Monday, September 15, 2014

"Blood Work" by L.J. Hayward

Publisher: self-published
Review copy received through the courtesy of the author, L.J. Hayward

Matt Hawkins isn’t a wizard. He’s not a werewolf, either. He doesn’t talk to ghosts, though he thinks he might like to see one some day. Matt’s just an ordinary, everyday kind of guy. So why is the oldest and meanest vampire in town suddenly gunning—or should that be ‘fanging’?—for him?
Maybe it’s his social skills, or lack thereof—but it wasn’t his fault he lost his pants in the middle of the mall. Perhaps it’s because he’s on nickname basis with the ghoul in a local cemetery. Then there’s the outside chance it’s the fact Matt’s one half of the vampire slaying team that is Night Call.
His partner is Mercy, a pint sized fighting machine with a killer wardrobe—and she’s the only tame vampire in existence.
Still, none of that explains why tenacious PI Erin McRea is digging through all the nastiest moments of his history in an effort to find him.
And somehow Matt has to find the time to see his therapist about that little temper problem he has…

Vampires. Werewolves. Ghouls. I can’t recall a time in my earliest readings when these creatures were nothing but dangerous and avoiding them as much as possible was to be preferred. Despite a large number of paranormal romance novels smoothing the rough edges of these creatures and making them subject of exotic love affairs, reducing their threat to a flimsy state, there are still stories out there that return these beings to their menacing nature. The latest novel to fall into my arms and hinting at such a restoration is an urban fantasy by L.J. Hayward, “Blood Work”.

To a certain extent it seems the basic concept behind L.J. Hayward’s story is nothing we didn’t see before, a paranormal investigator draws the unwanted attention of a very powerful creature and the two chase each other in an attempt to bring their business to a conclusion. But there is more to “Blood Work” than this central plot leaves to be seen from the beginning. For starters we have Matthew Hawkins, the main character and the paranormal investigator in question, and it is Matt Hawkins who finds himself the subject of a private investigation as well, an enigmatic woman hiring a specialized company to discover his whereabouts. Approaching the main character from these two different angles gives L.J. Hayward the opportunity to place Matt Hawkins into the gray area of morality, he is a human being with qualities and flaws, courses of action we approve or disapprove, a temperament that could be appealing to some and appalling to others. Matthew Hawkins is as three-dimensional character as we can get and that forms one of the strong pillars on which “Blood Work” is supported.

The characterization draws power not only from Matt Hawkins being investigator and investigated, but also from the fact that these two sides are approached from different perspectives, L.J. Hayward switches between first person narrative in case of Matt Hawkins investigator and third person narrative in case of Matt Hawkins investigated. It is the perfect opportunity to create solid scaffolding for building a character. It is also an ideal entry point for another main character, in this situation Erin McRea. Not as developed as Matthew Hawkins she is still a welcomed and strong presence within the plot. Of course, Erin McRea does not benefit from two viewpoints in support of the character’s construction, but it is not this aspect preventing Erin reaching its full potential, but a couple of emotional elements left hanging. As is the case with one facet of Matt Hawkins, a relationship with his brother that is only hinted at and that it seems to have significance in regard of Matt’s character development.

L.J. Hayward’s “Blood Work” doesn’t have only good characterization to back it up, but also a healthy dose of action, mystery and humor. L.J. Hayward throws the reader head first into straight action, the first couple of chapters are rich in energetic and frantic scenes. But while she makes a stand for the physical part of the story she also feeds the cerebral side with a well-placed intrigue. And along the novel crisscrossing between the two L.J. Hayward energizes the plot without repeatedly taking the same course of action, but without losing the balance that in the end rounds the intrigue in a cursive manner. Helping along are the dialogues of “Blood Work”, especially when Matt Hawkins is involved. Often pleasant, intelligent, playful or hilarious the exchange between the characters prompt a naturalness to the situations and relationships they’re in. They contribute nicely to the well functional capacity of the story. Top these with an interesting situation regarding vampires feeding and the different blood types, a ghoul with an involuntary sense of humor (“That freakin’ ghost tour came through. Here half the night they were. All pretending to be jumpy and scared and squealing and stuff. Gave me the worst headache. I’ve hardly slept all day.”), plus an unusual werewolf transformation and the degree of entertainment for the reader is up to the recommended levels.

There are moments when “Blood Work” wobbles a bit and it would have still needed a bit of polishing in my opinion. Nothing major, there is nothing troublesome on the whole at the little parts that required mending, but they are still nudging the back of my mind. Matt Hawkins seems to acquire at some point in his past strong psychic power, but I still failed to find how he has come to be in this position. Also, with an expensive car, a house in a posh neighborhood and a compulsive spending behavior I wondered more than once how Matt, self-employed and running not the most profitable of businesses, has the financial capacity to afford all these. And I failed each time to find my answer. But more pressing is that we are told that Mercy, a vampire close to being Matt’s sidekick, is capable only of trained and triggered responses and yet she displays enough personal attitude to render almost null an automatic behavior. For instance, more than once Mercy plays favorites when it comes to outfit choices and even Matt states at some point: “Mental note, pay more attention to what clothes Mercy buys. eBay – a vampire tamer’s worst enemy.” It certainly doesn’t look like mechanical reaction. And to put “Blood Work” better on its feet an extra pair or two of proof-reading eyes would have helped.

I am not an avid reader of urban fantasy, but if all those I read are as good as L.J. Hayward’s novel I can hardly find a reason for complaint. As a matter of fact, with no consideration for what genre they’re fitted in, if all the novels are at least as fun, fast-paced and gripping as “Blood Work” the readers are exclusive beneficiaries of joyful readings.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Cover art - "Mayhem" by Sarah Pinborough

French edition, published by Bragelonne
Different publishers have different visions for their cover artwork and different markets have different demands. I am perfectly aware that marketing analyses and the business side of publishing have something important to say in the construction of a book cover, but strictly from a reader point of view and even that from a very personal perspective I must say that I like the book covers to be striking. Minimalist or flamboyant, colorful or basic, I love when a book cover speaks to me and triggers immediately the thought: “look at this beautiful artwork, I wonder what the book is about”. I also love when after finishing a book I discover new dimensions for its cover artwork based on the reading experience. Covering all these sides of my predilection for cover artwork is Sarah Pinborough’s “Mayhem”. Not only that, but as often it happens for a book to have a beautiful cover on a certain edition and rather dull ones on others Sarah Pinborough is very lucky in this sense, I discovered no less than four striking artworks for the cover of “Mayhem”. The UK edition released by Jo Fletcher Books, the first to be published, has a simple and yet very effective concept, the US edition, released by the same publisher, has a more in the face cover, but full of significance nonetheless. And with the addition of the map in the background things are getting even more interesting. The Spanish edition, published by Colmena Ediciones under the title “El Segundo Asesino” in December last year and with a cover by Alejandro Colucci, highlights the same elements in a different manner, without losing power or appeal in the process. The fourth is the French edition, due to be released by Bragelonne next week under the title “Whitechapel”, with a cover by Fabrice Borio. And I must admit, if you ask me which one I like more, I’d push the French cover on the first place at photo finish. The anatomical drawing together with the map, the man on the bridge together with the silhouette of London in the background, the colors and the title lettering (that reflects magnificently on a certain duality within the story) are as many elements that resonate with me and put together create an admirable final result. If only all the books are treated with four excellent cover artworks as Sarah Pinborough’s “Mayhem” is. Or at least with one.

UK edition, published by Jo Fletcher Books

US edition, published by Jo Fletcher Books

Spanish edition, published by Colmena Ediciones

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Title spotlight - "The Free" by Brian Ruckley

After the initial reading there are books that stand better against the passing of time than others. We gather experience with each passing day and with each new book we read so those first impressions would have difficulties in being seen from the same perspective. Of course, this implies that a reader returns to a certain book again and the new opinion is not based solely on the initial consideration of that book. For me, some of the novels that fared very well with the passing years are written by Brian Ruckley. I liked “The Godless World” trilogy a lot the first time I read it, but when I came back to read again a chapter or two from “Winterbirth”, “Bloodheir” or “Fall of Thanes” I noticed that my opinion of the series improved extensively. It is only a chapter or two, occasionally, since with so many new books published every week a re-reading of the entire “The Godless World” trilogy it’s unlikely for the time being. However, I do held my hopes high for such a thing to happen at some point in the future. Still, certainly not before the publication of Brian Ruckley’s new novel, “The Free”, released by Orbit Books next month. After “The Edinburgh Dead”, the author’s historical fantasy crime novel published in 2011, Brian Ruckley returns to heroic fantasy with this new novel. And at the first glimpse “The Free” is pretty standard, a mercenary company, a soldier with a haunting past and a last opportunity to redeem it, nothing spectacular in this sense. But I am more than certain that Brian Ruckley is up to the task of not turning “The Free” into one of many. After all, my experience with “The Godless World” trilogy, “The Edinburgh Dead” and one of my favorite sword-and-sorcery short stories, “Beyond the Reach of His Gods”, is completely satisfactory and so far I have no reason to believe that the one with “The Free” would be different. There is only one small shadow overcasting my good feelings for this upcoming novel and that is the cover artwork. I’ve seen plenty of similar covers on the market recently, but, from my point of view, this trend tends to be bland and disappointing. I do like the covers more expressive and even if it has a simple concept I love it more when it reflects something of the story contained within the book. But since the notorious advice is not to judge a book by its cover I am more than happy in this case to let the matter pass.

They are the most feared mercenary company the kingdom has ever known.
Led by Yulan, their charismatic captain, the Free have spent years selling their martial and magical skills to the highest bidder – winning countless victories that shook the foundations of the world. Now they finally plan to lay down their swords.
Yet when Yulan is offered a final contract, he cannot refuse – for the mission offers him the chance to erase the memories of the Free’s darkest hour, which have haunted him for years.
As The Free embark on their last mission, a potent mix of loyalty and vengeance is building to a storm. Freedom, it seems, carries a deadly price.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

An European SF short story collection

European speculative fiction writers a new SF short story collection needs you! “Planet Europa” (working title) wishes to be an anthology of English in translation short stories dedicated to the writers from all corners of Europe and with a desire to focus especially on the parts of the continent less represented within the genre. In a still slow moving market for the authors outside the English language, despite the efforts made in support of this process, this is an excellent initiative. And although there are fewer precise specifics regarding this project and it still needs to fully clarify its concept the initial details about “Planet Europa” (working title) can be found on the Europa SF, The European Speculative Fiction Portal.

Monday, September 8, 2014

2014 British Fantasy Awards

It is good to be back in the saddle and even better to do so with the recently announced winners of the 2014 British Fantasy Awards. I might not be a prolific reader and reviewer lately, but I am still happy to see that some of my recently favorite readings, such as Sofia Samatar’s “A Stranger in Olondria”, Sarah Pinborough’s “Beauty” or Carole Johnstone’s “Signs of the Times”, together with the excellent artist Joey Hi-Fi are among the winners of this prestigious award. So, without further ado, here are the 2014 British Fantasy Awards winners announced on Sunday, 7th September, at the FantasyCon held in York:

Best fantasy novel (the Robert Holdstock Award): “A Stranger in Olondria” by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press)

Best horror novel (the August Derleth Award): “The Shining Girls” by Lauren Beukes (HarperCollins)

Best novella: “Beauty” by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)

Best short story: “Signs of the Times” by Carole Johnstone (Black Static #33)

Best anthology: “End of the Road” edited by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris)

Best collection: “Monsters in the Heart” by Stephen Volk (Gray Friar Press)

Best small press: The Alchemy Press (Peter Coleborn)

Best comic/graphic novel: “Demeter” by Becky Cloonan

Best artist: Joey Hi-Fi

Best non-fiction: “Speculative Fiction 2012” edited by Justin Landon and Jared Shurin (Jurassic London)

Best magazine/periodical: “Clarkesworld” edited by Neil Clarke, Sean Wallace and Kate Baker (Wyrm Publishing)

Best film/television episode: “Game of Thrones: The Rains of Castamere” / David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (HBO)

Best newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award): Ann Leckie, for “Ancillary Justice” (Orbit)

The British Fantasy Society Special Award (The Karl Edward Wagner Award): Farah Mendlesohn

Congratulations to all the winners!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

More radio silence

The past several days have been quiet around here and with a couple of deadlines in sight I think this period of silence will be prolonged. However, with every chance of meeting the said deadlines successfully and hopefully with nothing unexpected jumping out from these projects I will return to the usual posting at the beginning of September.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Book offer - "Last Year, When We Were Young" by Andrew J. McKiernan

I’ve mentioned some time ago my delight in seeing Andrew J. McKiernan’s short stories gathered in a single volume, “Last Year, When We Were Young”, I was also very eager at the time to see Andrew J. McKiernan’s debut collection published and start digging within its contents. Well, it took me a bit longer than I hoped, I’ve just started reading it, but although it’s still early to draw a final conclusion I have to say that its reward is beyond even my most optimistic expectations. I anticipated something of this kind, after all I am quite fond of Andrew J. McKiernan’s stories I read so far, but nothing of the sort. And it seems I am not the only one, “Last Year, When We Were Young” is pulling some raving reviews:

"McKiernan is a magician. He performs magic tricks in every story, spinning us around, making us believe one thing before showing us we were wrong all along. His stories are pure magic, staying with you like an echo long after reading." - Kaaron Warren, author of Slights & Walking the Tree

"Last Year When We Were Young, is proof yet again of the incredible writing talent that can be found in Australia and further still, proof that horror can have a meaningful voice that goes well beyond blood and gore." - Greg Chapman, Thirteen O'Clock

"A troubling collection of weird and twisted tales. Sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying; always clever, always disturbing. Highly entertaining!" - Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of CODE ZERO

"The sixteen tales in the collection draw inspiration from a variety of genres and styles, with the magically humorous juxtaposed against the frightfully repulsive, but each story has something in common: they are all hauntingly clever." - Alayna Cole,www.mariannedepierres.com

Therefore, if you want to see for yourself what Andrew J. McKiernan is up to in his debut short story collection you can get the Kindle compatible ebook of “Last Year, When We Were Young” today and tomorrow at a bargain price (Australia, UK, US). After August 1st and 2nd for other three days you can still buy the book at a discounted price, although it is slightly more than on the first two days of August. And if I am not mistaken and you prefer a physical copy of Andrew J. McKiernan’s “Last year, When We Were Young” you can get one during these days through Satalyte Publishing’s webstore with a 25% discount.

I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do!