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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.