Friday, 30 December 2011

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #39 – now available for free download!

Merry Christmas and a happy new year! In this issue we have six more stories of Thornton Excelsior from the magnificent Rhys Hughes, mutant ultraviolence from Mike Sauve, and a science fiction tale from our dear friend Douglas Thompson. Ben Ludlam illustrates a Thornton adventure, and there are lots of reviews, from Jacob Edwards, Douglas Ogurek and me. Also, a mention for two people without whom I would have struggled to keep the magazine going these last two years: Howard Watts, who with his wonderful cover art has saved me from the quarterly hell of trying to create covers myself (TQF21’s awful, awful artwork still makes me shudder), and my co-editor John Greenwood, who has read virtually all the submissions this year.

In this issue we also have our very first interview! I found the interviews I did for the BFS’s Dark Horizons (with Brian Stableford, Lev Grossman and Allen Ashley) to be a fascinating challenge, and had wanted to initiate something similar here. I was in the middle of reading three brilliant books by Matthew Hughes (see Majestrum, Hespira and The Spiral Labyrinth in this issue’s review section) and so he seemed like the perfect choice. I hope such interviews will become a regular part of the magazine, but I will try to restrict myself to people for whom I can formulate at least semi-intelligent questions.

I made one big mistake with this issue, letting unfinished reviews build up and then trying to finish them all at the last minute. It’s delayed this issue by about a week, so to avoid that in future I’ve introduced a new Theaker rule: no starting a new book till I’ve finished a first draft review of the last one. (The most important Theaker rule is that having offered a cup of tea, you must make it.) A pile of yellow Silvine exercise books will assist in this plan.

But although it made us late, we did end up with lots of reviews: of books from Matthew Hughes and E.C. Tubb, audio adventures for Dick Barton and Doctor Who, and comics featuring Atomic Robo, Conan the Barbarian, Frank Miller's Holy Terror, Ian Churchill’s Marineman, the Incredible Change-Bots, Stan Nicholls' Orcs and many more. In games we look at Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition and Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team. In film and television we review MelancholiaParanormal Activity 3, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

One previous reading rule came a bit of a cropper this quarter: Even Stephens, my plan to review books by male and female writers alternately. It worked pretty well at first, but then got quite confusing when I read some books by male writers, but not for review, and then reviewed them anyway, and then had to hold them back while I tried to get some books by female writers reviewed to catch up. What a mess! But I’ll try to do better next time, perhaps by tweaking the rule so that instead of reviewing books by men and women alternately, I read books by men and women alternately. That’ll stop me getting into a muddle.

In 2012 we have to bring you more fantastic fiction, more reviews, more artwork, more features and interviews, and if we can persuade our ducks into a line, more books. We’ll continue to be quarterly—seems to be working well—with weekly (if not twice-weekly) reviews appearing on the blog, along with comment pieces and flagrant hit-bait. Let us know if there’s anything you think we should be doing, because, to be frank, your ideas are probably better than ours!

This 96pp issue is available in all the usual formats, all free except the print edition, which we’ve priced as cheaply as possible:

Paperback from Lulu
PDF of the paperback version (ideal for iPad – click on File and then Download Original)
Kindle (free)
Epub (ideal for Sony Reader)
TQF39 on Feedbooks

More about the sweet-toothed elves who have let us steal their candy sticks this Christmas…

Ben Ludlam is an artist from the wastelands of County Durham. See for more of his work.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the British Fantasy Society Journal, The Literary Review and Dark Things V (Pill Hill Press). He has also written over fifty articles about architectural planning and design. He contributes reviews of Paranormal Activity 3 and Breaking Dawn to this issue. He lives in Illinois with his wife and their six pets.

Howard Watts is an artist from Brighton who provides the Christmassy cover to this issue. He has previously provided covers for Pantechnicon, Dark Horizons and TQF.

Jacob Edwards is currently indentured to Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, as Jack of all Necessities (Deckchairs and Bendy Straws). To this issue he contributes a review of the film Melancholia. The website of this writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist is here:

Mike Sauve has written non-fiction for The National Post, The Toronto International Film Festival Group, Exclaim Magazine and other publications. His online fiction has appeared everywhere from Feathertale, Frost Writing and Rivets to university journals of moderate renown. Stories have also appeared in print in M-Brane, Black and White Journal, The Coe Review, Palimpsest 2010, and elsewhere.

Rhys Hughes has been a published writer for almost twenty years and in that time he has written six hundred stories, published twenty books and been translated into ten different languages. The Tellmenow Isitsöornot, a bumper ebook collection of one hundred stories, is available from Smashwords here:

Stephen Theaker is the eponymous co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and writes many of its reviews. His work has also appeared in otherwise respectable publications such as Prism, Black Static, Spark (a long, long time ago) and the BFS Journal.

All thirty-eight previous previous issues of our magazine are available for free download, and in print, from here.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Past contributors, new projects!

Some of our contributors have new projects out!

D. Harlan Wilson ("Houseguest", TQF33) and Douglas J. Ogurek ("NON", TQF33, and many, many reviews in recent issues) both appear in WTF?! from Pink Narcissus Press, which features "corrective surgery gone wrong, punk rockers abducted by aliens, zombie sharks, dead matadors, exploding ice cream factories, and dwarfs obsessed with pomegranates".

Alison Littlewood ("The Eagle and Child", DH53; "Day of the Bromeliads", TQF31; "Sarkless Kitty", DH55; "Off and On Again", TQF38) has a novel from Jo Fletcher Books about to hit the shelves, A Cold Seasonabout a young widow who takes her son back to the town she grew up in. I've read it, and let me tell you, that book is enough to give any freelancer nightmares for weeks. Especially if they're also a parent!

David Tallerman ("Imaginary Prisons", TQF29; "Friendly", TQF31; "Glass Houses", TQF34; "Devilry at the Hanging Tree Inn", TQF37) has a novel out from Angry Robot, Giant Thief, on February 2. I hope it's about someone who steals giants. That would be awesome. He'd have to take them to a giant fence, or possibly a giant launderer.

A reminder to any contributors to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction (or to Dark Horizons 53 to 57): we're always happy to run free adverts for you in the magazine, so do get in touch if you have a new project out.

(Thanks to ISFDB and its capable indexers for assistance in putting this blog post together!)

Monday, 26 December 2011

Atomic Robo, Vol. 2: The Dogs of War – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Created by Nikola Tesla, Atomic Robo is a stout robot with big, expressive eyes who seems to have spent the twentieth century fighting evil and having adventures. There are similarities with Hellboy – his dry sass, the art style, his strength and toughness – and in some ways the comic does for science and adventure stories what the Hellboy comic does for supernatural tales and the weird. Unlike Hellboy, Atomic Robo wears trousers and shirts, which may seem a silly thing to note, but there’s no doubt that it’s part of the character’s appeal: it is visually intriguing to see a robot wearing clothes.

In volume one Atomic Robo fought mad Nazi scientists, giant ants and a pyramid advancing on Luxor, and accompanied the Viking probe to Mars (at Carl Sagan's request). Volume two, again written by Brian Klevinger (as are all volumes to date; the book feels very much like the work of contented creators), continues in a similar vein, with much light-hearted Nazi-smashing, though this time the action all takes place in World War II.

With the assistance of Atomic Robo's arch-enemy, Lord Heinrich von Helsingard, Nazi scientists have built Laufpanzers, walking tanks, and it's the hero robot's job to destroy them before they stymie the allied invasion of Sicily. If he can manage that, it's on to Guernsey where the Germans have built a second superweapon, a weather cannon that will “destroy England with a hurricane the size of England”. All it lacks is a power source…

The predominant mode is three or four stacked panels per page, the widescreen ratio thus gently created lending itself very well to Scott Wegener’s cinematic action. The reader drops through the panels at pace, but dawdlers are repaid in detail and character. The book looks fantastic on an iPad, Ronda Pattison's colours being particularly attractive when backlit, although the close-up approach taken by Guided View, presumably to make the book readable on smaller devices, soon annoys; iPad readers will revert to the full-page view.

The first five volumes of the comic are all currently available on Comixology for three pounds or so, but the two I've read so far would still be recommended at double the price. I like Captain America comics, but if you’ve ever thought they’d be better if Cap was pals with the Challengers of the Unknown and rather more of an atomic robot, this is the series for you. A quick but charming read with wide appeal.

Atomic Robo, Vol. 2: The Dogs of War, by Brian Klevinger, Scott Wegener and Ronda Pattison. Red 5, digital collection, 114pp. Available on Comixology.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Kalin: The Dumarest Saga Book 4, by E.C. Tubb - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The format of the Dumarest books is perhaps ideal for a long-running series. Earl Dumarest is searching for Earth, travelling from one planet to another, sometimes in time-dilated luxury, the next in frozen popsicle coach. On each world he has two goals: to find clues to Earth’s location, and to raise enough money to buy a ticket for the next hop. Each planet has its own cast of characters, its own particular challenges. That means you can pick up any in the series without struggling to follow continuity: any of the four books I’ve read in the series could have stood as the first.

Having said that, Kalin is something of a format breaker, in that it sees Dumarest - and Kalin, his companion on this adventure - travelling between planets mid-book. It begins on Logis, with the Bloodtime imminent. Seeing an attractive girl chased by a “yammering, screaming mob” giving legal vent to a year’s frustrations, Dumarest dives into the fight, snaps some bones, buys her a ticket and gets her back to the apparent safety of the spaceship, where they begin to fall in love. A pair of saboteurs provide Dumarest with more opportunity for action, but ultimately cause our heroes to be stranded on a dead-end world.

Chron is Dumarest’s nightmare: a planet where there’s no chance of making enough money to leave. Will Dumarest’s courage, toughness and sense of honour be enough to save them? Well, there’s another couple of dozen books in the series, so what do you think? What’s more, he discovers the secret behind Kalin’s unearthly powers and does lots more good fighting (which is what these books are mainly about). He reveals a bit of a sexist streak (“Woman-like, she was indifferent to the comfort of others when a problem filled her mind”), but one imagines Kalin hardly cares about that when he’s working so hard to keep her alive.

Though at times this book surprised me, for example with its thoughts on living in poverty, and the choice between freedom and slavery, it wasn’t exactly brain food; it was exciting, unchallenging and straightforward, and that’s okay. It’s not the only kind of book I like to read, but there’s room for it in my life. The chances are good that I’ll go on to read the rest of the series, if they continue to offer the same kind of pleasures.

However, there was a huge problem with this edition: it was one of the shoddiest professionally released books I've ever read. It looks like it's been scanned in but not proofed. I won't give many examples, though two dozen are highlighted in my Kindle notes, because it feels wrong to offer free proofreading when the publisher has apparently not bothered to pay anyone to do it. There were two occasions on which characters smacked their hps after eating the last erf their food. If this is representative of the SF Gateway titles, I’ll regret the money I’ve already spent on them.

Kalin: The Dumarest Saga Book 4, by E.C. Tubb. SF Gateway, Kindle, 2747ll.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Game of Thrones, Season 1 – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

To quote Andrew Collins, where did it all go right? Heroic fantasy on television should look shoddy and embarrassing, not as sumptuous as Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra. The dialogue should be stilted and silly, not as sharp, wise or venomous as the very best on television. The cast should be self-consciously slumming, not delivering – as Sean Bean does – what might be the best performances of their careers. If fantasy on television can be this brilliant, why were we so happy to have Hercules: the Legendary Journeys? And it’s from HBO, a channel whose dramas I traditionally enjoy for one or two episodes before drifting away. Cinematic television is a lovely idea, and I watched the first episode of Boardwalk Empire as if it were a movie, but was never quite in the mood for the sequel. Game of Thrones, however, is the most watchable, thrilling HBO drama since Band of Brothers, a million miles away from the elegant tedium of a Carnivale. Perhaps most astonishing yet is that for all the talk of how expensive it was, the budget of these ten incredible hours of television was reportedly less than half that of a film like Knight and Day.

To a viewer who has not read George R.R. Martin’s original novels, it’s striking that the story told here bears little resemblance structurally to fantasies like The Lord of the Rings and its imitators. It’s not a simple quest from A to B, nor a straightforward narrative of good versus evil – although there are the first signs of an overwhelming evil to come from the frozen north. This story of great houses battling for supremacy, of intrigues, betrayals and assassinations, reminded me of Dune more than any heroic fantasies I had read. (Early on I wondered if this was in fact science fiction rather than fantasy, the long but irregular winters suggesting an alien planet, but later developments establish that this is a magical setting.) And that structure makes it ideal for television, because it throws the characters repeatedly together, constantly in conflict, rather than dispersing them on interminable hiking trips. The balance of power jerks violently about, every episode a game-changer.

If it weren’t for the slightly over-enthusiastic use of female nudity, and its budget-led coyness about showing the actual battles, I would love Game of Thrones unreservedly. There are lots of fantastic programmes on television, and there are lots of fantasy programmes on television, but this is one of the rare, joyful occasions on which the two categories overlap. It’s a shame that Sky’s decision to show it on Sky Atlantic has blunted its impact a bit here in the UK, but if you’re not a satellite customer, don’t worry: this is one you’d want to own on DVD anyway.

 This review originally appeared in BFS Journal #4.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

This twin stick shooter acts as an aperitif for the full price Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, but works in isolation. There are only five levels, all part of an assault upon an ork Kroozer, but each takes forty minutes or so to complete, and the different talents of the grunts provide a good deal of replayability. As a Sternguard Veteran the player mows the orks down the minute they pop out of their cauldrons; the melee weapons of the Librarian give them time to unholster their weapons, requiring more tactical play.

It's quite a tricky game in places, and not always intentionally. Set brightness to full for the best chance of spotting holes in the deck, and play the first level over a few times to unlock essential perks before proceeding. The camera is often a bit too distant from the action, this player frequently taking hits from nasty little guys he just hadn’t noticed.

The game's great weakness is its frustrating penultimate level, set inside the ork Cargo Teleporta facility, which among other things involves a lengthy set piece battle with a carnifex followed, without checkpoints, by an ambush that is very difficult to survive, making it necessary for less capable players to replay the carnifex four or five times too often.

Another part of that level advises you to get to a safe distance before detonating explosives, but prevents you from doing anything of the sort, forcing you to run helter-skelter across a poorly-defined network of walkways while they collapse, with sudden death on either side, the experience not enhanced by debris and pillars that obscure the player's line of sight.

The offline multiplayer mode is noisy fun, and features an interesting mechanic: sharing power-ups (including health potions) between players when they stand nearby. This means the better player doesn't need to hold off collecting power-ups, but is discouraged from running off on their own, creating a nice balance. A survival mode is good for a few minutes, but players are unlikely to return to it much once the achievement is gained.

Kill Team is a decent, cheap game, the sort of thing the XBLA is made for, but I can't help wishing someone would produce a turn-based Warhammer game featuring the proper tabletop rules. When the very similar characters of Gears of War are doing so well, it's obvious why there's an interest in creating W40K action games, but imagine how disappointed people would be if the only chess games you could buy featured the pieces running around and shooting each other in real time…

Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team. THQ Digital Studios UK. Xbox 360 (version reviewed), PS3.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Walking Dead, Season 1 - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Post-apocalyptic programmes don't tend to do very well. Jericho, Jeremiah, The Survivors (both versions), The Tripods, Three Moons Over Milford, etc – not many have made it past or even reached a third series. After all, just how miserable do you want to make yourself just before bedtime? But The Walking Dead is good enough that it might just buck the trend. The six-episode first season certainly looks great. Occasional shots of massed CG zombies are used sparingly, physical make-up being more frequent. The story follows young police officer Rick Grimes as he emerges from hospital and makes contact with other survivors. This Life’s Andrew Lincoln makes an excellent lead and the rest of the cast is just as good. In Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist, the programme has a showrunner to die (and then return from the grave) for.

Unusually, the writer of the comic, Robert Kirkman, is also on the writing team of the adaptation, and thus he gets the chance to do what you can't in a serial comic: have second thoughts, and go back and rewrite things. So interesting characters and relationships previously lost early on are given more time, and the last couple of episodes introduce a situation that wasn't in the comics I read; a good sign that readers won't simply be sitting around waiting for expected events to play out. One less welcome change, in my opinion, is that the series shows a character having premonitions. For once it would be nice to have a fantasy show that didn't rely on prophecies for lazy foreshadowing. One other unfortunate change from the comic is that these zombies sometimes run as well as walk, which makes behaviour that was reckless in the comic perfectly insane in the TV programme.

On TV the influence of (or just structural similarity to) Lost is even more notable than in the comics (of which I've read the first fifty): the adventurers head out on sorties while everyone else makes camp and waits for them to return. What it perhaps lacks in comparison is a bit of mystery and humour, but perhaps when the reasons for the zombie outbreak are investigated that will lead in some interesting directions. I hope the series stays broadly realistic: in the second half of the Compendium the comic veered sharply into OTT Garth Ennis territory; right for Garth Ennis, but wrong I think for a show that has thrived on a realistic approach. But they haven't set a foot wrong so far, so perhaps I should have faith that whichever storylines are followed they'll make good TV out of them. Post-apocalypse shows don't last, but this one feels different. I can't wait to see more.

 This review originally appeared in BFS Journal #4.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Dick Barton and the Paris Adventure – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In a series of fifteen-minute episodes, Dick Barton and his chums work their way into the gang of black marketeer Spider Kennedy, who has a nasty habit of blowing up trains. Rather than the originals transmitted between 1946 and 1951, these are re-recordings produced for overseas transmission in 1949. Occasional line fluffs are not a problem, but do suggest these were recorded very quickly. Though there’s buzzing in places, the sound is good for such an old recording – particularly when it comes to the blood-curdling death screams.

Listening to the story over a couple of days, the accent Dick adopts in his guise as an American gangster begins to grate. Spider Kennedy quickly drops his own silly accent, but their initial meeting is unintentionally comical; think Vic and Bob as FBI agents. The story can be repetitive, the crooks becoming suspicious more or less every fifteen minutes, but the way Dick talks his way out of trouble is often quite ingenious. Its villains are colourful and menacing, if stereotypical (for example a lisping man Dick dubs “honeybunch”).

Though the story begins unpromisingly with a “half-wit” driving into a mine, it’s the now-historical setting of the story that modern listeners may find most interesting. It takes place against the background of post-war shortages, and when Barton goes to France, he notes that the operation is using the same beaches that were used for the D-Day invasion, and expresses surprise that there are any buildings left standing. That he uses the word invasion is interesting in itself.

The greater appeal, though, will be for fans of the character or the genre, and those who remember the story’s radio broadcast, all of whom will I imagine be delighted that these recordings exist at all. Those with only a passing interest in the material should probably listen out for an episode on Radio 4 Extra before buying.

Dick Barton and the Paris Adventure, by Edward J. Mason, starring Douglas Kelly. AudioGo, 4xCD, 4hrs.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Theaker’s Fab Five #2: Radiohead, M83, New Order, Broken Social Scene

I bet you’re excited, aren’t you? I’m going to talk about the CDs I’ve been listening to again! If this were a school it would be Excitement High! The numbers don't indicate an order of preference, but rather their slots in my five-CD stereo.

1. Radiohead - TKOL RMX 1234567 - CD1

I never quite noticed that I was becoming a fan of Radiohead, but I’ve bought three albums in a row now, and listened to them all an awful lot. This remix album continues the odd funkiness of the previous two, and has barely left the CD player since I got it. A good remix album can be perfect for listening to while working, since the words are usually broken up enough to stop you paying too much attention. I still have a soft spot for The Cure’s Mixed Up, and I used to love, inexplicably, The Beloved’s Blissed Out. My favourite remix album of all is probably Mogwai’s Kicking a Dead Pig. It was a track off there, R U Still In 2 It? (DJ Q Remix) which led me to them in the first place, after it was featured in a demo for Actua Ice Hockey 2. Apparently the full game featured two of the band as unlockable characters.

2. M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming - CD1

Still a bit on the fence about this one. I love Midnight City, in a Magnetic Fields disco kind of way, but not convinced by a lot of the rest just yet. Reunion sounds like Simple Minds or U2 or something equally abominable, but I almost like it. Since seeing the video for Midnight City (see below), which features a bunch of superpowered kids escaping from a facility, I’ve been looking out for clues that John Byrne’s Next Men was an influence on this album: at the beginning of their story the Next Men are dreaming…

3. New Order - Movement - Collector’s Edition CD2

The Radiohead remix album – specifically Nathan Fake’s remix of Morning Mr Magpie and the Mark Pritchard remixes of Bloom – has sent me back to early New Order in a big way. In the space of a couple of weeks I’ve bought Singles, the collector’s edition of Movement, Taras Schevchenko and Control on DVD, and even a Movement t-shirt. (Plus New Order’s last album, Waiting for the Siren’s Call, and Bad Lieutenant’s Never Cry Another Tear, which to a brief listen sounded a lot like The Cure at their cuddliest.) This CD has some of my very favourite New Order tracks: In a Lonely Place, Procession, Cries and Whispers, Hurt and Mesh. Wish they’d revisited that style a bit more in later years.

4. Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record

A bit quieter and easier to take in than the eponymous album, which sounded like ten bands in a blender – but I miss the little rapping bits. I like a bit of rapping in a song. Some may think this heresy, but I thought Dizzee Rascal’s bits in the Feed the World remake were the best thing about it. This album has a nice cosy sound. But Texico Bitches uses the second word of its title way too much for me to be able to have this album on in the house very often. This may well find itself tucked away with the work of potty-mouths like the Wu-Tang Clan before I get a chance to develop any real affection for it.

5. New Order - Movement

One of my favourite albums since my school days. If I had any musical talent, I’d be making albums that sound pretty much exactly like this.

And on the iPlayer I’ve been enjoying Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, the Now Show, Richard Herring’s Objective, and Kermode and Mayo’s film programme.

I’m so lucky to work at home... Here's that M83 video.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Doctor Who: Castrovalva, by Christopher H. Bidmead, read by Peter Davison – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In the fifth Doctor’s first full adventure, he’s accompanied by Tegan and Nyssa; Adric is in the clutches of the rejuvenated Master. The Doctor’s fourth regeneration has not gone at all well, and he needs to rest. The recuperative properties of the zero room lost to a brush with the big bang, the Tardis heads for peculiar Castrovalva – which ultimately proves to be another of the Master’s traps.

Like Bidmead’s previous story, Logopolis, Castrovalva plays with lots of clever ideas: the zero room, recursion, Escher’s artwork and entropy. The original broadcast of the television version was, for a child, quite mind-blowing (and, years later, helped me get my head around first year philosophy). Freed from budgetary constrictions, the audio version achieves moments of real grandeur. Freed from acting constrictions, Adric, Tegan and Nyssa become almost three-dimensional.

There are also some very nice phrases – believing the Doctor dead in the Big Bang, the Master feels “deep intestinal satisfactions” – and lots of nice continuity touches. It’s perhaps a little humourless, some of the light touches that Davison brought to his on-screen performance not coming through on CD – he sometimes sounds as if he has a cold – but these things don’t spoil it. Castrovalva has its share of pompous and silly moments, but remains a surprisingly stimulating adventure.

Doctor Who: Castrovalva, by Christopher H. Bidmead, read by Peter Davison. BBC Audio, 4xCD, 4 hours. This review originally appeared in BFS Journal #4.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

A few thoughts about the William Morrow letter

I started to write a blog post about the William Morrow letter (the problem with which, in short, is that it says “thank you for reviewing books for us” rather than “thank you for reviewing our books”), but I think these two articles from Larry at The OF Blog sum it up pretty well: I Ain't Gonna Work on Maggie's Farm No More: William Morrow and Blogger Reviewers and Follow-up on yesterday's rant.

It’s easy to see why a publisher might want to ask people to request print copies rather than sending them out willy-nilly, because they can be expensive, and William Morrow aren't the first publishers to cut back. Angry Robot are extremely generous with eARCs, but for print ARCs bloggers must guarantee a review. PS Publishing have dropped print ARCs altogether.

Some publishers are clearly being a bit profligate with their ARCs. There are some blogs out there getting 100+ books a month, and reviewing half a dozen at most. If Amazon ever offer publishers a way to distribute DRMed kindle review copies, print ARCs will be dead and buried so far as most bloggers are concerned. Publishers will just have a handful printed for the really important venues that refuse to accept anything else.

For us, as with most publications that publish reviews, an expression of interest in seeing a book isn't a guarantee that we'll review it, and while publishers are within their rights to request such guarantees (not that any ever have), we're within our rights to refuse them. The agreement between publisher and reviewer/blogger should amount to this: send them if you like, I'll review them if I want to.

Where bloggers specifically request books, you'd expect them to make those books a priority, but still, there's no guarantee. If the blogger or reviewer never reviews anything, of course, you'd expect a publisher to stop sending them books. I try to operate an informal rota, hitting each publisher more or less in proportion to how many books they send us.

All of which is why we've always preferred to receive electronic review copies. We can say, sure, send us everything, without having to worry that our open policy is having an effect on anyone's bottom line. If I spend a month reading books that I've bought – as I've just done – that might be disappointing for the people hoping for a review, but on the whole I haven't cost them any money.

We've settled into a very nice arrangement with Black Coat Press, who supply print copies: I pick a couple of books from their catalogue, and when I've reviewed them they ask if I'd like another two. There's no need for them to think, "Am I wasting money on this guy?" and no need for me to think, "Are they getting annoyed because I can't keep up?"

Similarly, I love that lets me select the books I actually want to read, rather than feeling obligated to work through the MOR that tends to arrive in print ARC. I have some reservations about the way Netgalley lets publicists pick and choose who they approve to receive their books – it would be worrying to hear about critical reviewers being shut out – but that applies to print ARCs too. And to their credit Netgalley seem to be trying to make it a more mathematical process, encouraging publishers to auto-approve reviewers who have written a certain number of reviews.

But in the end, if our requests don’t get approved, we’ll review something else. Any one of Angry Robot, PS Publishing or Chômu Press could keep us in books to review all year round. There are enough publishers out there – and enough books on our shelves already! – that we don’t need to worry about any given publisher pulling its books. Unlike the readers of a big genre magazine, our readers don’t expect us to cover the big new releases.

Well, what do you know: I wrote a blog post after all…

Friday, 2 December 2011

Warlord of Mars, Vol. 1, by Arvid Nelson, Stephen Sadowksi and Lui Antonio – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

It’s a story most of you will already know. John Carter, Confederate soldier and immortal, falls comatose in a cave and wakes on Mars, called Barsoom by its inhabitants. He falls in love with Dejah Thoris, princess of Helium, fights four-armed green men, two-armed red men, great white apes and anything else that gets in his way. Once that’s all sorted out, the two of them settle down to raise a nice egg.

This volume collects issues 1 to 9 of the ongoing series, adapting the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books, A Princess of Mars. Though my memories of that book are distant and foggy - it must have been twenty-five years ago that I read it - my impression is that this is a faithful adaptation. Despite the pin-up covers, it’s a surprisingly solid read, and I couldn’t help getting caught up in the story all over again.

It’s easy to overwrite an adaptation. Boom’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – which crammed in every single word of the novel – showed how unreadable the results can sometimes be. Arvid Nelson’s script here is unfussy and effective, and gets out of the way whenever it can; there are many wordless pages. Admirably, it doesn’t ride a thoat over the fact that Carter isn’t a modern hero.

For example, like Conan of Cimmeria and Anthony (“Buck”) Rogers, he doesn’t place much value on the lives of his enemies. He leaves a city full of people to be pillaged by forty thousand tharks that were under his command; he doesn’t relish that, but accepts it as the cost of doing business. Also, his moral certainties are never seriously challenged, nor is his right to impose those standards on the “savages” of Barsoom.

That sometimes seems a little silly: tharks live for up to a thousand years, but none of them have ever discovered that being nice to their thoats makes them easier to handle? And one might observe that his Southern gentleman’s honour is actually somewhat wobbly; he despises a Thark female for her betrayals, but murders every last member of the Zodangan court despite accepting a position in their army.

I enjoyed artist Stephen Sadowski’s run on JSA, and his work here is of a similar standard. The action is nearly always very clear, and it’s rarely difficult to tell characters apart, even the tharks. Though you might wonder what an artist like P. Craig Russell or John Ridgway would have done with the material, this is a belt and braces adaptation, and Sadowski does the job that’s asked of him. Colourist Adriano Lucas resists the temptation to use seven shades of red for Mars, but Carter’s skin is a peculiar shade of purple in some night scenes.

Ironically the book’s only real problems are also its biggest attractions: the Heliumite Barsooms of princess Dejah Thoris. Indisputably attractive on the covers, they embarrass in the book, and take the reader out of the story to ruminate on how impractically huge they are, and how resistant they are to the admittedly lessened effects of Martian gravity. And could anyone be so comfortable in a metal minikini that they would wear one, all the time, by choice?

(We came perilously close to naming our first daughter Dejah. We decided against it because (i) we thought she’d get sick of people saying “Have we met before?” and (ii) it seems to be pronounced Dee-Jah, which doesn’t sound so good. Looking at some of the images in this book, I think perhaps she dodged an embarrassing radium shell.)

The book closes with forty pages of notes, sketches and alternate covers, many of which are very impressive. A thumbs down to J. Scott Campbell’s sex-kitten Dejahs (though they were probably good for sales), but thumbs up to Lucio Parillo and Patrick Berkenkotter’s fierce and tough-looking John Carters.

It’s a workmanlike comic, but an entertaining one, and a good way to bring the legend of John Carter to people who might imagine the original novel to be a bit dry. It’s not high art, but then neither was the novel. Sex and violence are front and centre, and they never go out of fashion: this is pulp with high production values. If the forthcoming film plays to its medium half as effectively I’m going to be a very happy sorak.

Warlord of Mars, Vol. 1, by Arvid Nelson, Stephen Sadowksi and Lui Antonio. Dynamite Entertainment, tpb, 264pp.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Writing Raw: Amazon clamp down on paid-for reviews

I was immensely cheered today to read in Writing Raw that Amazon are clamping down on paid-for book reviews provided by author promotion organisations. Ironically, the article was penned by someone who runs one such website, Shirley A. Roe, of Allbooks Review.

Writing Raw is an online magazine that grew out of Raw Edge, a nice Arts Council-funded literary magazine that was handed out for free at libraries here in the Midlands. (I always picked one up, and our own Michael Thomas reviewed books for them.) The current issue is here, but apologies to future readers: from the look of it, old content on the site is scrubbed when a new issue is added, so I can't permalink to the issue, and I can't directly link to the articles I'm talking about.

Shirley Roe's article, "David vs. Goliath or Allbooks Review Int. vs.", can be found about two-thirds down the left-hand column on this page. It begins:
"Allbooks Review started in 2000 and has reviewed thousands of books, encouraging and supporting new and established authors for more than eleven years"
According to the Publishers' Area on the Allbooks website, the cost of a review is currently $45. Quite a bit of money for an author, although if you wanted to pay someone by the hour to read and review a book of any length it wouldn't come close to minimum wage. The FAQs reassure authors that "98% of our reviews are positive". Their Goodreads account is still up, and all books get either four or five stars, including, naturally, five stars for Shirley Roe's books.

Amazon have removed all of those reviews from their website, because:
"We found your reviews to be in violation of our guidelines and have removed them. Because of this violation, we've removed your reviewing privileges from your account."
Looking at Amazon's review guidelines, I would guess that this is the part of the guidelines that the company is said to be violating:
"Reviews written for any form of compensation other than a free copy of the product. This includes reviews that are a part of a paid publicity package"
Seems perfectly clear and sensible to me. Free books sent out to reviewers are fine, but reviews for which you have been paid are not. Another relevant part (and it's something that I will have to be careful to do in future) is that:
"If you received a free product in exchange for your review, please clearly and conspicuously disclose that that you received the product free of charge."
At the conclusion of the article, Shirley speaks of becoming the "Michael Moore of the book industry". Erm, no. The Michael Moore in this situation would be whoever noticed the thousands of paid-for book reviews that were potentially misleading consumers and got Amazon to do something about them. Ideally by way of a comical prank.

So, in short, good for Amazon.

To open the issue out a bit more generally, indie and self-published authors and their friends should really understand that in many regards a range of reviews is better than nothing but five-star reviews. A range of reviews looks honest. Think of your favourite book of all time, and look at it on Amazon: I bet it's got a handful of one and two star reviews (often from complete idiots, or relating to particularly bad editions, but you get my point).

By all means encourage your friends and family to read your books, and to review them on Amazon. But encourage them also to be honest and to disclose their relationship with the author. Do all you can to discourage them from harassing less enthusiastic reviewers. Someone doing this kind of thing is not doing you any favours. (That commenter is also responsible for the silliest, unfairest review I've ever read.) Even if they didn't like your book, those are your actual readers, and if your friends and family post harassing comments, mark their reviews as unhelpful, and so on, that's going to put them off ever trying and reviewing your work again.

If you want the wider world to treat you like a proper, professional writer, ask your friends and family to treat you like one as well.

The other article that caught my eye in this issue of Writing Raw was a guide to "How Book Awards Can Boost Your Marketing Campaign" by Mary Greenwood. (It's the first article in the left-hand column here.) She's not talking about serious awards, but rather about paying to enter your books in things like the ForeWord Book of the Year, which I think are called awards mills (though apologies if I have the terminology wrong). Note that like Allbooks Review, ForeWord provides a paid-for review service.

Though the content of the article is not untrue or misleading, I would suggest that a magazine like Writing Raw shouldn't really be encouraging its readers to pay "$50.00 to $150.00" to enter such awards. You may well be able to tag it onto your bio and make a few people think your book is a worthy award-winner, and it might even help sales, but – and this is a big but – these awards are there to exploit writers, to take your money. Even if you might get something out of it, should you encourage and participate in such exploitation? To readers who don't know what it is, a ForeWord Book of the Year award has no more weight than an award you made up yourself; to people who do know what it is, it is arguably worse than no award at all.

If you want my advice, instead of paying $45 on an Allbooks review or $150 on the ForeWord awards, set up a Goodreads giveaway. For that money you could send ten or twenty copies of your book out to real-life, independent, interested readers, all of whom have friends, online and offline, who trust their opinions and reviews.