the dark, and never quite knowing what it is you will find there.
Leo McBride Theoretical physics - the possibilities that it offers for ways to understand our universe are simply breathtaking, and the storytelling options that go with them if I can only get my head around them!
Leo McBride Ooh, good question. Hm, oddly enough probably the old man in A Place To Rest from my collection Quartet. All he wants is to be left on his own while everyone around him is constantly badgering him, to the point where he runs away to find peace. I've had those days!
Leo McBride To be honest, the writers around me that I've connected with. It's really incredibly useful to have those outside eyes looking in on your work, and makes you more focused on the habits you might have in your writing to try to iron out. I've also really enjoyed writing for the Inklings Press anthologies, as they tend to force me to write outside my comfort zone rather than falling back on the same format.
Leo McBride Sometimes as a source of calm! But more I draw on the culture around me as a source of inspiration - the people and the myths of the landscapes I've lived in. But the beauty of the place sure helps to remind me to take the time to enjoy the world around me!
Leo McBride Without a doubt, Ray Bradbury is my favourite author, but I couldn't honestly say he's been a big influence - just because he is so, so good at what he does. With writing, it's sometimes like watching a magic trick, sometimes you can see how the trick works - but then along comes Bradbury and conjures a dinosaur out of thin air. So for me, I would say perhaps some of the closer influences might be people such as Stephen King and Robert Heinlein, where I've consciously sat down and tried to figure out parts of their work and how they go about it. And of course HG Wells, who is such an influence he becomes a character in The Secret War!
Leo McBride Time, to be honest. My regular job is a very busy one, with barely a spare moment. I'm a journalist and I can be working on up to 20 pages a night on a regular basis. That can discipline me to get on with things more easily when I have the opportunity, but it is a non-standard job, with unusual hours and little in the way of down time. So when I do get a little block of time to sit and write, it's a real treat!
Leo McBride I think probably not so much a comment as someone naming a pet after my character Percy because the character meant so much to them. That was very sweet indeed.
Leo McBride I'm working on the longer ones - a novel is in progress (more than one, really, but one in particular). Before that, getting short stories out in the wild seemed a good way of introducing people to my work, and to start learning about the publishing industry too. There's a lot to understand about marketing, the process of publishing a book, cover design, editing and so on - and I hope that I'll be better prepared when the novel is complete to give it a better chance of gaining the audience I think it deserves because of the short stories I've published. Apart from that, the short form is fun - it lets you dabble in lots of different worlds!
Leo McBride The gods of rum and whiskey! No, seriously, I tend to think about what kind of story I'm planning to write first - I think about the genre, and the kinds of story that can exist within that genre, and what I want to tell. For example, for the story In The Stars, We Learned To Soar, I wanted to explore how a Romany community would interact in a spaceborne environment. I try to think about elements I've perhaps not seen explored, or to put a twist on familiar concepts. How successful I am? Goodness knows!
Leo McBride Accept you're not perfect at the start, and understand that criticism can make you better. Listen to that as advice, not as something personal, and work out what you can take from it to let your writing grow.
Leo McBride As the great philosopher Frederick Mercury once opined... "Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?"

I must admit, I'm not convinced by the multiple realities theories, the multiverses with a split with every decision. If so, I'm creating universes just by every word I choose to type here.
Leo McBride I couldn't say, I've never eaten a whole one!
Leo McBride I'm not a big reader of romance, so let me give an answer that would be absolutely the wrong answer on dating sites and such. No happy ever after here, but the sheer agony of the tormented relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights makes for great reading. The tension and pain at the heart of that relationship is so intense, so passionate, and yet at the same time so disfunctional. So yes, not the sweet fairytale couple by any means, but one of the great stories of English literature as a result.
Leo McBride Hi Rosemary - I don't know if your book launch is in the real world or on Facebook, but I would suggest including a bit of an author Q&A. Recruit a friend to pose some questions and moderate questions from the audience, be it in the room or online, and give a shout out to fellow authors who might be dropping in. I've only done launches online before, but it certainly helps pass the time as you see how the launch is going, and is great to be able to thank people who have shown up to support. Giveaways of copies might be a thing to include too, to reward visitors. Hope that helps, but nudge me by all means if I can help more!
Leo McBride Well, unfair criticism is easy to shrug off, because it's unfair! That kind of thing tells you more about the critic than the author. Bad reviews? Listen to them, I say, take on board what they are saying. Some of the criticism may be valid, some may not, but what better way to learn your craft than to listen to those who point out things you do that may not work? Regardless, people who have taken the time to read your work and comment on it deserve your respect, whether they have liked it or not.
Leo McBride Rum, angst and growling at the empty screen until words form of their own volition.
Leo McBride Definitely when someone likes what you've written and lets you know - it's a little bit brilliant!
Leo McBride I count myself as an aspiring writer still so I'm still looking for lots of advice myself - I think I would say that listening is important, but also understanding that while all criticism is valid on the part of the person giving it, not all of it needs to be embraced as a writer. Choose the good advice from the bad, but listen to it all to discern what helps your work and what does not.
Leo McBride I'm currently working on two novels - a long-simmering supernatural thriller about a police officer troubled with visions of the murders he's investigating and slowly uncovering the eerie reasons why; and Hocus Potus: a spooky comedy about a witch who becomes President of the United States.
Leo McBride I've always written, in one form or another, ever since I was a kid. Sometimes that energy went into roleplaying games, sometimes it went into writing fiction. Inspiration doesn't always come easy, sometimes I sit there with a blank piece of paper having no clue what to write. Sometimes I find myself setting a challenge of writing in a particular genre, or a particular theme to get myself going. I have a ton of ideas simmering away - just needing time to sit down and write them all!
Leo McBride Hi there,

So far, my published books have been short story collections - and the ideas for those come from far and wide! The novel I'm working on though, which sprang out of putting something together for National Novel Writing Month, was challenging myself to write something different, something with a bit of comedy. Add a dash of magic, and the swirl of election season going on and lo and behold, a story comes together of the President of the United States being a witch who got into power using magic... intending to do good, only to come up against the warlocks of the Senate.