Interzone Reader’s Poll 2014: my picks

Following a crafty break from t’internets, your least-humble servant has returned to pollute the information superhighway with his usual brand of excessive verbiage and questionable wisdom, this time focusing on the reader’s poll currently doing the Interzone rounds. “Interwhat?” you might ask. Interthis…

Click to jump to the TTA Press website

Interzone is a long-running UK magazine dedicated to science fiction and fantasy, and each issue is filled with commentary, reviews and short stories from around the world that tend towards the literary end of the spectrum. A long-standing tradition of the magazine has been to invite its readers to vote for the stories it has published during the previous year. Readers can vote positively or negatively, however they see fit.

So without further blathering, here are my top 5 Interzone stories of 2014:

Marielena by Nina Allan (Interzone 254)

Another knockout story from Nina Allan, whose novella “Spin” won a BSFA award last year. (And rather good it is too. You can read my review of it here.)

Noah Wahid seeks asylum in the UK but he is finding the Border Agency painfully slow to deal with. He is a passionate man whose fire is frequently stoked by those who add nothing to society, whether they’re a jeering pack of feral youths or a filthy bag lady. Nobody he meets seems to appreciate what they have, especially when compared to the chaos and violence he has fled, and all the while his mind is tormented by glimpses of his love, his muse, his demon, Marielena. She taunts him for running away, she mocks his newfound pauper’s existence, she fuels the growing anger and frustration he feels inside.

But then Noah learns that not everyone he meets is a perfect fit for his prejudices, and discovers there are some among us who are just as alien to their situation as he.

A reliable indicator of a good story is a count of how often one checks their progress while reading it. I don’t recall doing this at all while reading Marielena, it’s that good. The writing is excellent, but then fans of Nina Allan’s work already know that. Noah Wahid is a wonderfully complex character. He is an eloquent, well-read man who has fled a regime intolerant of intellectuals, and the reader gets a real flavour of his plight. Noah’s arc (sorry) is also perfectly judged, with the reader rooting for him one moment and finding their sympathies tested the next. I found Marielena a fine counterpoint to the island mentality that pervades the UK and the current heat of Islamophobia we find rippling across media outlets the world over, and it is my standout read of Interzone’s 2014.

My Father and the Martian Moon Maids by James Van Pelt (Interzone 253)

A man visits his father in a care home and is reminded of happier times when he was a boy and his father was a UFO obsessive, going so far as to build a comically simple detector in his closet. His father would stand by the telescope he had built in the back yard, not looking through it but straight up into the stars. There was never any doubt in his father’s mind that UFOs existed, but now that mind is being cruelly eaten away by Alzheimer’s. When the man takes his father for his next doctor’s appointment, he makes a fateful decision to stop by the old family home.

I really liked this story. Up to a point My Father… can be read as an affective meditation on how all fantasy eventually succumbs to reality. You might read a novel, but then you’ll eventually put it down. You might meet a Martian Moon Maid at the Cinderella City mall, but eventually she will clock off her shift and go home. You might become lost to Alzheimer’s but even then something very real and final will release you from it. As the story alternates between past and present, we therefore witness real life overtaking the fantasy worlds of both the boy and his father at much the same time, and, when this happens, how soon they then drift apart.

I especially liked the ambiguous ending of this story, and how, by turns, it can be seen as a happy outcome or an equally alarming one. This is a story that somewhat belies its daft-sounding title, and one I would very much recommended you check out.

Ashes by Karl Bunker (Interzone 251)

Neil is handed a small box containing the ashes of Lucia, his former partner, and is immediately reminded of their adventures together. They would travel the war-ravaged world, seeking abandoned new-tech sites created by rapidly-advancing AIs, trying to figure out what they were building and why. The AIs responsible had all disappeared, each of them reaching a stage in their development sufficient for them to suddenly “wink out”. When Neil learns of a new-tech site in which Lucia had grown interested before falling ill, he knows he has found an appropriate location to scatter her ashes.

I’ve chosen Ashes for the sheer number of ideas fizzing beneath the story’s surface. It’s an excellent example of unobtrusive world-building. In the space of 5,300 words not only do we have Lucia’s wake and Neil’s journey to scatter her ashes, but also a history of the AIs and how they helped the human race destroy themselves, an interesting philosophical debate as the remaining AIs attempt to discuss “winking out” without doing so themselves, a believable world littered with new-tech sites and the mysteries surrounding them, and so on and so forth. It all made Ashes a really entertaining read.

Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer (Interzone 251)

Some way into the distant future Fari blasts asteroids for a living for the Baselle Mining Corp, a deeply-religious company that values women far less than they do men. She excels at her job, mixing it with her male colleagues with consummate ease, earning their respect if only a fraction of their wages. Indeed she is one of the best slaves… er… employees of the Corp, which poses an awkward anomaly for the new hard-line Rep in town. When the Rep takes it upon himself to push Fari’s buttons, Fari pushes back and then some.

Another from Interzone 251 (2014’s strongest issue by a distance) Fly Away Home is a straight story that engenders some complex emotions in its readers. Baselle is an amalgam of many existing cultures that routinely piss on women’s rights, but it’s this hesitancy to single out a particular culture that stops me just short of calling Fly Away Home an important work. (Of course, given the number of brainwashed lunatics we are led to believe walk in our midst, this is perhaps understandable.) Nonetheless it is a great and thought-provoking read and well worth checking out.

Wake Up, Phil by Georgina Bruce (Interzone 250)

Laura Harrison works for an interplanetary company called Serberus, a company fighting a bitter war against a rival called Callitrix. Laura is a level two employee working on the third floor. She drinks Serberwater, eats Serberus Low Cal meals and tows the Serberus line. When she is called up to the eleventh floor she is nervous. Few people return from the eleventh floor. Once there she is instructed by Doctor Thrum to lose a few pounds with the help of a diet pill called Serberitum. When she does her life is transformed. She now works for Callitrix on the thirteenth floor. Or does she? And what’s the deal with her neighbour Phil? Why is he looking after an identical copy of himself?

I don’t normally seek out stories that take the reader down the rabbit hole, but there was a playfulness I really enjoyed about Wake Up, Phil as Laura found herself flip-flopping between Serberus and Callitrix. The story also makes a pleasing and subtle dig at the march of globalisation in depicting a future where war is fought by companies, not countries. This is a fun story that’s definitely worth a read.

Honourable mentions

The following stories also tickled my sci-fi fancy, and are worth checking out. Predvestniki by Greg Kurzawa (Interzone 250); Ghost Story by John Grant, Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa (both Interzone 251); The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson, A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey (both Interzone 252); The Bars of Orion by Caren Gussoff; The Golden Nose by Neil Williamson (both Interzone 253); A Minute and a Half by Jay O’Connell; Dark on a Darkling Earth by T. R. Napper (both Interzone 254); Must Supply Own Work Boots by Malcolm Devlin; The Calling of Night’s Ocean by Thana Niveau; Finding Waltzer Three by Tim Major; Mind the Gap by Jennifer Dornan-Fish (all Interzone 255).

Boos and hisses

I wouldn’t be so mean as to mark down any particular story. They were all clearly good enough to appeal to someone, after all, and Interzone would be a poorer magazine if it published the same kinds of story over and over again. That said, there were stories here that won’t sway me from my reading prejudices any time soon. Stream of consciousness still makes me want to chew out my eyeballs, and I have yet to read a story that has been successfully written in the second person. Maybe in 2015? Maybe.

That’s that, then

So those are my picks for the Interzone 2014 reader’s poll. If you aren’t familiar with the magazine then I hope to have given you a flavour of the kinds of stories you can expect to find inside. It’ll be interesting to see how close (if at all!) my choices match the magazine’s wider readership.

Laters taters,

LP

Advertisements

World Fantasy Convention 2014, anyone?

Last year’s World Fantasy Convention in Brighton was a blast. There were lots of interesting panels and kaffeeklatsches, lots of authors milling about the place who I’d read, lots of other authors who were patiently sitting in my to-be-read pile (which, in the spirit of Bill Hicks, can now only really be measured in bookcases), and lots of authors who weren’t on my radar but now very much are. There were engaging readings a-plenty, a cool art show, surprise appearances – and the dealers room! Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh my. How I left that little haven of geeky splendour with any of my credit rating intact is beyond scientific explanation. So, yeah, pretty damn awesome.

But then it was my first convention, so maybe I was swayed by the novelty of it all. Maybe I’d hit lucky on a really good shindig. The rather splendid She soon put that theory to the test and acquired a pair of tickets to attend the British Fantasy Society’s FantasyCon 2014 in York.

Guess what? Another fine old time was had there too! It was good to catch up with now familiar faces and putting a few faces to names whose work, until then, I’d only read in magazines like Black Static and Interzone. (Hat-tip to Ian Sales for helping me plug a few cavernous holes in my sci-fi reading.) There were some fascinating panel discussions, book launches (including one for Gary McMahon’s latest book, “The End”, giving me the opportunity to hold up the signing queue for ages while I talked his ears off) – and the dealers room! Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh my. I bought so many books that I pretty much induced a flat tyre on the way home.

(Two notably poignant purchases were made. First was PS Publishing’s collection of Graham Joyce’s short fiction, 25 Years in the Word Mines.

25 Years in the Word Mines

Unfortunately, Graham’s health had deteriorated in the run-up to the convention and he sadly died shortly afterwards. Second was Cemetery Dance’s The Century’s Best Horror Fiction.

Joel Lane's CD Century's Best Horror Fiction

It was only when I picked these up that I realised the whole dealer’s table comprised books once owned by Joel Lane, who had passed away towards the end of last year. His family were selling Joel’s books to help raise money for his mother. Given that one of Joel’s stories features in the second volume of this collection, I have an uneasy feeling I may have purchased the contributor’s copy he would have received from Cemetery Dance. Either way, these are two books I’ll be taking extra-special care of.)

So, yeah, with only two conventions down, I can safely say I rather like these get-togethers.

But now it’s time for the big test. In around five hours’ time both She and I will be setting off for what is probably my first proper holiday in over twenty years, and in the middle of it lies this:

Yes, there are panel discussions a-plenty, there are readings galore, there are more kaffeeklatches than you could shake a gnarled wooden staff at, there are numerous film showings and artworks to gawp upon – and the dealers room! Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh my!

Oh, and of course there’s D.C. itself.

It’s looking pretty good. If I don’t get shot for jaywalking, or slapped in Guantanamo Bay for goofing about, then I hope to blather all about it sometime upon my return.

Laters, ‘taters.

L.P.

FantasyCon 2014, anybody?

Having had a royally good time geeking out at last year’s World Fantasy Convention down in Brighton, I’m looking forward to attending this year’s Fantasycon in York all thanks to the really rather splendid She. (Thank you, She!)

While there hasn’t been a whiff of a programme yet, I know some of the events I’m keen to attend, namely:
– The book launch of Best New Horror Volume 25 (do you think Stephen Jones would mind signing my copies of volumes 1-23?)
– The book launch of The Spectral Book of Horror Stories (check this one out – the line-up is very impressive)
– The Pointless game, if it goes ahead (I’m not taking part, I hasten to add!)

Not me. Not quite, anyway.

I won’t be attending under this ‘ere pseudonym, which will make the book signings I attend that much easier. It also means I won’t be grabbing people by their conference badges and not letting go until they buy a copy of The Floors, which is probably best for all concerned. (That said I’ll probably stick a few copies on the freebie tables and hope they elicit a review.)

I’ll still be fairly easy to spot, though, what with my silly facial hair and all-new Gordon Freeman specs. (Three weeks later and my inner gamer is still squishy with nerdish glee about them.) If in doubt, you’ll probably find me in the dealer’s room buying every book and magazine in sight and having them all sent to the hotel room.

Incidentally, if anyone knows a good black market dealer for internal organs to help finance my book-buying habit let me know. I mean, they won’t be my organs, of course, but they don’t need to know that.

Much obliged,

LP

Review – The Wise Man’s Fear

Note: This review contains spoilers for “The Name of the Wind”.

“The Wise Man’s Fear” is the follow-up to 2007’s “The Name of the Wind”, with the third and final part of the trilogy allegedly due in 2015.

In the first book we were introduced to a man called Kvothe. His is a name known across the Four Corners of Civilisation thanks in part to his exploits over the years, and thanks also to the exaggerated and sometimes untrue legends that have been told and mistold about him (some of which Kvothe wilfully started himself). But now he’s in hiding, living life as an innkeeper with his understudy, a demon fella called Bast. When a passing scribe called the Chronicler unearths Kvothe’s true identity, he deems it high time his life story was committed to paper in his own words.

By the end of the first book, covering the first fifteen or so years of Kvothe’s life, he had developed indomitable skills in the magical art of sympathy, generally been brilliant at anything he put his mind to, was banned from the University’s library, ultimately expelled from the University (and quickly readmitted – a bit of a cheat if you’ve read the blurb to the first book), met Denna (the supposed love of his life), lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna (you get the idea), and, in a flash of emotion, managed to call the name of the wind – one of the main reasons he had come to the University in the first place.

In the real world, however, something is not quite right. Kvothe seems no longer able to muster up the slightest bit of magic, and, as “The Wise Man’s Fear” progresses, it’s clear he is no longer the skilled fighter of legend either. Is he keeping himself in check, or is he all talk and no trousers? Meanwhile his understudy, Bast, has revealed himself to be a bit of a bad ‘un, threatening Chronicler (somewhat unnecessarily) to bring the old Kvothe from out himself.

Okay, so that was the first book in a very small nutshell. For the first 300 pages of “The Wise Man’s Fear”, see above as it’s essentially more of the same. (No bad thing.) After that we then hit a huge 700 page tangent which basically covers Kvothe’s Gap Yah. It’s perhaps better to be armed with this knowledge before heading into this 1000 page novel, because otherwise, once things shoot off in a different direction, you might start asking yourself whether Rothfuss is ever going to get back to the story.

Maybe this was a deliberate ploy. A life story in which you know what to expect speaks of a dull life indeed. What is more definite is that the trilogy forms as much a character study of Kvothe as it does his life story. We are introduced to the man in the rather pompous “You may have heard of me” speech (see the blurb at the top of my earlier review), and then the remainder of the trilogy is spent substantiating each of those claims while at the same time fleshing out his character.

So in this book we see Kvothe turn from a boy into a man, into a killer of men, and he also does his best Anjin-san impression (a wink to any Shogun fans out there). Oh, and he finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, yada-yada-yada. Meanwhile, during the interludes in his story, we see more evidence that Kvothe may be something of an unreliable narrator, especially as he is given to making up some of his own legends.

So is “The Wise Man’s Fear” any good? Yes it is, but it’s not quite as good as “The Name of the Wind”.

Again the writing is first-rate, although a writerly tic seems to have crept in that I’m sure didn’t appear in the first book (i.e. the whole “grinned a malicious grin”, “screamed an ear-piercing scream”, “sneezed a snotty sneeze” kind of thing), but this is a minor quibble.

The attention to detail and the characterisation is, for the most part, excellent – the exception being Denna, whose repeated appearances of little consequence in the story begin to test one’s patience.

But there are some larger faults to overcome. Once Kvothe’s Gap Yah begins, the flow of the novel becomes choppy, tangential and uneven in a few places, and, while some of this is acknowledged intra-story, I’m not sure they are all deliberate plays on the erratic and elastic nature of storytelling. For example, having ingratiated himself with a very rich and powerful man, Kvothe is then suddenly tasked with leading a band of mercenaries to hunt down a bunch of bandits. Why would the man choose a kid to do that ahead of, oh, I don’t know, virtually anybody under his command?

The story then sags when Kvothe essentially drops everything to get his end away with Felurian, a powerful faerie famed for bonking men to death. The subsequent chunk of story, in which Kvothe struggles to learn the language and the fighting skills of the Adem, also grinds on by. While I can understand why those sections were there, I swear I could hear the story groan under the sheer weight of Too Many Names. If it wasn’t a shopping list of Kama-Sutra-esque acts of nookie, such as the fluttering hand, the harrowed hare, or the chuckling chaffinch (okay, maybe not that last one) it was a litany of fighting styles lifted from some beat-em up’s list of special moves. Some fight scenes therefore became comically abstruse and rather dry, and, as a result, very nearly broke the spell weaved over me by the first book.

Once free of this saggy midsection the story picks up strongly and for me to blather any more about it would spoil the fun.

In short, it’s only a 4/5 from me, but, despite it’s faults, “The Wise Man’s Fear” is still a fair distance ahead of the pack and, for most of those 1000 pages, it is a solid, enjoyable read. I can’t wait to tuck into the final book.

Review – The Name of the Wind

‘I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.
My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.’

For a while I wondered what all the fuss was about Patrick Rothfuss. I’d picked up a copy of “The Name of the Wind”, read the above blurb and thought, “Meh. It’s a fantasy novel about a braggart.” I then picked up a copy of “The Wise Man’s Fear”, read the blurb and thought, “Again, meh. More of the same.” The covers: “Meh. A shadowy cloaked figure. Well, shit, I’ve never seen that on a fantasy novel before.”

And yet there was something. Since its publication seven years ago the paperback of “The Name of the Wind” has undergone over twenty printings in the UK alone. The thing has been a solid seller. I also saw just what he meant to those who had read his work. (Boneman, if you’re reading this, you won me over!) At a recent convention Rothfuss was one of the most laid-back and approachable people there. So I picked up the novels again. I began to wonder how a 700 page novel could span only a single day (“The Name of the Wind” is subtitled “The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One”). Heck, the follow-up 1000-pager spans the whole of day two…

Long story short: dammit, I became interested, and so it wasn’t long before I bought them both.

If the above blurb left you somewhat in the dark (as it did me), let me say what you’re looking at in this novel (and its sequels) is a man’s life story told in his own unhurried words. The first day’s storytelling forms the bulk of “The Name of the Wind”, the second “The Wise Man’s Fear” and so on. As Kvothe tells his story, so we see the making of the man and the legends that have grown around him. Once you know that, the above meh-worthy blurb starts to make sense.

So is it any good? Good lord, yes, and the key to its success, for me, is the word “unhurried”. It’s a crying shame when you read a decent-sounding story and see it slavishly adhere to some bullshit action-action-action axiom, as if the author is thinking to themselves: “If I don’t blow some shit up or kill someone off soon my publisher’s marketing department says the average reading demographic will switch off and… and… and…”

Thankfully there’s no such nonsense here. Thanks to the narrative device of Kvothe telling his life story, combined with Rothfuss’ determination not to rush things, “The Name of the Wind” has a real kick-off-your-shoes-and-gather-round-the-fire storytelling style, and once you find yourself lost in its world, you won’t want to leave.

In this first novel we find Kvothe living under an assumed name, seemingly content to live his days as an innkeeper while secretly tutoring his student, a demon called Bast. To many he was Kvothe the bloodless. He was Kvothe the Kingkiller. His story is told and mistold across the land, and now, for some reason, he is in hiding.

When a passing scribe unearths Kvothe’s true identity he convinces the man to tell his story, and so we begin.

“The Name of the Wind” covers Kvothe’s first fifteen years. As the son of troupers, the child Kvothe is an astonishingly quick learner, helped in no small part to his exceptional memory. (Hence the lengthy, vivid account of his life story, I guess!) When the troupe takes in an arcanist, Kvothe’s mind is lit up by the old man’s knowledge and the workings of a type of magic called sympathy. By the time the old man leaves the troupe, Kvothe’s thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, and so he sets his heart on studying at the University and soaking up its vast library of books.

But a great tragedy befalls the troupe at the hands of a legendary monster called the Chandrian and Kvothe is consequently forced to eke out a living begging and stealing in a large town called Tarbean. Broken, alone, and filled with a desire for revenge, Kvothe the boy is forced to rebuild himself anew.

As this is someone’s life story, “The Name of the Wind” is told in a fairly linear fashion. To further describe the story would therefore spoil the fun. Needless to say you won’t be disappointed if you decide to amble through its 700 pages.

And amble you should. Rothfuss takes his time when it comes to writing, and so it would be a crying shame to blast through the story in one sitting. No, this is a story in which to enjoy a good, long wallow. Soak up the brilliantly-drawn characters and the bustling ambience of each scene. Admire the incredible imagination at work, the attention to detail and the wonderful prose. (The first page is so beautifully written it quite rightly bookends each novel.) In short, read it in the same spirit it was written and enjoy.

This is easily a 5/5 from me, and sets a very high bar for any future fantasy I read. Heartily recommended.

Review – The Blue Blazes

The Blue Blazes is the first book in a trilogy from the popular and prolific penmonkey Chuck Wendig, with the second book, The Hellsblood Bride, due at the start of 2015.

In it we are introduced to Mikey “Mookie” Pearl, a soldier for The Organisation – a powerful crime syndicate that keeps New York’s assorted gangs in check, and which also happens to be the only thing standing between New York and the hellish underworld beneath. Mookie is a big man, which comes in handy when smashing goblin heads together. How big? Well, if you were to gaffer-tape Arnie, Stallone, Van Damme and Lundgren together into a single hulking, sinewy mass of muscle, then you’d be in the right ballpark. So, yeah, Mookie’s a big fella, and he’s about to hit upon a series of big problems.

His teenage daughter, Nora, forever pissed off with her Dad, is making waves in the criminal underworld in the guise of her alter ego, Persephone, and she is determined to either bring Mookie to heel or to bring him down. Things take a turn for the worse when The Boss of The Organisation reveals he is dying, a revelation that, if made public, would invite a power play that would destabilise the uneasy treaty between New York’s assorted gangs. And then there are the growing attacks from assorted horrible creatures from below, from goblins only too happy to lay eggs in your warm bits to wraith-like phantoms that stab thoughts and memories from their victims.

Then things go all to hell when The Boss’s heir apparent meets a particularly gruesome end, seemingly at the hands of Persephone…

For those unfamiliar with Chuck Wendig and his writing, let me try to describe it. Imagine a barbecue upon which there sizzle a tasty array of quarter-pounders, sausages, a couple of corn cobs and one of those big mushrooms. Then imagine someone comes along and slaps a whopping forty-eight ounce steak on the grill, dwarfing everything else on it, and marinaded in the most insanely hot chilli sauce. Once cooked they then drench it with even hotter chilli sauce and serve it up with a side order of another forty-eight ounce steak.

That, folks, is Chuck Wendig. We’re talking big. We’re talking strong flavours. And while The Blue Blazes is about as subtle as a pyroclastic flow through a primary school, it is nonetheless ridiculously entertaining. It’s like reading a long-lost Paul Verhoeven film created somewhere between Robocop and Total Recall. Bold is the word here, from the characterisation to the dialog and set pieces, and such unashamed comic book styling forms a large part of the book’s charm.

But there’s more. The jokes hit home when they need to. The action is riotous and blood-thirsty. The horror is icky and uncomfortable when it needs to be. Wendig’s New York and the sprawling underworld beneath it are well-realised and strangely believable.

The structure of the book is spot-on too, with each short chapter prefaced with an excerpt from a pioneer’s journal to help the reader keep up and to also flesh out the immediate story ahead. It all helps make this a mighty smooth read and the pages fly by so quickly you risk friction burns on your fingertips.

And yet for me it is not a five star book. Why? Well, there are a handful of reasons.

First and foremost there are some fairly big plot holes to pass, perhaps requiring Burnsy’s All-American quad bike and a helluva run-up. It may be that I missed a page reading so fast, but I think these niggles hold true. (A cynic may suggest the speed of the book helps distract the reader from seeing the holes – I wouldn’t be quite so snide.)

First: Nora, as Persephone, giving the criminal fraternity what-for – I can get behind that. What I struggle to believe, however, is that nobody in New York’s underworld knows Nora is Mookie’s daughter. Mookie is a high-ranking operative in The Organisation. I don’t care how careful he has been, it would be highly improbable for him to hide his family from his “other” family.

Second: the story seems to break its own rules. The Blue Blazes is a drug-like mineral rubbed onto the temples to enhance a user’s strength, stamina and perception, like some kind of computer game power-up. When “Blazing” a human’s third eye is also opened to view the world anew and to see some people for what they really are: children of the underworld, for example, or maybe one of the maligned half-and-halfs. Think John Nada putting on the shades in “They Live”. But this additional property of Blazing, not to mention its addictive qualities, seems to be largely forgotten around halfway through the story. Humans just get to see those gruesome buggers whether they’re Blazing or not, and the Blue no longer seems to have any adverse after-effects.

Finally, and this isn’t really a plot hole, there’s Nora herself. Frankly someone should have thrown her down a well and filled it in with concrete afterwards. While her existence and actions were integral to the plot, her “annoying teen with Daddy issues” act was a bold flavour too far, and the conflicting insights into her mind felt at times like she was panel-beaten to fit into the story.

While I found these niggles irksome, they didn’t really derail me from the story. If you are willing to let these kind of gremlins whizz on by at a hundred miles per hour and to go along for the ride I would heartily recommend The Blue Blazes. It’s enormous fun and I look forward to book two.

4/5

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.

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