Today’s Art (31st March 2019)

Well, due to both time and enthusiasm reasons, today’s artwork is a quick greyscale digitally-edited drawing based on this photo I took in Bosham last April.

As usual, this drawing is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Bosham – Low Tide” By C. A. Brown

Top Ten Articles – March 2019

Well, it’s the end of the month and this means that it’s time for me to collect links to my ten favourite articles about writing, making art, making webcomics, reading etc.. that I’ve posted here over the past month. As usual, I’ll include a few honourable mentions too.

All in all, this month was a reasonably good one in terms of articles – even though, like with the previous few months, there were fewer “ordinary” articles due to the fact that I’m posting reviews every 2-4 days. Likewise, I also tried (and failed – I finished it, but the quality was terrible) to write a 1980s-style horror novella at the time I was writing this month’s articles (and also started another novella project which I decided to write at a slower pace).

Talking of reviews, I ended up reviewing 13 novels and 2 “Doom II” WADs this month 🙂 The best novels that I reviewed this month are probably: “Box Nine” & “Word Made Flesh” by Jack O’Connell, “Zombie Apocalypse! Acapulcalypse Now” by Alison Littlewood, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury, “A Second Chance” by Jodi Taylor, “Working For The Devil” by Lilith Saintcrow and “Heartstone” by C. J. Sansom.

Anyway, here are the lists 🙂 Enjoy 🙂

Top Ten Articles – March 2019:

– “When Does Cover Art Really Matter?
– “Two Terrifying Tips For Writing Extreme Horror Fiction
– “Four Thoughts About When (And How) To Abandon A Book You’re Reading
– “Three Random (But Realistic) Tips For Writing 1990s-Style Fiction
– “Three Random Tips For Creating Satirical Comics
– “Two Ways To Save Time Whilst Making Art
– “Two Basic Differences Between Modern And Older Novels
– “Two Basic Things To Do When A Creative Project Fails
– “Two Ways To Make Greyscale Drawings/Paintings Based On Your Colour Photos
– “Three Basic Tips For Writing Book Reviews

Honourable Mentions:

– “The Joy Of….”Middle Brow” Fiction
– “One Quick Way To Rekindle Enthusiasm For Your Story
– “Two Practical Reasons Why English Lit Lessons/Lectures Are Important

The Joy Of….”Middle Brow” Fiction

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about one of my favourite types of fiction – “middle brow” fiction. This is the type of fiction that includes all of the thrills, creativity and cool stuff you’ll find in “low brow” fiction, but with the level of characterisation, linguistic skill, thematic complexity, descriptive depth etc.. that you’ll find in more “high brow” fiction.

It is quite literally the best of both worlds and it is utterly awesome. Yet, it is annoyingly difficult to define. Ok, I could probably list examples of it that I’ve read (like “Box Nine” by Jack O’Connell, “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson or, the novel I’m reading at the moment, “Weaveworld” by Clive Barker), but it’s really difficult to spot it at a glance.

I mean, it’s easy enough to see whether a novel is a fun “low brow” thriller/horror/detective/sci-fi novel or a prestigious, intellectual and realistic “literary” novel just by looking at the cover. One has excitingly dramatic cover art and the other usually has trendily boring cover art that is filled with adoring critic quotes. But, things that fall in between these categories are usually a little bit more difficult to spot at a glance.

But, I guess that this is part of the charm of “middle brow” fiction – that brilliant sense of surprise when you sit down to read what you think will be an ordinary thriller, horror, sci-fi or detective novel only to find that it’s a lot more atmospheric, deep, intelligent, unique or vivid than you had expected 🙂 Or, when you think “I should read something intellectual“, only to find that the book you’ve pushed yourself to read is a lot more gripping than you’d expected 🙂

Yet, this type of fiction is really difficult to define. Is it genre fiction with extra depth and complexity? Is it literary fiction with an actual plot, some imagination and a proper narrative drive? Is it both of these things?

Surprisingly, it’s actually easier to think of non-book metaphors for it. It’s kind of like the equivalent of a more prestigious popular TV show like “Game Of Thrones”, “Twin Peaks” or “Boardwalk Empire” – which contains enough depth and complexity to be more than mindless Hollywood entertainment, whilst also still being entertaining enough to make you want to binge-watch entire seasons of it.

Another interesting thing about “middle brow” fiction is that it also reminds us of what popular fiction used to be like. Yes, there’s a lot to be said for more fast-paced, informal and “matter of fact” modern narration – it keeps the story wonderfully gripping and it also means that modern books can compete with smartphones, the internet, videogames etc.. for people’s attentions. But, at the same time, it can also lack a certain depth and atmosphere that even the most “low brow” of older novels often used to have.

To give you an example, take a look at “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson (1984). This is a fast-paced, ultra-gruesome horror novel about zombie vampires that I first discovered when I was a young teenager during the early-mid 2000s. It just seemed like a really cool, fun and rebellious novel back then. But, when I re-read it as an adult, I was surprised by how complex the writing sometimes was when compared to some of the more contemporary novels I’d read in the meantime.

Here’s a quote from “Erebus” to show you what I mean: “Elsewhere in the office things were at various stages of organized pandemonium as other reporters rushed to complete their assignments, hampered by the fact that their typewriting dexterity had not yet extended to more than one finger“.

This was “low brow” popular entertainment in 1984! A mere 35 years ago, a novel containing complex sentences like this was seen as a mindless “everyday” way to pass the time (like videogames, Facebook or Youtube would be these days). Just think about that for a second.

Another cool thing about reading “middle brow” fiction is that it’s kind of like a reward for having to read more dull “high brow” fiction in the past (eg: the set texts at school/college/university). Thanks to your prior experience, not only can you read it with relative ease – which feels like playing a videogame you’re really good at- but you also actually have fun at the same time. It’ll make you see the wisdom of having to slog through the works of writers like Shakespeare, Bronte, Dickens, Austen, Fowles, Woolf etc.. when you were younger.

Of course, as a side note, one amusing irony is that Shakespeare and Dickens were, at the time they were originally writing, “low brow” popular entertainment. I mean, just do some research into 16th century theatre audiences (eg: wild, rowdy, chaotic etc..) or into how many of Dickens’ novels were originally published (eg: popular serials in newspapers/magazines).

Anyway, “middle brow” fiction shows you that reading all of those boring books means that you can breeze through much more interesting books with a sense of ease and skill that may very well catch you by surprise and make you feel like some kind of expert or intellectual.

In short, “middle brow” fiction is totally and utterly amazing. Yes, it was probably more popular in the past than it is now (I mean, all of the examples I listed earlier in the article come from the 1980s/90s) but – in a landscape where popular modern novels often seem to be sharply divided between grim detective thrillers/ Fifty Shades Of Twilight and pretentious plot-less “literary” novels, there has never been more of a need for intelligent, well-written novels with a good gripping plot 🙂

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Some Girls Bite” By Chloe Neill (Novel)

Note: Due to various scheduling reasons, the next book review probably won’t appear here until the 2nd April.

Well, after reading Lilith Saintcrow’s “Working For The Devil“, I was still in the mood for urban fantasy fiction.

But, since I have a rule about reading multiple books by the same author directly after one another (after reading eight Clive Cussler novels in a row a few months ago taught me that variety is the spice of life), I decided to read a second-hand copy of Chloe Neill’s 2009 vampire novel “Some Girls Bite” that I’d ordered a few weeks earlier when I was going through a bit of a horror phase.

So, let’s take a look at “Some Girls Bite”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2010 Gollancz (UK) paperback edition of “Some Girls Bite” that I read.

The novel is set in a version of Chicago where the existence of vampires is public knowledge. The story begins when a university student called Merit is violently attacked by a vampire on campus. The vampire mortally wounds her and leaves her for dead, but she is rescued by another vampire who turns her in order to save her life.

So, Merit finds herself in the middle of the confusing world of vampires and vampire factions. Not only is she eager to find out who attacked her, but she also has her fair share of misgivings about being a vampire too. Plus, in accordance with tradition, she only has a week before she must swear fealty to her vampiric liege….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s like watching the pilot episode of a TV show. Yes, it’s well-written, the characters are good and the story is a little bit like a slightly more light-hearted version of “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” (albeit without the theme of secrecy etc..). But, at the same time, it is more of a scene-setting introduction to a larger series than anything else. In other words, the story’s detective and horror elements are kind of a background detail.

So, if you’re expecting a horror novel or a detective thriller, you’re probably going to be slightly disappointed. If you’re expecting an action-thriller novel, you’ll also be disappointed. Even though the chart on the back cover describes this novel as “Action Packed“, there is very little in the way of action here – there are a couple of “friendly” martial arts sparring matches, a tense confrontation or two and a rather brief action sequence near the end, and that’s about it.

Yes, this is a good novel, but it’s more of a character-based drama (with some romance and comedy elements) than anything else. Like with the classic computer game “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines”, this is more of a story about a new vampire adapting to life as a vampire and vampire politics. Although there are a few suspenseful moments, this isn’t so much a horror/thriller novel as it is a novel about friendships, loyalties, relationships, confusion etc…

Still, it works reasonably well as a drama novel. This is mostly because the premise is intriguing and the characters are all reasonably good too. The central focus of the story is the friendship between Merit and her best friend Mallory, who – unlike in a lot of thriller/horror stories – are actually friends. Sure, they trade sarcastic dialogue and snarky pop culture references occasionally, but they are actually best friends. Likewise, the story also adds a bit of spice with Merit’s somewhat fiery/antagonistic relationship with her vampiric liege Ethan, and a vague love triangle plot with another vampire called Morgan.

One major theme of this story is that of belonging, loyalty and family, with Merit being somewhat estranged from her snobbish, rich parents and getting along a lot better with Mallory, some of the vampires and her ex-cop grandfather. She’s also somewhat cynical about the vampiric traditions that she is expected to follow, and tries to walk a fine line between rebellion and obedience too.

Likewise, the “world” of the novel is pretty interesting too. It is set in a version of Chicago where vampires are public knowledge, and maintain a respectable and orderly system of traditions and “houses”. They also usually drink pre-packaged blood instead of biting people. They also face discrimination too. The story’s detective plot, which really doesn’t get enough focus, links into this since the presence of a vampire serial killer threatens to turn humanity against the vampires. Plus, of course, being an urban fantasy novel, there are also nymphs, shapeshifters, witches etc… too.

As for the writing in this novel, it’s pretty good and it is one of the main things that keeps the novel compelling. The story is narrated by Merit, which allows for lots of characterisation (since she’s a fairly ordinary twentysomething student, who is way out of her depth) in addition to lots of sarcastic humour and numerous pop culture references (which, for a ten-year old novel, still feel reasonably modern and fresh). The novel’s narrative style is reasonably informal and fast-paced, which helps to keep the story readable and interesting. Likewise, the chapter titles are wonderfully comedic too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. At 339 pages, it’s relatively concise by modern standards. Likewise, although there are long “everyday life” drama segments in between the few meagre moments of suspense, horror, detection and action, these segments are kept reasonably readable and compelling thanks to the strength of the narration and the characters.

All in all, although this novel was different to what I had expected, it was still reasonably enjoyable. The story’s narration, characters, premise and humour are reasonably good and they help to keep the story compelling.

However, not only is this an introduction to a longer series, but it also skimps on the horror, action-thriller and detective elements too. Even so, it’s a fun piece of light entertainment. But, if you want a more thrilling and horror-filled vampire story, then I’d probably recommend reading Jocelynn Drake’s “Nightwalker” or playing “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” instead.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.

When Does Cover Art Really Matter?

Whilst you (and your readers) probably know the famous adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, this doesn’t mean that you should skimp on the cover art. Seriously, good cover art still matters.

Not only does good cover art catch the reader’s attention and, with physical books, make them want to leave a copy of the book lying around – but it can also make an already good book seem slightly cooler too. The emphasis here is on “already good”. Whilst cool-looking cover art can be used to briefly disguise second-rate writing, it can also enhance the experience of reading a good novel.

Still, there are three main ways that cover art can have an effect on a novel.

First of all, there there are good and great novels that also have cool cover art ( that include things like visual storytelling, well-chosen and visually-striking colour schemes etc…). Whilst these are cool novels because of the writing, the cover art is one of the things that makes you want to keep a copy nearby and read it as often as possible. They are also books where the cover art is good enough that you’ll want to take a look at them, even if you’ve never heard of the author before.

Secondly, there are great novels that have ok cover art. It isn’t terrible but also isn’t as attention-grabbing as it could be. These are books that go for a more understated, generic or “respectable” look with their cover art (often featuring soft colours, minimalist design etc…)

They’re books that have to rely on things like the author’s reputation, word of mouth or a chance discovery in order for people to read them. And, although there’s the cool feeling of finding “an awesome thing in disguise”, the cover art probably won’t play quite as much of a role in getting readers to choose these books.

Thirdly, of course, there are mediocre novels with cool-looking cover art. I won’t show any examples (since, upon reflection, it seems a bit harsh), but you’ve probably encountered at least one of these type of books before. They are the books that gave rise to the old adage about not judging a book by its cover.

So, I guess that the main lesson here is that cool cover art matters the most for “really good, but not always truly great” novels. A great novel will still find a way (through word of mouth etc..) to reach those who will truly appreciate it. And, mediocre novels need all the help they can get when it comes to cover art. But, novels which are really good also need great cover art too – especially if they’re by less well-known authors.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

Review: “Working For The Devil” By Lilith Saintcrow (Novel)

A few weeks before I wrote this review, I was waiting for some books to arrive when I spotted a copy of Lilith Saintcrow’s 2005 novel “Working For The Devil” on one of my bookshelves. If I remember rightly, I found this book in a charity shop sometime during the late 2000s/early 2010s (probably when I was reading Mike Carey’s awesome “Felix Castor” novels, at a guess), but never quite got round to reading it back then.

So, after glancing at the first few pages and thinking “Yes, this is my kind of novel!”, I ended up ordering a second-hand anthology of all five novels in the series (it’s a giant tome of a book, so it seemed more ergonomic to read the individual paperback of this novel). I then…. got distracted by other books for several weeks, until this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Working For The Devil”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 Orbit (UK) paperback reprint of “Working With The Devil” that I read.

The novel begins in the fictional US city of Saint City, at some point in the distant future. A necromancer (and part-time bounty hunter) called Dante Valentine is having a quiet afternoon at home when there is a knock on the door. When she opens it, a mysterious demon points a gun at her and tells her that his boss – Lucifer- wants to hire her for an urgent job. Needless to say, it looks like Dante will be… working with the devil!

More specifically, Lucifer wants Dante to track down and kill an escaped demon who has stolen something from him. Although Dante is initially wary about this, she soon learns that the demon in question is none other than the man who murdered her best friend several years earlier. So, in true action movie fashion, this time it’s personal!

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that is it awesome 🙂 Not only is it a totally badass horror/urban fantasy action-thriller novel (in the tradition of writers like Mike Carey, Jocelynn Drake and Laurell K. Hamilton), but it is also set in a cyberpunk-influenced future that reminded me a bit of things like “Blade Runner“, “Cowboy Bebop“, “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” and Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash“. In other words, it is a really cool novel 🙂

I should probably start by talking about the horror/urban fantasy elements of this story. Although this story isn’t really particularly scary, there’s lots of horror-themed stuff here, like necromancy, hell, demons, serial killers, evil schools etc… Plus, although there’s relatively little of the gory horror that you’d expect in a novel like this, this story still works reasonably well as a horror-themed thriller.

Likewise, the story certainly has it’s own mythos and set of rules (eg: regarding magical power, necromancy etc..) which really help to add some depth and atmosphere to the story. The story’s fantasy elements also blend in really well with the sci-fi elements of the story too – with Dante’s astral voyages into the realm of the dead, manipulation of magical power etc.. almost reading like futuristic cyberpunk computer hacking at times. Likewise, the way that society reacts to the presence of psychics, necromancers etc… allows for some chillingly dystopian background elements too.

The novel’s action-thriller elements work really well too. Although there is a fair amount of time devoted to things like investigations and characterisation/dialogue, the story remains fairly gripping throughout and there are certainly a few dramatic fight scenes too (Dante carries a katana with her everywhere. So, this is kind of a given) – although not quite as many as you might expect. Still, this is the kind of compelling novel that you’ll want to binge-read in a couple of 2-3 hour sessions 🙂

The story’s sci-fi elements are really cool too 🙂 Although this novel initially just seems like an “ordinary” urban fantasy novel with a few futuristic words (eg: “holovid”, “plasgun” etc..) dropped into it for flavour, the “world” and atmosphere of the story is gloriously cyberpunk 🙂

Whether it’s the neon-lit “Blade Runner”-like Saint City, the scenes with flying skateboards (which reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”), the scenes set in a futuristic version of Rio Di Janeiro (which reminded me of a low-budget 1990s cyberpunk movie called “Nemesis) or the vaguely “Shadowrun: Dragonfall”-esque blending of fantasy and cyberpunk, this novel has a really cool cyberpunk background to it. Seriously, I absolutely love the “world” of this novel 🙂

In terms of the writing, it’s reasonably good. The novel’s first-person narration is the kind of gritty, sarcastic, fast-paced narration that you’d expect to see in a good urban fantasy/thriller novel 🙂 The writing contains enough descriptions and characterisation to keep the story atmospheric, whilst also being “matter of fact” enough to keep things thrilling and intense too.

As for the characters, they’re really good. There’s certainly enough characterisation here to make you care about what happens to the characters. As you would expect, Dante Valentine gets the most characterisation – and she’s a rather interesting character. Although she clearly takes inspiration from Anita Blake (from Laurell K. Hamilton’s novels), I found Dante to be a more interesting character than Anita Blake.

In addition to being a total and utter badass (who mostly avoids the annoying “goody two-shoes” elements of Anita Blake’s character), Dante is also something of a social outcast (on account of her magical abilities) who is also grappling with both a grim past and a complex web of friendships and antagonism (especially since, amongst other things, Dante ends up being magically linked to a demon and also has to team up with her ex-boyfriend too).

And, yes, although this is one of those novels where the main characters spend quite a lot of time arguing with each other about various things, it never really becomes too obnoxious. If anything, it helps to add tension and drama to the story. This type of thing is quite difficult to get right, but this story seems to handle it pretty well.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly reasonable. Although this story is 382 pages long (in the edition I read, the version in the anthology is shorter due to larger pages/smaller print), the fast-paced story and narration means that it never really feels too long. Likewise, as I mentioned earlier, although the novel devotes quite a bit of time to characterisation etc…, it never really gets slow or boring.

All in all, this is a really cool novel 🙂 It’s always awesome to see the urban fantasy/horror genre being mixed with the cyberpunk and action-thriller genres 🙂 If you like writers like Jocelynn Drake or Mike Carey, then you’ll love this novel. Yes, it could possibly have done with a little bit more action and some scarier horror, but it’s still a wonderfully gripping and atmospheric novel nonetheless.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.