Sunday, 19 December 2010

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Orbit: who doesn’t love a good chart? Editor Dongwon Song and the team have been playing with a new Google tool this week, the Ngram Viewer. You can ask Google to graph certain terms in their Google Books archive (all of it or just, say, French books) between set dates to see which is the most recurring. Orbit have gone for (naturally) orcs, elves and dwarves (with elves as the clear winner) and, with no need for a Harry Hill-esque fight, for all those crying ‘but what’s more popular, zombies, werewolves or vampires?’ you can now rest easy: it’s vampires. How exciting is this? Finally Google has used its power for the good of humankind and I finally get to find out what’s more popular in the wealth of (Googled) British fiction between 1800 and 2010: a camel, a shoe or the elbow? It turns out the humble shoe is the clear winner (although in 1860 it was a close one when the elbow gained popularity).

HarperVoyager: this week the Voyager have put out a call for reviewers/bloggers to volunteer to review one of their latest titles, Prince of Thorns by Martin Lawrence. They’re currently compiling a list of bloggers who want to review any of their authors’ debut titles in 2011 and if you want to be on their list just email It’s a great way of generating free publicity for new authors on their list and getting their titles into circulation – and getting a free book if you’re a blogger. Blurb here:

From being a privileged royal child, raised by a loving mother, Jorg Ancrath has become the Prince of Thorns, a charming, immoral boy leading a grim band of outlaws in a series of raids and atrocities. The world is in chaos: violence is rife, nightmares everywhere. Jorg has the ability to master the living and the dead, but there is still one thing that puts a chill in him. Returning to his father’s castle Jorg must confront horrors from his childhood and carve himself a future with all hands turned against him.

Prince of Thorns is the first volume in a powerful new epic fantasy trilogy, original, absorbing and challenging. Mark Lawrence’s debut novel tells a tale of blood and treachery, magic and brotherhood and paints a compelling and brutal, and sometimes beautiful, picture of an exceptional boy on his journey toward manhood and the throne.

Solaris: free ebook from Solaris this week. You can download the epub or PDF format of The Blue Portal by Eric Brown here, which is nice. It’s less an entire ebook and more a short extract from his upcoming title The King of Eternity but it’s free for the reader and it’s a lovely bit of free publicity for Solaris and Brown.

Best SFF 2010: due to it being the end of the year, a number of ‘Best-of’ lists are appearing which note the top SFF titles of 2010. As I don’t often get SFF titles recommended to me, for me these lists are a great way of seeing what books would have otherwise slipped past me and I can quite happily let them dictate my reading for the next few months. A selection of these lists include: Barnes and Noble, Kirkus Reviews,, and the Good Reads Choice Awards. I’ll do a full blog on these because I think they’re worth comparing (and currently the list is compiled by Orbit, which makes my job easier but also it’s slightly biased towards lists that mention Orbit).

Friday, 17 December 2010

book review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Published by Angry Robots in the UK and Jacana in South Africa, Zoo City is only the second novel from South African writer, Lauren Beukes (following Moxyland), although her work reads with the ease and lyricism of a seasoned pro, which, in all fairness, she is. Beukes has a journalism and scriptwriting background and she isn’t afraid to use these hard-earned skills in her novel writing, which shines through both in wording and style. Beukes is the writer equivalent of a method actor: a method writer. Her research is both academic and physical and she’s been to healers’ markets, visited churches that once housed over three thousand refugees has been thrown out of night clubs, all in the name of fiction. Her methods pay off.

Ex-drug addict Zinzi December is a woman with a past, but that’s obvious from the Sloth on her back. FL (former life) she was a journalist, but now she lives in the South African slums of Zoo City, where most of the residents have been ‘animalled’. She’s become a Mashavi, which refers to both her animal familiar, Sloth, and her magical ability, which for her is to find lost things. Like others in this alternative present, her animal was thrust upon her by the shadowy Undertow, which came for her after her brother was killed by a bullet meant for her. Whether it’s a guilty conscience that has started to manifest physically, a godly punishment or, like the daemons in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (something hinted at in the book), part of their soul, being animalled in a society already suffering from other xenophobic attitudes is not conductive to an easy life.

Still paying off drug debts she racked up in her FL, Zinzi is involved with Internet scams as well as using her ability to find lost things – for a price – when she’s implemented in the murder of one of her clients. In need of the money after the police take her payment for that job, she’s forced to break her ‘no missing persons’ rule to find a lost pop princess and becomes embroiled in more murders and shady goings-on in the music world.

Even with the first person narrative, Zinzi – with her fabulous insults and severe personal issues - is a difficult person to get to know, but by the end you feel that you at least understand her for all of her foibles. This is a story that feels personal, and painful. From Zinzi’s touchingly fragile relationship with BenoĆ®t, another Mashavi, to the very real history of the country that still haunts them, although it’s Fantasy the magic is more mythological and is not what drives the story. It’s primarily focussed on the broken people desperate to pick up the pieces just to get by from day-to-day and to rebuild some sort of life, and it’s about living with regret, in this case literally with the physical presence of their animals. The fear of being animalled and the inability to get away from your animal if it happens to you adds an element of claustrophobia to the simmering crucible of a society already in troubled times. Although similar to the daemons in Pullman’s universe, the idea of being unable to hide an aspect of yourself – the monkey on your back - is compelling enough, along with the fast-paced plot, that the novel never falls into the trap of being all concept and no substance.

Beukes paints a bleak picture of Johannesburg and human nature in general; it’s a crumbling city where the ridiculously opulent areas are side-by-side with the dirt-poor, like gold teeth in a rotting mouth. I usually enjoy books more that are lighter in tone, but this bleakness doesn’t overwhelm the novel because the theme of redemption is present throughout, driving the characters forward, however unconsciously.

With Zoo City, Beukes shows what can still be done with the Urban Fantasy genre: it’s a wonderful, gritty, unique gem of a novel, filled with witty dialogue and sentences that zing off the page, and, much like her troubled main character Zinzi, is edgy without being alienating and vulnerable without being soft.


Sunday, 12 December 2010

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Angry Robot Books: during the days running up to Christmas, advent, if you will, Angry Robot have been gifting readers through their digital advent calendar with anything from writer Dan Abnett’s secret family bread sauce recipe (awww) to Christmas horror short, The Holiday Man by J Robert King. I think this is a great idea – it’s for the fans, it whets appetites for authors, it brings a sort of warm glowy feeling often associated with Christmas and being given free things, and it fosters a community spirit amongst its readers, also known, rather fuzzily, as ‘brand loyalty’.

self-publishing: a success story: this weekend it was reported that self-published Fantasy author Brian S. Pratt has been earning thousands of dollars from the 17 eBooks he’s publishing on eBook platform for ‘independent writers’, Smashwords. I hesitate to say ‘perhaps this is the way forward’ because I’m an old-fashioned snob at heart when it comes to publishing. Still, authors have complete pricing control over their work, the eBooks are available in all formats and they’ve published over 25,000 authors since they opened for business back in May 2008. Perhaps this IS the way ... no sorry, I just can’t.

Penguin USA: Penguin Daw author Gini Koch has been guest posting on The Author’s Desk blog this week and has some interesting theories about why readers might be put off by Science Fiction (because it’s viewed as ‘hard or scary or boring’). Koch’s titles are the Sci Fi equivalent of the Paranormal Romance. The Alien Series, beginning with her debut novel Touched by an Alien (a title not as misleading as the TV series about angels), centres on marketing manager Katherine ‘Kitty’ Katt who kills a man after he turns into a monster. She’s whisked away by secret agents who reveal to her that this man was mutated by an alien parasite, and that they too are aliens from Alpha Centauri. But, more importantly, they’re sexy aliens. One such agent, Jeff Martini (another case of the Ford Prefect misjudged moniker?), begins stalking Kitty, which she, of course, finds sexy and alluring. It was one of Booklist’s Top Ten adult Science Fiction and Fantasy novels of 2010, so there is obviously something to all this sexy alien malarkey. Interestingly, Koch writes in one guest post about how the majority of her readers are not Sci Fi fans originally. Perhaps this ‘non-threatening science fiction’ as Koch dubs it would be my perfect way in to the genre, although it’s more soft-focused than soft.

Orbit: more festive frolics from publishers. I love a good visualisation. Orbit have put together a lovely visual graphic to examine the difference between the Christmas elf, and the Fantasy elf. Enjoy! They’re also giving away ‘Christmas loot’ regularly in the run up to Christmas, although more excitingly, they’ve changed their logo to reflect the season. Maybe this is only exciting to me.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

TV preview: HBO's Game of Thrones

HBO’s Game of Thrones TV series based on the first book in Voyager author George R. R. Martin’s epic Fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire should premier April 2011. The network have released this behind-the-scenes video that shows-off their series and it looks like it’s going to be, well, epic. Anyone worried that the scope would be too vast to cram into a few episodes will understand why HBO have decided to tackle the books one at a time.

A Game of Thrones won the 1997 Locus award and has been nominated for other top awards since its original publication in 1996. Set in Westeros, the land where winters can last a lifetime, and lifetimes seldom last out the winter, this is a gorgeous and incredibly detailed series that is well worth reading whether you’re a fan of the genre or not. To put it very simply: it begins at the end of summer in a tremulous time of peace and descends through intricate layers of politics between ruling Houses across the land into all out war and full winter. There are supernatural threats building in the North, but the humans have enough to contend with just between each other. You’ll love characters and lose them: Martin is as brutal as he is talented.

As for the television cast, Sean Bean has combed out his Boromir wig for the role of Ned Stark and Peter Dinklage is exactly how I imagined my particular favourite character, the multi-layered Tyrion Lannister, would be. The preview reveals some truly amazing sets so much kudos goes to the art department. The CGI looks like it’s going to meld seamlessly with the large scale sets that look, thankfully, more LOTR alternative history than Zena.

Preview highlight: George R. R. Martin saying that Fantasy is bigger than history. He’s amazing.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks


Dear teenage self,

If only Atom’s The Atomics, a new blogosphere of reviewers aged twelve to eighteen who will be given the opportunity to see Atom’s latest titles before they go to print, had existed back when you were morosely putting pen to paper. You could have stopped writing about the love that never could be (he’s gay, by the way), and instead wrote reviews and been published in the Atomics section of the Atom website. I wrote about this last month as Atom are great for interacting with their blogging fans (and feeding them buns). They are also keen to let readers know they aren’t just publishing ‘girly’ paranormal romances, they’re currently expanding their list to cater to a breadth of teenage topics, including mystery and adventure. Perhaps this signals a move away from what could be known as their Twilight Era, their ‘tween’ stage on the way to being a fully established imprint no longer under Orbit’s considerable shadow. Atom is all grown up and ready to split (sorry).

Angry Robot Books: these guys have, rather excitingly, just launched their digital short story store and from the 1st December readers will be able to buy and download their authors’ short stories (AKA ‘Nano Editions’). Also, at 59p each or 10 for £3.49, they’re not pricey. Eager to embrace the new opportunities digital technology is presenting publishers with, Editor Lee Harris calls this venture an ‘excellent way for readers to sample unfamiliar authors, without breaking the bank.’ In addition, I realise I’ve said this before but I really do intend to review a title by this publisher if only to justify my place in their Angry Robot Army, where I am currently registering as so low in the ranks I’m only classed as Miffed. Also, great interview with Harris in SFX here.

2010 Urban Fantasy Cover Art Awards: voting is now open for these annual awards by All Things Urban Fantasy and closes on 29th December. Featuring titles published between the 1st January and the 31st December 2010, the 15 categories include Best Male Cover, Most Unique Cover, Cover of the Year 2010 and, my personal favourite, Best Female w/ Animal Cover. Voting also means you’re eligible to win some of the shortlisted titles. I love covers, being a hardcopy romantic, and naturally there are many beautiful pieces of art to choose from, such as artist Chris McGrath’s cover designs for Clay and Susan Griffith’s The Greyfriar, a Steampunk title published by Prometheus Books (and surely based on Mitchell, the vampire from the excellent BBC supernatural drama Being Human?). My favourite cover out of all those in the running has to be The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, published by Razorbill and by cover artist Jonathan Barkat, for its uniqueness amongst the usual Urban Fantasy tokes and because it features that which terrifies me the most: a baby in a pram.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

best book trailers

Book trailers (to wit: trailers for books) have fascinated me for a while now. I can completely see their value, if done well. But they’re a bit of a challenge, like perfume adverts. The audience can’t do the obvious thing and actually smell the product, so the advert is most likely to contain a woman rolling around erotically, slowly removing what little clothes she has on while a testosterone-deep voiceover rasps, ‘Erogenous, the new fragrance for women.’ The marketing team (or author) has to think of a way to convey what the book is about without resorting to simply reading out the blurb over a flashing image of the book slowly removing its jacket. The other issue, particularly with genre publishers, is that there are small teams and smaller budgets to contend with, but that doesn’t stop them from trying this marketing endeavour. Some of the following trailers work. Others not so much.

Michelle Zink’s Prophecy of the Sisters – Atom

This uses a mixture of the blurb and photography, with slightly repetitive music. It’s pretty good and I particularly like the mysterious glimpse of the island, but it misses out on describing the actual plot and as far as I can see it’s about a good sister, an evil sister, and only one of them can prevail, which understandably breeds some mistrust between the siblings.

Aliette de Bodard’s Harbinger of the Storm – Angry Robot Books

This is by the author rather than the publisher and it’s an inventive mix of animation, photography and film. It also gives a good sense of the plot.

Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three – Orbit Books

Built by the Quake2World project, this is a videogame-esque trailer that is simply a teaser for the book, so no blurb, simply the words ‘Can you survive the ship?’ The blood on the floor is a nice touch, and it’s Event Horizon meets Alien by the looks of things, but that’s only a guess, although guessing is what we are being invited to do.

Trent Jamieson’s Death Most Definite – Orbit Books

This is the first book trailer by the author for this title. I’m not kidding, I actually clicked on it several times, utterly confused, before it finally, er, clicked. It’s a book trailer. Get it?

And here is the second:

This is by far my favourite trailer I’ve seen so far. It’s atmospheric, intruiging and beautifully done. The graphic-novel pictures coupled with the black birds breaking up each image is just phenomenal and really makes me want to read this book and find out more about the author behind the trailer.

Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars – Hodder and Stoughton

And this is what happens when you have a big budget. For Stephen King’s collection of four short stories in Full Dark, No Stars Hodder and Stoughton have teamed up with Future Shorts and created four unique, completely different trailers, that they say are to give the ‘flavour’ of each story, rather than portray the exact details. Disturbing views of bloodied bed sheets, shady roadside deals and calm night time murders abound in what are essentially short films. Intriguing, dark and twisted, the completely silent (apart from a slow, drawling version of ‘Stand by your man’)A Good Marriage trailer is my favourite.