Sunday 25 November 2018

Attack on Titan, Vol. 1, by Hajime Isayama (Kodansha) | review

For the last hundred years, the world’s last surviving humans (so far as anyone knows) have lived safely in towns protected by a series of concentric walls, built so long ago that a religion has declared them the work of their god. The walls are tall enough to keep out the giants that have devoured the rest of humanity, but smaller towns are used to focus the titans’ attacks in predictable locations. Only the Survey Corps venture outside, in hope of finding a way to reclaim the world from the titans.

Saturday 24 November 2018

Richochet Joe, by Dean Koontz (Amazon Original Stories) | review by Stephen Theaker

Joe lives in a small town called Little City, where he attends Little Junior College, in hopes of one day becoming “an English teacher or an advertising copywriter, or maybe a destitute novelist”. While volunteering for litter-picking in the park and considering whether to ask Portia on a date, he is seized with the urge to say “Corvette!” and to then run off towards one. When he touches the car he shouts “But stop!” and then carries on to that, and thus from one clue to the next till he gets to the source of the trouble. Hence the nickname, Ricochet Joe. It’s a funny idea, and one with obvious potential for television or film, but as a book this would seem a little old-fashioned were it not a Kindle in Motion title. The plot, the writing style, the way Joe talks about Portia (and “her delightfully distracting presence”) make it feel like something from the fifties or sixties, like one of Robert Heinlein’s more fantastical stories. But the Kindle in Motion elements make it feel very modern, Oliver Barrett’s art brought to striking life by Belief Agency. The only downside is that having those media elements enabled also fixes the background colour of regular pages to a grubby white. Worth a download, if only for the novelty of the moving pictures. ***

Sunday 18 November 2018

Priestess, by Justine Geoffrey (Martian Migraine Press) | review

My first taste of Cthulhu erotica, and I wasn’t left with a shadow over Innsmouth, if you know what I mean. My Dunwich was not fully horrored. The thing remained on the doorstep. Doom did not come to Sarnath. This 2013 ebook brings together four previously published titles: Anicka and Kamil, Red Monolith Frenzy, Yvette’s Interview and Green Fever Dream. It starts with a dedication to “Ramsey Campbell, the first man to render my veils” (sic). Anicka, “teen witch of Stregoicavar and High Priestess of the Black Stone”, is trying to summon Daoloth, from Campbell’s story The Render of the Veils, and she goes about that by having sex with her brother and anyone else she can lay her hands (and inhumanly long tongue) on. Favourite phrase here: “Daoloth activates your hyper-chakras”! The Render puts her on the trail of Justine herself, who might become the next priestess, and does become the protagonist for the rest of the book. The sex is usually gross but consensual, except when Justine breaks out “the Triple Word of Power”; the descriptions of unfortunate people like “the pinheaded mongrel freak” are much more offputting. The dialogue all appears in italics rather than within speech marks, which is a bit distancing, and a lot of apostrophes are missing, which is not at all sexy. The synonyms used for relevant body parts (“dripping vacancy”, “orgone-sheathed cockmeat”) can be quite amusing. Not my kind of thing, but I’m glad I gave it a try, and people in the market for Lovecraftian erotica may well find that it calls their Cthulhu. Stephen Theaker **

Saturday 17 November 2018

Retief! by Keith Laumer (Baen Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Retief, a junior member on various ambassadorial teams, clears up the messes of his incompetent superiors with a combination of brains and fists. The stories in this 2002 collection tend to be action-driven comedies, cynical reflections on the madness of the world and what a good man with two good fists could do to sort things out. There’s a very American impatience here with the limitations of diplomacy. Stories of competent men fighting their way out of difficult situations can be brilliant – many Jack Vance books, like the Demon Princes series, fall into this category. But Retief’s world is flimsy, his enemies paper cut-outs, and he tears through them as if the paper in question was single-ply tissue. He is stronger, more intelligent and more sensible than everyone he meets. His opponents are fat, effete and in some cases literally lightweight. A typical story sees Retief visit a world where the workers have overthrown the technological elite, with theoretically hilarious consequences. These stories may well have been based on actual events Keith Laumer himself had witnessed during his foreign postings, but, as written here, it comes across as extremely condescending to the working class. Women tend to be either strict secretaries, or very literal rewards for a good day’s work (with “very fat watchamacallits”). They are very rarely involved in the action, and often entirely absent from stories. The exception to the rule goes by the Bond-esque name of Miss Braswell. None of which is to say that this was entirely unenjoyable. In an undemanding way it’s okay, and it’s the kind of goofball sf I like to try writing myself. But the stories left no impression on me – and not for the first time, since according to my list of books read I’d already read some of them in a previous Retief collection, Envoy to New Worlds. None raised a flash of recollection. The most enjoyable section of the book was the complete novel included, Retief’s War, where an offworlder is encouraging the formation of a police state on a world where robots have evolved to live in anarchy. ***

Thursday 15 November 2018

Nanowrimo: half-time thoughts

Half-way through Nanowrimo, and for once I’m bang on schedule to finish the novel, at 25,116 words – and during October I finished off my 2016 novel as a warm-up, so I’m feeling pretty happy. Here are a few random thoughts about the whole thing.

I’ve only once written more than this without finishing the novel in November. I've already beaten previous flame-outs Happy When It Rains (3384), I Couldn't See Past the Spider (8341), Triumphs of the Two Husbands (15,991) and Mygret Zend and the Sickening Dinner (21,404), and tomorrow I should overtake Holding Hands Among the Stars (25,552). After that come the five novels I did finish writing during November: The Fear Man, three Howard Phillips novels, and Beatrice et Veronique.

I’ve been off social media since October 21 and that has been very good for my writing. I’m still reading some stuff, looking at interesting Twitter accounts while signed out, but I can’t interact with them, so it just becomes like reading teletext if it were written by friends and people I admire. There's none of the distraction caused by wondering whether what you've posted will get any likes, or if it will be taken the wrong way, or if it’ll go viral. I still can’t believe my tweet about using damp hands to open plastic bags didn’t go big. It’s changed my life!

I’ve absolutely loved using the Freewrite, and I’ve got over my shyness about using it in public. It does have a mechanical keyboard, but it’s nowhere near as loud as the Das Keyboard I use with my PC, and maybe only twice as loud as a regular laptop keyboard anyway. I didn’t hear it at all at our Nanowrimo region’s all-night write-over (although there are some very boisterous members in the group), and I didn’t feel it attracted attention at all in pubs or cafes, except from people who wanted to know what it was. One bartender came back more than once to ask more questions, and I felt kind of reticent since it looks cool but it doesn’t really do anything except let you write, and it’s a bit hard to explain why that’s a good thing in a thirty second conversation! I’ve regularly written a thousand words before my tea has gone cold. I can’t wait for the more portable Freewrite Traveler to arrive. I backed it on Indiegogo the instant it was possible.

The Wetherspoon’s app is brilliant. I can see my daughter off on her school bus, go in the pub, order my jam on toast and tea, and get straight on with writing. In all the years of my co-editor and I going out for TQF editorial meetings, I doubt I’ve gone to the bar more than ten times. I find it really awkward. The Wetherspoon’s app is making me like pubs. Shame about all the Brexit stuff in there, but it's like any pub with a daft theme, you tune it out pretty quickly.

Getting my chapter done first thing in the morning is terrific. It stops me stressing about it and lets me get to bed at a decent time. But I do have to get out of the habit of patting myself on the back for the subsequent hour.

However, going to the pub or a cafe every morning isn't sustainable long-term. I've been home by ten with the rest of the day clear for paid work, so that hasn't been a problem (in fact I've been really productive this month, and I've had a lot of innovative new ideas), but a few pounds a day for tea and bus fare builds up over time. I have to find a way to create that early morning cafe feel at home.

I’d really like to keep going after this. I have a bunch of other unfinished novels that could do with reaching a conclusion (see above, and that's just those I began during Nanowrimo), plus last year I said I would write a Doctor Who parody for a charity range, and I would still really like to do that. You can buy the others here. It’s for a good cause! Even if it ends up being too late for that range, I had a nice idea for a book and put quite a lot of preparatory work into it, and it would be a shame to waste that. It would make for a fun issue of TQF if nothing else.

Anyway, hope you're having a good November. I am reading submissions at the moment, and should have replied to everyone by the end of the first week of December. Our next issue will be out later that month, and is already shaping up nicely.

PS. Please consider buying Interzone #278 or even better subscribing. It contains my reviews of Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar and Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates but you know that's going to be the least of its treasures.

Sunday 11 November 2018

Lost Souls, by Kelley Armstrong (Subterranean Press) | review

Gabriel Walsh is a thirty-year-old defence attorney who would be feeling bored if he wasn’t so down in the dumps. He finds his day-to-day work rather too easy, and about a month ago he had a row with a key employee, his firm’s investigator, Olivia. What’s more, she is also his chief crush, they both have fae blood, and they had recently discovered a big secret about their joint destiny. Gabriel hasn’t yet discovered that the handsome hobgoblin hanging around his office is actually his father, but the old, old man is looking out for him all the same, and brings a potential case to Gabriel’s attention in hopes that it’ll be enough to tempt Olivia back onto the team. A horny middle-aged guy picked up a dripping wet braless hitchhiker in the middle of the night, and she led him deep into the countryside before disappearing. It sounds like an over-familiar scenario to the two investigators, an urban legend doing the rounds for the umpteenth time, but it becomes a bit more serious when they realise that people have been dying. This was a fairly enjoyable novella, a part of the author’s Cainsville series. A Goodreads user asked whether people who hadn’t read the other books in the series would be able to follow it, and my answer was that I think they can, because it sets out the background very clearly. However, new readers may not care very much about it, because it does for the most part read like an extended epilogue to (and recovery from) the previous story, with the investigation only really beginning in earnest about two-thirds through the short book. Gabriel and Olivia are a good romantic pair, well-suited and both with enough jagged edges to make their reluctance to get together believable. Stephen Theaker ***

Saturday 10 November 2018

The Jack Vance Treasury, by Jack Vance (Subterranean Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

This was my favourite book I read in 2017, and maybe my favourite book ever. Edited by Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan, this collection of short stories and novellas was originally published as an expensive six hundred page hardback in 2006, and unfortunately the ebook isn’t generally available in the United Kingdom, but I was able to acquire it in a Subterranean Press Humble Bundle (every one of which has been an essential purchase). It contains several of my favourite stories of all time, for example “The Moon Moth”, about the hunt for a murderer on a world where everyone wears masks and speech must be accompanied by the appropriate musical instrument; “The Dragon Masters”, where Joaz Banbeck of Aerlith must lead the fight when aliens return to Banbeck Vale; or “The Overworld”, where Cugel the Clever encounters a village of people surrounded by filth but delighted to live in such luxury. Though I had read many of the stories before, either in short story collections or fix-up novels, it was a sheer treat to read them again, and there were many interesting stories with which I was not familiar, such as “The New Prime”, “Sail” and “The Men Return”, a very strange tale of a world where causality had gone away. The language is always a delight: stories begin with lines like “The archveult Xexamedes, digging gentian roots in Were Wood, became warm with exhertion” (“Morreion”) and are full of new vocabulary. Its weakness is that there are not a lot of female protagonists, and the supporting female characters can be caricaturishly simpering. “The Mitr” is an exception, the terribly sad story of a shipwrecked young woman, which reads like it could have been written yesterday. There are eighteen stories in all, each with an afterword extracted by the editors from Vance’s writings about his work. These don’t always comment directly on the story itself, but always add to our understanding of his work. The afterword to “The Dragon Masters”, for example, quotes him considering in 1977 the science behind the worlds of Rigel in the Demon Princes, which might surprise those who think of him primarily as a fantasist. You may not be able to buy this book. If you can, I recommend doing so! If not, seek out these stories in whatever editions are available in your country. *****

Sunday 4 November 2018

The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord | review by Stephen Theaker

Rafi Abowen Delarua, Moo to his friends, also known as Rafidelarua, lives on the planet Cygnus Beta. For the last year he has attended the Tlaxce National Lyceum, and he’s getting bored, even though it’s a school for training “rogue and random psi gifted” to use their powers wisely. He is only fourteen when the book begins, but everyone is worried about him: his notorious father was immensely powerful, and did not use his powers for good.

Saturday 3 November 2018

Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor ( | review by Stephen Theaker

To be the first from your family to go to university is a curious experience, and, although Binti’s family is exceptionally talented, she is the first of the whole Himba tribe to attend a very special university: it’s on another planet. She’s made friends there with Okwu, a Meduse who was present at an event in the first book that left Binti badly traumatised – and, more positively, left her with alien head tentacles that wave around when she gets mad instead of braids. A year later, she is still getting used to those, to everything, and, even though she’s a dab hand at using maths to calm herself down, she decides to return home during the holidays, to Earth, to go on a traditional pilgrimage and sort herself out. When she gets there, there’ll be some comfort, some pain, and a new, unexpected and revelatory adventure. Binti is a fascinating character with a fascinating background who is living a fascinating life, and what more do you need for a great book? Though this is the middle story in a trilogy, and at the end things are set up for the third book rather than concluded, there is plenty going on. It is easy to sympathise with her feelings about it all. It’s a book with lots of fun ideas, like spaceships that are giant pregnant fish, and when Binti dances she can “manifest mathematical current within me, harmonising it with my muscles, skin, sinew, and bones”. However, she’s forbidden from dancing, from going in the water, from being seen in public without otjize, the happiness of returning home tempered, as it is for so many people, by the need to fit back into the metaphorical cocoon. An old friend, Dele, tells her sadly why he doesn’t want to hang with her while she’s back: “You’re too complex.” But as she comes to realise, “Change was my destiny.”

Note that the Kindle edition can only be downloaded on a limited number of devices, which seems odd for a DRM-free title. We ran out quickly, because everyone in the family wanted it on their Kindles. ****

Thursday 1 November 2018

Good luck for Nanowrimo!

November is here! The month when I head to the word mines and dig up the golden words that form the backbone of our magazine!

I feel quite well-prepared this time. I haven’t done any actual planning, but I have a title (The Administrator of Tultrax), a theme (duty and betrayal) and a little sketch of a city nestling within a mountain range.

Also, I spent October finishing one of my previous November novels, Holding Hands Among the Stars, from 2015 (which we have been serialising in recent issues of TQF), and I think that’s given me a good idea of what's likely to work this time around:

Using a large squared moleskine cahier devoted to the novel, with pages for brainstorms, character sketches, maps, questions that still need answering, things worth remembering and notes for each chapter (made while I’m writing as much as before, to remember key points, names, places, species, etc). And if I fail? Having all my 2015 notes in a cahier made it infinitely easier to pick up the novel years later and finish it.

Starting to write at 9.00 pm, when Mrs Theaker goes to sleep. The idea of writing first thing in the morning always appeals to me, but whenever I try that I keep putting it off and it delays my whole day. If I write at nine, I’m usually done by eleven, and I can carry on till twelve or one in a pinch.

Doing everything I could to make sure my work for the day was done by the evening, not leaving anything to be mopped up after everyone else has gone to bed — my worst habit.

Going up to our spare room, writing on my Freewrite, and not coming out until I’ve finished. The living room might be cosier and Alexa might be there to keep me company, but so is the Xbox and the TV and Netflix and a pile of comics and way too many distractions. There’s nothing to do in the spare room except get on with writing my novel.

Allowing space in my novel for improvisation. It helps to know roughly where I’m going, but the fun bit is getting there in the barmiest possible way. I kept saying “Yes, and…” to myself, like they do in improv groups.

Rewarding myself with a food treat every hundred words. Ritz biscuits at first, but that was quite a lot of Ritz biscuits, so then Smarties.

Using a water bottle with a screwtop lid. The one I got came from Paperchase. The unscrewing, sipping and screwing it back on is a good, ritualistic time filler while I wait for sentences to come.

Using an old Kindle Keyboard to play MP3s. No way to select tracks, no other distractions, it just plays a bunch of songs and that’s it.

Getting someone to lock my phone and any other distracting devices with a PIN. I’m going to have to buy an Apple phone next time, because the parental controls on Android phones are no use for parents who need controlling.

Going directly to bed after I’ve finished. A good night’s sleep is always a good idea.

Writing in libraries and coffee shops worked well too. (Not something that will be a revelation to anyone!) While out and about in October I wrote on my Chromebook using John Watson’s Writer, the Internet Typewriter. It was well worth paying for the Pro version. I love the green text on a black background, and being able to export an epub on my Chromebook and add it straight to Play Books is brilliant.

If you want to read more of my tips for completing the challenge, here are a few of the articles from past years. Just remember that it's all advice for writing a novel in a month, not advice for writing a novel that anyone else will want to read.

Anyway, good luck with your November novels, and more importantly good luck to me with mine! The first chapter is now done.

Here's how I'm doing: