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A Game of Clones

February 27, 2014 Leave a comment

They are currently about a dozen novels sitting on my ‘To Be Read’ shelf at the moment. 1. Given that fantasy is ‘in’, roughly two-thirds of those are fantasy novels. Can you guess what it says on the back of all but one of those books?

They all claim that if you like A Game of Thrones or George RR Martin then I’ll love this book. Not only is this boring, it’s also utterly useless as a piece of promotional material. I don’t believe a word of it, think “ho hum” and skip past the blurb. An opportunity wasted all due to a lack of originality. Then I get snarky.

For a start, in what way like A Game of Thrones is it? Does it feature a vast and complex fantasy world with warring family factions? Incestuous characters? Extremely awkward sex scenes? Or am I to assume that the novel series is going to take a long time to get to a conclusion? Also, how like George RR Martin. His body of work is pretty broad – I assume they mean his popular fantasy series but they may be implying it’s a clever anthology series or proto-urban fantasy. His style has evolved over the years, which George RR Martin do they mean?

I wonder how many stud animals are called Winter?

I wonder how many stud animals are called Winter?

I get why blurbs are written this way. A Game of Thrones is very popular right now and marketing types want to grab a little bit of that success in order to shift units. The problem is that over using a limited number of names makes a nonsense of the process. They can’t all be identical and I am hoping they aren’t. It also diminishes us all. It insults the famous author by implying that their unique and popular voice is easily mimicked. It insults the creator of the novel by implying that the book is derivative and most of all it insults the reader by assuming that we will only recognise a limited number of names.

Comparing things to other things is a valid way of describing anything, but you have to assume a broad palette. Good blurbs that name check other writers use lots of different names. If a book claims to be reminiscent of four or five different people, I have a better chance of recognising who some of them are, and get a better feel for what the work is like. Using less well known authors also celebrates and promotes the diversity of writing styles out there, and surely getting the word out there is the aim of game?


1: I say shelf, it’s a stack. I tend to keep all the board-games, DVDs, books and other physical objects awaiting critical evaluation in one place in order to keep a track of what’s going on. E-books and the like means that I can’t really tell at a glance how much work I’ve got to do, but it’s a handy rule of thumb. A dozen is a good number, busy without being too busy.

Categories: Books

The First Show

December 9, 2013 Leave a comment

So, the first leg of Operation: Gobshite has finally landed1, and it’s radio related. This Sunday was the first ever episode of The BookWorm, a little book show that I co-host with my friend Ninfa Hayes and produced by AL Johnson. You can catch it every Sunday on Fab Radio International

It’s meant to be a rather irreverent look at the book world. We’re not Radio 42 by any stretch of the imagination, and are quite far removed from taking ourselves seriously. We love books, and draw our inspiration from the fantastic worlds we find between the covers. We also laugh a lot. It’s pretty much an excuse for me to do some of the things I love to do; talk to creative people and get enthused about creative things.

It’s a relief to have the first show live and done. After weeks of practice, worry, pondering and generally messing about we finally went live, and it was glorious. Things didn’t go completely smoothly, but that’s all part of the fun.

This is not my first radio show; I presented a rock radio show in college, and I’ve been a contributor to other cool shows in the past, but The BookWorm feels like I’ve finally found my groove. Time will tell, but it’s been a fun ride so far. Listen live at 12pm GMT3 Every Sunday.


1: Like a Martian War Machine, the charmingly titled Operation Gobshite has three legs. Talking nonsense on a Radio Show is only one part of this.

2: Fab Radio International is very much about being alternative. It’s very much influenced by the sort of innovation, co-operation and free-thinking that defines the city of Manchester, and it has this wild feel to it that is rather fun.

3: 7am EST. Sorry colonials.

Categories: Books, Geek

Lord of the Flies, with cheese

November 9, 2013 Leave a comment

A well placed, witty yet dismissive one-liner can be the bane of any fandom, as anyone who’s a fan of Babylon 51 can attest when the someone quotes Spaced at them for the hundredth time.

So I fully expect that with the release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the dull and unoriginal will trot out the tired old joke about Suzanne Collins’ hit series that “The Hunger Games is Battle Royale with Cheese”. I promise I won’t hunt those people down and beat them with a Pulp Fiction DVD2. There’s a lot to get annoyed by this gag though; let’s break it down.

It was funny a couple of years ago, but only a little bit funny. A dry gag on a boring day, though one with a hint of malice to it. Unlike a meme, it hasn’t evolved into anything more amusing. It’s also a terrible comparison. Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel is much more of a thriller, filled with direct commentary on turn of the century Japanese attitudes to youth , whereas Suzanne Collins novel is much broader in scale, owing more to 1984 than anything else. Both deal with the turbulent emotions of the young, and share a similar idea. But saying one comes from the other is a little like saying Star Trek and Star Wars are copies of each other, because they feature conflict in space.

What people are really doing is trying to claim that The Hunger Games copied the Battle Royale, and that the latter is somehow superior to it’s clone. If you’d seen both movies, or (gosh) bothered to read both books, this would strike you as obvious bollocks. They’re trying to claim kudos for identifying one work as some how better than the other, without examining either.That irritates my internal critic, because both books (and their movies) are worth your time, just in different ways.3

The ‘joke’ teller is pulling the old trick of saying “Hey, I was into this when it was obscure”, which at the very least is gauche, if not out and out false. Surely, if you’re a fan of this sort of dystopian fiction, you’d be talking about William Goulding? It also puts the boot into Young Adult fiction. For some odd reason people lump the The Hunger Games in with The Twilight Series4, because they’re aimed at the young. There’s a dash of snobbery here; a sort of ‘how dare young people enjoy dystopian fiction’ going on, which is out of order when you stop and think about it.

1: If everyone who memorised the line from Spaced had actually watched Severed Dreams or The Deconstruction of Falling Stars, well they’d probably still take the piss, but in a less boring way.

2: Though if I did, I’d leave the DVD in the DVD player first.

3: The Battle Royale translation into English is a bit tricksy and a bit dry; try the manga instead. The Hunger Games is a better read though, it really is.

4: A rant for another day, but I do frown on those who rip into Twilight fans, because I remember what it was like to be young and into something everyone thought was rubbish.

Categories: Books, Movies

The Book Worm Radio Show

October 21, 2013 1 comment

So, from the 24th of November onwards, I’ll be teaming up with my friend Ninfa Hayes to present and co-produce The Book Worm. The show will be hosted on Fab International Radio, a new station that launches that date. It’s one of those new fangled Internet radio stations, which means we don’t have to worry to much about polluting the airwaves.

It dovetails in nicely with the work I’m doing for Starburst, and it means that the more recent interviews I’ve done with authors and publishing types have been recorded for radio as well as text (which makes the process a little different, though not by much. I’ll explain that in a future post).

I’ve done radio things before; my first media gig was hosting a late night alternative rock show when I was 16 on a very local and parochial station. Luckily, no tapes survive of this particular sin against sound and sense. I also reviewed movies1 for the same station, doing a bit of a Mark Kermode impersonation at the time. (I had the quiff and the correct level of pretentiousness. In fact I still have those things.) The last radio thing I’ve done was the rather fabulous Programmed For Damage, an alternative music show filled with weird tunes and nonsense. I didn’t really do much on that show except watch my friend Phoenix do all the hard work and talk nonsense.

The BookWorm is just the start of some fun things I have planned for 2014.  You may be able to guess that it’s all going to be tied in to telling stories, talking about cool things and generally having a laugh, but watch this space.

More details on the station launch, when I have them.

1: Not the first time I reviewed books though; I’d been doing that for the school paper for a while before the local station opened up. First book review I ever did was Good Omens, in case you’re wondering.

Categories: Books

International Please Don’t Pirate Books Day

February 6, 2013 8 comments

Over on Chuck Wendig’s blog Terrible Minds he invited people to talk about Book Piracy. Now it being me, the first thing that sprung to my mind was a dystopian Waterworld style future in which the most precious things in the world are books.

After all, if most of the landmasses on the planet became flooded and we all lived on re-purposed ships and barges, things that float would be at a premium. Those floating villages that could rig up enough power to run electrical devices probably wouldn’t waste that precious resource on e-readers, so it would be down to keeping surviving collections of books in a safe and dry place. Librarians would be more heroic than they are today, carrying shotguns and strictly enforcing fines.

All of this would lead to book piracy, of course. Tricorn wearing men and women would roam the seas in powerful ocean-going vessels, seeking out the precious booty of books. Libraries would be the targets of these terrible raiders (who presumably speak in Cornish accents), and librarians would have to protect those who wish to steal these stores of knowledge for their own selfish gain. Huge campaigns would be waged over the last surviving copies of House on Pooh Corner and adventurers would go off on quests to find the legendary “Amazon”, a mythical place that they say is filled with books.

Floating Villages are not a good place to store books

Floating Villages are not a good place to store books

Of course, when they say “Book Piracy” they might mean illegal file-sharing. It’s an interesting problem that isn’t as modern as we like to think it is. Art, be it movies, music, or books, needs to be shared and enjoyed by the community in order to be worth anything. As someone who makes a very modest living from writing, I want my work to do two things; be enjoyed by as many people as possible, and I also want to be paid. If the work isn’t good enough, it doesn’t sell. If I charge too much, it doesn’t sell, and both of those are fine; it’s on me to make sure it’s good work, reasonably priced and on time. If everyone steals my work then I don’t get paid at all, and I have to find something else to do in order to stay safe, fed, happy and living.

People will always seek to share art. This is such a fundamental thing that we even have a whole skill-set devoted to it. People train to be librarians, museum attendants and curators. A society that seeks to punish someone for wanting to enjoy music, view dramas or read books has gone wrong somewhere; we need to feed our brains almost as much as we need to feed our bellies, and if you try and deprive them of this right, then the metaphorical pirate ships will arrive.

The modern argument about file-sharing seems to be one of greed. On the one extreme you have people who wish to take everything for granted and never pay anyone for anything. On the other extreme you have people who want to charge people large sums of money for anything anyone has ever created. Neither of these are sensible approaches, a good book should not be the privilege of the wealthy or those with flexible morals. The middle ground for this debate is that of the public library, and subscription sharing services like Books Free. I like the idea of a service that mails books to me for a modest fee, though I’d be happier if they made sure the fee stayed modest and within the reach of everbody.

What is your take on this debate? Comments below please.

Categories: Books, Rants

Dan Abnett Interview

November 26, 2012 Leave a comment

No blog post update today; way too much to write up. Instead, take a look at this interview I did with Dan Abnett for Starburst magazine.

Link Here.

Categories: Books, Comic Books, Games, Geek

Black Library Weekender

November 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Rather than the usual format for a blog post, in which I wax lyrical1 about some nerd thing or other that has caught my eye this week, I’m going talk about what I did this weekend. Which is go to a luxury hotel in Nottingham and hang out with book geeks.

The Black Library Weekender was a two-day event focusing on the books produced by the world’s fifth largest publisher of Science Fiction. I am a big fan of the Black Library, partially because I was bitten by the Warhammer bug at a very young age2, but also because it deals with expanding consistent world settings; everything BL produces is part of a growing mythology, and everyone is invited to dive in. The imagination, much like sports, can be more fun with the addition of some basic rules, and the loose guidelines that define the worlds of Warhammer tend to be a lot of fun.3

So what happens when hundreds of fans turn up at a really nice place with conference facilities, a bar and a spa? A good time is had by all it seems, though I didn’t see many other fans in the swimming pool (they were mostly in the bar). Personal highlights for me include getting to chat away with the likes of Clint Werner4, who is very epitome of a Texan Gentleman, getting to geek out slightly at Aaron Dembski-Bowden5, and talk to a host of authors, editors and fans. (I was stunned to learn that they are people still using the old-school Rogue Trader rules to play RPGs. That is deeply hardcore.)

I also got to interview Dan Abnett for Starburst Magazine. I’m a big fan of Dan’s work, and it was a lot of fun to do. He’s a nice chap and I got some great stuff to write up later. I probably came across like a huge fanboy, but then that is who I am.

I totally played it cool, as you can see.

As an event, it was mostly seminars and signings, and there was quite a bit of overlap with the Horus Heresy talks; I learned a lot about what was coming up over the next 18 months for that series, and much less about other lines. However, I was also able to grab multiple viewpoints and takes on that bestselling series, so nothing was wasted. Another highlight was some great insights into the adventure gamebook industry.

The evening social events included The Pitch Factor, a Pop Idol style event where nervous unpublished authors pitched their ideas to two editors and an English teacher6. I had a go myself, and got the reality TV experience7, but it was an awful lot of fun. There was also a quiz, which was essentially authors versus the fans. Technically the fans won, but judging by the amount the laughter, I think everyone did.

It was a large, but intimate feeling event. The Black Library ‘tribe’ is a rather awesome one, and I can’t wait to do something like this again soon.


1: Or if you’ve met me, babble in excitable Geordie whalesong.
2: There is no known cure for Geek. It may mutate, but it can never be cured, and that’s fine the way it is.
3: Black Library, and indeed Games Workshop, have a policy that can best described as “It’s all true, especially the lies”. Much of the work is told from a specific viewpoint, and no one pretends that any one faction has the full facts. This means that stories are stack upon stories, creating a deep yet flexible world. This is a very British approach to dealing with story settings that feature multiple creative talents. Doctor Who has a similar policy.
4: He writes some cracking stuff; if gritty fantasy featuring rat-men and disease sounds like your thing, check out Dead Winter.
5: Aaron is a great writer who should be more famous than he is. He also wrote a great article on canon here.
6: Legion of the Damned writer Rob Sanders. Possibly the coolest English teacher ever, for a given value of cool. I may have babbled incoherently at him at one point about his cinematic scenes in The Primarchs.
7: I should have gone for My Little Primarch, also known as We buy any Khan.

Categories: Books, Comic Books, Reviews

The adventure-game magazines of the Eighties

January 12, 2012 4 comments

Back in the mid-eighties, Fighting Fantasy1 books where everywhere; young geeks devoured them, and the bookshops where filled with a myriad of titles and their imitators. For the dedicated fan though, this wasn’t enough. The books painted a fantasy world, but the fans wanted more.

Cue Warlock, the short-lived Fighting Fantasy Magazine. For a fraction of the cost of one of the books, you could get a brief fix of your growing gaming habit. Better yet, you got to glimpse the development of these worlds. Warlock, featured maps, articles and monster profiles, and was pretty much a basic primer on how to build worlds. Many of these features would later be further developed into source books for Fighting Fantasy’s main setting. What made it stand out from the other fantasy gaming magazines of the era was the sense that things where being created before your eyes.

Smell the nostalgia. (Though it could just be the smell of old magazines.)

That and the mini-adventure stories. If you can have adventure books, then surely you can have adventure short-stories, and the idea that one can delve into a spot of gaming on a short bus trip has always appealed to me. I find that adventure books tend to be single sitting affairs, I open the book and try and finish it in one gulp. I may come back to it later to play other options, but if it’s any good then it should feel more like a thrilling fairground ride than watching a TV series.

The cool thing about short-form adventure games is that you can indulge and then leave them alone. They’re quick, fun and pretty much ideal for wasting time in those short moments. Even though the old Fighting Fantasy novels are now available as apps,2, I‘ve not seen short-story format adventures in the modern formats. Which is sad, as the appeal of the e-books is their portability. This is why I tend to read short stories on the train, after all. I’d much rather delve into a sword and sorcery game than play Angry Birds, especially when I’m in the mood for something a bit more interactive than a regular book, but I also want it to last the length of my journey and no longer.

Warlock, by the way, only lasted for 12 13 issues, but in that time developed two imitators. Proteus was filled with the contributions from fans, and some of these were very good. It was all about the adventure-game aspect, and lasted a little bit longer than Warlock. Also of note is the sadly very short-lived Dice Man. Edited by 2000AD legend Pat Mills, Dice Man was an adventure game anthology that let you play the characters form the 2000AD comic. The stories where told through comic panels, and this quirky little bit of comic book history was recently paid homage to in 2000AD’s Prog 2012 with a fun little Judge Dredd story.

I do wonder if this sort of thing will make a come-back. We have the technology, after all, and I recently discovered they’re as fun to write as they are to read. It would be nice, and I do get the feeling that they are due a glorious come-back. Time will tell.


1: Adventure Game books require the reader to make choices, rather than passively reading the story. All books draw you into a different world, but only Adventure Game books let you hit things once you’re in that world.
2: There is also a new generation of these games such as Jonathan Green’s Temple of The Spider God, exclusive to iPhone. Hopefully you’ll be able to read them on other things soon enough.

Categories: Books, Comic Books, Geek

Empire State

January 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Super hero stories tend to shine when they’re dipped in noir-style nostalgia; both genres lend themselves to tales of two-fisted fisted, and the grime and dirt of the post-war era balances nicely with heroism and rocket powered justice. So it should come as no surprise that Adam Christopher’s debut novel Empire State, a tale of rocket powered heroes and private detectives during the American prohibition, is pretty good stuff.

Empire State is the tale of two cities; one is New York in the 1950’s, the other is a mirror-universe version of the Big Apple, called The Empire State. Whereas New York is a big place, filled with possibilities, The Empire State is a claustrophobic, insular city at war with a shadowy foe. The story follows the life of Private Detective Rad Bradbury1, a good man in a rotten city.

Gas Masks, Rocket Packs and Zepplins. What's not to love?

As you’d expect, there’s a woman with a secret and a missing person to find. There’s also rocket powered heroes, super villains, robots, airships and dashing captains. It’s a skilful blend of two well-loved genres, and it’s a fun, pulpy, tightly written book.

The setting is not just an interesting backdrop; the author takes full advantage of the premise and fills in a lot of the details in way that keeps luring you. This makes for a dense story with a well realised world behind it. Like you’d expect in any good mystery story, every character has a past and a strange secret. These elements slowly fit together to create a world greater than the sum of its parts.

Empire State is a master class in world building, whilst still retaining a coherent and engaging story. It manages to keep the reader guessing all the way through, without losing itself in its own mythology.

Fans of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City , movies such a Sky Captain and the World of Tommorow and the The Rocketeer or any ‘Dark Mirror’ episode of Star Trek, this one is for you. Fan of pulp adventures and twisty, noir-style plots will find a lot to love here.


1: Oh yeah, and it’s full of lovely little references like that as well.

Categories: Books, Geek, Reviews

Dead Harvest

December 29, 2011 6 comments

Dead Harvest is a detective horror story with a neat little twist; the lead character, Sam Thornton, is dead and damned, doomed to roam the earth as a ghost. His soul belongs to the powers of hell and he has been cursed to collect the souls of sinners and send them to the demons. Urban fantasy1 is tricky genre to get right; mix in too much of the supernatural and the tale becomes a clichéd creature feature, mix in too many mundane elements and the spooky parts seem gimmicky and false. Dead Harvest pulls of the rare feat of getting it exactly right; Sam’s power to possess the bodies of the dead (and the living) makes consistent sense, as does his doomed (and tear-jerking) backstory.

Like any good detective story, a young lady turns Sam’s world upside down, and the tale quickly becomes an action-movie inspired romp. As the main characters run from one dangerous situation to another, we grow to care about the supporting cast and learn more about this world where heaven and hell are so very close to an unknowing (and often uncaring) human race.

The retro styled cover tells us that the tale is hardboiled

It’s pretty rapidly paced; the peril is layered on pretty thick and it’s this sense of urgency that really draws the reader in. The story takes place over a few short days, lending a leanness and speed to the whole thing. A good mystery story keeps the reader guessing, and though some of the twists seem obvious, the devil is the details. (I’m not going to tell you if I mean that literally. Read it for yourself and see.)

Fans of the Harry Dresden series and those who like their modern-day fantasy with a twist of hardboiled detective story will love this (as will fans of Good Omens and In Nomine). I firmly expect this page-turner to do well, and am pleased to hear that a sequel is already in the works.

1: A clunky term that usually means ‘set in the real world, with supernatural elements’. Typically with a healthy dose of horror story staples like ghosts and werewolves thrown in for good measure.

Categories: Books, Reviews