Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold, Reviewed

Cryoburn is the latest Miles Vorkosigan novel, the thirteenth in a series stretching back a quarter of a century.

Miles is now an Imperial Auditor with responsibility for investigating a company specializing in cryogenic storage that are planning on opening branches on Komarr.

Miles becomes suspicious and travels to Kibou-daini, a world dominated by a populace who want to evade death by going into suspended hibernation, then further skewed by the cryo-corps thawing some of their sleepers early, effectively creating a generation of temporally displaced refugees.

Cryoburnl opens with Miles hiding from a gang of would-be kidnappers, when he is then helped by a young boy hiding among the displaced, whose mother disappeared some eighteen months earlier.

When Miles is reunited with his team, he learns that the cryogenic corporations are involved in a web of corruption that extends to the economic conquest of Komarr.

Lois McMaster Bujold writes deceptively simple  fiction; the characters are likeable, the settings are well depicted, just different enough to be exotic, without ever being so alien that the reader is baffled or put off. the plot issues resolve  smoothly, before looping into the next problem. While it’s tempting to classify Cryoburn as a middle-ranking Vorkosigan novel, it’s worth remembering that she’s already won three Hugos, and Cryoburn has a couple of points that raise it above the norm; one is Jin, who as a supporting character is first rate, and the whole society of Kibou, which Bujold never really exploits to the full, but which is nonetheless fascinating.

All in all, Cryoburn is another excellent read from one of today’s most popular writers.

 

 

• August 12th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Sales

Cover for Damage Time by Chris Moore

You can tell the authors at conventions. You just have to listen in.  While the fans are likely as not to be talking what brilliant book they’ve read, or what film they’ve seen; the writers will be talking about money.*

Because their incomes can be so precarious, and like any other profession information is like oxygen, writers obsess about their sales. Especially since the information is often up to three to six months late.  A publisher once said jokingly to me “Sometimes I think we shouldn’t let you lot have sales information; you only ask more questions.” (I think he was joking)

About nine months ago amazon made weekly sales information on print books available to authors. The data doesn’t include all sales, but it’s useful guidance, as long as one bears in mind that it can be anything from five to one hundred per cent of the total.

What it does is highlight trends. I have no idea what causes this one, but over the first three months of the year, amazon was selling anything between fifty and a hundred copies a week of my two Angry Robot novels.  And surprisingly, over the first three months, it was Damage Time that was the bigger seller, albeit only marginally – fifty-five per cent to Winter Song’s forty-five per cent. I say surprisingly because I had assumed that Winter Song would be the bigger seller.

But over the last three months the sales have fallen to about half of what they were in the first quarter. I have no idea what’s caused that, because I’m still blogging, which I think is the main influence on sales, but sometimes things just happen. And it’s Winter Song that’s held up better -as I originally thought it would- with the year to date sales for that title now running at fifty-five per cent.

As a friend once said at Unilever, “We know that half of all our advertising spend is wasted – we just don’t know which half.”

And if a company the size of Unilever doesn’t know, with all its power, what chance does a simple author have?

* That’s a wild generalization, of course. The fans are likely as not to be asking writers how they too can become writers, while the writers also talk about what brilliant book they’ve read, or what film they’ve seen..

• August 10th, 2011 • Posted in Books • Comments: 0

Magma

I’ve said many times –in many places– that I don’t write because I want to, I write because I have to. It’s a compulsion, which if it’s blocked off, leads to something close to clinical depression (my name is Colin, and I am a creative junkie….)

Ever since I ended a particularly brutal bout of writing a couple of weeks ago, with the synopsis and sample chapter for a new novel, I’ve been concentrating on administration and blogging.

Which is a pain, but keeping adequate financial records is a legal requirement as well as a particularly time-consuming chore; the other time sink has been completing an application form for an MA, which has taken up most of the last two weeks.  and of course, there’s the blogging, which takes more time than you might expect from the haphazard way I seem to throw words onto the page.

In theory then, no time for writing fiction.

Which would seem to contradict my theory that you need to write every day. Except that by blogging I am writing (although it’s not fiction), and I’ve racked up enough experience (I have written over a million published words) not to need to write every day as much as a novice does. But still….

…the urge to write fiction runs deeper than even I realized. I awoke on Saturday morning with the scenes from an unfinished story called Razorbill Island running through my head.

For a variety of reasons I’ve needed for some time to road test the Scrivener package, and this was the perfect opportunity.

I only got a couple of hundred words written, but I’ve worked out what to do with the story now (the problems were as much structural as of writing the words).

Which just goes to show that even when I think I’m okay with my schedule, my subconscious knows better; that like magma beneath the Earth’s crust, the words are always ready to ooze out any time.

• August 8th, 2011 • Posted in Writing • Comments: 0

Black Static 23 Reviewed

Black Static for June / July 2011 contains the usual reviews and commentary, while the stories are mostly by returning regulars.

V. H. Leslie appears for the second time in three issues, and already looks to be the magazine’s most prominent newcomer of the year. In ‘Time Keeping’ Howard believes that he keeps time running smoothly. It’s a demanding time-consuming job, so when he meets Helen, Howard couldn’t shake the feeling of danger. Leslie has an elegant, assured style, and while the story may need more than one reading, the (initially) opaque timeline does eventually come clear, and the reader learns what the danger is. Recommended.

 

‘Hail’ by Daniel Kaysen is an extremely busy story –there is much more plot than is usual with Black Static stories, which tend to concentrate on atmosphere- but it’s no less effective for all that. The narrator picks up a girl while sheltering under an awning from the rain, and she asks him directly if he wants to go back to her flat. When she has want she wants, she throws him out, from which point the more the nameless protagonist tries to escape his fate, the more tightly he is caught in its web of inevitability. Highly Recommended.

 

From the moment the protagonist (and therefore the reader) gradually awakens to the sound of the underground, it’s clear that Carole Johnstone’s ‘Electric Dreams’ is something special. Eli is a young man accepting food and shelter, and occasionally –perhaps enough to just get him by- money in return for hearing what people need; whether he can work miracles, is a god, or  previous events are just coincidence, Eli’s supplicants believe that he can

kill the wife’s lover

put the office rival out of action (“You won’t kill him, will you?”)

cure a woman’s mother of end-stage breast cancer

save the rats on the Underground.

Now Eli has to decide whether it’s time to change again. To start again. Two years was a long time –the longest yet- and success bred notoriety. It’s a top-notch story, one of the best in recent months.

World Horror Convention

Robert Davies won the 2011 World Horror Convention / Black Static short story contest, and from its opening line of When Jackson Cade woke and felt his right lung missing, he knew the Harvesters had come again, ‘The Harvesting of Jackson Cade’ makes it clear why. There are a couple of irritating non sequiteurs early on, but the story of physical disintegration at the hands (or should that be at the mandibles?) of the nightmarish Harvesters is unrelenting. Recommended.

Joel Lane ends the fiction for this issue with ‘For Their Own Ends,’ in which Barry awakes from a heart attack in a private hospital to find that patient care has taken a back seat to ‘market awareness.’ Lane’s prose is as precise as ever, allowing him to generate that frisson of fear with the most apparently innocent of phrases: a young man took Barry’s left hand and felt his pulse, then jabbed a needle into the vein of his wrist. Without speaking, he attached the syringe to a drip stand holding a bag of crimson fluid. Highly Recommended.

 

Comment

As always the fiction is enhanced by the quality of the non-fiction embracing it. Stephen Volk’s ‘Coffinmaker’s Blues’ looks at [moving] the debate about so-called “evil” away from the realm of religion and moral philosophy into the realm of science. Christopher Fowler is interested in how Spanish cinema seems to be adopting the mantle of the main maker of horror movies with the power to move audiences. Finally, Mike O’Driscoll studies the work of political philosopher John Grey, whose latest book is a brilliant dissection of our continuing desire to console ourselves with delusions, either in the form of a secular afterlife, or through the deification of humanity by means of “the abolition of death.”

 

Reviews

Peter Tenant interviews new horror star Tom Fletcher and reviews his novels, The Leaping and The Thing On The Shore, both Cumbrian-set contemporary horror novels. Other Case Notes feature chapbooks from Joe R. Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell and Gary McMahon, plus three anthologies; Dark Minds Press offer the eponymous Dark Minds, The End of the Line is published by Solaris, while Tor provide an American perspective in Nick Mamatas and Ellen Datlow’s Haunted Legends.

 

Finally, Tony Lee reviews DVDs and Blu-Rays, such as Natalie Portman’s appearance in Black Swan, and the Stanley Kubrick boxed set Visionary Filmmaker Collection, as well as a reissue of the classic Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price. It’s a good way to round out another excellent issue.

• August 5th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

End Games

People are always talking about the openings of stories. It’s an often quoted truism -especially by me!- that the first dozen lines of a story are critical. They are the unsolicited writer’s escape from the slush pile, or the path to a sometimes bewildered rejection. For the story that has been sold, a poor opening is a potential return to be To Be Read pile, from which there may be no return.

Perhaps as a reflection of that, half of the workshops that ran at alt.fiction were about beginnings, openings, settings, and establishing characters. It’s as though if you get the beginning right, the ending will take care of itself.

But if the beginning is important, how much more important is the ending? If the story works, it’s what the reader remembers. Think of Paul Atreides’ mother standing beside Chani and uttering the line, “history will call us wives,” or –no, better you go and read Alfred Bester’s “The Pi Man,” or John Varley’s “Air Raid,”  or Gardner Dozois’ “Morning Child” — because I’d hate to ruin the ending.

Because to get to the ending, you have to go through the story. The ending isn’t something a writer just tags on the end; it flows organically out of the story, and should tie the threads together and leave the reader with a sense of completion. Context is everything, because the ending isn’t just about the ending. Maybe that’s why the topic is often ignored.

How the writer gets there, of course, is a journey that has as many routes as there are writers. That’s for another time.

we’ll talk more about this later.

 

• August 3rd, 2011 • Posted in Writing • Comments: 0

Digital Communications Reading List

One of the posts that’s seemed to generate more responses over the last year was my SF and Fantasy reading list for Genre Studies.  Perhaps that’s not surprising, given the demographic of this blog’s readership.

Perhaps there’ll be as much interest in Digital Communications, which I’m taking in the third year, the elective geared toward writing for the digital media.

This is my reading list for the next year for the subject:

Katherine wrote; “There are many digital entrepreneurs and gurus out there, what follows is just a selection. They usually have websites and twitter sites where you can find out more.”

(*essential reading)

*Anderson, Chris: Free:  The Future of a Radical Price: The Economics of Abundance and Why Zero Pricing Is Changing the Face of Business (Random House, 2009)

And read his blog: http://www.thelongtail.com/ as well as Malcolm Gladwell’s responses to Anderson’s work (Google these).

Ellis, Mike: Managing and Growing a Cultural Heritage Web Presence: A Strategic Guide (Facet, 2011)

 

Darnton, Robert, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (Public Affairs, 2009)

Fried, Jason, and Heinemeier Hansson, David, ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever (Vermillion, 2010)

 

Gladwell, Malcolm, Outliers: The Story of Success (Penguin, 2009) and his website: www.gladwell.com

Godin, Seth, Tribes (Piatkus Books, 2008) and see his website and work on the Domino Project for Amazon

And

Poke the Box (Domino Project, Amazon, 2011)

Jenkins, Henry, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York University Press, Revised edition, 2008)

 

Kawasaki, Guy, The Art of the Start (Viking, 2011) (ex-Apple Macintosh)

 

Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds and Actions: How To Woo, Influence and Persuade (Viking, 2011)

 

Leadbeater, Charles, We – Think: Mass innovation, not mass production (Profile Books, 2009) (paperback) and see his website

Marsh, David, Guardian Style, (Guardian Books, 2007) (2nd revised edn):

Print and online (this version updated regularly)

 

Oxford Style Manual (Oxford University Press, 2004)

*Reed, Jon: Get Up to Speed with Online Marketing (Wiley, 2010)

 

 

Rose, Frank, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the Way We Tell Stories: Entertainment in a Connected World (Norton, 2011)

 

Search Engine Optimization for Dummies, 3rd Edition (John Wiley & Sons, 2008)

 

Shirky, Clay, Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens when People Come Together (Penguin, 2009)

 

*Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin, 2011)

 

Smith, Jon, Get into Bed with Google: Top Ranking Search Optimisation Techniques (Infinite Ideas Limited, 2008)

 

Quinn, Stephen, Digital Sub-editing and Design, (Focal Press, 2004)

 

 

*Vaynerchuck, Gary, Crush It!: Why Now is the Time to Cash in on Your Passion (HarperBusiness, 2009)

 

Weinberger, David, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (Henry Holt & Company Inc., 2007) and his website: www.everythingismiscellaneous.com

Also:

The Bookseller’s FutureBook blog

Wired magazine

Literary Platform

Mashable

Huffington Post

Guardian Media; Word of Mouth blog

 

 

 

• August 1st, 2011 • Posted in Education • Comments: 0

Eric Brown’s Guardians of the Phoenix, Reviewed

The Earth is a barren wasteland; North America and Middle have been razed by nuclear strikes, the oceans have evaporated, and the earth is a barren desert dotted only occasionally by a few shallow oases.

For ten years, Paul has scrabbled for survival among the sand-shrouded ruins of the once-great city of Paris. He is one of thefew  desperate humans still surviving. Some scrape a living in the remains of shattered cities; others resort to murder and cannibalism to survive.

When Paul is rescued from one such group of killers, he joins his benefactors in their journey south in search of water. Guardians of the Phoenix tells the story of the last survivors, their desperate fight for survival and their last hope to save the world.

Brown is a traditional storyteller, concentrating on the virtues of storytelling and characterization. His heroes are comparatively decent people, if compromised, while his villains show no regard for life. In that respect Guardians of the Phoenix carries on a long tradition of British SF as typified by John Wyndham and Edmund Cooper, of scratching an existence from a world-changing disaster.

Brian W. Aldiss once disparagingly referred to such novels as “cozy catastrophes” but there is nothing  cozy about the lives that the characters lead – it’s probably the most relentlessly relentless scrutiny of life after climate change that’s been written. For that alone Guardians of the Phoenix deserves commendation.

• July 29th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Why Your Brain Is Like A Battery

One of the most commonly asked questions that writers are asked is “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

Cover for Damage Time by Chris Moore

Before I answer that, I’m going to digress:

Ideas are the easy part, a lot of the time.  Writing stories is harder. A story requires a narrative arc -that’s the fancy term for beginning, middle and end- adequate characterization, and a plot (the resolution of the conflict you’ve created in your story), as well as your idea.

That’s why I always tell budding writers they should write a lot, and write every day. You should write a lot, because that’s how one learns any skill. Musicians, sportsmen, writers – anyone who wants to get better at something, needs to practice. You think a concert pianist just plonks themselves down in front of the piano on the big day? Really?

It’s dangerous of course to be too prescriptive, but I really don’t know anyone who -on a long-term basis- works in a different way.

So write 30 minutes every day than to write nothing for six days and splurge out with three or four hours of intensive writing once a week. Imagine that your brain is a car battery (you wondered when that was coming, didn’t you?). If you park your car in the garage every day for weeks on end, it drains it, so that the car  won’t run. Writing for a while is like running the car – it does it good to get out and about.

But like a battery, your brain needs constant recharging as well, in this case through reading other writers -as well as maybe going to the cinema or the theatre, travelling, or just having a change of scene — anything that provides fresh stimuli, but especially other writers. Read beyond your genre wherever possible, because when you absorb other people’s ideas and styles, as inevitably you will, the wider the source you have, the less limited you will appear.

 

And that, dear reader, in a very roundabout fashion, is where I get my ideas from – from reading a lot of books and internet posts, from walking a lot, and from constant, constant practice.

 

I’ll be coming back to this at some point in the future.

• July 27th, 2011 • Posted in Writing • Comments: 0

This Last Week

On Saturday, I indulged a little home-assembled time travel. I managed to blag a spare ticket from a friend to the 2011 Graduation Day, and a foretaste of what I may be doing in one year’s time – assuming that I pass my exams. I suspect that I won’t be too observant next year, that the  day will fly by. But unless the uni make wholesale changes, I’ll have had a useful dress rehearsal.

That was about the only relief last week from a punishing schedule – I’ve now delivered a sample chapter and synopsis for the new book, but getting it done that every spare second was eaten up – I even ate at times staring at the laptop.

This week should be a little easier, starting with the monthly meeting of the Bristol SF and Fantasy Society.  A few drinks, some good company….

• July 25th, 2011 • Posted in General • Comments: 0

Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat, by Andrez Bergen, Reviewed

Cut to Melbourne, Australia–the most glamorous city in the world.It also happens to be the only one left standing… meet your narrator, a certain Floyd Maquina, a likable chap with one hell of a story to share.

Cue guns, intrigue, kidnappings, conspiracy and all sorts of general mayhem that make for cracking good headlines. Does Floyd stop the bad guys? Does he get the girl? Does he make Humphrey Bogart proud? Grab some popcorn and read on.

Notice the instruction to grab some popcorn. Andrez Bergen’s debut novel is a book drenched in film imagery.  From the title, which is taken from the 1956 film That Certain Feeling, in which villain George Sanders utters “Get that tobacco-stained mountain goat out of here,” through a multitude of references, to George Lucas, Marlon Brando, anime and Doctor Who, the reader is left in no doubt what floats Bergen’s boat.

The concept of Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat is either reassuringly familiar or cliched, depending on one’s perspective;

Sometime in the future the world is drowning in acid rain and near-perpetual darkness. The Seekers are a sort of militia holding back a rising tide of Deviants. Anyone who commits a crime is labelled a Deviant; anyone who falls ill is relocated, and classified in the same way.  Floyd’s wife has lived fro three years with cancer, and the only way he can pay for her care is to work as a Seeker.

There’s not a lot of Novum in  the world of Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat - indeed, the background doesn’t bear close examination;  ”Where the heck do they get the grapes to make this? Or the sunlight to grow the grapes?” (p.131) Sadly, no one has the time or inclination to answer the question.

But on the plus side, Floyd Maquina has a distinctive voice, and a likeable character, and i’m a sucker for both. New publisher Oregon-based Another Sky Press have put together an impressive-looking package, and I hope that this quirky novel brings them every success.

 

• July 22nd, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0