27 November 2017

Zombies at their best ... er ... worst

Horror (zombies) | Slow Burn boxed set | Bobby Adair

One would think that the zombie apocalypse has been done to death. But wait! Bobby Adair has written something that will have you flipping the pages as fast as you can read. Thank goodness I picked up the boxed set. Who could have waited to read the next and the next. I'd write a longer review, except that I need to go pick up the rest of the series. I understand there are already 8 books.

If you like thoughtful writing, fast action sequences, humour, zombies (duh), a likeable if somewhat crazy hero and other characters (his buddy has given him a superhero name: Null Spot, for good reason), frantic hopelessness mixed with diehard optimism, and strong characterisation, then this series is for you. Excellently edited, too, besides being very well written. The best part is that it actually gets better going from book 1 to book 3, not just in terms of zombie concepts, but also difficulty levels for the survivors, and in terms of moral questions. So you can be assured of lots of reading pleasure, and a side order of wondering how precariously modern civilisation is perched.

My small quibbles: The story is located in the USA, so you have more guns and shooting than you can roll your eyes at, a view that China is all third-world and a decidedly lukewarm attitude towards vegetarians (given all the cannibalism that a zombie book implies).

The book begins with a young man being bitten by an infected zombie on Zero Day of the zombie infection reaching the USA. Hauled up by the police for murder, he realises to his horror (and ours), that the crime wave is not due to bad drugs, but people going crazy. The hospital is not much help, because the Army has been called in to enforce quarantine. You have some good people, and as the story goes on, you have some less good people, and then some horrible ones.

If zombies could happen, it could happen this way. You will hold your breath as the Zed and his new friends tiptoe through the minefields of horror unleashed by a speedy breakdown of social order as most people succumb to the infection and civilisation starts going down the drain.

Now, let me go check out books 4 onwards, and see what new terrors the zombies can get up to.

Short, crisp horror

Horror | A Dozen Nightmares | Angel Wedge

Angel Wedge creates atmosphere and terror in the fewest words and the crispest sentences.

From everyday horrors like murderers to fantasy and sf horror to Lovecraftian stories that scare you by what they don't tell you, you can find every type in this short story collection. It starts with a bang, tears through different settings, urban and rural, reworks old concepts and startles with new ones, and ends with as big a bang.

If you like Lovecraft, Wedge is better, more modern. If you like Stephen King, Wedge is less wordy yet spares nothing. If you like Ray Bradbury horror stories, Wedge is crisper and comes to the point with speed and despatch.

Some of these tales are going to haunt me long years from now with their gentle telling of creepiest evils, heartless loves and fringe organisations.

Read and enjoy! Worth every penny. 

25 September 2017

A modern day Arabian Nights for the modern child

Children's Fantasy | Setara's Genie Faizah's Destiny | Marva Dasef

Setara's Genie is the first Abu Nuwas book. Abu Nuwas is a story teller. In this novel, he tells an eager audience the stories of Setara's Genie. Setara finds a genie (of the magic lamp type), but he is remarkably reluctant to do for her anything she can do for herself. Some of the magical things he actually does, result in great hilarity, like when she asks for (and gets) a handsome prince who loves her madly. Setara grows from a teen you would roll your eyes at to someone whom you really like.

A great book for pre-teens/young teens.

This is followed by the second Abu Nuwas book, Faizah's Destiny. How does he solve this second young person's issues through pertinent stories?

Marva Dasef has a light touch and brings a gentle world of fantasy to life. Her books for young teens are great.

Read on!

20 August 2017

A short story and a novella leave you feeling something is missing

Science fiction | Interview Room 9 | CP Sennett

It's part of a larger series, but fairly self contained for all that.

A well written and atmospheric piece.

However, while there are hints of retribution or justice, the crime is nowhere obvious. This detracts from the story. I guess things would be more obvious if you followed the series.

Find it here on smashwords.

Science fiction | Flipspace: the Flight of the Mockingbird | John Steiner

This is a space opera that's good for an hour's light reading. A distant research station stops reporting and a crew is sent for rescue and repairs. The story is suitable for filming with action scenes. The faster-than-light concept is cute.

The negatives are shallow characters introduced in detail in early chapters who do absolutely nothing thereafter, too much cuteness in fancy backronyms, and spelling mistakes, particularly of homonyms. The story is ok, but the characters don't engage with your emotions, nor is the tech sufficiently gee-whiz to compensate. The best part of the tech, the bio stuff, whizzes past in less than one page. Shame that.

However, the story picks up as it goes on, and becomes more interesting. The end comes up rather suddenly and the series moves to the next episode.

This was a good concept, with reasonable treatment, but it doesn't make me want to go back and read it again.

Find it here on smashwords.

12 August 2017

A space station goes 'dark' and other short science fiction stories

It finally occurred to me to do a lot of reviews of short stories together (nobody can accuse me of being too sharp 😝).

Science Fiction | Breaking Down | Lelanthran Krishna Manickum

What happens when an astronaut has a breakdown on a planet with curious locals?

By page 2, you can guess what's happening, but it's a fun story, and surprise isn't everything in life. You'll be grinning by the end.

What a nice cover, too. Get it free on smashwords.

Science Fiction | Lost in the Dark | J Alan Erwine

WW3 is no excuse for sending this inadequate astronaut out. Extremely implausible, which is not what one wants in sci fi. It's a very unsophisticated story.

If you still want to read it....here.

Science Fiction | The G particle | Y Correa

The Higgs Boson is dragged into the story unnecessarily. For that, and other reasons, I wasn't much impressed.

The concept has been done before, more elaborately.

It's an 'okay' story, not bad but not too good either. Good enough for a few minutes.

You can check it out here, if you want to.

Science Fiction | Letters to a File | James Hampton

A creepy little story (and I mean that as praise). Hair raising in the blandness of the Letters that go into the File. You sit there at the end, wondering exactly what the crime was supposed to be, while you see the greater crime that results from ... Compliance.

It's clearly part of a series, and makes you want to read more, but perhaps you daren't.

Find it here to see how "Folders in a storage room tell the story of a civilization's fall."

Science Fiction | Dra'Tribek Five: Or, How to Destroy a Planet From Within. | Mac McDonald

This is a lecture disguised as a story. The grammar and spellings are poor. The characters are simpletons and their mannerisms are no better.

This is the last sentence, for a sample: "Although the preceding is a fiction written my Mac McDonald, it does offer food for thought."

Definitely not recommended, but if you want to check it out, here.

Crime | Death Comes at Midnight | Adriana Mucea

An interesting enough story. It's based in the 22nd century, but reads like a 20th century story. Apart from being located implausibly in the future (paper reports, typing on a computer, really?), it's not science fiction.

Read it like it's a crime story, and you'll be fine.

Check it out here.

Science Fiction | Dark Station | Brett P. S.

Wow! What a breathless pace.

A space station hit by a ... zombie epidemic? Something has shut off contact, and the General wants the research recovered. Gebbley and the rest of the crew walk unsuspecting into hell.

A short novel that reads like a Hollywood movie.

Recommended for fans of space opera, zombies, or psychological thrillers. This is the best of the ones reviewed here.

Get it here

11 August 2017

Dignity in death

Science Fiction | The Star Creature | Kevin A Lyons

A story that has aged gracefully in 38 years, and still reads as fresh.

What happens when an alien finds a 'star creature'. Poignant.

I'm not adding the cover page, because, frankly, it has nothing to do with the story whatsoever.

Find it free on smashwords.

Morality choices

Science Fiction | Two Psychics in a Typhus Epidemic Kenny Jackson

This is a story of morality and choice, the choice between compassion and pragmatism.

Ursula LeGuin did it better in Those Who Walk Away From Omelas, but then she didn't do it in one page.

The dry and authentic voice of the narrator underscores the choices made. Well done!

Find it free on smashwords.

08 August 2017

Alien goop, with chills

Science fiction | Snow Wonder | Michael Carter

I love puns, which is why this short story attracted me in the first place. It had good reviews, too, including '50's style', 'retro experience' and 'entertaining blend of sci-fi and light horror', all of which I found to be accurate.

It starts just-about-promisingly, what with the retro feel and the 'alien goop' tropes, but ends with a flourish worthy of sci fi masters. The characters come alive despite their near-stereotypes, even within this short piece.

Find it for free on smashwords.

The other side of reincarnation

Science fiction | Possibility - A SUM inspired story | Edgar Million

Once in a while, you stumble upon a story that has a concept that is mind-bendingly grand, that makes you rethink everything.

And when this is packed with good writing and a simple but solid storyline into a tiny bundle of wow, there is only one thing that can make it even better.

It's free on smashwords.

Here's the intro: What happens after you die? Instead of nothing, or heaven, you discover a world where every possible you who ever lived exists in a world made entirely of you.

06 August 2017

Don't mess with little old ladies

Science Fiction | To Find a Thief | EL Russell

What a little gem of a story! 😁

A purse snatcher picks on the same little old lady once too often.

Wish fulfilment at its most satisfying, and the story manages to get a couple of sneaky digs into TV reporters and insensitive policemen, too.

Want to read?
To Find a Thief (free)

Machine intelligence brings down humanity, but how?

Science Fiction | The Wipeboard (Terminator Flash Fiction) | Ray Daley
Science Fiction | The Parable of the Paperclip Maximiser | Yonatan Zunger

The Wipeboard is a technically well-written piece of flash fiction, rather cleverly done. A quick two-minute read. However, it didn't add anything to the Terminator world, and it was unsatisfyingly implausible, as I shall go deeper into in this review that is, ironically, longer than the reviewed story.

It's going to be difficult to write this without spoilers, but you already know the Terminator world. Humans are fighting the machines, which want to wipe out humanity. In the movies, the humans win, just barely.

The movies have this incoherent understanding of machine intelligence which is rather pervasive in Hollywood and other fast-food entertainment: machines suddenly 'come alive' or 'wake up' and behave like badly brought up brats with deadly weapons and invincible armour. Their 'intelligence' is like nothing so much as a human movie villain's, one that wants destruction for the sake of destruction. There are often stupid and paranoia-creating conversations between machine (I am invincible, you cannot win) and humans (fuck you, machine, take that, and that). Why would that ever happen if the machines were as 'humanly' clever as that? Any machine control is that much faster than humans. If the 'alive' machines 'decided' to wipe out humanity, it would not be all that difficult. Nobody is going to beat an automated gun to the draw.

But really, no, that's never going to happen. Because that's not how machine intelligence works. As Isaac Asimov once pithily put it, machines are developed to do things humans find difficult or boring.

You do, however, have humans who are so clever that they want to test the limits of their own cleverness by making machines that mimic humans more closely. Yet, unless you code in evil intent, the machines will never be evil, no matter how 'intelligent' they get.

You can, most certainly, come to grief much more subtly, as The Parable of the Paper Clip Maximiser by Yonatan Zunger brings out with such bland black humour.

But if, somehow, some too-clever-for-their-own good human does indeed invent Skynet the evil humanity-killing machine, I assure you that the subsequent destruction by nuclear explosions would not leave in place anywhere near the necessary human intellectual capital, equipment or layers upon layers of highly specialised learning that could create machine intelligence in the first place. Nope, if you make Skynet and let it loose, forget humanity ever coming back.

Which is why Ray Daley's sharp little flash fiction set in the Terminator world left me shaking my head sadly, despite its writing virtuosity.

Want to read?
The Parable of the Paperclip Maximizer (free)
The Wipeboard (free)

19 July 2017

Dark humour / funny horror

Science fiction | Killin Machine | JT Pearson

At first, it didn't read like a sci fi story at all. At all. We have this weird loner guy. And then we have a kitten. Then he has kittens, in the British sense of the term. And slowly the sci fi part emerges. And the horror part. Except that it's at least as funny as it's horrible.

I'm pretty sure I'm glad I live half a planet away from the story's location, given how it ended. But it was funny as anything.

If Stephen King wrote funny stuff, and was as funny as he does horror, he might aspire to write something like this.

You can read this for free on Smashwords till 31 July 2017.

Video games and time travel

Science fiction | Manhunt How Long Can You Run
By Colin D Grimes

I can't explain exactly what about this story I found chilling, but that's the word for a one-word review.

Rich kids use time travel to be hunted in the past. Justin has the current record, but he wants to break it. Again and again. Yes, certainly sounds like a spoilt brat playing yet another immersive video game.

Except that this time travel game can get you killed. So does he survive? And for how long? What happens at 'game over'?

The description is remarkably tongue-in-cheek, once you've read the story. ;)

Recommended for a quick read. A couple of grammar errors need to be fixed, but let's not cavil too much.

This short story is free on smashwords till 31 July 2017. 

02 July 2017

Possessed by the ghosts of academia

Possession | AS Byatt

I was greatly impressed by her deep knowledge of a highly inbred part of academia, but the unsympathetic characters' tedious lives bored me to tears.

I still haven't finished the book, more than 10 years after someone gifted it to me. I think I'm at chapter 2, but am unlikely to ever go back and verify that.

Image result for possession by as byatt

14 February 2017

Culture vs Polity

The Hydrogen Sonata | Iain M Banks
Brass Man | Neal Asher
Hilldiggers | Neal Asher

Culture vs Polity
It's kind of unfair to compare the Culture and the Polity, but perhaps it's also inevitable. In both, humans live in high-tech worlds, all over the galaxy, and AIs run the place, benignly, wisely, and almost omnipotently. So this review will read a bit like Alien vs Predator. (In more ways than one: fans of Alien movies didn't like AvP, fans of the Predator movies didn't like AvP, so I can assure you that both the Culture novels and the Polity novels are a sight better than this CvP review).

I've loved Iain M Banks' Culture since I first read Player of Games many decades ago. Since then, I've read most of the Culture books (there are still a couple more I haven't read, what a treat). My favourites in the Culture are Inversions, Against a Dark Background and the utterly awesome Matter.

A few years ago, I discovered Neal Asher's Polity, too, having read Gridlinked. Then a hiatus, after which I read The Technician. And then a really long gap before I devoured, one after the other, Brass Man (Ian Cormac is back! Yay!) and Hilldiggers (without Cormac or the Dragon).

First, The Hydrogen Sonata. In typical Banks style, we get to meet a protagonist, Vyr Cossont, who does truly weird things for definitely alien reasons (getting an extra pair of arms to play a hideously discordant and complex instrument created for a piece of music that is "definitively" reviewed as a "peerless challenge", but as a piece of music, "without merit"). She is part of a civilisation that is planning to Sublime (into matterless life in the great informational beyond), in less than a month. However, political and military shenanigans occur early in the book, and the whole process of Sublimation may or may not be derailed. Should it be derailed or not is a question that a motley group of ship AIs from the Culture grapple with.

So we have ship avatars, British humour, chases, a confused attack arbite (robot?) who sees the world as a cool simulation, the bewildered Cossont, an old human, people who are partying like crazy (Banks writes a great crazy party) and people willing to kill thousands to hide the guilty secret.

It's a great story, zipping along. But not as good as the other books I mentioned above. One of the lesser Banks' books. Which is still head and shoulders above most sci fi books. Of course, but naturally, it makes you think. And it makes you look up words like kakistocrat.

Brass Man brings back the broken golem, Mr Crane, last seen being vanquished by two Golems and its mind (in its crystal) being smashed to bits, after laying a path of blood and gore at the behest of that evil and obsessed terrorist Arian Pelter.

Except that Skellor, the even more evil human who used the scarily super high-tech alien Jain technology to try and take over Masada from both the Dragon and the Polity, is not, after all, dead. And he resurrects Mr Crane. Skellor is like a supervillain with almost no chinks in his capability. Even Jerusalem, a Polity AI as powerful as the super-potent Earth Central, is terrified of Jain tech. Mr Crane is as broken as ever. Both are going to Dragon (one of the four spheres, hiding undamaged on Cull, a world of pre-Polity humans) for more power, more evil, more mwahahaha. And against them we have Ian Cormac, a couple of golems, and a few humans who are now developing incurable cancers from the Jain tech, plus a ship AI called Jack Ketch. And a pre-Polity just-at-rifles-level human on a sandhog who is a Rondure Knight out to slay a dragon. All would be fine except for some traitors in the woodpile. The good guys have to really struggle, and frankly I wondered how they were going to win at all, even partially, till almost the last chapter.

Hilldigger is without Cormac, but has an Old Captain aka immortal from the planet Spatterjoy instead. He's the Polity envoy-cum-assessor to two colonised planets of pre-Polity humans who've been having a running space war for several centuries. One planet, the hotter one in the system, is home to the high-temperature-adapted Sudorians, who find 55C chilly, and bear an ancient grudge against the Brumallians, who live on the slower and cooler planet and have organic tech to save themselves from a chlorinated atmosphere. The war is won by the Sudorians, when they capture an alien/artifact called the Worm, imprison it, learn about U-space and other such. Immediately after this, the Polity comes offering tech and miracles, if only the Sudorians (and maybe the vanquished Brumallians, later) join up. Except that Fleet doesn't want peace. And four genius quad orphans are manipulating their way up into Sudorian society for reasons they themselves don't know. Our Envoy needs to ensure peace while being under constant attack from factions and also from a Spatterjoy pair of viruses fighting it out in his body, all while his invincible helping drone is half-destroyed.

Swashbuckling, breathless, wonderful space opera of the best quality. Inventive, full of tech and creatures from the highest and maddest level of creativity.

Except that asteroids are not so close that they keep banging into each other every few hours. I bet even Saturn's rings don't have that kind of hectic clashing of rocks, and they are a sight denser. Neal Asher, major fail, that.

And somehow, I always think of the vegetarian, non-violent and gentle Jains I know when I see the word Jain, and the cognitive dissonance is fierce.

Overall, I find Polity books more fun, perhaps because they are more human-centric while the Culture books are more AI-centric, though Matter will always be in my top 10 list. Culture books may be more authentic in their treatment of inscrutable AIs and regarding a post-scarcity future, but Polity books’ people are just more accessible and relatable.

13 February 2017

Feminist romance

Finding Gaia | Kimberly Chapman

When Kimberly Chapman first mentioned her book Finding Gaia on Google+ as a romance, sci fi, fantasy, paranormal, I just nodded and moved on. However, when she mentioned it was feminist romance, I stopped and wondered how that would differ from the standard romance novel (which I don’t normally read).

So finally, having cunningly waited till there was a sale of books, I went out Finding Gaia.

And yes, there is a difference between the standard ‘romance’ novel and a feminist one, and I can understand more clearly why the standard romance novel is so very unappealing to anyone who believes that humans are humans first, and not men or women first and last, and hardly humane in the ways ‘standard’ romance novels treat the characters.

A book like this makes it even clearer that the drama and twists in a romance should not come about by jealousy and misunderstandings, that hate does not beget love, that contempt and ruthlessness and the use of force have no place in a real romance. Yes, this book is a romance first, but it’s also sci-fi, it’s also fantasy, it has paranormal stuff in it, it has humour, it has relatable characters, it has terrific writing, pace, suspense, villains and heroes, even superheroes and superbly horrible villains (these occur later in the book than the merely horrible villains in the early chapters).

Sure, run off immediately and leave this review and go buy your copy and ignore me. See if I care.

What happens in it? There is Jason Truitt, who is really old (centuries), and who is looking for someone like him (centuries old) and thinks he is again hot on the trail of the elusive Gaia. He is rich (compound interest over centuries, duh, what else would you expect? No? Well, okay, he’s a successful businessman). He has proteges (kind of heartbreaking to see your young friends age past you, grow old and die, so it must take real strength of heart to continue having proteges) who are Trish the peppy, enthusiastic, witty and impatient one, and Don the nerdy scientist who is barely aware of the world (except when wife Trish pulls him willy-nilly into the real world) but superb at his nerdy work. They are all on the track of a woman Jason code-names Gaia, whom he last saw centuries ago, and whose trail keeps going cold.

Why does her trail keep going cold? Is she evil or is evil done to her? What effect does the evil she encounters have on her? Can we get to like her? Will she be Jason’s friend or foe? Bwahahaha. In case you were expecting spoilers from me, I won’t give you any. Yes, they find Gaia. She can make things grow, besides being immortal. Does or does Jason not have a superpower of his own? Shrug from me.

Here’s a small sample, which to my mind, encapsulates the difference between a feminist/sensible romance and a bodice-ripper (said with true loathing). It’s also a sample of the humour you get all the time from Trish (my favourite character in the book):
“Where are you going?” Trish shouted, running after him and pointing east. “She’s out there!”
He paused, his foot on the first step. “If she comes back, we’ll work it out calmly and slowly and properly.”
“And if she doesn’t?”
“Then I’m the one who is unworthy and don’t deserve a second chance.”
“Oh that’s profoundly stupid,” Trish spat.
“I’m not going to make it worse by chasing her down and saying the wrong thing.”
“How about chasing her down and kissing her? Leave words out of it!”
Jason turned and snapped back, “Yes, hunting her like an animal and assaulting her would be bloody brilliant.”
Trish shook her head incredulously. “You know, I love you so much that sometimes I really hate your guts.”
“Fine,” he grumbled and then ran up the stairs two at a time.
Trish shouted after him, “Yeah, fine! Go off and sulk then! That’ll really help!” Just before he slammed his bedroom door shut, he heard her mutter, “Moron.”
Yep, this book gets five stars, and I’m waiting for the sequel (it’s been written but not yet out).

03 February 2017

Time travel for a better world

Fractured Horizons | T.E. Mark

I first came across T.E. Mark’s writing on his blog (temarkauthor.wordpress.com) where he writes these cheerful suggestions for SF writers struggling with sounding sufficiently high-tech. He not only brings the real science to you in an easily digestible format, but then proceeds to take off on the wildest trips through space and time and the multiverse, peppering the reader with crazy tech and plausible technology terms, until you finish the piece either with a big grin on your face or laughing helplessly.
A time travel book for young adults

So I was more than delighted when he kindly agreed to give me a copy of Fractured Horizons for review. And I was certainly not let down in the least.

Fractured Horizons is a light read for young adults. The nearest book I can think of which is similar in theme is possibly Johnny and the Bomb by Terry Pratchett. As an older adult, I could wish FH was as long as JATB but TE Mark packs in quite a punch in a much shorter book.

Robert Davie, a teen in England, meets a new girl in school on page one. She’s mysterious, and knows more about him than he thinks possible, and leaves with a cryptic suggestion that he not freak out too much at the evening coming up; he’s not crazy. Robert, a studious type not given to thinking of himself as that attractive to girls, goes home. You know what they say about home? It’s where the wifi connects automatically. Robert finds out that the wifi not only doesn’t connect automatically, it doesn’t seem to be there. His mom is not his mom. The kitchen is not the kitchen. The world is not in 2016. He remembers Helena’s warning, and hangs onto sanity.

The next day is worse. He’s now in Alexandria, studying with Euclid, and he has a different name (and understands a different language)! Fortunately, Helena is around to explain/befuddle him more.

Robert finds he’s in ‘training’, but for what? He goes from past to future and back, depending on ‘what he learns’ during the day. Helena accompanies him throughout, nudging him towards understanding, managing the transitions and exchanging witty dialogue. The speed of the story and the light touch with the banter between the two made me spend the whole time reading FH with a smile on my face, sometimes expanding to a grin. The smile remained after the last scene flashed on the page and the final ellipsis came up.

The story is ostensibly about the adventures of Robert, but is actually more subtle. You end up wondering about which technological advances the present state of society can withstand, and which would likely overwhelm our coping power. Would you change it if you had the power? The book looks at nuclear power. A thoughtful teen would also go beyond and start wondering about climate change, about the Internet, and other technology impacts we take as ‘given’.

Do I recommend it? Well, if you want to smile your way through a neat story that allows you to think (or not, as you please), go right ahead and pick it up.