Sunday, 22 May 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Sebastian: The Life of Sebastian and Hanna Greene by Elizabeth Johnson

Sebastian: The Life of Sebastian and Hanna Greene
By Elizabeth Johnson

Patience is so seldom asked for in a new novel that it's a pleasure to read a book that positively demands it if you are going to make the most of it.

Sebastian is a vampire. Turned by his own mother and then forced to live for centuries as an eternal teenager, he turns to bloodlust in revenge for her killing. That bloodlust comes to a sudden and unexpected halt as he stands over one of his victims and discovers the baby she was carrying in a bag. This is Hanna Greene. From this moment, Sebastian instantly rejects the cravings for blood that have turned him into a monster and becomes, by turns, first Hanna's protector, her guardian and then, her love.

I found this latter aspect creepy, and difficult to deal with - from an almost parental position, he falls in love with her and that comes too close to grooming to be comfortable with. But should it be comfortable? The most successful vampire film of recent times, certainly artistically, was Let The Right One In, whose child vampire, Eli, simmers with discomfort in every aspect. I can barely watch the movie a second time, and yet, if someone asks me, I will tell them every time that it is brilliant.

What matters here in Sebastian is that Hanna is no pushover. Without spoiling the story, she is a powerful character in her own right, both in ability and in her personality. That's vital, because she faces real dangers, with Sebastian not the only part of the supernatural world drawn towards her. She's smart, picking up on clues as to what is going on around her, and she carries secrets of her own as she seeks to find out who she is, leading to a crucial decision that, for the patient reader who has borne through sections that may have scritch-scratched at the inside of their heads, provides validation at last.

So be patient when you pick up this book. Be patient as you work your way through the hefty opening as Sebastian recounts his history - the real action of the novel doesn't get going until after Hanna's first appearance more than 100 pages in, and for much of that opening, Sebastian comes across as a petulant brat. Be patient as you wrestle with the difficulty of the central relationship. Be patient, and trust that the author will deliver in the end.

AI rating: 3.5/5, rounded to 4

Sebastian, The Life of Sebastian and Hanna Greene, is available on Amazon here. Its sequel, Sebastian 2: Dark Times Arising, has been out for about a month and is available here.

Monday, 16 May 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Notes From A Very Small Island, by Anthony Stancomb

There's a gentle charm to Anthony Stancomb's Notes From A Very Small Island. The book charts the experiences of the author and his wife, Ivana, on the island of Vis, in Croatia, touching on the changes in the wake of the war there and ahead of the country's accession to the EU. Politics is, without doubt, a key part of the novel, but only in the sense in which it touches on the life around Stancomb. For the author is a keen observer of the daily details of life, from the fear that comes with shelling by artillery to the mellow pleasantness of life around the cricket pitch.

Stancomb paints the lives of those around him in warmth and detail, from the radio host to the frustrated delivery man, the crowd at the bar who welcome a fellow drinker to the politicos who are wary of foreigners. What emerges is a series of vignettes, each illustrating some part of the couple's life on the island of Vis.

Amiable and delightful, it lights up the Mediterranean landscape in which they live, showing the real life and detail that sits behind the picturesque facade. This is one of those books that would reward not so much sitting down in a single sitting to read through it, but simply having on hand to delve into for a chapter now and then in the manner of a James Herriot book. It's a travelogue to illustrate the quirks of discovering the ways of life in a new world - and one to bring many a smile while reading.

AI Rating: 4/5

Friday, 13 May 2016

FREE STORY: The Last Post, by Leo McBride

Blog host Leo McBride has a message for you. A slice of flash fiction. Are you ready? Then prepare for...

The Last Post
By Leo McBride

THIS is the last message the human race will ever send.

Forgive my brevity, but I have just fifteen minutes to write what I want to say, 15 minutes to tell you what happened to the planet Earth. To tell you who we were.

For what it is worth, for these next few minutes, you should know I am General Adam Conlon. Of the few of us left alive, I am the one who saw it all, from the start, who watched as the  plague swept our land.

It began when we lost contact with Alaska. Not just one part of the state, but all of it. One minute, all communications were normal and the next, nothing. At the time, I was in Cheyenne Mountain, as we prepared to listen in on an experiment at Arnesil Energy Labs. It was there the virus originated.

At first, we didn’t know what had happened. There was shouting, mostly demanding of our communications section where the link had gone, but little concern. However, communications never returned and the next morning brought the first reports of the virus, of how it was spreading. Western Canada was the first affected, then Washington State. From there, it was unstoppable.

No-one will ever know for sure what happened in Alaska, why it lost contact so quickly. But we know what happened elsewhere, thanks to reports from those who resisted the virus long enough.

People lost control. Some could not command their limbs to function. Others became crazed, running wild through the streets, destroying everything. Animals were the same. In our bunker, we heard tales of people savaged by their own dogs while not even being able to raise a hand to protect themselves.

The madness seemed worst of all, millions of years of evolution wiped away, the cruel and the savage wreaking havoc while the helpless could only die. It didn’t matter. Sooner or later, the virus attacked even the ability to breathe, and life simply stopped.

Most of this we saw from afar. Finally, the order came to evacuate, to flee to the furthest point imaginable, to give us time to find a way to stop it, or maybe just get far enough away that it wouldn’t touch us. As if that was ever a hope.

In the end, there were just a few of us, huddled here in an Antarctic base, the last things alive in this world. All the people had gone, along with all the animals, even  the plants.

And we had been able to recognize the virus, watch as it started to take hold on ourselves, as some of those in the bunker became crazed. Some died quickly, at the hands of others, others simply faded away. The first to go was the president. He vowed the virus would never catch him, but it did, it just took a revolver and a suicide to do it.

Some prayed for a miracle, but we knew there was no defense. For this virus was unlike any other the world had ever seen, for it had been manufactured, created and cajoled from energies we did not truly understand.

The energy labs had been experimenting with electromagnetic forces, playing with patterns and trying to understand how they could be used as a weapon. For all life uses electric currents in some form or another. A synapse sends a spark of information from the brain, lets it fly throughout the body until it reaches an arm, a leg, commands it to move.

It was an hour ago I came to understand the purpose of all of this. You see, it wasn’t a mistake at all. No. This was the way things were meant to be. Life is an intruder. Life is the virus, worming its way into the universe. It was only fitting it came to be like this, wiped out by an antibody we never expected to encounter. We have been purified, we have been cleansed.

I had to bide my time before I could send this message. It took a day before I had the chance to kill those between me and the only transmitter within reach which could still broadcast outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

You see, the electromagnetic pattern can not only be spread by the natural magnetic field of a planet. It can also be transmitted. We isolated it. We know how to reproduce it. It is already part of this broadcast, freed to cleanse other worlds, not just our own.

This is the last message your kind will ever receive.

If by chance you survived the message, you can follow Leo McBride on Twitter, where he is @chippychatty.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

BOOK REVIEW: They Cried Wolf, by Rafael

They Cried Wolf, by Rafael

Throw out everything you know about werewolf stories, and strap in for a high-octane ride.

From a prologue that quickly establishes the ancient myth behind the werewolf story in this world, the reader is catapulted into a blockbuster scene as commandos board Air Force One in flight to discover its occupants butchered, and the US President dying, gasping out only one word to hint at who the killer was. It's a scene right out of Tom Clancy, but with a werewolf twist.

We then jump back in time to meet Diego Constance, code name Twenty, a werewolf hundreds of years old and a hired assassin in the service of successive US Presidents, from Andrew Jackson onwards.

And so the story propels us through a fast-paced series of events, as the killer becomes a target, and he starts to piece together a conspiracy of almost apocalyptic proportions, with a killer bacteria sweeping across the United States and bringing society to the edge of destruction.

This is the second novel I've read by Rafael, and he sure knows how to put together his action - there's barely a moment's pause as the werewolf kills his way towards the top as he hunts down his ultimate prey.

Along the way, he is aided by the last surviving relative of a family that has long served him, and the brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Elena Norwich. These last two perhaps don't feature as much as you might think - largely sitting on the sidelines as Twenty's bid for revenge takes centre stage. I'll confess I'd hoped for a bit more from each of these in the story, it felt like we spent time with each character only for their own story not to get going - but that's really the only criticism I have for this tale.

The body count is high, and yet you stay on the side of the werewolf protagonist, even as you may be appalled by the horrific actions he commits along the way. It feels like a big action movie playing out in front of you - so grab your book, some popcorn and enjoy!

AI Rating: 5/5

Dealing with bad reviews as an author

It happens sooner or later to every author - the bad review. The criticism that stings you, the comment that keeps your eyes open and your brain ticking at two in the morning when you should be sleeping.

And you know what? That's a good thing.

I'm still very early in my writing career - with barely double figures in terms of stories published so far, and thankfully what I've written so far seems to have been very well received.

One recent review chided my most recently published story for not having characters that the reader could care about but... you know what? That's ok.

Years ago, I started to play a great board game called Go. An ancient game - there's a picture of it at the top of the page - full of strategy. I started playing against my old psychology teacher (yes, that's how many years ago) and he was merciless. He'd been playing for years and had no compunctions about inflicting a massacre here and there. And you know what? That made me learn. Before too long, I was taking him on at equal measure - and I thanked him for both introducing me to a game I still love today, and for teaching me without going easy on me.

Because I'm still learning in my writing, sometimes a not-so-great review is just as useful to me as a positive one. Don't get me wrong - I turn cartwheels every time someone says positive things about a story. I may even have kissed a screen once. And I liked it. Just... don't try that with plasma screens.

But sometimes a criticism can make you reconsider what you've done and whether you should perhaps have done things differently. That review that didn't think my characters were well enough developed in that short story? That's the kind of thing that can make you sit down and properly ask what you might have done differently, whether the balance was right in carrying on with the action or cranking it back to get the reader to know your characters a little more. Reviews that make you think, that make you assess your writing, that give you the opportunity to learn and develop - those are golden.

Here's the crucial element, though, and I say this as someone who has been a reviewer for more than 20 years professionally. The next six words are crucially important: A reviewer is not always right.

This may seem nonsense, right? A reviewer's taken the time to review something and now you're telling them they are wrong? Well, no, not saying any reviewer is wrong - in fact, I feel I should repeat that bit in caps lock and with flashing lights around it just to be sure. The review they give is absolutely reflective of the experience they have had with the book. However, some pointers are worth taking on board, others aren't.

Let me give an example - recently, I reviewed a book that had a remarkable amount of sex scenes. Frankly, it was hard to imagine how the characters ever got anything done with all the sex they were having. Now, I could easily have written a review saying "Far too many sex scenes!". However, that was clearly the point of the book - exploring a sexual relationship in the context of the society it portrayed. If I wrote that there was too much sex, should the author react by toning down what she wrote? Not at all - she wrote what suited her novel.

The essence of what to take away from criticism is that you should weigh it in your head, keep what is useful and let go of what is not. In fact, the exact same thing you should do with praise.

To paraphrase a line from Kipling, meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.

But one thing that one should never ever do... never argue with the reviewer! They've devoted time to giving their opinion. Even if you disagree with their opinion, thank them, then move on. Arguing will never, ever end well...

Monday, 2 May 2016

Talking cover and game design with Ricardo Victoria

We welcome regular visitor and guest blogger Ricardo Victoria for a Q&A. He's been by before of course but this time around we're focusing on his design work.

Welcome back, Ricardo – now, this time around we're talking design. You have a background in sustainable design – which first time you told me, I had no clue what that was. Give us the quick over-cocktails-and-chat version of what that means.

Ah, you open with tough questions already, considering that there isn’t even a consensus of what design is: is it art, engineering or a mix between them? I would say, drawing from my personal experience as academic and designer, that design is the action of solving a need through the creation of an object, be it a poster, a cover, a car, a catscan or a building, in order to improve the lives of people. I think that Dieter Rams, former head of design of Braun gives a better summary of what is design and what should be when he talks about his ten principles for good design (

Now, sustainable design would be the act of solving those needs through an object, framed within the sustainability context. In sustainability, a word that sadly has become a buzzword in inexperienced hands but must remain german for the future of the planet and human civilization, there is something called the ‘triple bottom line’. That ‘triple bottom line’ is three spheres of basic action and effect that surround any human activity: ecology, society and economy. Only through the balancing on each of these spheres, with mindful decision making, can we talk that something is sustainable. If you want a better definition of what is sustainability, look up at the Brundtland report, which provides the most agreed upon definition of what sustainability is: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Thus, sustainable design would be the act of solving needs through objects or systems that are mindful of current and future needs with a minimum negative impact on the environment and generating positive societal change whilst at the same time helping the people behind that solution to generate enough revenue to keep doing so. There is more technical aspect to it, but this would be a primer. If any of our readers want to know more on the topic, I can’t recommend enough a book called ‘Design by Sustainability’, by Drs. Tracy Bhamra and Vicky Lofthouse at Loughborough University. It’s the book I use for my lectures and was written by my PhD supervisors. (Incidentally, I did the illustrations for the first edition).

I personally believe that sustainable design IS the future of my field and should be implicit in any design we make.

What project have you worked on in that field that gave you the most satisfaction?

To be honest, until a few months ago, I haven’t been in charge of my own project, rather just collaborating with others. While those projects carried out at Loughborough University were great, the ones here at my day job haven’t been particularly exciting. Thus now that I’m in charge of my own project, one where I’m putting one of my hobbies, board games, together with my field of study, it feels more rewarding. Teaching sustainability through board games is fun and intellectually rewarding.

That said, I have certain fondness for my PhD project. Whilst I admit it wasn’t the best (maybe I’m being too critical of myself), I love it because it proved to my current employers at least that you can do and research sustainable design in Mexico.

Stepping on from there, you've moved into doing cover design work – having designed the covers for the Inklings Press books so far. Three of those are under your belt now – what have you learned as you've been making that move into being a cover designer?

That cover design is 30% inspiration and 70% hard, structured work. Most people think that cover design is easy: you just get an idea and put it together and voilá, a cover is done without regard to certain basic design principles. That’s why you end with horrid covers; mainly on some self-published books whose covers look like cheesy 90s video film covers. No offense, but my designer sensibilities hurt with them, so I apologise if I come across as a snob.

To do a good cover, you need to have a good sense of spatial and editorial composition, good use of colors, be aware of current design tendencies, know the content of the book so it can portray it as accurately and respectful as possible. A cover should hook the reader long enough so they can read the blurbs on the back and then give it a chance.

Knowing how to use the basic software, such as Photoshop, is essential as well, especially when you are editing an image.

But there is a rule that applies to any design, including cover design that anyone wanting to enter the field should remember: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The more elements you add, the more garish and cheap will look. And that is a killer for your book hopes.

Do you have a favourite of the three covers? I'll confess I like Tales From The Mists most of the three, with the merging of the face with the trees, think it's very sinister. If you do have a favourite, what makes it stand out to you?

You are making me choose between my children, you monster. I think Tales of the Universe is my favorite right now because it looks like a good cover should look and gives you a decent idea of the content inside the book. It’s clear and allows reading the name of the authors and the image is just inspiring. Just a side note, as I saw that mentioned on some reviews: I did not draw the art used in the cover (I’m a lousy illustrator, as Herc’s portrait shows). I got the image from a website that offers free for commercial use images and as such is a Creative Commons object. I don’t like to claim work that is not mine. I did design the layout and aesthetical composition of the cover.

Are you planning to branch out and do more cover design work?

It wasn’t on my original plans but sure, it’s being considered. It allows me to stretch my designer's muscles (albeit I’m a product designer, I like graphic design as well and have taken courses on the subject. And my wife, a graphic designer with editorial and publishing background, keeps teaching me how to do it). I do it for the art, man.

Does this kind of work vary substantially from the sustainable design work – do you exercise different creative muscles?

The core muscles are the same, creativity, design layout work and inspiration. However the external muscles vary. With cover design, I get to explore my aesthetical sensibilities and experiment, it offers me more freedom. My work on sustainable design tends to be more academic and thus a tad rigid in terms of methodology and results showcasing.

You also have your eyes set on game design, I understand – what's your gaming background?

As a gamer, I started with D&D 3rd Edition and Magic when I was in school. When I went to Loughborough for my PhD, I joined the Game Society (back then it was RAWS) and thus I was introduced to a plethora of games by the people there. It was there where I met Matt (of Save Sekhmet fame), playing with him Bureau 13, Exalted and Big Eyes, Small Mouth. I also started playing Legend of Five Rings, several board games courtesy of a friend named Jules (he is one lab accident from becoming Dr Doom), who also introduced me to one of my passions: Heroclix. That game did wonders for my math abilities, my strategic thinking and also allowed me to meet Stephen (who beat me graciously on several occasions and even gave me free figures) and Brent (who as a good American, never wins graciously, is a sore loser and still owes me a rematch, the bugger). Right now I play with my wife and my high school friends the occasional game, including but not limited to Carcassone, King of Tokyo, Flashpoint and I’m trying my hand at Arkham Horror (once I decipher the rules).

Ricardo, at the right of the gaming table, in action playing Heroclix at a competitive tournament

A game designer, well that’s another matter. I started designing board games during my first year at my undergrad, with an educational collectible card game (I did everything, from rules to illustrations under a week for 60 cards). I also designed a tridimensional, 360° tic tac toe out of recycled cardboard and a miniature game based in Mexican mythology. That game's a funny story, the teacher of that course thought my original ideas were crap and forced me to make changes to his liking (which is crap and he is a lousy designer to boot), despite the fact that my research showed otherwise. Cue a year later, I’m in the UK and I found that Wizards of the Coast released a miniature game with similar ideas to mine. I didn’t get angry, on the contrary, I felt vindicated as it showed me that I was on the right track.

Later in the UK, once I got tired of the competitive scene of Heroclix, I got the chance to became a playtester for Wizkids and got to work with a couple of sets, including Monster & Mutations (that rookie Jean Grey First Class with quake as power was a change suggested by Jules and myself) and Arkham Asylum. That allowed me to learn a lot of the playtest process for any game as well as peek behind the design choices for rules and mechanics that most player overlook or complain about. Trust me, it is not easy to balance a figure, even less almost a hundred. But I love the challenge. Right now I’m reading a lot of books on game theory, game design and world building.

The Jean Grey figure from the Monsters and Mutations set that Ricardo helped to playtest.

What was the first game of that nature you remember playing? For me, it was original D&D.

D&D 3rd edition, Magic and a similar game called Animayhem, where you used ADV and Manga licensed characters from the 90s to play. I always used Goku.

And what do you want to do in terms of game design?

Games that are fun, easy to play with high replay value, with streamlined rules and when possible, versatile. And if they can be used to teach something, well, I will consider it a good job. I also dream of creating my own RPG core system mechanics and maybe a miniature game.

What makes your game design different from others on the market?

The topic. So far, there are only two games that tackle directly the sustainability-related issues, CO2 and an new Kickstarter called ThinIce, which I really want to buy.

How do you begin to design a game? What are the building blocks?

You need a core concept, an idea that can be developed into a game. Then you need to start working and tinkering with game mechanics, rules and playtesting. Forget the fancy models and coloured printouts. That’s the last part to do. First, focus on the game mechanics, which is the main objective of your game, how the players will achieve it. Matt Forbeck, on the Kobold Guide to Boardgame design, says that: “[Game name] is a [category of] game in which [the players or their avatars] [do or compete for something] by [using tools the game provides them]” Without that, you don’t have a game.

You need to consider which type of game you want. José P Zagalin, in his paper Collaborative games: Lessons learned from board games, published in Simulation & Gaming, offers this classification:
  • Competitive games: Those that require developing a strategy opposing the actions of the other players in order to win. They range from the simpler,  such as Monopoly and Risk, to more complex games, such as Magic the Gathering.
  • Co-operative games: Those that while allow only for a winner, they require that players have at some stage of the game objectives that are compatible or allow for trade and alliances, even if is only for a round. Usually these games have a developed ‘economy’ system that allow for negotiation and resource management. A good example of this kind is Settlers of Catan.
  • Collaborative games: Often seen in horror-themed games, these require that all players agree in coordinating common strategies to win, since the rival is a ‘virtual’ foe (or in some cases a single player opposing the rest in a different role). Either all of them win or lose (albeit some games allow for acceptable ‘losses’). Examples are: Shadow of Cthulhu, Mansions of Madness and Fury of Dracula.
But the most important thing you need is to have fun. To love fun so you can design games that is fun for others. No one wants to spend 30 minutes of their lives with a boring game, or a random one (I’m looking at you, Monopoly). Fun is the key word here to develop the mechanics. The looks and name are just mere window dressing.

Are there any games you've played where you look at them and think there's a fundamental mistake in their design that you think undermined them? You don't have to name names if you don't want to offend but how did that misstep affect the game?

There are a couple that could do a better job in streamlining the rules, instead of offering you a massive rulebook. I get that due to the topic of the game such precision is needed, but it kinda detracts from the experience and have scared many of my regular players. Alei Kotdaishura is great with board games and she helps me to set them up and she has struggled with those games too, so it’s not just me. Also I hate, but that is a personal pet peeve, games where players have to invest hefty amounts of money just to be midly competitive and don’t be trounced by min maxers. I get that is a common risk in collectible games as well as the source of revenue, but it really grates me as you end with a smug elite that kill the fun for new players. Brent and Stephen know what I’m talking about as they suffered it as well during our tournament days, Stephen less so since he is a great player. (Editor's note: I hear Stephen uses hypnotism to win)

Any other projects that you have worked on that stand out?

Inklings Press, of course.

Thanks for sharing that different strand to your life, Ricardo – now, we haven't had a Q&A with you this year, so we get to ask our regular closing question. What are you reading currently, and what's the best book you've read this year?

Right now I´m reading Darth Plagueis by James Luceno, who i think is a great author. I haven't read many new books this year, mostly rereading a few ones to get inspired for my novel. That said, the newest book I read that I enjoyed thoroughly was Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

Ricardo, many thanks!

Saturday, 30 April 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Heckler's Storm by Karl Whiting

Heckler's Storm
By Karl Whiting

A baseball field doesn't seem the natural home for a horror story - the bright sunshine, the innocent simplicity of the game itself... and yet, here we have Heckler's Storm, and if the hairs on the back of your neck don't prickle through this, I'll be surprised.

Karl Whiting takes a simple piece of American life, and twists it around into something creepy. Craig is a shortstop who is failing, struggling to keep his career going in the minor leagues. He knows he's not been good enough, and that air of desperate failure gnaws at the inside of his mind. One hot afternoon, with his cap missing and sweat curdling on the back of his neck, he frets and fears about everything. Then, as he steps up to bat, he hears it. A heckler's voice. A disturbing voice that cuts through the regular noise and hubbub of the crowd and tells him that he is blighted. That his team is blighted.

Before long, bad things start to happen. His J Jonah Jameson of a team boss seems ill, then worse - injuries... deaths even, maybe. Are they real or is Craig losing his mind? Will the blight affect more than his team - will it reach his home, and his beloved wife? And all the while, he keeps hearing the heckler's voice, taunting him, warning him...

Told entirely from Craig's perspective, it's hard to tell what is real and what is imagined in this feverish little tale of a sportsman whose career is on the slide. But from start to finish, Whiting keeps the pressure on, keeps you wondering where it's all going to end. Even when that end comes, it leaves you asking questions, asking how would the rest of the world have seen the same incidents.

It's a short tale - under 20,000 words, but ignore the word count, and enjoy - as Whiting hits a home run.

AI rating: 5/5

Heckler's Storm is available on Amazon here