Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sci-fi Review: Justice 4.1 by Jim Webster

When William at Safkhet Publishing first approached me about a review for Justice 4.1 I was curious, but just didn't see how I'd be able to fit it into my review schedule. Fortunately, he was primarily interested in driving some press in anticipation of Loncon 3, which meant Jim Webster and I had the better part of 5 months to get to know one another.

I'm glad I took the bait and let it taunt me from the review shelves for so long, because I quite enjoyed this. It worked well as both an interstellar sci-fi thriller and as a gritty crime thriller. The central conflict/mystery is actually quite strong, and the setting lends it multiple layers that are enjoyably revealed. As for those layers, I liked the universe that Webster introduces here, its geography, its politics, its history, and its philosophies. The technology is a bit simpler than one might expect, but it does lend the action an immediacy to which we can relate.

There are some big set pieces here and some glimpses of true space opera, but it's those simpler scenes that I found most entertaining. For instance, there's a scene early on where a booby-trapped satellite is carefully defused during a daring spacewalk, and it had as much drama to it as some of the larger battles that mark the book's climax. I found the characters just about perfect for the storyline, all-too-human, questionable in their motives, and sincere in their pursuit of a cause. I was surprised by how some of the friendships/relationships developed, but in a good way. As for the writing, it was crisp and clear, with the words flowing effortlessly off the page - a comfortable read, as well as an exciting one.

The book does end rather abruptly, with some questions left unexplored, but being that Justice 4.1 is The Tsarina Sector Book 1, we can only hope there's more to come.

Paperback, 154 pages
Published March 1st 2014 by Safkhet Fantasy

Monday, July 28, 2014

God Hunter by Tim Lees (Tour Excerpt)

Chapter 1: Field Ops

            I was laying cable on the south side of the altar, working by instinct now, rather than planning. There is a point the brain goes quiet and the hands take over. That’s the point I like. I felt the wires grow warm under my fingertips. They pulsed and trembled; once or twice they caught a gleam of color from the windows high above, and then a spark would seem to flash along their length. I’d move them, one way or the other, depending which felt right.
The tools of my profession can be beautiful, seen from a certain angle, in a certain frame of mind.
So when Shailer called, “Watch this!” I didn’t look up straight away. I swung the second braid of wire off to the left, put a loop into the third, then took the fourth and held it for a moment, seeking my next move. I sucked my lower lip. I could have made a guess, and probably have even got it right. But the rhythm had been lost now, and the sense of things was gone.
I turned round slowly, pretty sure I wasn’t going to like what happened next.
Shailer was standing in the aisle. He wore baggy shorts and a long, sloppy T-shirt, which may have been the fashion back at home, but left him with the look of a collapsing tent. He’d put a chalice upside down on his head. It pushed his hair into his face. He grinned at me, waved, and started goose-stepping back and forth for all that he was worth. He raised his right arm. He sieg-heiled gleefully and bellowed in a dreadful German accent:
            “Lebensraum! Lebensraum!
I told him, “Cut it out.”
Lebensraum, mein Führer!”
“Cut it out!”
            But it was my fault, I suppose, regardless of how inadvertently. Last night I’d tried preparing him. I’d had him watch the newsreels, the old stuff, to get him in the mood, get him acclimatized - given the place we were, the history; a quick reminder of the power of thought en masse. What my old mentor Fredericks, in his pompous way, would no doubt call an Invocation of the Deity, for what that’s worth. Still, I’d been hoping it might resonate, set a few thoughts spinning where there’d probably been precious few before.
Shailer hadn’t seen it that way. No, to Shailer, it had all meant something very different: a bunch of funny-looking guys in funny-looking uniforms doing funny-looking marches, much too long ago, and much too far from home to be of any interest now.
Especially to him.
            He put his fingers up under his nose, the other arm still raised in a salute. It was more John Cleese than Hitler, to be honest, and perhaps not even that; more somebody impersonating Cleese, reality a dozen times removed.
            I stood up, crossed to him in six quick steps, and slapped him hard across the face.
            That got his interest, anyway.
            The chalice toppled from his head and clanged onto the floor. The echoes shivered; it was as if the whole church suddenly breathed in, scenting something was amiss within it. The hairs upon my neck began to prickle. I recognized that moment, knew it instantly. I glanced around.
The going can get sensitive at this stage. Things get raw.
Shailer stared at me, shock and disbelief caught in the slack O of his mouth, the water welling in his eyes. Then his shoulders tensed, his fists came up, his eyes went thin and hard. I waited for the rush of anger to die down. I told him, “Be professional.”
His eyes stayed hard.
I said, “You fool around on one of these, then we could both die. You, I don’t much care about. Me, I do.”
His mouth squeezed tight. A muscle flickered in his jaw. I turned my back and walked slowly to the altar, giving him lots of time to jump me if he’d wanted to.
He wanted to, all right.
He didn’t try it.
“Fetch the flask,” I said. I said it in a neutral tone. Business-like. I kept my head down, bending to the work. Footsteps on the stone floor. I heard him coming, closer, closer. He set the flask beside me. It’s a thick metal container, like a strongbox with a socket in the top.
“OK,” I said. “That’s our receptor. Once we’re done, we double seal it, just for luck, and walk away. I’m hoping that it won’t take long.”
He didn’t answer. I was talking to myself. I linked the last few cables, showed him a third time how to do it, carefully explained it all, reciting from the manual. My heart-rate was up. Breathing too. The talking helped to calm me, normalize me once again. I like to stay cool when I’m working; no stray emotions, nothing to latch onto. It’s like a meditative process. I tried to focus on the task, to let that side of my brain come to the fore. Signs were, we’d got a pre-incarnate here. Tricky. Or worse. And Shailer was the last person I wanted with me. All right - to be fair, perhaps it wasn’t his fault he was such an idiot. But if it wasn’t his, I’d really no idea who else to blame.


About the Author

Tim Lees is a British author living in Chicago. His short fiction has appeared in Postscripts, Black Static and Interzone, among many other publications. He is author of the collection, The Life to Come, nominated for a British Fantasy Award, and the novel Frankenstein’s Prescription, described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a philosophically insightful and literary tale of terror.” When not writing, he has held a variety of jobs, including teacher, conference organiser, film extra, and worker in a psychiatric hospital. His blog is www.timlees.wordpress.com.


About the Book

God Hunter by Tim Lees
On-Sale: 8/5/2014 | ISBN: 9780062358813

Registry field op Chris Copeland arrives in Hungary on a routine mission: find a sacred spot, lay down a wire grid, and capture a full flask of a god’s energy. But when his arrogant new partner, Shailer, sabotages the wires, things go very, very wrong: the god manifests as a mirror image of Chris himself. Chris quickly destroys the god, and, for the good of the company and his own career, buries the evidence.

Six years later, Shailer is a rising star among the energy industry’s corporate elite, while Chris has taken a break from operations. But when a mysterious serial killer begins stalking Budapest-a psychopath who bears an eerie resemblance to Chris-the operative is forced back into the field.

With the help of Anna Ganz, a brusque, chain-smoking Hungarian detective, Chris tracks the monster across the globe. Only the real danger isn’t a killer on the outside . . . it’s Chris’s treacherous colleagues at the Registry who refuse to acknowledge the terrifying forces they’ve unleashed in the name of profit-forces whose origins lead back to the dawn of man . . . and beyond.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sci-Fi Review: Jani and the Greater Game by Eric Brown

Although a bit silly at times, with some lazy plot points that border on embarrassing, Jani and the Greater Game was a fun read that left me wanting to read more in the series. Eric Brown has built an intriguing alternate history here, one that merges steampunk with (minor spoiler here) alien technology, and peopled it with some interesting characters.

Actually, to be honest, the villains are a rather one-dimensional racist caricatures, but the heroes are refreshingly diverse - a smart young woman of mixed Indian and English ancestry and brave young man of a lower Indian caste. To Brown's credit, he does allow for a couple of decent, upstanding Brits to counter all the greedy, nationalistic, arrogant conquerors, but the Russians and the Germans get no such saving graces.

There's not a great deal of story to this initial volume, but that's okay because what Brown has really set out to do is recapture the spirit of the turn-of-the-century adventure novel. In fact, the entire text is peppered with references to the likes of Verne and Kipling, including the suggestion that Verne's stories were based on actual events. This is an adventure/quest story that's primarily concerned with getting Jani from point A to point B, with a series of conflicts and escapes along the way, propelled by an underlying mystery that's rather obvious, but which does end in a nice twist. It's a fast-paced tale, filled with adventure, graphic violence, a little social/political commentary, and humor. It's not particularly deep or complex, but it's a fun journey to share.

As for the technology, the alien elements are actually the blandest, but only because they are variations on a theme we've seen them done before - although the invisibility cap and mind-reading skull-mesh are kind of cool. Instead, it's the human steampunk elements that are the most incredible, capped off by Mr Clockwork's Mech-Man and Amazing Mechanical Elephant. They're not just window dressing either, they're key elements of the story, and set-pieces upon which the overall climax relies.

Like I said, it's a bit lazy in parts, with the resolution relying on some conveniently foolish choices and timely coincidences, but at least some of that can be attributed to the youth of the protagonists. If you think of Jani and the Greater Game in terms of its young heroine, and let her set the context, then it's easy to forgive (if not completely ignore) the story's flaws. Fans of the pulp adventure and steampunk genres will certainly find something here to enjoy, and I suspect there are bigger, better things to come in the inevitable sequel.

Expected publication: July 29th 2014 by Solaris

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mailboxes, Shelves, and What I'm Reading

Stacking The Shelves and Mailbox Monday are a pair of weekly memes that are about sharing the books that came your way over the past week, and which you've added to your shelves - whether they be physical or virtual, borrowed or bought, or for pleasure or review.

I've been focusing on striking a better balance between upcoming titles and my personal TBR shelves, so only 1 new addition this week.

Find Virgil (A Novel of Revenge) by Frank Freudberg
Published November 14th 2013 by Inside Job Media

Get inside the mind of a serial killer as you never have before. Is Martin Muntor a villain or a victim?

Can you imagine rooting for a madman to succeed in a terroristic plot to kill hundreds of people? Second-hand smoke gave Muntor lung cancer, and he's mad. Very mad ... and he's going to do something about it. It's 1995, and the tobacco industry thinks it's invincible.

But is it?

Muntor devises an ingenious strategy to put cigarette companies out of business, and he doesn't care how many people he has to take with him in order to do it.

Hapless private investigator Tommy Rhoads has to find Muntor, and fast. But that's not going to be so easy. Muntor's smart and has nothing to lose, and the FBI doesn't want Rhoads's help. Rhoads has a lot at stake -- personally and professionally -- and is desperate to stop the killer.

Who's right, and who's wrong? Read Find Virgil now, and go along for the wild ride. You'll never forget it.


It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is another weekly meme, this time focused on what books are spending the most time in your hands and in your head, as opposed to what's been added to your shelf.

With an eye towards my scheduled reviews for the next few weeks, I'm currently turning pages with:

• Justice 4.1 by Jim Webster  
Join intergalactic investigator Haldar Drom as he cleans up criminal scum.

• The Ghoul Archipelago by Stephen Kozeniewski 
Zombies, a freighter rescue, billionaire madmen, cargo cults, and post-apocalyptic gruesome horror.

• The House of the Four Winds by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory
I've always looked to Lackey for classic fantasy, and her collaborations with Mallory have been outstanding . . . plus it has pirates!

What's topping your shelves this week?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Fantasy Review: Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

I can't remember the last time I felt so torn about a book, and so conflicted about a review. This was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, and I really wanted to enjoy it. In fact, compared to my usual reading pace, I spent a great deal of time in the world that Robin Hobb created - and while I did enjoy aspects of it, I have to be honest in that most of my time was spent waiting for aspects to enjoy. It's a testament to Hobb's writing (and to Fitz's legacy) that I was able to exhibit such patience. Looking back, the closest analogy I can think of is watching a chess game between tournament masters - fascinating, challenging, and admirable, but hardly riveting.

Fool's Assassin may be labeled book one of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy, but it's really an extended prologue of over 500 pages, followed by an opening chapter of about 80. That is to say there's a lot of talking, a lot of speculating, a lot of worrying, but not a lot of action. In fact, there are only a handful of scenes where anything of consequence takes place, and most of them are rushed together in those final 80 pages. It's hard to talk about them without getting into spoiler territory, but I will say the resolution of Molly's pregnancy is genuinely surprising, and those of you anxious for a reunion between the characters of the title will be waiting a very long time.

Hobb's writing is gorgeous, as always, and it's easy to fall into the cadence and rhythms of her story. Initially, it felt like no time at all had passed since the last trilogy, allowing me to become lost in the world of Fitz all over again. It was truly marvelous. However, around the halfway mark I really began to feel the lagging pace, with the story slow going, but somehow still compelling. I genuinely doubt it would have worked if I weren't already so familiar with Fitz, and invested in seeing where his second life might take him. The problem is, Fitz wasn't Fitz. Yes, his personality was there, and I know Hobb was trying to show us how far he had distanced himself from his past, but I have a hard time believing he could become so lazy, so gullible, so careless, and so insecure.

As for the other characters, that's a sore spot for me. Characters that we know and love, like Chade and Kettricken, are but pale imitations of their former selves. New characters, like FitzVigilant and Shun, are as shallow as they are annoying, while the most significant new addition (whose identity I refuse to spoil) is far too cold and awkward to ever embrace as a character, much less a narrator. Molly started out with some real potential, but soon became an extended plot device, and as fascinating as his (small) piece of the story is, we hardly get a chance to know the Fool.

The opening scenes were fantastic, and I really expected the story to take off from there, but we're subjected to endless chapters of dancing, talking, dressing, shopping, dreaming, complaining, and musing. It took forever to come back to that potential and, when we finally did, it was a race to the finish with a cliffhanger that reeks of desperation. I will absolutely give the next book a read, but Fitz had damned well better return to his old self, and there had better be a significant payoff for all the time we've invested in tolerating that character/narrator I have been so careful not to spoil.

Fool's Assassin is for hardcore fans only, and even then I suspect it will be something of a polarizing tale. Then again, maybe it's just me. The book does have a plethora of 5-star reads, so I'll be curious to see how the readers and reviewers I respect most react to the read.

Hardcover, 688 pages
Expected publication: August 12th 2014 by Del Rey

Interview with Bill Kirton (satirical crime author)

Good morning all, and welcome to the next in our series of interviews with the authors of Thorstruck Press.

This week we're sitting down to chat with Bill Kirton, author of satirical crime thrillers, including his latest, The Sparrow Conundrum.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to stop by today, Bill. For those who haven't yet had a chance to enjoy your work, please tell us a little about yourself and what we can expect.

I took early retirement from university teaching to concentrate on writing. I've also done a few other jobs – acting, directing, voice-overs, TV presenting, writing fellowships. As far as my novels go, the main output is the series of 5 mysteries featuring DCI Jack Carston. They’re set in North East Scotland and follow the whodunit and/or whydunnit pattern but I’ve tried to avoid genre clichés. Carston, for example, is happily married and there’s usually a coda at the end of the books suggesting that, while this particular case has been solved, crime is a constant aspect of life. I also write satire, humour, historical crime/romance and children’s stories. I’m classed as a crime writer but I’d rather just be a writer. I’d like readers to laugh a lot but also to think about some of the things that crop up in the narratives.

Q: The journey from 'aspiring' to 'accomplished' can be a long one, even in the era of small presses and digital publishing. When did you begin writing, and what has the journey to publication been like?

I’ve been writing for decades. My first broadcast output was radio drama on the BBC and Australian BC and stage plays which were performed in Scotland and the USA. I’ve no idea why I changed to novels but back in the 90s I sent my first one to an agent who liked it and took me on. She sent my book to Piatkus, who also liked it but wanted police procedurals instead, so I wrote one (Material Evidence) and they published it. Since then I’ve been traditionally published in the USA and, when the publisher had to close, I followed the Indie route and published my 9 novels as ebooks and paperbacks. The process was surprisingly easy and certainly quick and cheap. I’m happy, though, to be part of the Thorstruck family now and will be transferring most, if not all my books to them. Being an Indie gives you almost total freedom but having also to do marketing and PR means you lose a lot of writing time.

Q: In terms of writing, what comes easiest for you, and where do you struggle the most? Is it the title? The first paragraph? The last chapter? The cover blurb?

Blurbs and titles take far longer then they should. I mean, when you’ve written a story of 90,000 words, reducing it to a couple of hundred – or even fewer – is very hard. As for the book itself, it’s often slow going at the beginning, not because I’m striving for the perfect, attention-grabbing opener but because some of the characters haven’t yet formed and need to say and do a few things before they have any substance. Once they’ve done that, though, I can usually rely on them to take the story where it needs to go. Occasionally, I get stuck because they’ve taken me to an impasse but that’s usually the cue to rethink the plot. Sometimes, the person I thought was guilty turns out to be the good guy and an apparently innocent one has done the killing. Whenever that happens, the result is always better than my original instinct. That doesn’t happen, though, with the satire/humour books. Once the characters are up and running, I just enjoy being with them and get plenty of laughs from what they do.

Q: Sometimes, characters can take on a life of their own, pulling the story in directions you hadn't originally anticipated, especially when developing a series that touches on multiple genres. Were there any twists or turns in your writing that surprised you, or really challenged your original plans for the story?

Ooops, I realise I’ve just answered this question. For me, it’s not a question of ‘sometimes’ but ‘always’. I was chairing a panel at the Edinburgh book festival one year and one of the panellists said ‘You’ve got to give your characters room to dance’. That was a beautiful way of summing up how the process works. In an early radio play, I used the characters to illustrate some imagery of expansion and contraction that, to me, fitted the play’s theme. The problem was that I then began forcing them to say things I wanted to say rather than letting them be themselves. A review of the play in a national magazine began ‘This is a tiresome play about tiresome people’ and I agreed completely with that assessment. I hadn’t given them room to dance or to be themselves.

Q: When writing, do you ever consider how a reader or reviewer will react, or do you write solely for your own satisfaction?

One bit of basic advice I give when asked is that you should separate the functions of writer and editor. When you write the first draft, don’t worry too much about technical things – spelling, grammar, etc. – just let the story flow. But then, having set it aside for as long as possible, come back to it as an editor (and reader) and start polishing it and getting rid of anything that gets in the way of reading pleasure. There’s definitely satisfaction in getting the rhythms of prose right or of twisting the story to create surprise and, most of all, there’s enormous pleasure in reading reviews which have lots of LOL references. Negative reviews are useful except when they arise from the reviewers’ prejudices rather than anything that happens in the book. Writing with readers or reviewers in mind would never work for me. It has to be just me and the characters – anyone else would destroy the fiction.

Q: In terms of reader reactions, what is the strangest or most surprising reaction to your work that you've encountered to -date?

Two things. In one of my books, there’s a rape scene. I asked my wife to check it from the woman’s point of view and she made some great suggestions of reactions which would never have occurred to me. The book was reviewed in The Sunday Telegraph by a top crime reviewer, who praised it and acknowledged that the rape scene wasn’t gratuitous but essential to the plot resolution. An Amazon reviewer, however, was shocked by it (fair enough) but then said that when you read that sort of thing you have to ‘"question the author’s psyche’.

Another Amazon review of a different book was entitled ‘What's the Weather Forecast?’ and this is it:
‘An interesting story overall, but really - what is it about British authors that make them write extensively about the terrain and the weather - and not only that, but the history of the weather and the weather in relation to surrounding areas and different seasons. A simple "It was raining." would do. The story could have been cut quite a bit shorter without all of the weather and rolling hills.’

The fact is that the story opens on an offshore installation, where weather is always a significant factor in whatever’s happening. There are 2 paragraphs establishing what a dangerous place it is, especially in a gale which throws hailstones at you. And that’s it. I checked the manuscript to see what had upset the reviewer so much and, in over 86,000 words, the word ‘weather’ occurs 4 times and, overall, there are 9 references to things such as rain and wind – each of them one-liners. As for the ‘rolling hills’ – the expression never appears and there are only 2 references to ‘hills’ which, since it’s set in Scotland, seems very restrained to me.

Q: To turn from pen to page for a moment, is there a particular author who has influenced or inspired your writing? Somebody who either made you want to write in the first place, or who just refreshes your literary batteries?

I've always written so I don’t think I can say that any particular writer got me started, but I enjoy reading writers such as Tom Sharpe, Terry Pratchett, Carl Hiaasen and others that I’d like to emulate them. That’s what The Sparrow Conundrum is aimed at. When I taught, though, I had to give lectures and tutorials on French literature, especially the great 19th century novelists and I learned so much from them. I’ve no idea how many times I’ve read Madame Bovary, for example, but I still enjoy it. I sometimes just read a couple of pages to remind myself of the importance of choosing exactly the right word, getting the right rhythms, and making the gaps between events as important as the events themselves. We’re always learning.

Q: Assuming you had total creative control over the production, who would you cast as the leading roles, were your work to be optioned for the big screen?

In fact, a Los Angeles company has optioned one of my short stories for the screen. I won’t have any say in the casting (that’s if it ever happens) but it’s nice to know that someone thinks the story’s interesting enough to want to film it. My ideal casting for, say, Jack Carston and his wife Kath might be Alan Rickman and Olivia Coleman, but I’d be happy to leave that to the director. Film and theatre are great collaborative media and the things they produce differ greatly from the books on which they’re based, so I think the director would know better than the writer what would work best.

Q: Before we let you go, what can we look forward to from you next? Is there another story yet to be told in your latest world, or perhaps something completely different on the horizon?

I’m writing the sequel to my historical novel The Figurehead at the moment but recently I've been feeling I’d maybe like to get back to drama, so that’s a possibility. But I’ve also started a sequel to The Sparrow Conundrum and I want to write the last in the Carston series, so plenty for me to look forward to. And, of course, I’m now with Thorstruck so who knows what that will bring?


About the Author

Bill Kirton was a university lecturer in French before taking early retirement to become a full-time writer. He’s had radio plays broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4 and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, stage plays performed in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and the USA and he’s been the visiting artist to the Theatre Department of the University of Rhode Island on four separate occasions. There, he directed stage plays, gave classes on creative writing and theatre, performed in revues and translated three plays by Molière for public performance, one of which won a BCLA prize. Material from his Edinburgh Festival revues was broadcast on the BBC, ITV and French television.

He’s also been a TV presenter, a voice-over artist, and a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and the universities of Dundee and St Andrews. His non-fiction output includes Just Write, co-written with Kathleen McMillan and five books in Pearson’s ‘Brilliant’ series: Brilliant Study Skills, Brilliant Essay, Brilliant Dissertation, Brilliant Work Skills and Brilliant Academic Writing.

His novels, two of which have won awards, are set in the north east of Scotland. Material Evidence, Rough Justice, The Darkness, Shadow Selves and Unsafe Acts all feature DCI Jack Carston. The Figurehead is a historical novel set in Aberdeen in 1840, The Sparrow Conundrum is a satirical crime spoof and Alternative Dimension is a satirical look at the online worlds where virtual and real overlap. He’s also written a children’s novel, The Loch Ewe Mystery and some other children’s stories. His short stories have appeared in the Crime Writers’ Association annual anthology in 1999, 2005 and 2006 and one was chosen as one of the Best British Crime Stories, Vol. 7, a 2010 anthology edited by Maxim Jakubowsky.


About the Book

The Sparrow Conundrum  by Bill Kirton
Published June 26th 2014 by Thorstruck Press

Chris Machin may think he’s just a teacher but the bottom feeders in Aberdeen squabbling over North Sea oil and gas contracts prefer to use his code-name – Sparrow. When his garden explodes, he takes flight, unleashing various forms of Scottish mayhem.

More complications are added by his ex girl friend and a sociopathic policeman whose hobbies are violence, making arrests and, best of all, combining the two. Several murders later, two wrestlers, a road trip to Inverness, a fishing trawler, a Russian factory ship, and some fragments of a postman complete the enigma of…

… The Sparrow Conundrum.