Tuesday, 28 June 2011

film review: X-Men: First Class (12A)

Having eradicated any mystery surrounding its greatest asset, the Adamantium-reinforced hairstyle Wolverine, the X-Men franchise has now turned its attention to mining the relationship between the heads of the mutant fractions, Magneto and Professor Xavier. Essentially, Marvel prequel X-Men: First Class is a 1960s-set mutant bromance.

In 1944, in German-occupied Poland, young Erik Lehnsherr bends a metal gate with his mutant abilities when his mother is taken from him by Nazis. His magnetism catches the eye of scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who brutally awakens the soon-to-be Magneto’s abilities, creating a forceful archenemy.

Skip to 1962 and twenty-something mutant Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), complete with full head of hair, is celebrating graduating by wooing girls with his mindreading abilities and knowledge of mutant lore. It’s almost as if he knows his cool days are numbered. Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds), meanwhile, is location hopping, suaving people to death in a Bond-like trail of revenge as he seeks out his ‘maker’, Shaw.

When CIA agent Moira (Rose Byrne, Get Him to the Greek) stumbles upon Shaw’s Hellfire Club, an elite band of mutants bent on heating up the Cold War, she enlists Xavier to help her convince the government that mutants exist. Xavier swiftly puts his college days behind him to join her with foster sister Raven in tow, the occasionally blue shape shifter ‘Mystique’ (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone).

With the use of Cerebro, a machine that focuses his telepathic abilities, Xavier begins to recruit his own band of mutants, starting with Lehnsherr, AKA Magneto, his soon-to-be arch-nemesis. But can any amount of split screen training montages help Professor X’s fledgling school of mutants stop Shaw from enabling humans to obliterate each other, when half of them think they deserve it?

At the heart of X-Men: First Class lies the doomed relationship between Xavier and Magneto. Magneto’s power was born of pain, Xavier’s of privilege. Yet despite their differing beliefs, the film paints a believable picture of blossoming friendship based on mutual respect. It’s hard to hide a soft centre from someone who can read your innermost thoughts, yet the pair’s scenes together brim with humour, and are touching without being schmaltzy.

Writers Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz worked on Marvel Comic’s Thor together, so they’re no strangers to superhero adaptations. While the same self-aware wit is present, First Class doesn’t lose marks with the same pitfall reliance on squeaky-clean CGI sets or glut of hammy characters. Perhaps because Kick Ass script scribe Jane Goldman is on hand to tighten the package with her quick fire dialogue and unabashed violence.

Kick Ass director Matthew Vaughn has managed to build on the world first deftly brought to screen by Brian Singer, who is back on board as producer. Despite featuring teenagers prone to mutating into hairy blue beasts, he’s somehow kept the Marvel universe down-to-earth and believable. It’s the angst he’s interested in, and not just the damage it results in.

A respectable crop of acting talent also helps. Brit Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man, Skins) pulls off an excellent yank accent as the troubled scientist with opposable toes, Hank McCoy. As if being a teenager isn’t hard enough. January Jones (Mad Men) utilises the ‘60s setting to valiantly pour herself into the increasingly tight white outfits worn by villainess Emma Frost, a diamond-encrusted telepath.

Some characters are underused and underdeveloped. Byrne’s beautiful CIA agent is relegated to simply being a useful plot device and the film barely chips the surface of Frost’s glittering exterior. These are minor complaints, however, as Vaughn’s focus is firmly on a select number of mutants whose abilities he can exploit to the max with his frequent, well-executed and breathtaking action scenes.

Those that do get the limelight, bask. Fassbender excels as the damaged Magneto. He blazes a trail from one end of the film to the other as Frankenstein’s monster wanting words with his creator. Yes this point is hammered home, but this doesn’t stop Fassbender allowing the audience a glimpse into Magneto’s pitted heart and teasing them with the possibility of the magnetic one’s redemption.

If Magneto’s foible is a tendency to try to destroy the human race, Professor X is too eager to please them. McAvoy’s Professor X isn’t the virtuous wheelchair-bound figure of his later years; his ‘can’t we all just get along’ philosophy has xenophobic origins. Under Vaughn’s direction, McAvoy never needs to spell it out – it’s written in his stoic, unyielding countenance. And the relationship he isn’t having with his jilted, blue best friend.

Bacon’s energy-absorbing mutant Shaw is spot on as the smug villain of the piece, although not even he can rock that helmet. Shaw might not get the finale he deserves, but that’s because Vaughn is always steering the focus back to bringing a satisfying end to his leading duo’s partnership.

Vaughn has successfully brought the X-Men franchise back to life. First Class is a blast – a well-paced action flick that’s grounded by the magnificent performances of its leads. X-Men: First Class – it’s all in the name.


Saturday, 18 June 2011

digital marketing - Gollancz

Over the last few weeks this blog has been focusing on what the four imprints I’m using as case studies for my dissertation do to digitally market their books. Like a bookish clash between Come Dine with Me and Whose Line is it Anyway?, each imprint has had a turn, the rules are made up and the points don’t matter. I have so far blogged about Tor UK, Orbit UK and HarperVoyager. This post is about Gollancz.


Website: Gollancz has a section on the Orion Publishing Group’s website (which they’re owned by). When I first started this blog, this part of their website, and their blog, were not updated very often. In recent months however, particularly as it’s their 50th anniversary year, Gollancz have hit their stride with their webpage and blog. On their main page you can find their book of the month and author of the month (including links to their previous books so you can buy them, the author’s website and information about them), a bestseller list specifically for their titles with clickable links to further information and ways to purchase them, a list of their upcoming events and a nice link to a webpage for their most popular series, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood books. They also have a ‘What’s hot’ section that contains recent news: this week, brilliantly, they’re in cahoots with National Blood Week – cross-promotional AND charity points, they’re also showcasing a trailer for their book of the month, Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper, a link to the Masterworks Reading Project, (old) news about Ian McDonald’s Dervish House being shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award (won by Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City) and a celebration of the last 25 years of the Arthur C Clarke Award (or should that be the first?). Gollancz does have a young adult page, although I’m just focusing on adult fiction here.

Blog: also on the Orion website, you will find the Gollancz blog. If you click through their archive, you’ll see there was a post in November, the next post wasn’t until April, and then you get to the May tab, and you’ll understand what I mean about a lack of activity until recently. Every day for a week in May they celebrated 50 years of Gollancz with a new blog post (I’m sure they did more than write a blog post, 50 years is a long time). They had a readers’ vote for their favourite titles, which is now closed, but this flurry of activity shows what can be done. However, I imagine it took a lot of time and resources, and it’s possible they’re another small team (the entire team seems to have written a post for this seven day session) that can’t afford to do this all the time. So, 50th anniversary points (admittedly, very particular to Gollancz). And it’s a shame that more can’t be done with the blog, because it is a great way to connect with readers, if they allowed for comments, and Joe Abercrombie’s post on George RR Martin shows its potential for entertainment. But that’s where, for Gollancz, Facebook comes in.

Facebook: this is where the digital marketing really happens for Gollancz. Their main technique is to run competitions for readers to win their titles (admittedly, this was more prevalent a few months back). Many competitions. They have all the competition points. It would be really interesting to find out how these competitions affect sales, if at all. I really hope they help sales, I think it’s a unique way of marketing, and great for smaller budgets (although the postage and packaging costs must be immense). You can really see the dedication of the marketing team (person?) here. They also post YouTube links to author interviews and trailers, flag up signings, reviews, post pictures, links to other relevant information they feel their readers will find interesting (points for not just talking about themselves), news about their award nominations, and just a whole host of other links and comments. Some stats: 1859 people ‘like’ their page, on average they post 2-3 times per day, and they have 1 sister Facebook page, Gollancz Dark Fantasy, which has 3526 ‘likes’ (and does much of the same, only with more of a focus on Charlaine Harris).

Twitter: here, as well as the beauty of hash tags, there is more of the same frequency of posts and topics as on the Facebook page. They have a Gollancz, Gollancz Dark Fantasy and a temporary account for their 50th anniversary. They also have mystery book quotes for followers to guess, tweets about events they’re currently attending (like the David Gemmell Awards – topical), and are just generally entertaining. They definitely know their way around a hash tag. Hash tag points.

Digital advances: Orion has a ‘Reading room’ area of their website, which is an ace way of promoting your titles, taking a cosy concept but making it digital. Here you can access sample PDFs of some of Gollancz’s titles, like Charlaine Harris’ Dead Reckoning. Cosy concept points.

Recently their author Charlaine Harris became the latest writer to exceed the 1m Kindle eBooks mark. So they’re doing well here, particularly with this author (the TV series possibly helps).

Gollancz have a digital publisher, Darren Nash, who promised the following back in August 2010 for Gollancz’s digital future: ‘enhanced e-books and apps, backlist projects, building virtual communities and developing online interaction through social media such as Twitter and blogs.’ I would definitely say that social media (barring the blog, perhaps) has taken off and looks to be going very strong. However, apps and enhanced eBooks haven’t yet shown their faces. In a blog post, their author Joe Abercrombie did mention a meeting with his editor that resulted in an absolutely amazing sounding eBook package, but I can’t find any further mention of it. I’m not sure about issuing ‘just around the corner’ points, but, what the heck, I’ll do it anyway.

Oh, and Amazon.co.uk shows that they have 391 eBooks published by Gollancz. That’s a good number.

Extras: the Orion Publishing Group has a general YouTube channel where you can find Gollancz trailers and author interviews. I can’t find many uploads by Gollancz, however, but it’s good that they’re utilising Orion’s page.

Conclusion: contain yourself - an exciting summary will follow shortly. Disclaimer: none of the imprints will win £1000 presented to them on a silver platter. They will not get to read out the end credits in the style of someone trying to propose just as their loved one discovers a beetle doing backstroke in their soup.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

digital marketing - HarperVoyager

Over the next few weeks this blog is going to focus on what the four imprints I’m using as case studies for my dissertation do to digitally market their books. Like a bookish clash between Come Dine with Me and Whose Line is it Anyway?, each imprint gets a turn, the rules are made up and the points don’t matter. This post is about HarperVoyager UK.


One thing that I have not taken into account so far with blogging about Tor UK and Orbit UK’s digital marketing is business models. The term ‘business model’ tends to make my brain prepare to be imminently baffled, but what I mean by it here is pretty basic – the number of staff within the imprint and their roles. In Voyager’s case, having done work experience there, I know that there is a grand total of two staff members dedicated purely to this Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint, one of which handles the majority of the digital marketing. Solo points to her before we even begin.

Website: like Orbit, Voyager’s website is really a blog. While Orbit’s site is maintained in by a triumvirate of worldwide imprints (note: not as evil as it sounds), Voyager’s is hosted by HarperCollins and maintained mainly by one dedicated Assistant Editor, and a few guest bloggers. There tends to be about one to two posts every fortnight, and they can consist of: reviews from HarperCollins’ staff members of Voyager’s books, an huge ongoing campaign for George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (HBO’s TV adaptation - Game of Thrones, new covers, eBooks and the date for the upcoming, long-awaited A Dance With Dragons), countdown widgets for upcoming titles for blogs and websites, trailers, occasional book of the month (book of the every other month?), cover launches and a heads-up for their new venture into YA fiction, a post on their physical consumer marketing campaign for Peter V Brett and a few non-marketing related posts, which arguably is good digital marketing in itself. The blog/site also contains links to other sites and every post can be commented on – so community points to them.

As a side note, Voyager’s sister Australian imprint has a great site – complete with blog, online community, search engine, news and events listings and the tantalisingly titled ‘fun and games’. Who can resist such a tab?

HarperCollins hosts a page for Voyager on their main site. This contains links to the Voyager blog, as well as the Voyager Twitter feed, information about authors and their titles and upcoming books, and press releases. It’s not as updated as their blog, and while it is useful, it feels a bit more perfunctory, and not as welcoming as Voyager main. I will allot practical points for this.

Twitter: their Twitter page contains links to their blog posts as well as plenty of perky communication with fellow tweeters and readers, particularly considering there is only one person behind the tweets. What I like about this (warning: personal preference) is that HarperCollins is a hugely commercial publisher but the Voyager feed feels personal. Points for letting people know when they’re going on holiday, or that they left their pen back at the office when they wanted to mark proofs on the bus.

Facebook: I can’t find a Facebook page for Voyager UK. If there is one and I’ve missed it, I’m sorry (although no points for hiding well).

Digital advances: thanks to HarperCollins’ dedication to all things digital, Voyager has a healthy backlist of digital titles available, although the books don’t have any additional interactive features. They get extra goodwill points however for taking advantage of the digital format for the benefit of their customers. George RR Martin’s beasts tend to be unbindable and a few have been released in two parts – but their digital editions have been combined. Voyager even went a step further and bound the whole 3000 page series so far together in one digital volume for a relatively cheap price.

Blog: see ‘Website’.

Extras: Voyager has a monthly newsletter and a YouTube channel, but it hasn’t been updated for a while. Points to them, but not as many as for a well-maintained channel (admittedly these values mean very little).

Conclusion: contain yourself - an exciting summary will follow after all four imprints have had their turn. Disclaimer: they will not win £1000 presented to them on a silver platter. They will not get to read out the end credits in the style of someone delivering urgent information to someone on a bouncy castle.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

digital marketing - Orbit

Over the next few weeks this blog is going to focus on what the four imprints I’m using as case studies for my dissertation do to digitally market their books. Like a bookish clash between Come Dine with Me and Whose Line is it Anyway?, each imprint gets a turn, the rules are made up and the points don’t matter. This post is about Orbit UK (and USA/Australia too).


Website: Orbit’s website is its hub for marketing, and what a hub. It streamlines the UK/USA/Australia imprints into one, accessible source of information. As well as containing its publishing schedules and author profiles (with links to websites and details about its titles), Orbit’s website is basically a very well-maintained blog. The site also contains a blog roll and links to SFF sites, and allows for comments on each post, maintaining a healthy online community. In a digital session for my MA Publishing, Orbit’s site was used as a prime example of what good digital marketing is. Assuming that our tutor must be an SFF fan, I approached him after class preparing for a full-on geek-out, only to be met with a firm, ‘Oh no, I’m not a fantasy fan. I just really like Orbit’s website.’ So it’s that good. Whether it means to or not, it’s catering to people outside of the usual ‘fan’ spectrum on its content alone. It contains, among other things, guest posts from authors (not always from Orbit’s own list), editors, editorial assistants and the very excellent, always enthusiastic, Art Director Lauren Panepinto. Just this week, for example, there have been the following posts: fantasy author Helen Lowe waxing lyrical about why she loves martial arts; Lauren Panepinto launching the covers for Michael J. Sullivan’s The Riyria Revelations series (‘Bam! Can you say ‘EPIC’, people?’ – that’s what I mean by enthusiastic); Senior Editor Devi Pillai (USA) announcing the release of Brent Weeks’ straight-to-eBook-and-audio Perfect Shadow from Orbit’s short fiction venture; Mark Yon from SFFWorld continuing his guide to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files in the run up to the release of Ghost Story; Lauren Panepinto again, this time offering Simon Morden’s ‘magic eye’ book covers as wallpaper (which also forms part of Simon Morden’s digital marketing campaign); and finally Simon Morden himself explaining why London is the perfect setting for his post-apocalyptic trilogy. And that’s all just in one week. It really is a smorgasbord of information. There aren’t enough points for this, so I’m just going to say ‘many’.

Twitter: Orbit UK/USA/Australia have a joint Twitter account, which fits with their ‘international imprint’ shtick. Most of the staff who frequent the blog are on there, like UK editorial assistant James Long (716 followers) and commissioning editor Bella Pagan (528 followers). Here’s where the US/UK/Aus staff members communicate and re-tweet each other – forming a joint community by spreading stories from the blog, good reviews of Orbit’s author’s titles and Orbit’s latest marketing campaigns. ‘Community’ points and some general cool points thrown in for the publishing staff building up more followers than some authors.

Facebook: Orbit has a Facebook page, again it’s a joint one between the three worldwide imprints. 2,221 people like it. Here it puts up its website/blog posts up on the wall. As well as good reviews from bloggers for its titles, and blogged interviews with its authors. More ‘community’ points to Orbit, although there isn’t much interaction between the staff and readers on the wall. Orbit also has a Facebook page exclusively for its eBook short fiction (1,119 likes). Digital points.

Digital advances: Orbit short fiction – as already mentioned, Brent Weeks’ Perfect Shadow is eBook and audio-only. In the same manner, Orbit will also be publishing, amongst others, Jennifer Rardin, who sadly passed away last Autumn, and some of her short stories. There’s also a newsletter you can sign up to. This is a really great venture, but I wish it had chosen something other than a robot as its logo, purely because Angry Robot Books pretty much has robots covered, and Orbit’s store would stand out so much more from the competition if it had a logo that was more humanoid. There is more than one kind of dance.

Blog: see ‘Website’.

Extras: Orbit has its own YouTube channel where its videos include ‘making-ofs’ (like for Simon Morden’s optical illusion masterpieces), as well as book trailers and interviews. I’ve posted this before, but bloody hell the book trailer for Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels is good. Let’s enjoy it again together. Points galore. Orbit also has its own flickr account with book signing photos – although they’re three years out of date. There will be no points for this.

Conclusion: contain yourself - an exciting summary will follow after all four imprints have had their turn. Disclaimer: they will not win £1000 presented to them on a silver platter. They will not get to read out the end credits in the style of a news reader who is desperate for the loo.