Twitter followers as The Emperor’s New Clothes

Before I get into the meat of my post, here’s a full disclosure: I have considerably fewer followers on Twitter than the threshold quoted below, so read on with however big a pinch of salt you deem necessary!

Rob Hart recently wrote a great article over on LitReactor about the enormous tidal wave of spam generated by self-publishing authors desperate to shine a light on their books. (Link: http://litreactor.com/columns/this-is-the-single-biggest-mistake-indie-authors-make-while-promoting-their-work-and-it-ne-0 ) As someone who has largely resisted the tactic, and having witnessed a few interesting genre fiction related groups on Facebook sadly spammed into oblivion, Rob’s rant really struck a chord with me. There was one small part near the end I took issue with, however, which I’ve emboldened below:

And don’t take advice from anyone who has less than 1,500 followers on Twitter (or if the number of people they follow outnumbers the number of people who follow them back).”

It’s not necessarily the arbitrary number quoted above I have a problem with. It’s the idea that follower counts are deemed a reliable indicator of what is really going on in Twitter.

Twitter, yesterday

Twitter, yesterday

Now, unless I have missed a briefing or two (which is possible – I’ve dramatically dialled down my exposure to social media in light of the many, many, many, many, manymanymanymany screaming outrages that used to flare up every half an hour), I was under the impression that everyone on Twitter was fully aware of the following nugget of wisdom, and so it feels like I’m about to tell everybody that water is a bit soggy, but here goes.

Follower counts are unreliable. Simple. As. That.

No, really. You’ll find more truth in Zimbabwe’s election results. It therefore irks me when I see credence attached to that little number on the screen, and, stepping away from Rob’s post, it really grinds my gears when the maintenance of said high-score is posited as a crucial means of getting on in the publishing world. You see this bullshit confidently spun from a hundred and one self-proclaimed “experts” who profess telling the same to that creative writing class they all seem to teach. Questions asked of agents and publishers often concern the size and reach of a prospective author’s social media presence, as if its importance trumps the quality of the story they’re trying to sell. (The answer is always the same, by the way: “It’s only ever about the story, kiddo.”) Then, at the extreme end of the scale, there’s the idiotic “game-ification” of Twitter. For example, my latest follower’s bio brazenly offers me 5,000 Twitter followers for $29. Ooh, yes please. I can then strike “Tweeting to a shitload of bots” off my bucket list.

Even when you discount the bots, however, follower counts are about as reliable as a politician’s promise. How so? Well, before I get to that, let’s consider a famous example of Twitter in action, being Stephen Fry’s account. At the time of writing this, he is currently being followed by nearly 7,000,000 accounts, and is himself following a staggering 51,500 accounts.

Now, as any Twittererer will know, following a mere 100 accounts is enough to clog up anyone’s timeline. (Some people seem to have a twitchy trigger finger on that old “Retweet” button.) Therefore how on earth can anyone keep abreast of 51,500 accounts? The simple answer is, of course, that they don’t.

They use lists.

For the uninitiated, lists allow you to bunch Twitter accounts into categories for easy perusal. For example, I have separate lists for friends and family, authors and writers, professionals within the publishing industry, and so on. Lists can be visible to the public, or kept for private use. (All of mine are private.)

Now here’s an uncomfortable truth that might see me lose a couple of my scarce few followers. I only ever view Twitter through my lists. I never, ever look at my timeline, and I’d be utterly staggered if I’m in the minority in doing so. So, in short, having someone follow you, or counter-follow you, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll ever see anything you tweet, and thus the value of that follower count is weakened.

But there’s more. Amazingly, adding a Twitter account to a list does not make you a follower of that account. They do not show up in your “following” count, nor do you show up in their “followers” count. I recently made some off the cuff remark about One Direction which then saw me automatically added to some public “One Direction Fans” list. (I’m sorry, New Kids On The Block, they mean nothing to me, honest!) Needless to say my follower count didn’t tick higher and I cried on the toilet for days as a result.

So there you have it, folks. The next time you see anyone attach significance to the number of people following their every word, be sure to sound that bullshit buzzer long and hard at them. I’ll be sure to do the same.

Laters, ‘taters.

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Review – The Year of the Ladybird

NOTE: This book will be released in the US later in the year under the title “The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit”

In “The Year of the Ladybird” we follow a student called David as he takes a job at a seaside holiday resort in Skegness, Lincolnshire, during what was to become the hottest summer on record. It’s 1976, the paint is peeling off the economy and nationalism is beginning to take a hold in the less well-off areas of the country. Once at the resort David finds an industry in decline thanks to the wide availability of cheap package holidays overseas.

David’s parents are disappointed by his choice of employment to say the least. His stepfather is most put out, having gone to some lengths to create an opening within his building company. His mother is deeply upset because David is returning to the scene of his father’s death – something that happened when David was just a toddler. But still David came. It just felt like the right place to be.

Pretty soon David settles into his assorted roles throughout the park, getting to know his fellow Greencoats and the other members of staff in the process, including resident nutjob, Colin, and his wife, Terri. David’s life becomes tangled when he finds himself drawn to Terri, a woman in thrall of Colin. More worrying for David is that Colin seems to have taken a shine to him.

Things take a turn for the bizarre when David catches occasional glimpses of a father and his young son. The father is wearing a dark suit wholly unsuited to the hot weather and carries what looks like a loop of rope over his shoulder. His young son waves to David, as if eager to join in the activities he’s supervising. A second look, however, and the pair are gone.

As the summer progresses the temperature rises, tensions mount between the staff, and the number of ladybirds flying about the place creeps ever higher.

Okay, bear with me, folks. There’s a point to be made here, honest.

There are some people in the world who are so ridiculously good at what they do that it often appears effortless. Consider the brilliant vocals of both Paul Rodgers and Bill Withers, for example. Listen to “My Brother Jake” or “Grandma’s Hands” and you could be fooled into thinking those bluesy, laid-back vocals are easy. That is, of course, until you try singing them yourself. Reality then crashes in and you find yourself standing in a karaoke bar hollering at a bunch of drunk businessmen. Or something.

The same can be said of writing. Pick up a novel and you may be tempted to say “I could have written that”. But you would be wrong. Ignore plot, characters and the setting for a moment and consider something just as important: style. It’s the secret ingredient that stops a story going in like a diesel daiquiri. The smoother the style, the easier the read and the better chance a story has to take root.

“The Year of the Ladybird” represents some of the best writing I’ve read in a long, long time, and for me the key lies in it’s uncomplicated style. Not once was I fighting against unnecessarily verbose sentences. I never longed for the end of a dreary paragraph. Each and every scene in the book was timed to perfection, never once outstaying its welcome. I can usually gauge how well a novel has grabbed my attention by how often I find my eyes drifting towards the page numbers. Within the space of two train journeys I had glanced at the page number twice: each time to pop in a bookmark, and each time I was surprised at how much of the story I’d yomped through.

Not only do we find a beautifully-written story in “The Year of the Ladybird” but we also have some excellent and truly memorable characters. David’s roommate, Nobby, Manchester’s finest motormouth, is a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. Nikki, with whom David frequently finds himself paired, is a wonderful and sympathetic character who tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. The best of the bunch, however, is Colin: a truly terrifying man dripping with malice and barely-suppressed violence. He’s like a coiled spring that has been filed down to a razor’s edge and you can feel your stomach lurch whenever he makes his presence felt.

Another thing that impressed me was the restraint shown throughout the story. The creeping nationalism of the time (something that sadly seems to be making a comeback) could have been easily overplayed. Not so here. There’s no drum-banging or chest-beating, just the characters behaving in exactly the way you would have expected back in the day, and so the intelligence of the reader is treated with a great deal of respect.

The downside of this, if there is one, is that David can sometimes come across as a little too naive. There are a few times you think to yourself “I wouldn’t have done that.” When David questions his actions you wonder if there is a hint of authorial voice there.

But this is a minor gripe against an overwhelmingly excellent novel and one I would recommend you snap up immediately. I’m almost ashamed to say this is the first and only novel by Graham Joyce that I’ve read. It’s a situation I hope to rectify soon.

5/5

Review – NOS4R2

NOS4R2 is Joe Hill’s third novel, following “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Horns”, the latter of which has been recently made into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe.

In NOS4R2 we are introduced to a young girl by the name of Vic McQueen. She’s beginning to twig that her parents aren’t exactly getting along. When her mother loses a cherished bracelet Vic sets out to find it before all hell can break loose. She happens across a covered bridge suspended over the Merrimack River. The trouble is the bridge shouldn’t be there. Upon crossing it she is amazed to find herself at a diner they had all visited earlier in the day, wherein she finds said bracelet. She has discovered a magical bridge that can take her between lost and found, and, crucially, it belongs only to her.

Unfortunately, Vic’s use of the bridge sustains a painful toll upon her in the shape of agonising headaches. As Vic grows up the trips she takes across the bridge become less frequent, but when she learns of an evil fellow called Charlie Manx doing the rounds in his similarly magical 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith, complete with NOS4R2 number plates, her interest is piqued. When she storms from the family home following a blazing row with her mother and heads out looking for trouble you can guess where her bridge offers to takes her.

All the while Charlie Manx is on a mission to save the souls of assorted children he claims are under threat. He does this by whisking them away to a place called Christmasland, where every morning is Christmas morning and all the kids get to play such delightful games as “Scissors For The Drifter”. What his sleazy right-hand man, Bing, does with the adults is often left up to Bing himself. Needless to say it never ends well.

When Vic finds the trouble she was looking for, and succeeds in getting Manx locked away, a bitter vendetta is born. As time goes on, Vic finds herself paying a heavy price indeed…

So let’s talk some NOS4R2 (or NOS4A2 as it’s known in the US. A2, R2, potato, pota-too, let’s call the whole thing off…)

Moving on.

The more I read Joe Hill’s work, the more I find a top-notch writer and a very talented storyteller. His work goes through more drafts than a conscientious objector and it really shows because NOS4R2 goes in without ever really touching the sides. (The story, that is, not the 700 page hardback. *Coughs*)

There is, of course, an inevitable temptation to wang on about him being a chip off the old block, but I’m not so sure this is accurate. There’s more than enough here to see Hill stand out on his own. For example, there’s a lot of invention in NOS4R2: some real put-the-book-down-and-utter-“you clever, clever bastard”-under-your-breath moments. I genuinely can’t recall ever doing that with a Stephen King tale. (That said, I’ve recently splurged on a whole lotta King recently to put that to the test.)

The main players of the story are all well-realised and are often brilliantly observed. The pacing, too, is just about perfect. No one scene ever outstays its welcome. We’re always trucking on, engrossed, to the rather bombastic finale.

In a book of this size, however, not everything is perfect. Initial drafts of NOS4R2 contained around a hundred pages of Charlie Manx’s backstory, for example, but these were eventually dropped from the novel. If I recall correctly, the reason behind this hefty excision was that Manx’s backstory risked softening his menace. Hill reasoned that in cutting away a monster’s history we know less about them as a person, and so the more fearsome they can become. By taking Manx’s story out of the novel, however, a noticeable imbalance develops. You get Vic McQueen’s backstory, and by virtue of that you get a decent snapshot of a number of supporting characters. You even get some backstory for Bing, Manx’s right-hand man. But the most you get about Manx’s past arises from a frank confessional he makes to one of his charges. (He says, tip-toeing around the spoilers.) When you consider Manx is taking said lad to Christmasland, and would otherwise be making upbeat promises of brightly-lit fairground rides and more candy canes to eat than those found in an Acme Candy Cane factory, said confessional had a feel of raw scar tissue about it.

The other gripes I had with the book were all fairly minor, and they were mainly little tics that I felt became overused. For example, several of the earlier chapters ended by leading into the title of the next. This was initially a neat touch, then became wearisome, then stopped altogether and then restarted again near the end. (I can’t for the life of me work out why!) Manx’s overuse of exclamation marks! Also! Gets! A bit much! After a while! The nods to geek culture and to his father’s universe risked bouncing me out of the story the more I picked up on them, and there were the occasional narrative asides to the reader I could have done without.

Anyway, like I said, these are minor gripes. NOS4R2 is a great read, and one that belies its length. I’m not the quickest reader around by a long chalk, but I tore through the final third in one sitting. The ghoul in me would have liked a little more story at the end, but that perhaps says more about me than the book.

Before finishing this review I’d also like to credit Gabriel Rodriguez’s excellent illustrations sprinkled throughout the book. It takes a really steady hand and a strong line to make something rather technical and geometric look so simple. Brilliant stuff.

This is the second of Hill’s novels I’ve read. It certainly won’t be the last.

4/5

Review – Cold Turkey

Disclaimer: This review is based upon an advance proof of Cold Turkey, provided by TTA Press.

Cold Turkey marks TTA Press’ third entry in their novella series and was written by Carole Johnstone, who has contributed a number of stories to TTA’s Black Static magazine over the years. In it we find the story of a primary school teacher called Raym and his increasingly bizarre battle to quit smoking.

We initially find Raym fretting over his health and dwelling on the recent deaths of his parents, both having succumbed to separate smoking-related illnesses. When he resolves to kick his own twenty-a-day habit for the umpteenth time he immediately finds his sleep plagued with bizarre, trippy nightmares where he is chased around a surreal landscape liberally populated with assorted sci-fi and horror icons of his youth.

But there is someone else in Raym’s dreams, a terrifying constant, a fragment of his childhood made manifest in a tall, spindly man dressed in a crooked top hat and tails. The man’s fingers are long and dancing, his mouth is “the idea of a sharp-toothed grin”, and his arrival is chillingly foreshadowed by jangling ice-cream van chimes. He is Top Hat, the tally van man.

When Top Hat starts leaking into the real world, Raym begins to fear for his sanity. The chimes stalk him through empty streets. He finds himself being chased all the way to the school doors on a morning. Worse still, he finds he’s starting to lose time: an hour here, an hour there. And all the while Top Hat keeps asking him, “Are you done with all this yet?”

As much as he would love to dismiss Top Hat as a mere hallucination, Raym fears the tally van man is real for he’s not the only one to have seen him. Some of the schoolchildren have seen him too…

Which gets us into the meat of Cold Turkey, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Those of you with sufficient stamina for my reviews will recall I was rather impressed with TTA Press’ previous novella release, Spin by Nina Allen. Does Cold Turkey continue this fine standard?

Nnnnnnnnearly…

It’s just those first twenty or so pages. I found them a little difficult to read in that sentences would veer off here and there, (sometimes spanning a couple of lines, housed within parentheses) sometimes via tangents that – and I’m only hypothesising here – were perhaps an attempt to convey a sense of the gossipy undercurrent that exists within every close-knit community… which I found jarring. A few times I was forced to backtrack and reread a passage to make sure I had it right.

(That said, I’m not the quickest reader on the planet. I tend to chew over the words as I read them. You might therefore find these early chapters an easier read.)

Happily, once beyond those initial chapters the story becomes a smoother ride and one well worth a read. While TTA’s previous novella, Spin, was a literary blend of science fiction and fantasy, Cold Turkey is a horror story through and through.

Raym’s parabolic glide between bleak sanity and potential madness is deftly handled and well-paced. This is frequently helped by a cast of well-drawn and often excellent secondary characters for Raym to riff against, chief among them Wendy, his long-suffering other half.

The grimness of Raym’s predicament is often leavened by some well-judged humour, particularly within a number of staff room scenes. (The caretaker, Lachlan’s, sweary turn at the Easter Fayre elicited a genuine belly laugh.) It all helps to keep those pages turning.

While Raym is not the most likeable central character in the world, he does have his moments. The way he tries to deflect a young pupil’s terror upon seeing Top Hat, despite his own fears, has you warming to him. (You could of course argue he should be doing this anyway, being a teacher.) The cunning he shows in twisting a bad situation to his advantage, specifically his missing hours, also had me nodding in appreciation, if perhaps not his… um… “extracurricular” reasons for doing so.

And then there’s the ending, one which I think will linger long in the mind. It’s powerful stuff indeed, going from the comically awful to the breathtakingly horrifying within the space of a few uneasy pages. I think I actually uttered “Holy shit!” under my breath while reading it. Great stuff!

Would I recommend Cold Turkey? Absolutely. Persevere with those first few chapters and you’ll be rewarded with an evening’s read of some mighty fine horror.

Just don’t sneak away for a nervous ciggie midway through…

4/5

Review – The Executioner’s Heart

I’ve been a fan of George Mann’s Newbury & Hobbes series for some years now. The stories are often fast-paced and exciting, with a lot more going on in the series’ steampunk universe than intricate clockwork automata and chuffing great engines. The central duo of Sir Maurice Newbury and Veronica Hobbes are often engaging and great fun (even if their mutual lusty restraint doesn’t exactly chime). The books are blessed with a well-drawn cast of supporting characters, from Newbury’s chum on the force, Charles Bainbridge, to the gross and cold-hearted Queen Victoria, for whom Newbury acts as agent.

I do find the series a little like the Indiana Jones movies, however, in that you get marvellous odd numbered books but wonky evens. “The Affinity Bridge” was a great start to the series. “The Osiris Ritual” was okay, but not as good as I’d hoped. “The Immorality Engine”, on the other hand, was flat-out brilliant.

As “The Executioner’s Heart” marks Newbury & Hobbes’ fourth novel-length adventure, you don’t need a crystal ball to get a gist of what’s coming.

It’s London, 1903, and we find an assassin at large; one whose calling card sees them ripping open the chests of their victims and removing their hearts. When Charles Bainbridge is called to the scene of a third victim he suspects a ritualistic edge to the crimes and so calls upon the expertise of a man he knows who lives and breathes the occult, Sir Maurice Newbury.

But all is not well with Newbury. When he’s not receiving death threats from thwarted occultists, megalomaniacs and all-round loony-tunes from his previous escapades, he’s being tasked by the Prince of Wales to root out rogue elements within the Empire that could spark a war. And when he’s not got that hanging over him, he’s using his considerable knowledge and willpower to root out the terrifying premonitions that have long afflicted Veronica’s younger sister, Amelia: a girl the Crown believes (and would prefer) to be dead.

As Amelia’s condition improves, so too does Sir Maurice’s deteriorate. When a particularly gruelling ritual from an ultra-rare (and stolen) book yields the chilling word “Executioner” scrawled over and over again in Newbury’s hand, Amelia has an awful feeling the message is a warning meant for Veronica.

Meanwhile Veronica is growing increasingly suspicious of Bainbridge’s new ally, Professor Archibald Angelchrist. What interest could the Secret Service possibly have in all of this?

So unfolds “The Executioner’s Heart”. It is, for me, the weakest book of the series. It’s still worth a read if you’ve already devoured the first three books, but don’t expect it to reach the giddy heights of “The Immorality Engine”.

The book takes a grave misstep right at the start when Veronica is killed. The story is then rewound to the start so we can follow the events leading up to her murder. Now, there is a device often used in TV shows called the “cold open”, where the show opens with a real WTF curve-ball that leads into the titles. The idea is to hook the viewer into watching more in the hope they will discover just what the hell happened back there at the start. Think of virtually any episode of The X-Files and you’re there. It is not a cold open, however, when you go on to repeat the same scene at the climax of the story and then make a small, yet significant difference to the outcome. What you have instead is a cheating, tenth-rate way of getting readers to the end of the book, and it really leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Then there’s the “investigation” part of this particular Newbury & Hobbes investigation. Essentially there isn’t one. If you take a step back from the story you soon realise the plot is flanneling along until Aldous Renwick, Newbury’s friend and rare book dealer, pulls out a dossier on the assassin and says “That’s the one.” It’s also fairly obvious who is hiring the assassin before reaching the half-way point.

Finally we come to typos. I have in the past dragged this book’s publisher, Titan Books, over the coals for their shoddy work on David Wong’s “This Book Is Full Of Spiders”. It’s therefore disappointing to also see some pretty calamitous typos in this book, including what appears to be one sentence pasted into the middle of another. Given the number of eyes cast over the manuscript, I’d dearly love to know how these things manage to slip by undetected. Seriously, Titan, I’m all ears.

So, yeah, I didn’t really get along with “The Executioner’s Heart”. Being a fan of the series as a whole I really wanted to like it, particularly when I learned there was somehow more to come after the jaw-dropping conclusion of “The Immorality Engine”. Maybe that’s it. I’m only theorising, but I’m wondering if Mann wrote Book Three feeling there would be no more to come, and went hell for leather with the plot as a result. (The first three novels were put out through a different publisher, Snowbooks.) “The Executioner’s Heart” also has the whiff of a reboot about it. Certain holy-shit moments from Book Three aren’t necessarily ignored, but they are dialled down in their importance in ways that don’t feel right, presumably to regain control over the plot. It’s like re-boxing a mess of uncoiled springs.

While the plot and the structure of the novel were a let-down, the novel is partly saved by its characters. They are all as engaging as ever, and do help keep those pages turning. Those who enjoyed the bloodthirstiness of the previous books will also be well served here.

Should you read “The Executioner’s Heart”? Yes, but only because it sets up “The Revenant Express”, book five in the series – an odd number lest you forget. Pray that Mann pulls it off because the next one sounds like a belter.

3/5

Review – The Chosen Seed

Note: this review for “The Chosen Seed” contains spoilers for “The Shadow of the Soul” and “A Matter of Blood”.

“The Chosen Seed” is the final book of Sarah Pinborough’s “Dog-Faced Gods” trilogy (also known as the “Forgotten Gods” trilogy in the US) and concludes the story of Detective Inspector Cassius Jones following the frantic conclusion of “The Shadow of the Soul”.

Dr Hask and DI Ramsay are hunting for the newest killer stalking London, one who is murdering people using the lethal Strain II virus, a stronger derivative of HIV. A dying victim recalls a clean-cut man in his early thirties saying to her “For this is the word of your God. Spread it.” Shortly afterwards she began to display symptoms.

Meanwhile Cass Jones is on the run following the murder of a man linked to the disappearance of his nephew, Luke, and also that of Adam Bradley (the real murderer). While his former colleagues, Hask and Ramsay, have a hard time accepting his guilt, Jones’ former partner, DS Armstrong, has no such concerns. He is hell-bent on bringing Jones to justice.

Jones lies low while his underworld contacts arrange a new identity for him, but his mind is alive with the mysterious Mr Bright, a man who has long pulled his strings and those of his family, and someone who most certainly knows what happened to Luke. Events take an unusual turn, however, when Jones’ murky undercover past comes back to haunt him.

All is not well within Mr Bright’s world and those of the Cohort – his fellow eternal, otherworldly beings. Not only do some find themselves dying, but now it appears an emissary has appeared, having seemingly come to Jones’ rescue at the end of the previous book. Her presence is a bad omen that suggests the imminent arrival of Him and the onset of the Rapture. At the same time the first of their kind has finally woken from his comatose state and is found to be in no fit state to lead the Cohort as hoped. He has woken an old man, meek and scared.

So here we have it, the final part of “The Dog-Faced Gods” trilogy, and while it’s better than “A Matter of Blood”, I didn’t find it quite as good as “The Shadow of the Soul”. The pages fly just as fast, the plot keeps on coming like a flood, the characters are just as good, and – yay! – there are no passwords being guessed, but… I don’t know… there were a few things that kept the book tantalisingly short of excellent.

For example, the underlying threat of revenge hanging over Jones and his undercover past, touched upon several times during the previous two books, comes to very little. Any bad blood is all too quickly forgotten. The brutal cruelty meted out to one of the characters (you’ll know when you get to it) also left a bad taste in the mouth. (The same could be said of Mr Craven’s exploits in the previous book.) Finally, and this is for me a minor point, when you take a step back from the trilogy and consider it as a whole you could be left wondering why no other religions were touched upon at all, though this was perhaps a conscious decision to keep an already huge story as lean as possible.

That said, there are some excellent scenes too. The finale is well worked, with a real sense of urgency and impending doom in the run-up. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough once it got going. The epilogue gives some real satisfying closure to the story. Yes, the story could be re-opened later down the line, but you at least feel there is no need to do so (i.e. there is no “Meanwhile at Camp Crystal…” bullshit to contend with at the end).

I think the faults I have with the trilogy mostly stem from the incredibly complex plot that spans all three books – nearly 1200 pages’ worth. Beneath the main plot threads touched upon in my reviews you will find a ton of subplots, incidents and secondary characters. Given all that, it is perhaps inevitable that some panel-beating would be required to fit it all in. Taken as a whole, I’d suggest not looking too hard at the few niggles that exist and tuck in, folks. There’s a lot of good stuff here to chew over.

The Dog-Faced Gods marked my first foray into Sarah Pinborough’s work. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to seek out “Mayhem”.

4/5

Wossy, WFC and the World Wide Wrath

“You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

At around 10:15am on Saturday 1st March 2014, LonCon3 announced that they had secured Jonathan Ross as toastmaster for this year’s Hugo Awards. Not only that but he’d do the gig for free, being a massive fan of the genre.

Six hours later he resigned the post following a barrage of criticism from numerous attendees threatening to hand in their tickets. Most of whom, it seemed, were deeply unhappy with his views on women. (The Sachsgate affair was pinballed from tweet to tweet along with a Daily Mirror piece listing his most controversial moments.)

Net result: the awards lost a name that could have helped boost exposure to genre fiction in the UK.

Personally, I’m fairly ambivalent about the man. What infuriates me, however, is the growing trend of a small yet immensely vocal minority screaming their views above those of the largely silent majority. It’s misrepresentative, destabilising and it’s getting flat-out ugly.

The internet has given the world the single-most important advance in the communication of ideas since the invention of the printing press. It has been instrumental in shining a light on areas that others would prefer to keep under wraps. Crucially, it has given a voice to anyone who can find an audience.

It riles me, therefore, when I see that voice used to harangue and bully other people and to stamp their thoughts, opinions and efforts into the dirt. Some are forgetting the power inherent in their words, or simply don’t care. Confirmation bias then further blinds them from alternative standpoints – if their peers and followers are also up in arms then they must be right, right?

What is often overlooked, however, is the view from the other side of the fence. That tidal shitwave of criticism quickly becomes overwhelming, like some Distributed Denial of Comeback attack.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. I saw this last year in the run-up to the World Fantasy Convention, the first to be held in the UK for 16 years. The flashpoint came when it transpired that the organisers hadn’t explicitly put in place an anti-harassment policy. Up until that point much of the grumbling online seemed to revolve around the event selling out well ahead of time and that some were eBaying their memberships for a profit.

Then all hell broke loose. Because anti-harassment policies had become the latest brickbat seized by the so-called “social justice warriors” (a pejorative term that only helped stoke the fires), the spotlight quickly fell on WFC 2013. The organisers (all volunteers) were soon lambasted left, right and centre across the Twitter feeds, Facebook profiles and blogs of everyone and anyone keen to throw in their 2p. Much of the criticism came from bloggers and authors who weren’t attending the event, where they could perhaps have backed-up their opinions face-to-face.

But matters did not end there. Soon a fire was lit under the lack of wheelchair access to the registration area. (Yes, this could have been handled better, but there were plenty of volunteers around to help and the registration area was a place you only needed to access once.) The panels themselves were next under the microscope, with a lot more scrutiny on panel parity and the names of said panels than the discussions themselves. Then the £5 charge for each Kaffeeklatsch was attacked as shameless profiteering. Each successive progress update was soon picked apart for passive-agressive soundbites, and so on and so on and so on.

The hysteria rose to such a degree that I began to wonder what the hell I’d let myself in for. This was going to be my first convention and the furore surrounding it was a country mile away from the relaxed atmosphere I was hoping to find. Furthermore, I dreaded to think how all of this heated comment (which often bordered on invective) would seem from the organisers’ point of view.

When I got to the event I found my hopes and fears confirmed. The convention was brilliant. It was everything I expected to find and so much more. Everywhere there were authors and industry professionals happily chatting away with anyone who wanted a word. But at the same time I learned how much of a toll the whole event and its run-up had placed upon the organisers. One likened the summer months to an echo chamber of non-stop criticism. The three years it had taken to organise the event meant nothing to those looking in from the outside.

As a result, WFC 2013 marked the last convention the organisers would put on. The strain of it all had exceeded the joy of hosting the event. Who knows when the next WFC (or WHC) will be hosted in the UK? Who in the UK would want to bid for an overwhelmingly US-based event if all they’re going to receive in return is criticism?

In short, thanks a bunch, internet. Shame on you.

Now we are seeing pitchforks and burning torches raised when a convention announces a toastmaster that doesn’t meet with universal appeal. The clamour from an indignant minority reaches fever pitch and forces someone out before the majority have a chance to weigh in and balance the discussion. There are nearly 6000 attendees for LonCon3. It is a convention that caters for science fiction across TV, film, video games and comics as well as fiction. It took a tiny percentage to affect a change that switched off a potentially huge spotlight on the Hugo’s in terms of potential UK readers. At this rate they’ll wind up with a cardboard-cutout of a beige, wholly inoffensive author few outside the genre could give a flying fuck about.

Sadly, I can offer no panacea for this social ill. Until the silent majority tells the immensely vocal minority to tone it down the doers of the world are either going to harden against the criticism (which won’t do anyone any good) or they are simply not going to bother (which is worse).

One final thought before I leave. I’m finding the growing trend of people cynically using their social media presence somewhat unedifying. 2013 was a cruel year for fiction, for example, in which we lost a significant number of popular names. Twitter feeds were filled with condolences from fellow authors on a regular basis, which was a nice gesture until several said “I never met him/her, but…” or, even worse, “I’ve not read any of their work, but…”

Hmm.

Towards the end of 2013, Channel 4 aired a TV programme in which Charlie Brooker listed his top 20 most important computer games of all time. Number one was Twitter. At the time I thought it was a smug cop-out, but ever since then I’m coming to the conclusion that he was spot-on. The me-too bandwagon-jumping and the collective outrage all seems like clickbait to help accrue followers and to gain exposure. (On a related topic, I’ll leave the deep suspicion with which I view some book blog retweets for another time.)

When you take a step back from the fire it all just seems a little bit suspicious, don’t you think?

LP

P.S. I am wholly aware of the irony of slamming social media outrage with a rant on social media. Don’t even start.

Review – The Shadow of the Soul

Note: This review contains spoilers for “A Matter of Blood” (albeit nothing you wouldn’t find in the blurb).

“The Shadow of the Soul” is book two of Sarah Pinborough’s “Dog-Faced Gods” trilogy (also known as the “Forgotten Gods” trilogy in the US) and continues the story of Detective Inspector Cassius Jones following the dramatic conclusion of “A Matter of Blood”.

Six months have passed since that climactic shootout, London is recovering from a string of recent severe bomb attacks, and Cass Jones is investigating a series of unusual student suicides, each linked by a single bizarre phrase: “Chaos in the darkness”. He has a new partner in tow that he can barely stand, his testimonies against fellow coppers attract suspicion and resentment from many of his colleagues, and he finds his messy private life and family history further entwined in the machinations of the mysterious Mr Bright and The Bank.

Specifically, it turns out that Luke, the nephew he had thought murdered, was not the biological son of his brother, Christian. A switch at birth had taken place, and one that Christian had grown to suspect. It does not take a giant leap of logic to suspect Mr Bright’s involvement, particularly when Cass finds the man in age-old family photographs looking not a day younger.

We are introduced to a new character, Abigail Porter, security operative for the Prime Minister. When CCTV footage reveals a large fat man in the vicinity immediately before each bomb blast in London, it becomes evident that they are seeing the same person each time, something that should not be impossible when the bombs were all detonated simultaneously. When Abigail spots the same figure in the crowd prior to an official engagement she chases him down into a tube station. He looks close to death and, when he touches her hand, her mind is filled with bizarre images and sensations. He leaves her with a single word, “Interventionist”, before hurling himself under a train with a big grin on his face.

Meanwhile a fear of death permeates the cohorts of The Bank. They are supposed to be eternal, otherworldly beings, and yet several of their number are finding their lifeforce, their “Glow”, on the wane. While Mr Bright is convinced it is all a state of mind – that they have simply grown tired of living for so long – the fear among the ranks is proving enough to stoke a rebellion. It is the last thing Mr Bright needs. The first of their kind remains comatose, and the way home across the Walkways is proving as elusive as ever.

For anyone who thought “A Matter of Blood” dragged a little (particularly in regard to Cass Jones’ home life) let me put your mind at rest. “The Shadow of the Soul” thunders along like a speeding freight train. With the (ahem) dead weight cut from Cass’ overarching story, the pages turn thick and fast, helped in no small part by a healthy dollop of Even More Plot. Yum!

Sometimes when completely new characters are crowbarred into established stories it can be quite jarring and off-putting. (I finally lost track of how big Tony Soprano’s extended family became by season six, for example.) While the temptation would have been there to plonk Abigail Porter into the story simply as a means to further Mr Bright’s storyline, this has been largely resisted and results in a great, fully-rounded and kick-ass character: perhaps my favourite of the trilogy.

On top of this, exposition is drip-fed into the narrative in mostly the right places and really helps draws you into the story. If you hadn’t quite guessed who or what the cohort were by the end of book one, for example, you’ll be in little doubt by the end of this one.

There are issues to overlook, however. We have the re-emergence of Guess The Login Password, which, as my previous review mentioned, is a plot trope that should suffer the editor’s red pen the world over. Luckily this time it’s not as integral to the plot. There is also the usual riddle-talking and copious amounts of I-know-something-you-don’t-know from Mr Bright that can become rather tiring.

There was another thing that niggled me throughout the series, though I fully admit this may have been just me. I am aware that the author used her former pupil’s names for characters in her earlier books. For this trilogy she appears to have name-checked several fellow authors and editors in the field: Ramsey (Campbell), (Jo) Fletcher, (Steve) Rasnic (Tem), Brian Freeman, (Stephen) Jones, (Paul) Cornell and so on. On the one hand this is a nice gesture, and yet, once I noticed it happening, I must say every fresh nod bounced me a little out of the story.

Otherwise I was looking at an entertaining read in “The Shadow of the Soul”, and one that satisfyingly ratchets things up from “A Matter of Blood”. Recommended, but make sure you read the first book!

4/5

Review – A Matter of Blood

They’re funny old things, book trilogies. Some genres seem to suit them better than others. For example, you’ll be doing well to pick a sci-fi or fantasy novel off the shelves and not find it “Volume whatever of The Handlecrank Trilogy”. (Usually the second.) There are some genres, however, that are ill-suited to trilogies. Crime, for example, where the book series is king owing to its inherent case-by-case story structure. Horror, too, is often stony ground for trilogies. (Tales of high terror and nerve-shredding peril tend to lose something when you know the protagonist needs to survive to book three.)

So when someone takes the crime and horror genres and then fashions them into a dark fantasy trilogy I’m left with two thoughts. One is: “There’s something you don’t see every day.” The other: “I want to read that!”

All such blathering leads me to Sarah Pinborough’s “Dog-Faced Gods Trilogy”. (Also known as “The Forgotten Gods Trilogy” in the US.)

“A Matter of Blood” is the first of the trilogy, in which we find London suffering under the weight of recession, a highly-contagious new strain of HIV and a serial killer known as the Man of Flies.

The wider world is largely beholden to The Bank: an organisation that was formed by the wealthiest to pour oil over choppy economic waters, one whose fingerprints cover nearly every financial transaction made, but also one that is secretly controlled by cohorts of otherworldly beings. When one of the cohort starts to die – something that isn’t supposed to happen to the everlasting – discord and fear build through the ranks.

Amid all of this we are drawn into the messy world of Detective Inspector Cassius Jones as he investigates a string of murder victims: each with the words NOTHING IS SACRED written across their chest; each sporting a neat arrangement of fly eggs about their person. Meanwhile a parallel investigation is attempting to track the killers of two school friends in what appears to have been a botched gangland hit.

When someone anonymously deposits a DVD at the station showing the boys’ shooting, intrigue is notched higher still. Or at least, that is, until Christian, Cass’ brother, apparently shoots his wife, young son and then himself.

Could there be a connection? Well, we wouldn’t have a 419 page novel if there wasn’t, would we? “Ah, but is it any good,” you ask? My answer is “Yes, but…”

The yes: In “A Matter of Blood” we are given a believable alternate London with a large cast of well-drawn characters on both sides of the law. The star of the show is, of course, Cass Jones, a satisfyingly complex character whose rough edges – his chequered history, his infidelity, his acquaintance with Charles (so to speak), his foot in the criminal underworld – instantly engage the reader. Such a large cast makes for a lot of plot to chew over, and, happily, there isn’t much flab in those pages.

The but: Plot advancement and pacing is sometimes reliant on characters doing dumb or unbelievable things, often jarringly so. An example of a dumb move sees Cass attempting to gain illegal access to The Bank’s headquarters. It quickly becomes apparent why, for the sake of the plot, he does this, but his motive in doing so is weak. Indeed, when he later questions his dumb move you can’t help but wonder if there’s a hint of authorial voice in there. A rather large example of plot-stalling emerges once you’ve read the trilogy and realise one key (and short-lived) character could have saved at least a book and a half by getting to the point and not talking in unnecessary riddles.

More yes: the near-future world in which this all takes place is often brilliantly realised. There is an excellent sense of place in each scene, achieved not through pages of dry description, but through the observations of believable characters. The police procedural elements of the story are so well done there were often times I forgot I was reading a dark fantasy story.

More but: You have all this sterling attention to detail only to then see the story resort to hoary old plot tropes such as “Guess The Login Password”! (And a two-character password at that. If you listen carefully you can hear a million IT guys across the world “WTF” simultaneously, and a squillion office workers say “Huh, I wish.”) Seriously, folks, there are less clunky ways of gaining access to a locked laptop.

So it goes, back and forth, between the really good and the not-quite-so-good. If you can accept the story for what it is and don’t peek too deeply into its plot holes then you’ll find a lot here to enjoy. It does suffer a little for being the first of a trilogy, but, rather like Mark Hodder’s “Burton & Swinburne” series, the story really picks up in subsequent books.

If the somewhat permeable nature of some trilogies (*cough* Night Watch *cough*) has left you jaded, it’s also worth mentioning that there is a genuine sense of closure in “The Dog-Faced Gods”.

(Unless, of course, the planned TV series is a roaring success, in which case all bets are off!)

3/5, but this is a trilogy worth sticking with.

Oh, *there* you are…

Howdy, folks, it’s your least humble servant here again with an apology for not blogging sooner. In short, I went and repeated the same error as last year: that of letting December happen after a successful NaNoWriMo. In doing so I caught a bad dose of January too.

Writing has gone unwritten. Books read have gone unreviewed. Books unread continue to breed with gay abandon when I’m not looking. Then, of course, there’s The Day Job. (Wields crucifix-fingers.) Sadly my Christmas wish for 48-hour days (or a big lottery win) never came true.

Progress on The Forum of the Dead has stalled as a result, and will likely need a reboot, which is disappointing but, weirdly, kind of appealing at the same time. To console myself I’m writing a much more simple (and shorter) ghost story, which is keeping me amused on these wet, blustery nights.

For this post, however, I’ll wrap up a few remaining thoughts from when I published The Floors last year. I’ll keep them brief(ish), but these are the things I’ll keep in mind for future projects.

Promotion

In a previous post I outlined the costs incurred in advertising The Floors, which had come to a pretty penny. Indeed, once the editing costs were factored in I was looking at a break-even figure akin to those targeted by small presses. “Tall order” didn’t cover the half of it!

So, nearly five months later, have I made back the cost? Good lord, no, but then that was pretty much to be expected. I’m an unknown quantity in a crowded, noisy marketplace, after all. On top of that The Floors is self-published, which nowadays is enough to see a significant number of readers running for cover from the shit-volcano’s pyroclastic cloud.

Okay, so did I attract any readers? Indeed I did, and genuine “saw my ad and thought they’d give it a whirl” readers too. And do you know what? It felt great! Not only did I see sales of the eBook, but also the (nearly five times more expensive) paperback edition, which, given the work it had taken, was really satisfying. Me = 🙂 x 100.

So would I use print advertising again? Yes, I think I would, despite the cost. In part it helps support the magazines I love to read, it also helps reinforce my (assumed) name and, of course, there’s the large ego-massage of seeing my advert in print. Next time, however, I may hold fire on the teaser ads.

Print advertising wasn’t the only avenue explored. I achieved some unexpectedly strong signal boosts via a few Goodreads giveaways, for example, each garnering well over a thousand entrants. Yes, there are many on Goodreads who’ll chuck their hat into the ring for anything that’s free, but I was delighted to receive some really heartening feedback from those who were truly interested in reading The Floors, and the book now rests in over a thousand Goodreaders’ virtual bookshelves. It’s that kind of response and feedback that will most definitely see me use a few giveaways for future projects.

Then there was the super-ego-boost of seeing a couple of copies of The Floors sitting on the bookshelves of a local department store, squeezed alongside Tim Powers and Terry Pratchett. See?
20140203-002348.jpg

What did that cost? A polite enquiry at the till, a brief pitch to their book buyer, a professional-looking delivery note and 40% of the cover price. (Actually, those two copies have since been snapped up so I’d better see if they’d like any more.)

I’m much less inclined to use Twitter and Facebook to promote any future projects, however, partly due to the ill reputation inherent in that approach, and partly because of the fart it represents in the force 10 hurricane of self-promotion. Some Facebook groups have taken a stand against the self-promoting spammers, and I can only see the trend continuing. Not only that, but when Facebook and Twitter apps both contain the means to filter out the noise and focus only on those you want to truly follow, the incessant buy-me-buy-me-buy-me tactic seems all the more futile and desperate.

Moving on, we come to…

Print graphics

Here are a few important lessons for anyone tempted to do their own artwork. (Don’t worry, folks, it’s not the rather tiresome, smug and predictable “Don’t do your own artwork.” We’re better than that, here.)

There are some awesome programs out there to help create on-screen graphics, and, amazingly, they’re free! Seriously, Inkscape and GIMP are astonishingly good. The elevator panel and marble effect wallpaper currently used in this blog only took a few hours to create. That and a lot of processing power.

Sadly, those free programs don’t support print formats such as CMYK (Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black), which is a format used to overlay colours on a white sheet of paper. Instead Inkscape and GIMP only seem to support RGB images (Red-Green-Blue), which is a graphics format designed to illuminate pixels on an otherwise black screen. If you want to produce CMYK images you’re probably looking at commercial software such as Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Publisher.

Okay, all this may sound like a technicality. Image files is image files is eggs is eggs, right? Printers will readily accept RGB files, so what’s the big deal? This is true, but please, please, please take note of this one crucial fact: RGB is murkier in print than it looks on your screen!

The Floors - Cemetery Dance Advert v3 (Scaled down)Here’s an example.

On the right is an advert I created for The Floors. which was placed in the latest issue of the mighty fine Cemetery Dance magazine.

The image was put together using Inkscape and exported to a PNG file. GIMP was then used to convert the file into a PDF.

You can click on the thumbnail for a bigger image. (Even then I’ve scaled it down 75% – 300dpi makes for some big files!)

So let’s take a shufti at how the advert looked in the flesh…

As you can see, a certain degree of vibrancy has been lost between the on-screen image and the printed copy. When you take the magazine away from direct sunlight the advert becomes rather dark indeed!

This wasn’t an isolated incident. My teaser ad for Scream turned out rather murky too, as did the initial proof copy from CreateSpace. (Never underestimate the value of a proof copy!) While these findings were a little disappointing, I’m happy to chalk them up to experience. Needless to say, subsequent artwork has seen the brightness dialled up a little more!

Overall, the discrepancy between on-screen RGB artwork and the results on paper was a valuable lesson learned, particularly for when I reboot The Forum of the Dead, as this story will contain significant graphical content.

Okay, so much for being brief! That’s all for now, folks. I hope you found these wee insights of some use, and that I won’t leave it so long before blathering again!

Laters, taters.