Monday, 24 July 2017

Dear authors, don't try and fool your readers


The other day, I saw a reviewer ranting on Facebook.

She's a smashing soul, who reviews an incredible number of books - in between writing her own. More than that, she's one of the most open and generous folks I know, endlessly supportive of other writers - so to see her making a number of posts in annoyance was very out of character.

So what was the source of the annoyance? An author, who had taken issue with the review - an honest one - she had written of his book. It got to the point where she had to block him because he started swearing at her over her review.

Now, of course, that's ridiculous, but what makes it even more ridiculous? It was a four-star review too - he got upset and started swearing at someone who had given of her time and honest opinion because the review was one star short of his perceived perfection.

That kind of behaviour is disrespectful to the reviewer, of course - thankfully she had enough sense to dust him off and carry on doing her thing - but it shows even less respect to readers. After all, that's who he's really trying to fool.

Perhaps the whole thing bugged me because it followed closely on the heels of an author complaining to me about a review I'd written. It was a one-star review - so I can understand disappointment. But up popped this sudden message on Facebook moaning about the review but congratulating me on an award. I hadn't won an award, but hey, why let some poor fact-finding get in the way of a gripe? There was no attempt to clarify what might have been problematic in the book, just a grump about being given a one-star review.

With reviews being important in marketing, of course, I understand why authors are so keen to maximise the scores they have to show the world. Heck, for some promotional services, an average rating of more than four stars is required to be able to take part. That shouldn't mean manipulating the scores, though - it should just encourage the authors to keep doing better.

It's not the only way I've seen authors trying to fool readers in recent times. As well as pressing reviewers for higher scores, lately I've seen an author claiming a bestseller status for their book after listing it in a tiny category unrelated to their actual book, for example. Another author I saw touting their how-to guide - despite constantly asking others for help in that same area. That sort of thing just ends up giving people bad advice rather than pointing them to real experts.

I review a lot - and I always give my honest impression of what I'm reviewing. I've been doing it for more than 20 years in a professional capacity, and I think honesty is key. Dishonesty ill serves the person reading the review, and it equally undermines the genuinely good reviews you give things.
When I give five stars to something, the person who created it should know I really mean it, that I hold it up as the best of the best.

In short, according to the criteria of Amazon's listing, I loved it.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

PODCAST REVIEW: Comedy, film, and pillow mints at the Bates Motel

This article previously appeared in The Tribune Weekend section of July 21.



Some weeks, I pick a theme for the podcast column and find shows that suit – but this week's came together thanks to a shout out on Twitter, and still a theme came together. Comedy and film are at the heart of this week's listening. 

Everyone I Know

A fairly new podcast on the block, this sees two brothers and a guest shoot the breeze on various topics. It's a welcome newcomer to the podcast scene too as these guys are good company. As with many a comedy podcast – in fact all the shows here today – you can expect some swearing amid the chat, so not for younger ears, but that's to be expected. 
The format here is to take three topics and discuss them, and the crew in the most recent episode focused on, well, social acceptability. For example, is it acceptable to start checking your phone while talking to people or to put your headphones in when going around a store? And just what is the right thing to do at a concert to avoid annoying the people next to you?
It's a light, breezy listen, doesn't overstay its time, and I give it a thumbs up. It's only four episodes old, so I look forward to coming back to it in future to see how it builds. 



The ever-mischievous Alfred Hitchcock takes the chair of Mrs Bates during Psycho shooting.

Sift

Sift is a show that combines a bit of comedy, a bit of philosophy and a bit of... baking?
The show I listened to focused on the movie director Alfred Hitchcock – and I have to say there's something of a contrast between the two hosts. One took on the role of researcher and dug up all kinds of information about Hitchcock, his tempestuous relationships with his leading ladies, his role in creating propaganda films during the war, the highs and lows of his career... and the other said “Wow” and “I didn't know that” a lot. 
I also got a little irritated by the number of times one or the other host said they hadn't seen certain Hitchcock movies that they are talking about on the show – such as Rebecca, Rear Window or Psycho. It seems a bit strange to want to tell your audience about movies that they may well have seen but that you haven't. And no, the remake of Psycho doesn't count for purposes of talking about Hitchcock. 
That said, the detail that joint host Liz Wilshin gets into is interesting, and she carries the show, drawing you in and talking about all kinds of things she's found in her research. She's also the baker, and her recipe for Bates Motel Pillow Mints is a clever thought. 
One other thing the show could do with is better production – the sound quality isn't great, and a sequence playing the famous “Who's On First?” skit from Abbott and Costello is barely able to be made out. 
It's still fairly early days for the podcast – which is 12 episodes old – but improving that sound quality for starters ought to be high on the hosts' to-do list. 



Arnold Schwarzenegger in his not-so-subtle outfit in The Running Man.

More Gooder Than

The best show of the bunch this week also happens to be the oldest, having recently passed its first anniversary. 
More Gooder Than focuses on chat about movies – with hosts Chris Braaten, Donnie Carr and Cory Saceaux taking apart pop culture and challenging one another over movies, characters, directors and so on to decide who is the... most goodest. And yes, I cringe typing that phrase, but that's the point, I'm sure!
The episode I listened to I'll freely accept might not travel the best, but it looked at movies that featured the Bakersfield area in California. So the three movies looked at are the Robin Williams movie The Best of Times, Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick The Running Man and Tom Hanks' Castaway. 
You might not remember The Best of Times, a sentimental movie about a man wanting to relive his high school football days as a way of putting some spice back into his life, and it'll be no surprise that this is the movie that ends up being... less goodest. 
These guys clearly know their stuff – and there's an easy banter between the crew. Apparently, the show came about from one of them saying during regular gaming sessions that they wished they recorded some of their chats, and you can tell this is a bunch of friends talking about things they love. 
It's a fun show to listen to – and insightful too as they pick up on all kinds of little details about the movies they're talking about. So much so that they make me want to go back and rewatch The Running Man... and I hated that movie!


Got a show you'd love to see featured in the column? Drop me a line in the comments below or over on Twitter, @AlteredInstinct

Saturday, 22 July 2017

SNEAK PREVIEW: Caligation, by Brhi Stokes

I always like to welcome authors to the blog - and this week I'm delighted to have a visit from Brhi Stokes, whose new book Caligation is out on July 29. Brhi will be joining me for a Q&A too on release day, but in the meantime, she gave readers of the blog a chance to peep inside her urban fantasy - a glimpse of a world of strange, unnatural dangers, and a young man lost within it. Enjoy! And see you back here for the chat on launch day. 


"Darkness closed in on him like a pack of hounds. Buildings passed, warehouses, factories; shadows of silent windows disturbed every so often by dim light, taunting him."




Excerpt:

By the time he headed back home, the sun was hanging low in the sky and the streets were beginning to come alive.
Too alive, Ripley realised, rounding a corner and then stopping abruptly. A few metres ahead of him, in the centre of the street was a melee. Several creatures with elongated limbs, angular heads and a mottled mix of fur, skin and scales were on the attack. Without the pitch of night to hide their forms, Ripley could clearly see the deformities; the spines and horns and tufts of fur that covered the sinewy muscles of the creatures. Some moved with speed and grace, others in lumbering strides that impacted heavily on the road. Guttural sounds ripped from the group as they lunged and snarled at their opponents.
A gunshot ripped the air and one of the creatures reeled, blood pouring from the side of its face. Once it had gathered itself, it lashed out with a viciously spiked claw sending the shooter sprawling. It leapt, only to find its jaws clamped around the thick of a heavy crowbar as one of the woman’s compatriots dove in with such great strength he was actually able to hold the beast off.
His crowbar snapped, and the creature fell upon the man with claws and teeth. The woman he had saved leapt towards the creature and thrust out a hand. Even from this distance, Ripley could see the sudden melting and hissing that came from where her hand touched its bare flesh. The creature reeled once more, a good chunk of its skin turned a brackish red, steaming.
The two other creatures were under a barrage of gunfire, but they weathered it well. He watched as one of the humanoid men darted out of the way of oncoming teeth and clung like a spider to the wall nearby, sticking even without holding it.
One of the less occupied creatures spun suddenly, its eyes glowing a deep, angry red as it scanned the street. It caught sight of Ripley and, with a growl like nails in a whirling drain, dug its claws into the ground and bounded towards him. Pink saliva bubbled from between its innumerable teeth and a long, snake-like tongue lashed out at him.
Ripley stumbled back, hands reaching down to his pockets in search of any sort of weapon but the creature had sprung.
It reeled suddenly in mid-air as something exploded in front of it, sending liquid and fire splattering across the ground. From the liquid, a sickly green gas rose and the creature began to prowl backwards, snarling and gargling as small bits of fire licked at the tufts of fur across its scaled face.
He did not need to wait for a second chance. Ripley turned and bolted down the nearest alley. Behind him, the sound of sirens was accompanied by the screeching of tires.
His apartment was safe and warm in comparison. He did not leave, and no one came to collect him. A small part of him wondered if he should call someone but he pushed it aside. 
He made an informed decision never to go outside 

Pre-order Caligation now:

Saturday, 15 July 2017

PODCAST REVIEW: When the story's the thing

This article previously featured in The Tribune Weekend section of July 14

FOR those who love books and writing, a wealth of podcasts are out there to let you delve beyond the word written on the page. This week, we look at three shows that take you deeper.


Artwork created by The Wicked Library to accompany the story - part of the classy production values exemplified by the podcast.

The Wicked Library

The Wicked Library is a podcast that focuses on horror stories. They take short stories written by authors all over the world and record readings of them.
First of all, the quality of the show is fantastic. Fronted by a voiceover from The Librarian – the show's equivalent of the Cryptkeeper from Tales From The Crypt – it sets the tone for a creepy experience, then dives right in with the story chosen for the episode.
The latest episode I have to confess a partial interest in – the story is by Ricardo Victoria, a Mexican writer, and I edited the story when it was published in an anthology. But the recording is great to hear. The performance by the voiceover artist is great and really helps the story to burst from the page. It's a Lovecraftian tale of ancient beings, drug hazes and the Mexican Day of the Dead, all wrapped into one, and it's a smashing listen.
Beyond that, there's also then a lengthy chat between the host and the author, talking through the inspirations for the story and approaches to writing. It's really like a DVD extra at the end of the show, where you get to peek beneath the hood of the storytelling.
Production-wise, it's superbly done, and if you're a fan of horror shows, it really should be in your podcast queue. It's heartily recommended.


Keystroke Medium

From horror, we turn to science fiction – with Keystroke Medium, a show that interviews a host of different authors.
The latest show features Jack Campbell, the author of the Lost Fleet series, and the chat certainly takes its time and gets in detail on his work and his writing process.
Running for an hour, the hosts discuss the books themselves, the possibility of film adaptations of them, the way in which Campbell approaches his writing week, whether he plans out his stories or writes in a more off the cuff manner. By the end, you get a real sense of the author and his work. I'd not encountered his writing before but it's great to get an introduction in such a way to someone new.
One of the eternal bugbears with interview shows can be sound quality – you're often stymied by the quality of the Skype call or similar – and that does cause a little hiccup here every now and then, but not so much that it causes a problem with listening.
The show came recommended to me in an author group – and you can see why. The hosts really do their homework and love the genre. I'll be back to listen to more!



The classic moment in Lost In Translation where the audience is shown - but cannot hear - Bill Murray's character whispering to Scarlett Johansson, a moment spotlighted in The Self-Publishing Podcast. 

The Self-Publishing Podcast

Another highly recommended podcast is the Self-Publishing Podcast – though be advised there's plenty of swearing in here.
That's appropriate for the show I listened to – which picked out nine movie moments that writers can learn from, and one of the moments is the first swearword on the big screen. Which movie? That would be Gone With The Wind, and Rhett Butler getting frank with Scarlett O'Hara.
It's a neat premise for a show, picking out the parts of a film that are great examples of writing. The analysis varies – the discussion of moments from Up and Inception is a bit soft, but there's a really great look at crucial points in Memento and Lost In Translation and why they have such an impact because of the way the writing leads you up to them. Particularly the look at the unheard whisper in Lost In Translation and the very un-Hollywood nature of that is well done.
I will say, it would be nice if the hosts could stay on track a little more – they veer all over the place early in the show before settling down to the discussion.
Spoilers, of course, for the movies discussed, so don't dive in if you haven't seen the endings of Memento or High Tension and want to discover them for yourself – but they avoid recent movies.
In other episodes, the hosts look at lots of different aspects of the self-publishing industry, so it's quite nice that they vary it up with shows like this, where they focus on elements of the writing itself.



And a bonus for blog readers - here's the first episode of the new season of GoIndieNow, from Joe Compton, embedded for ease of viewing. You can find out more about GoIndieNow on their Facebook page here.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

BOOK REVIEWS: FountainCorp Security, by Watson Davis; AZ: Revenge of an Archangel, by A A Bavar; and Horn-Horn, by A D T McLellan

In today's review round-up, Brent A. Harris, that old scallywag, reviews sci-fi action read FountainCorp Security, from Watson Davis, while Leo McBride reviews the Biblically-influenced AZ: Revenge of an Archangel, by A.A.Bavar, and young adult tale Horn-Horn, by A.D.T. McLellan.



FountainCorp Security: Diaries of a Space Marine, by Watson Davis
Space zombies.
Space. Zombies.
I considered leaving my review at that, as one might pick up this book at reading: Zombies. In Space.
But Watson Davis delivers a story much deeper than just the orbital undead up against an elite team of interstellar marines. Hero is a butt-kicking heroine with a difficult past who connects with a child rescued from a station ravaged by a nefarious shadow group that have created nano-tech zombies. 
While this book doesn’t tread new ground and it relies on many established tropes (the rape-as-plot-device, especially) Davis deftly maneuvers around them, only bogging down a bit in the middle but recovering to deliver on its premise just in time for an actiony-climax. When Davis deals with Hero’s emotionally charged past, FountainCorp shines at its brightest. I enjoyed this book. It’s easy to delve into, the characters behave realistically, and the writing is solid. I did find it a bit jarring moving from the first person ‘diaries’ to the third-person narrative, but I recognize that’s a personal aesthetic and most won’t be bothered. 4 stars for a fun ride with a dynamic cast and… Space freaking Zombies!
AI Rating: 4/5
You can pick up Davis’ book here.
Brent A Harris is a frequent collaborator of mischief with Leo McBride. Sometimes they review books too. You can reach out to Brent at his website www.BrentAHarris.com.

AZ: Revenge of an Archangel, by A.A.Bavar
Gosh, I wish this book would have started at its half-way mark. 
This is the story of Azrail, the Archangel of Death, and as it turns out in this tale, eons-long opponent of Lucifer. 
Those eons stretch out across the first half of the novel, with Azrail - not Azrael, the spelling I'd be more familiar with but hey, no harm in a bit of variation - getting into confrontation after confrontation at scenes of Biblical significance. Crime Scene Bible, you might say, with an archangel taking off his sunglasses as The Who scream Yeaaaahhhhhh. 
So we have conflicts over Cain and Abel, we stop by Sodom and Gomorrah and see how Lot and his family were urged to leave and the unfortunate ending of his wife, and so on. This vast timespan makes it a little hard to engage with the first half of the book. We drop in and out over centuries. We leave Lot and pop up at the crucifixion of Jesus - what was happening in the intervening time? Does it matter? 
And then we leap again and come to... a really good bit of storytelling. The reaper Azrail discovers a girl who he spared from drowning as a baby, and becomes her guardian. Suddenly, we're more rooted to our world and connected to an intriguing tale, of an innocent child being protected by an angel - who she nicknames AZ - in the face of Lucifer's machinations. If we'd started here, this might have been a great tale, but I can't help but feel the first half of the book is going to lose a lot of readers before they get here. There are some odd anachronistic references too - the angel's dialogue can use slang that's a bit too modern at times, and there was one bit where he referenced a computer game that really broke me out of the novel.  
All in all, it's an intriguing premise, but a tighter focus on a shorter period of time would have done it the world of good. 
AI Rating: 3/5
AZ: Revenge of an Archangel is available here.

Horn-Horn, by A.D.T. McLellan

Power games can manifest in many forms - and the story of Horn-Horn has lead character Cassie Gellar caught in the middle of them. 
Whether it's the power games going on in the cliques of her new school, or those being played by the supernatural forces from the world of Danube, it's hard to tell which is the more perilous for Cassie. 
Horn-Horn is the name of the town that Cassie and her family have moved to, and just as she's starting to get to grips with the oddness of the town's residents, she discovers Zag, a mysterious child with the power to grant wishes, stranded in the nearby woods. She takes him in, only to find he is being pursued by Ursula, a dangerous being from Danube - which seems part a distant world in our solar system and part an almost faerie court. There's a bit of perspective hopping along the way - Cassie's tale is told in first person, while others are told in third person, which is a bit jarring. 
As a YA tale, it's great in terms of the details of teenage life that it paints - the cruelties, the eagerness to find friends, the delights and the loneliness. This is both a strength and a bit of a flaw, in that the book spends such time on this aspect that the main plot itself takes some time to get going. I'm not sure I'd want the snark and the details of teenage life to be slimmed down, though, because they're the best thing about this book.
That, and its quirkiness, make me give this book a thumbs-up, even if it feels as if the otherworldly aspects don't quite make their mark.
AI Rating: 4/5
Horn-Horn is available on Amazon here.

Friday, 7 July 2017

PREVIEW: Murder Most Mundane, a glimpse into the dark heart of the English countryside



Leo McBride takes a look at the preview pages of Murder Most Mundane - a gruesome tale of murder most horrid in the English countryside...



Murder Most Mundane is the latest project from Mad Robot Comics – and while I’ve only had a preview so far, there’s nothing mundane about it. 
Rather, this is about the seething, skin-crawling nature of what goes on underneath the mundane. There’s murder, of course, but even from the preview, it’s clear there’s more going on here. It’s Midsomer writ with grand guignol, it’s the collision of Ealing and Hammer studios. 



It starts with a big city detective bored in his new post in a quiet village – a sure tip of the hat to Hot Fuzz – but things unravel. It’s not just the murder, it’s the villagers. There’s something eerie about their reactions, and there’s clearly more going on. It’s not just scratching away the surface, it feels like it’s scrabbling at the surface with twisted, broken fingernails, trying desperately to reveal… well, I guess we’ll find out what gets revealed when the full project is out there. 



I look forward to it – it has the same kind of feel of the old Village of the Damned movie, that eerie Wolf Rilla version from 1960, or perhaps something with a dash of Quatermass. That’s the joy of a preview – you never know quite which way it’s going to go. But I’m tantalized! Bring it on.


The Kickstarter launch event is being held on Tuesday, July 11. I'll doubtless be there to chat with the Mad Robot crew, and as it's all being held on Facebook, so can you be. Stop by and say hello, and see if you fancy popping a few notes into the Kickstarter jar.

The event is here.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Seeds of Hatred, by Christian Nadeau; Dead Ends, by Ken Newman; Zin's Wild Ride, by Lyra Shanti


Seeds of Hatred, by Christian Nadeau

You know, there's a real love and care that's been put into the creation of this book. From the cover, with its beautifully balanced image that draws you in, through the characters who could have just sauntered in from a Fritz Leiber or Katherine Kurtz tale, you can tell the amount of effort the author has put into the book's creation.
The story itself tells the tale of a war between the Lightbringers and Darkbringers - opposing sides often treated as myth until their conflict bursts brutishly into reality.
It's a world of assassins and mercenaries, of magic wielders and shades, most often just trying to stay alive as the protagonists move from urban landscapes to seagoing adventures and more.
The focus is perhaps sometimes a little too wide, but when we catch up with the adventures of the sword-for-hire Marac or the refugee Lightbringer Alex, the story really takes off, bustling with verve and flair.
All told, I'm delighted to have discovered Christian Nadeau's work - this is the kind of carefully crafted world that evokes the spirit of classic old-school fantasy. I look forward to more!

AI Rating: 4/5

Seeds of Hatred is available on Amazon here.


Dead Ends, by Ken Newman

There are certain rules, they say, when it comes to writing. And by golly if Ken Newman doesn't break most of those over one knee and laugh while doing so.
Dead Ends is a sci-fi romp where science often takes a back seat to buccaneering and where the plot veers around like a spaceship piloted by Zaphod Beeblebrox wearing his sunglasses in the presence of danger. And yet it works.
A reject battle cruiser gets a last-minute reprieve to be used for an experiment involving a black hole as a power source. It's a massive thing, kilometres in length. Oh... and it's haunted.
Once the crew-to-be overcomes hurdles such as an alarming inability to retain one's clothes in the company of the opposite sex, off they go to the stars, where somewhere along the way they will face ferocious alien invaders, deceit and betrayal and... possibly angels? And where there are angels, there are of course demons.
It's not as straightforward as all that - Newman has his very own spin on such matters, and the detours he takes the reader on are often unpredictable but always enjoyable.
It's a bonkers space opera - and all the better for that.

AI Rating: 4/5

Dead Ends is available on Amazon here.


Zin's Wild Ride: A Shiva XIV Story, by Lyra Shanti

I've been looking forward to reading Lyra Shanti's work - her Shiva novels are on my Kindle awaiting an opening, but I stole a march to read this short story set in the same universe.
It truly is a short piece, you'll zip through this on a coffee break, but it's a nice little dip of the toe into the Shiva setting.
I won't give too much away about the story - suffice to say an eight-year-old prince is about to learn a lesson when going on the wild ride of the title. But it's fun, the author writes with zip and enthusiasm, and it makes you want to know more.
I suspect I'll come back to read this after the novels again, when it'll feel more like a DVD extra to the series - but as an introduction to the world goes, it's a fun read that reads like a fable in the midst of the sci-fi landscape.

AI Rating: 4/5

Zin's Wild Ride is available on Amazon here.