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Holiday Reads

It’s almost time for my summer holiday so I thought I’d do a quick post on what I’m going to be reading while relaxing by the pool. I’m not a fast reader at all, but when on holiday with few distractions, I can get through about four or five books in a week. So I often save up special books and also add books from authors who are new to me into the mix. I’m also taking a few trade paperbacks I’ve been saving up from my to read pile.

The Eigth Court Mike ShevdonThe Eighth Court by Mike Shevdon from Angry Robot Books.
I have very particular tastes when it comes to urban fantasy, and just can’t get on with some series, so finding something that I really like is tricky. Shevdon’s books are one of my favourites and this is the fourth and final book in the series which is set in modern day in the UK. There are some scenes in London, but it is not London-centric, and throughout the course of the series we get to explore all sorts of places and buildings with historic resonance. I’m being very vague on purpose to avoid spoilers because he mixes real world history with the fantastical. We follow an everyman into this bizarre world hidden in plain sight and delve into the world of the feyre and a secret history of the world.

Exit Kingdom Alden BellExit Kingdom by Alden Bell from Panmacmillan. This is the second book by Alden Bell set in a post apocalyptic world where zombies have overrun the world. The first book, The Reapers are the Angels, is one of my favourite books, probably ever. I’ve also read it twice already and it only came out maybe two years ago. Yeah, it’s that good. I came to his first book completely cold, I knew nothing about it, and absolutely loved it. In a review I compared it to I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, but with zombies instead of vampires, so it’s really about the people, the situation and coping, it’s about isolation and humanity and not so much about running away from shambling ghouls. It’s also set many years after the fall, so it is not a world where everything has just fallen apart. The first book focused on a young girl called Temple and along the way she came into contact with an interesting character called Moses Todd. This book is set before the events of Reapers and this time Moses is the main character, along with his brother. I’ve been holding on to my copy of this since March when it came out and saving it. I’m really looking forward to it.

Ice Forged Gail Z MartinIce Forged by Gail Z. Martin from Orbit books. Martin is an author I’ve been aware of for a while, but I’ve not managed to find time to read something by her until now. The blurb for this book sounded exactly like my kind of thing, and it is a nice dash of fantasy, which is different enough from the other two books on my list so far. So I’ve avoided reading any reviews or interviews about this and am going to come to it, and her writing, completely cold and see what happens.

This is also the first book in a new series by Martin, so if I enjoy her work I can back and pick up some of her other novels in the interim until the next book in this series comes out! Discovering a debut author is always brilliant, but coming to a more well established one that I’ve just missed out on until now for whatever reason is a real treat as there is a lot more to read with no waiting.

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell from Solaris BooksAck-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell from Solaris Books.
The first time I heard anything about this book was at Eastercon this year where Gareth was doing a reading. The reading was funny, crazy, full of action and very exciting. After investigating a little further and reading the blurb on the back I immediately picked up a copy at the convention. What’s not to love? A one-eyed cigar smoking monkey who was a Spitfire pilot in WW II. I’m sold on that sentence alone. From what I’ve read in reviews and from overhearing other people talking it, I think the book is going to be jam packed full of action and humour, making it another very different book to the others I am taking with me.

The Name of the Wind Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss from Gollancz.
It’s easy to assume everyone knows what this book is about and who Rothfuss is, but I’m also aware other people will be horrified that I’d never read a book by Gail Z. Martin until now as she is not a new author. The fact is there are a lot of authors out there, the fantasy market is more crowded than twenty years ago, and all of us only have so much time and varying levels of awareness via our various media channels. I’m very aware of who Brandon Sanderson is, and I have one of his books on my pile to read, but so far haven’t got around to it. Once again it comes down to too many books and not enough time.

So, The Name of the Wind is the first book in the Kingkiller Chronicle, an epic fantasy tale by Rothfuss who I would describe as a storyteller. By that I mean he creates a wonderfully dynamic and rich world without bogging the reader down in pages and pages of detail. His story in some ways feels like an urban folk tale, about someone who actually lived, or it’s a parable that has been told down through the generations. It’s also very hard to describe the book as it doesn’t fit into any pigeon hole and is hard to put it alongside other books for comparison. It tells the story of Kvothe, a figure of legend almost, a man feared and loathed by some and respected and loved by others. The story begins with him as a grown man telling a scribe his version of events, starting with his childhood and gradually bringing him up to the present. But there are also chapters set in the present so it’s not just a look back at another time. Kvothe is also a renaissance man, and again you can’t say he’s a wizard, or warrior, or mage etc, he’s just a man who has adventures, gets caught up in weird and wonderful events, gets in to lots of trouble, goes through some terrible and awful moments, but also makes some amazing discoveries full of wonder and maybe even a touch of magic. There is a lot to tell, there’s no doubt, as Kvothe has lived a very interesting life and this first book is pretty weighty, and is one of at least three. The second book is even bigger I think but again, this is not because Rothfuss spends ten pages describing the smoke coming out of the chimney.

This book has sold a lot of copies, I mean hundreds of thousands, maybe even a few million. It’s incredibly popular and rightly so in my opinion. It’s one of those lightning rod books in the genre like Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora or The Painted Man by PV Brett, or The Blade Itself by Abercrombie. It’s an incredibly unique book, something that is not perfect, and there are some bits I didn’t like, but overall it marks Rothfuss as an incredibly talented writer and someone who is forging ahead and doing his own thing, which others will then seek to imitate.

This is the second time I’ve read Name of the Wind, because it was quite a while since I read it, and now I have a copy of the second volume staring at me. I’ve also forgotten quite a bit from the first time around so I want to sink back into this rich world, rediscover the nuances of the character and get myself up to speed in readiness for reading book 2, The Wise Man’s Fear.

Comics
Reading comics is a very different experience for me compared to novels. It takes me a bit of time to sink back into a book, but with a comic I can read for five or ten minutes, read an issue and I’m in the story almost straight away and can be completely satisfied. So I always take a few trades to read for those smaller gaps of time when I want to read something.

Danger Club Image ComicsDanger Club by Landry Walker and Eric Jones from Image comics.
I read the first issue of this when it came out a while ago, thought the premise was very interesting, thought the artwork was amazing and the colours very vibrant. Briefly put, all of the worlds superheroes go off into space to fight a very serious threat and then they never come back. So, suddenly all that’s left are lots of sidekicks and kids with powers. So it’s a bit Lord of the Flies, and it focuses very much on the next generation of heroes and villains. What do you do when your mentor is taken away from you? Are the junior heroes ready to cope? And if not, what will they do? What effect will the responsibility have on them? Likewise for the junior villains. Are they really capable of carrying out some terrible acts?

Manhattan Projects Vol 2. Image ComicsManhattan Projects Vol. 2 by Jonathan Hickman from Image comics.
Simply put, what if the Manhattan Project that we know about was simply one of many strange, weird and wonderful scientific projects that were being worked on by the best minds at that time in history. This twisted science fact meets science fiction book focuses on a group of very weird almost mirror universe versions of well known historic scientists getting up to all sorts of stuff. It involves portals to other worlds, alien invasions and lots of other weird science. Hickman writes for Marvel comics and is known for writing very big stories, and by that I mean long term, big sky, complex but not convoluted stories which are structured into chapters almost like a novel, with rewarding endings. He did a great run on Fantastic Four that was planned out years in advance and now he is doing the same on Avengers. This comic is a breeding ground for all sorts of ideas he probably can’t fit in other places and for some stuff that is too weird to go into a mainstream comic.

Peter Panzerfaust Vol. 1 Image comicsPeter Panzerfaust Vol. 1 by Kurtis J. Wiebe from Image comics.
Peter Pan, and the Lost Boys, in World War II. That’s pretty much it. I read the first issue a long time ago, then lost touch with the series for some reason, but now I’m trying to catch up in trade. It begins with an almost Band of Brothers storytelling device, where an old man is talking about his experiences during the war, and it then flashes back to him as a young boy meeting a heroic and dashing and strange young man named Peter. The scope is vast, the twist on characters is only limited by imagination and this series has been picked up by the BBC to be adapted first into a digital motion comic (for some reason) and then later a live action TV series. I can see the latter working very well, not sure what the point of the former is, given that motion comics are the new dodo, and the real evolution in digital comics is coming from Thrillbent.com. Check out the website for free digital only comics where they are pushing the boundary of digital. Anyway, this series looks like a lot of fun and I really enjoyed the first issue.

Fatale Volume 2. Image comicsA possibly sneaky fourth trade, if I get time, is Fatale Vol. 2 by Brubaker and Phillips.
It’s crime meets Lovecraftian horror. Meta fiction within fiction, weird people who don’t appear to be quite human, strange cults, immortals, demons, random chaos that actually points towards something else. Lots of ideas thrown onto the page and you have to hold on to your seat and just enjoy the ride.

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What comes next

Last night my co-host, Scott, and I recorded the last episode of our podcast Comic Book Outsiders. We broadcast and recorded it live and some listeners joined in with questions and we even had a guest listener on the show. Unfortunately for him he’d only just discovered the podcast, but at least there is a back catalogue of episodes for him to listen to and lots of interesting comics to discover.

During the show Scott also played a small portion of episode one, where we outlined why we were doing the podcast. Our goal at the time was to promote comics outside the spotlight, those that didn’t get as much attention in the press and comics press, but are equally as fascinating, thought provoking and of equal quality in terms of the writing and art. Over the five years we talked to, and even met, many creative people all around the world making great comics and I hope we managed to open a few eyes and widen a few horizons.

So, what next? Well, I’m not getting out of the podcasting game, but I am easing off on the throttle and I will be doing less. I’ve always been a big SFF reader and as part of the podcast we started The Book Club about 3 years ago. Every 6-8 weeks we talk about a novel, alternating between a classic work of fiction and more modern novel. There are no hard and rigid rules, but we tend to term modern as anything from the last fifteen years or so. We’ve covered a wide range of books from I Am Legend, Caves of Steel, Slaughterhouse 5, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale to more contemporary work such as The City and The City, Empire in Black and Gold, Hull Zero Three and Zoo City. We’ve even been lucky to get some of the authors on the podcast, among them Adrian Tchaikovsky, China Mieville and Lauren Beukes, and pose questions from listeners. For me this podcast is great because it forces me to read some of those novels I’ve always talked about getting around to but never quite managed, both classic and modern. It also forces me to try new stuff and get me out of my usual comfort zone which can make me a bit of a lazy reader. I always have a massive To Read Pile, but the deadline makes me get it done. Another part of the book club I enjoy is receiving feedback from listeners, as they often pick up on things I’ve missed and we always get a wide spectrum of opinions on the book.

There is a Good Reads group here, where you can post comments on the current book club selection and make recommendations for future book club selections if you want to take part.

Every month, but something I’m only taking part in every now and then, is a new podcast called Bags of Action. It mirrors the Book Club in a way, as every month a bunch of people will watch an action movie and then talk about it. We had lots of fun talking about our favourite action heroes on a recent episode of CBO and this is where the seed of the idea came from. There are about seven hosts, and we’ll have guest hosts too, so it will be a rotating cast of people talking about classic and recent action movies. It will be fun and silly and I am really looking forward to taking part. I enjoy movies that make me think and have something to say, but I also like the crazy action-hero popcorn movies. I don’t want to say CBO has not been fun, because it has, but there is an element of work that goesBags of Action into every episode, preparation for interviews, gathering news etc, and then the post-show work, editing, uploading and distributing. The only thing I need to do for this podcast is watch a movie. We’re recording the first episode later this week, so it will be out in another week or so. You can follow Bags of Action on Twitter here and there is also a Facebook group here if you want to talk about action movies, action heroes and all related geek and sundry. Also if you want to recommend action movies we have to watch, then post it on the Facebook group.

The last podcast I’m doing is a new writing focused podcast called Head Space. At the moment it’s monthly but we’ll see if I stick to that schedule. Episode 1 is already out and it is focused on the craft of writing. Every month I will chat to a writer about their process and how they create characters, story, worlds, their influences and where relevant, their experiences with the editing and publishing process. This is not intended to be a teaching podcast or a How To, it’s just a discussion about writing and how that particular personHead Space Podcast approaches it. I enjoy talking to other writers and finding out how they create and hopefully this podcast will provide interesting food for thought for myself and other writers out there. In episode 1 I spoke with Lou Morgan and you can visit the Head Space blog here (it will soon be available on iTunes under its own name if you want to subscribe there), to download the podcast. We talk about her debut book, Blood and Feathers from Solaris Books, which is released on August 2nd 2012 and her approach to writing. The book is being launched this Thursday at Forbidden Planet in London where Lou will be reading from the book and signing. Next month on the podcast, I’ll be speaking to Kim Curran and there will be more info on the Head Space blog closer to the time.

The last podcast on the new CBO network is called the Outsider Files and this is Scott’s new solo venture. I’m not sure about the schedule but every episode he will have a guest host on the show and talk to them about all of the stuff that they’re currently enjoying – comics, books, movies, TV etc and just have a nice chat.

That probably sounds like I’m doing more podcasts than before and committing myself to even more, but it’s actually less. We used to do CBO 3 weeks out of four every month and then moved it to a fortnightly schedule. I am always reading something, so The Book Club just makes me read certain books to a deadline, and 6-8 weeks is not tough. I’m not going to be on Bags of Action every episode, so that’s an every now and then thing, maybe every other month or one in three. And while Head Space is monthly, it might drift and become less often, but I’m not worried as I want to enjoy all of the podcasts I’m involved with and not punish myself if it runs late.

One of the questions we received towards the end of the live podcast last night was, am I still excited about comics? In all honesty, I am more excited now than I was five years ago. There are more independent comics now than five years ago and more importantly, many of them are receiving more widespread attention. Of course it’s still a struggle to get noticed in this crowded market, but some great independent comics are now enjoying remarkable sales and widespread attention because of adaptations on TV, animation and even films. Even a rumour of a TV or movie adaptation can cause a massive spike in sales as some properties are bought and then sit in development hell for years. But that’s fine, as long as it helps the creators, increases sales and gets the name of the comic out there into the wider market. So CBO is done, but I’m still very passionate about comics and am now creating some of my own. I hope to have some news about those projects next year but we’ll see how things go.

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This time last year…

A bit of a good news post today. This time last year I was at Eastercon where I met a few new people, one of whom had submitted her book to a publisher and was hoping for some good news. Fast forward a year and Lou Morgan’s first novel, Blood and Feathers, is being published by Solaris and released on August 2nd. The book is being launched in London at Forbidden Planet. Click here for more information if you are able to attend or alternatively show your support for an exciting new author by preordering a copy.

A couple of months back at Eastercon this year I met a couple of shiny and brand new authors who have books coming out in the next few months from Strange Chemistry, the new YA imprint. The first is Shift by Kim Curran which is being released on September 4th in the UK and below is a brief synopsis but you can find more information here.

When your average, 16-year old loser, Scott Tyler, meets the beautiful and mysterious Aubrey Jones, he learns he’s not so average after all. He’s a ‘Shifter’. And that means he has the power to undo any decision he’s ever made. At first, he thinks the power to shift is pretty cool. But as his world quickly starts to unravel around him he realises that each time he uses his power, it has consequences; terrible unforeseen consequences. Shifting is going to get him killed. In a world where everything can change with a thought, Scott has to decide where he stands.

Another new author I met at the convention was Laura Lam’s and her first book Pantomime is being released in February 2013 and below is a brief synopsis and more information can be found here.

R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass – remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone – are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimeras is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.

Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star. But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.

If you want something new and interesting now and can’t wait for these books, then I recommend Anne Lyle’s book The Alchemist of Souls which is already out from Angry Robot. Anne was also at Eastercon this year where she appeared on several panels including one alongside a little author you might know about called George, to his friends, who is writing a series of books called A Song of Ice and Fire.

It’s an exciting time to be a reader of science fiction, fantasy, horror and all of the flavours in between. For me it is in fact the very best of times as there are so many books and so many exciting new voices out there. So, stop reading this and go and read a book!

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Urban Fantasy

I’ve written about this a couple of other times in the past on other blogs, but after a few new discoveries I thought it was worth writing about it again. I really struggle to find good urban fantasy. I should clarify, by good urban fantasy I mean books within that specific sub-genre that I enjoy. I didn’t think I was particularly picky, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that perhaps I am because I’ve been underwhelmed or very disappointed by several high profile authors. I’ll come on to character in a bit, but for me there needs to be the right balance of humour in a book. If it doesn’t take itself too seriously, if it is written for laughs then I’m just not interested, I won’t connect or care about the characters and their fate. Equally if it is the most depressing and horrific read ever with no levity, I won’t read it as that isn’t why I read urban fantasy.

There are a lot of UF books out there and it is a genre that definitely seems to be growing, which is great, as it means it becomes increasingly likely that with every year I will find another author or two that I can add to my list of people to follow. I’m not going to name any authors or books in particular that I didn’t enjoy because it would be petty and pointless as many other people enjoy those books. Some of the books are so popular that there are several in the series, so people are buying, reading and enjoying them. My opinion is no more valid than anyone else’s and I think the internet is already choking with too much negativity. So, I’m going to try to make this a positive post about good urban fantasy books and why I enjoy them.

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
This series is one of my favourites of all time across all genres. It is also the longest series of books I have ever read. I know there are series of novels out there with more books than the Dresden Files, but I’ve not read them or enjoyed them enough that I felt compelled to keep reading. Writing one great book is hard. Writing twelve is actually kind of a miracle. I’m not going to claim that all of them are perfect, but I had a lot of fun reading every single one of them. I’ve also read and listened to interviews where Butcher talks about his process for building the stories and I respect the amount of effort he puts into each. The Dresden Files started from a very small corner and over the course of the series it has grown it into a rich supernatural world that is full of remarkable wonders and terrors. His characterisation is also incredibly strong which makes it easier to buy into some of the amazing things that happen because there is always a seed of disbelief or shock. This is still my favourite urban fantasy series and for once I really don’t want it to end. I know it has to but I’m dreading the day when Butcher announces that his next Dresden Files will be the last.

Felix Castor series by Mike Carey
These books are much darker than the Dresden Files and are set in London rather than Chicago. They’re almost gothic horror in some places and although there is magic and supernatural beings, it’s all handled in such a no-nonsense British fashion, it somehow seems more realistic. They have a real dirty, seedy feel to them and part of this comes from the main character who is very grey and definitely not a white hat. I’m not someone who needs or wants every aspect of magic explained to me, but Carey has done something quite unique and special with how it is handled in this series. Finding out about the mechanics was interesting but I would not have complained if he had not included this. There are five books in the series so far and I believe a sixth to wrap it up is planned. Something larger has been building behind the scenes for some time and the final book will go partway to explaining the mystery. I’m eagerly awaiting the conclusion of this series and really enjoy the broodiness and dark humour that prevent it from being a depressing read.

Morris and Chastain series by Justin Gustainis
Unlike the previous two this series has several links to real world events as well as fictional historic events and characters from literature. This gives the series and characters a very different taste and feel. Without giving away too much, I only need to mention Salem and Van Helsing and you get an idea about part of it. The magic in the series is also less overt than Dresden. It is also in keeping with the principal of magic being a force than can be used for good or bad by the practitioner, which is inline with ‘real’ magic, if you believe in such things. There is also a certain bluntness to the books that I enjoy. The style of writing is pared down, it’s tight and fast, but the author does not sacrifice character moments for pace and plot. Also his peripheral characters feel very real and distinct from one another so you always know who is speaking.

As with the other two series the decisions characters make are not always the right ones, but they are realistic. I’ve previously thrown books across the room for being ridiculous where people suddenly act out of character in order to serve the plot or to titillate. I don’t have to agree with a character’s decisions and choices, but if can’t understand them, respect or relate to them in some way, especially if they are the main character, I will put a book down and never go back. I don’t have to like every aspect of a character, but personally I have to find something in them that I can relate to or understand. Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay, is a serial killer. He is a brutal murderer which is something I just can’t get my head around or relate to, but I can understand a little of what made the character the way he is, such as his upbringing, scars from his childhood, sibling relationships, and so on.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a rant, but I think this is one of the critical elements about why I’ve really disliked some urban fantasy series. Some readers are fine with reading about awful people with whom they have nothing in common, but I’m not one of them. I can’t read a story about a character who is a wet flanel with no backbone. Someone who is used and abused  by everyone in the story as they stumble from one disaster to another and yet somehow I’m supposed to support and like this person. Equally I can’t read about a murdering psychopath who carves up people for fun or his own amusement, twirling his moustache as he goes. The story might be very strong, but I need more than that, or else I will put it down and walk away.

Courts of the Feyre by Mike Shevdon
I’ve come to this series late but have been very pleasantly surprised and I really enjoyed it. So far I’ve only read Sixty-One Nails, the first in the series from Angry Robot, and it is steeped in a blend of real world history, ritual, English customs and folklore. There was a lovely freshness to this series, which sounds odd, but when you read a couple of UF novels in a year, even a few months apart, they can sometimes feel very similar. Shevdon’s approach to UF is as unique as all of the others I’ve mentioned which meant I couldn’t be a lazy reader. Lazy reading breeds odd and pointless questions and comments such as ‘That’s not what an elf/faerie/troll etc looks or acts like.’ or ‘How does the magic system work?’. It’s perfectly natural to want to know more about an aspect of a story, be it magic or the Feyre Courts, but it is something else to expect or demand the author to explain every detail just because in another UF book it was laid out in great detail.

Reading Sixty One Nails meant I had to slouch off my preconceptions about what an UF book should be. Anything I was carrying in my head from other series about magic, wizards, Fey, and so on had to be shoved to one side and ignored. This initially makes it more challenging but equally more rewarding when I did find out about magic and the Feyre in this series. It shouldn’t be compared like for like because it’s a totally different world and is not connected in any way to a UF novel by a different author. I’ll stop there because that’s a much bigger discussion and a bigger rant.

New stuff – Fated
A new book that was just released this March is Fated by Benedict Jacka from Orbit Books. As I mentioned I’m always keen to try new urban fantasy authors and this has a cover quote from Jim Butcher, so now I have two reasons to read it. Butcher also provided a quote for Gustainis, so it is an encouraging sign that I might like it.

What else is good?
So, given all of the above, the tone of the stories, the style of the writing, characterisation and so on, can anyone recommend something similar I might enjoy but might have missed?

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