Sunday, 11 March 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Glitch in the World by Alex Drozd; Transient by Zachry Wheeler; Have Space Suit - Will Travel, by Robert A Heinlein; Necrotic City, by Leland Lydecker; Druid's Portal, by Cindy Tomamichel; A Glitch in the World, by Alex Drozd; Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Book Three, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It's been a busy few weeks over here at AI - a bunch of editing in the works and some exciting things to share soon, but also a lot of paperwork to juggle in real life. A new baby in the household means a lot of things to sort out, and adjusting to how things are done in a different country can throw a spanner in the works! In the meantime, here's a catch-up on the latest round of reviews from myself and regular guest Brent A Harris. 

Transient, by Zachry Wheeler

Transient is a terrific book. It’s a gem that shows how much raw talent lurks within the Indy Writing Community. And I heartily recommend it.
We follow the life of an outsider, Jonas, as he navigates the modern and sophisticated world of Vampires who now exist in modern cities, where what remains of the human population is spread out and hidden among the mountains. Jonas is a human infiltrator – a transient, who passes as a vampire to bring back intelligence to his human compatriots in order to destroy the Vampires and allow humans to once again claim dominance over the Earth.
What makes this book so strong, however, is not just a gripping storyline of tension and deception. It has a message and it speaks to the best and worst parts of humanity. Transient is more science fiction in that regard in that it questions deep themes of love, betrayal, and family. I like how humans are contrasted against the peaceful and technologically advanced Vampires. It says a lot about human history and its recurrent violence. The vampires are used as a reflection of our society, as in the vein of any good classic sci-fi.
However, even books as good as this can still contain missteps – unpolished bits that can creep in to any book – Indy or Mainstream Press alike. In this case, Wheeler tends to over-explain this strange new world rather than let Jonas (and therefore the reader) encounter it organically. In one instance, Jonas joins a group at a blood bar, which pretty much speaks for itself. Yet, because much of the book (indeed, perhaps even half of it) is told through diary entries, we get pages on how blood bars operate, their history, and how they evolved to fit into this advanced Vampire society.
Yet, I found myself engaged in many of these diary entries. They were insightful, and often had a deeper message (especially toward the end of the book). They read briskly, like the rest of the book. But, these odd chapters, combined with sporadic bits where the storyline devolved into a narration of sorts, still pulled me out of the story enough times to bear mention in the review.
Even still, Transient is an enjoyable read. Wheeler won’t be on the Indy scene for long. He has talent, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Transient is in production to be a feature film, and when it releases, expect Wheeler to make an Andy Weir-like trajectory. So, make like a hipster at a record store and ‘discover’ the book before it blows up big-time. It’s well worth sinking your teeth into. 4.5 stars (for the forced world-building) rounded up to 5.
Vampires as a reflection of our society places Transient in the vein of classic Sci-Fi

AI Rating: 5/5
Brent A Harris

Have Space Suit - Will Travel, by Robert Heinlein

I reviewed RAH’s Have Space Suit – Will Travel because I’ve wanted to read classic SF to see how the masters did it before I resumed writing more of my own. I picked Space Suit because one of my favorite science fiction authors, GRRM (yes, he’s written more than just Game of Thrones) hinted that this book had influenced him when he was young. Also, Robert A Heinlein is considered the ‘Dean’ of hard, 1950s pulpy science fiction, and I wanted to find out why.
After reading the book, it’s not hard to understand. Heinlein is a master. I don’t know what I was really expecting when I started this story. But one thing I found frustrating and riveting at the same time was Heinlein’s complete disregard for the rules. The first 30 pages are exposition-heavy. There times where the main character addresses the reader. For heaven’s sake, the book is loaded with mathematical formulae and pages of musical notes! But it was all deftly done. The pages kept turning, the characters (though firmly stuck in their 1950s worldview) were interesting, and the conflict kept coming.
Space-Suit follows the life of Kip, a bound-for-college-kid, who wants nothing less than to travel to the moon. This is a wish-fulfillment story, and like any good wish fulfillment story, the protagonist is given much more than they asked for. After Kip rebuilds an old, worn-out space-suit, he soon finds himself in trouble when he’s abducted. He’ll realize he’s in much more trouble when he’s thrust into a hostile alien plot that lands him on the moon – and beyond.
This is aimed for young adult readers, and it’s better balanced than Heinlein’s more infamous Starship Troopers (seriously, all these famous authors really do have more than just one book/series). It’s a perfect jumping off point for kids to moon-jump in to some rollicking good science fiction that’s more than just entertaining pulp. At its core, it asks some tough questions, which still resonate 60 years later. You can see the impact the book has had – as its heady themes have inspired storylines that I recognized in at least Star Trek (Next Generation) and (new) Battle Star Galactica.
All that from one simple book. I suppose if I’m to emulate the best of SF writers, I have my work cut out for me. Perhaps I should build me a space-suit and travel to the moon. 5 stars.

AI Rating: 5/5
Brent A Harris

Necrotic City, by Leland Lydecker

Necrotic City is a Cyberpunk dystopia set firmly in the worlds of Blade Runner/Electric Sheep and others that have come along since, hinting at stories like The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell and a touch of a Chuck Heston movie I dare say no more of, lest I spoil.
Adrian is a Company Man, a Hero with the pre-built, programmed instructions to save others, genetically grown by the same company responsible for these dystopic conditions. Heroes help others, in particular, Jumpers, that have no where else to go when their credits run out. Jumpers jump from the heights of the city, and Heroes must do whatever they can- including jumping after them themselves – to save them.
While seemingly altruistic, the reader soon realizes there’s a darker purpose to saving those who would end their lives on the streets below. Everybody can serve The Company, even in death, so long as their remains remain intact. But, when the cost to maintain the Hero force is insufficient to the amount of nutrients preserved by their heroic deeds from their daily duties, the Hero programmed is scrapped by The Company, and Adrian is left adrift, bouncing from one dangerous situation to the next.
While the setting is immersive, the characters felt real, and the reader feels thrust into Adrian’s plight, I felt his character arc was a little flat, with real no objective in sight. Adrian is reactive throughout the story. Even as a Hero, he has no choice but to respond as events unfold, it’s in his programming. As a drifter, he stumbles from one encounter to the next, often having to be saved time and time again with no real agency of his own.
As a Captain America-type do-gooder, he’s unable experience any significant change in character. He ends the story pretty much the same as he started – a story that simply ends as his encounters draw to a close. I would have liked to have seen him a bit more perceptive and a bit smarter at figuring things out and I expected the story to wrap back around to the set-up given in the beginning, but I assume that’s for a later book. Still, if you don’t mind a fairly mild and unengaging character reacting to a mostly listless story, Necrotic City does offer up some strengths. It’s a story mixed with a strong setting and solid sci-fi elements. At its core, Necrotic City provides a glimpse into a startling cyber-punk world that could easily become our own. 3.5 Stars rounded to 4.

AI Rating: 4/5
Brent A Harris

Druid's Portal, by Cindy Tomamichel

I was keen to read Druid’s Portal because I love stories about time-travel. And, who doesn’t like ancient Rome or stories about Celts and Druids? My favorite is Household Gods, by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove. So, I dove right in to Druid’s Portal.
What I got was perhaps heavier on the romance and less on the time-travel, but there are some interesting time-travel concepts at work here, which I fully appreciated. Druid’s Portal is not an Outlander knock-off; instead it is a straightforward portal fiction romance between a Roman soldier and Druid scholar Janet.
If anything, Druid’s Portal is perhaps too straightforward. There’s no real twist to the tale, no deviation from the standard, steamy romance story. I would have like to have seen the characters a bit more fleshed out. The antagonist needed to be someone who did more than sneer and cackle and call the heroine vulgar names. There was an opportunity to make the villain grounded and real, but it was lost in the twirling mustache and one-dimensional dialogue. Most character choices were made for the convenience of plot, with decisions often running counter to the character – for example, our Roman hero seemed adept at adopting modern morals, rather than acting as a Roman soldier. And Janet, a college professor, doesn’t figure certain things out until well-after an exasperated reader is yelling the answer at her.
I would have also liked to have seen a tighter focus in the narration. It’s written in third-person omniscient (think a camera hovering overhead) which made all the head-hopping a bit difficult. The dialogue, at times was off (though there are some really, really good lines that balance this out) and each character had an odd habit of talking to themselves for long stretches; telling the reader what they were thinking/doing. At the same time, the narration was also distant, quite often using phrases like ‘there was’ or ‘a sound of’ rather than creating an immediacy within the scene.
In general, the book is well researched (there will always be anachronisms that slip by), and I liked the path our heroine took, even if she played the damsel bit a bit too much. However, Janet’s journey changes her, and I quite liked the last bit of the book where the new Janet was on display (though the ending seemed to break a rule, or I was just confused). Druid’s Portal is a fun romp through time toward a steamy romance, where Celtic myth meets Roman bravado. 3 Stars for fans of SF and Time-Travel, 4 for Romance, where character counts less than steamy scenes.

AI Rating: 4/5
Brent A Harris

A Glitch In The World, by Alex Drozd

It's hard to sum up A Glitch In The World without straying too much into spoiler territory - for there is so much about this novel that is wrapped up in questions of identity, the uncertain nature of reality and issues of mental illness that it is difficult to say too much about it without giving the game away. 
Let's start at the beginning. Stuart is a school student on a distant world, a colony that is wrestling with its own identity separate from Earth. Issues of politics swirl in the air around Stuart, with matters such as universal income being debated on the colony. 
A lot of this doesn't matter to Stuart - who has his own issues. He is depressed, he has no real drive to commit to anything in his future, and finds himself pushed along by the people and circumstances around him. He turns to experimenting with drugs with his best friend - but that way lies tragedy and Stuart finds himself in a disintegrating spiral, with his only lifeline being the pretty girl who pays attention to him at school. Then comes the glitch. A flaw in the world around him, that means some of the things he depended on as he clung to reality might not even exist at all. If you're thinking that this has echoes of some of the work of Philip K Dick, you wouldn't be wrong - albeit more in a young adult kind of setting. 
This is a novel exploring two possibilities - the breakdown of its lead character, or the collision between two universes as opposed to one another as matter and anti-matter. 
Along the way, we explore philosophical issues, such as the value of life, the nature of mature societies versus those rising up, and the question of reality. With such weighty questions in the air, it is perhaps no surprise that we are left with more questions than answers, but the book is an intriguing glimpse inside the fragmented world of a youth as he struggles to understand it, and his place within it. 

AI Rating: 4/5
Stephen Hunt

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

I've been reading through quite a lot of Black Panther collections before and after watching the movie - and man, the work by Ta-Nehisi Coates is both tantalising and frustrating. 
This is the third collection from his Black Panther run, and while I enjoyed a great deal about the ideas and philosophies explored within the book... man, it just didn't hold up as a comic story. 
I honestly grew very, very tired of seeing the characters either sitting around or standing around talking. There's a dearth of action in here - Brian Stelfreeze is a smashing artist, but you've got to give him more to do than drawing conference room tables. 
The Black Panther movie clearly draws on some of the ideas from this run - questions about Wakanda's role as a nation and what path its future will take, and T'Challa's dual position as both king and hero - but the movie wrapped that all up in a bundle of action, threat and purpose that this third book rarely manages. There is one superb section in here - but that issue is written by Jonathan Hickman. 
The ideas that Coates showcases will make a great comic book one day, an awesome one - but this isn't there yet. 

AI Rating: 2/5

Stephen Hunt

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

FREE STORY: Killer App, by Leo McBride

He stepped out of the bustle and heat of the plaza into the cool air of the restaurant. The maître d’ raised his hands in protest.
“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” sighed the maître d’, with a plausible attempt at an expression of genuine regret on his face, “Reservations only today. It’s terribly busy, today’s ceremony, you know.”
The man smiled. “I’m sure it is,” he said. “But I have a reservation. Name of Calvi. Table for two.”
“Aha!” the maître d’ said, accompanied by a small clap of his hands. “Say no more, sir! Please, follow me.”
In moments, Calvi was at his table. “A window seat,” purred the maître d’, “you’ll have a perfect view of the ceremony. Would you like some water now or would you rather wait for your companion?”
“I’ll take a glass,” said Calvi, with a nod of thanks, and the maître d’ was away. The glass arrived, the cool water soothing his dry throat, and he placed his phone on the table, his fingers gently tapping as he waited.
It was a few minutes before he picked up the phone. He swooshed through the applications, and tapped a logo with four letters under it. BOTS.
The bots appeared on the screen. A collection of tiny robot creatures nestled in a box. With a single tap of his finger, Calvi stirred them into life. Up they rose, forming a chain as they helped one another out of the container. Their new surroundings appeared on the screen, huge walls, giant cobblestones. Calvi’s little bots were lost in the land of the giants, awaiting his instructions.
He paused for a moment and flagged down a passing waiter, asking for a coffee while he waited but declining the menu for the moment.
Order made, he returned to his screen. Killing time, while his companion’s chair remained undisturbed.
The coffee arrived as he was busily steering his bots into the opening at the bottom of a drain pipe. He nodded thanks to the server as he swiped the screen, instructing the little creatures to form a bot pyramid, bracing themselves against one another and the inside of the pipe to climb their way upwards. It got trickier partway up, with part of the pipe crumbled away, but some careful tapping got his bots stacked neatly on top of one another across the missing section, then firmly putting themselves back in place when safely back in the pipe once more.
Calvi paused for a moment to take a sip of his coffee. It was excellent, rich and almost strong enough to make him gasp. He glanced out of the window, at the crowds gathered outside, then set the cup down again to concentrate on his bots.
It wasn’t long until they had reached the top of the pipe, and he navigated them into the gutter that ran along the side of the building they were climbing. From there, it was a simple piece of navigation to the rooftop itself.
“Would you like to see the menu while you wait?” asked a helpful waiter. Calvi set the phone down, furrowing his brow as he looked at the empty chair next to him.
“Sure,” he said, with a slight tone of annoyance. The waiter smiled at him sympathetically. Not the first person he’ll have seen stood up on a date, thought Calvi.
He drummed his fingers for a moment, his attention caught again by the activity outside the window. The crowd was cheering now. It must be getting closer to the time for the ceremony to begin.

Calvi picked up his phone again. The bots were sitting patiently where he’d left them, waiting for his instructions. He tapped them back into life, and off they marched, a tiny convoy of miniature machines, across the rooftop. Each had a slightly different shape, but all followed his instructions neatly and with ease. It really was a very well-designed app, Calvi thought.
They reached the far edge of the roof, and the bots quickly swarmed up the parapet there. Once there, he opened up a sub-menu. A range of actions were available there, and he tapped the “Assemble” button.
First, a quartet of bots at the front braced themselves against the parapet, while a group at the back formed a pillar for the others to rest on. Then, one by one, the rest formed a bridge, clicking into place until they started to form a familiar shape. A long tube formed, with a single bot inside, and another bot clambered on top, before lying in place with a click.
A pop-up appeared on his phone screen, but Calvi set the phone to one side for a moment as the waiter arrived with the menu. He leafed through it for a moment, then ordered a steak, and a glass of red wine to go with it. He smiled and handed back the menu.
Outside, the cheering had quieted a moment, as the crowd stilled enough for the speakers at the ceremony to be heard. Calvi returned to his app and tapped the pop-up.
The bot at the top provided a camera view. Calvi found himself looking down on a square. A joystick control at the bottom allowed him to move the view around. With each movement, the pillar of bots at the back shifted position accordingly. Finally, Calvi was happy with the location. He was looking down at a stage, and as he watched, a man stepped onto the central platform, waving to the audience gathered there. With a tap of the button, the camera view became crosshairs. Calvi took another sip of his coffee and then, with the man located in the centre of the crosshairs, he tapped a red button on the screen.
Outside the restaurant, the sounds of cheers turned into the sound of screams. Calvi glanced out of the window at the panic and horror as people ran, or pointed in shock at the ceremony platform. Satisfied, Calvi clicked the disassemble button. The bots slowly took themselves apart, breaking up the rifle they had been moments before. They would retrace their path, and later Calvi would pick up the box they had been placed in at the bottom of an old drainpipe. All but one, the one from the rifle barrel, which was now nestled in the heart of the president, where he lay on the stage outside. That bot was following its own programming, moving inside its target to maximize damage.
Smiling, Calvi turned off the app, and finished the rest of his cup. It really was excellent coffee.


Saturday, 27 January 2018

BOOK REVIEWS: Monkey's Luck, by Bonnie Milani; Greatest Anthology Written; Blackbow, by Greg Ramsay; Apostate by Brian Q Webb; Moon Knight by Jeff Lemire

You might be experiencing a moment of deja vu with this week's book reviews - but don't worry, you're not going crazy, it really is the second time that Monkey's Luck has featured, this time reviewed by regular guest Brent A Harris. After his review, catch up with my latest review, including a world record attempt!

Monkey's Luck, by Bonnie Milani

Monkey’s Luck is the 3rd Novella set in the Universe of Milani’s Homeworld. She’s a fantastic writer, and the backdrop she has created is so compelling and well-constructed that I’ll read any story set in it. So, I was thrilled to start reading Monkey’s Luck.
Kat’s ship is blown apart by a Lupan attack. She survives, though the ship is lifeless but for a young boy, Roy and a Lupan Kat assumes was responsible. During her investigation and attempt at rescue, many of her assumptions are called into question, forcing her to reassess her prejudices, her orders, and eventually, her own loyalties – if she can survive her unfortunate bout of Moneky’s Luck.
While I tremendously enjoyed this story, I’ll say that the developing love triangle, if you could call it that, was the weakest part of the story. Lupans have an ability to imprint, to connect monogamously, at first touch. This is more fleshed out in her Homeworld novel and other novelettes but may not be clear to readers of just this story. Furthermore, the connection goes awry, leading to some interesting conflicts and discussions of love, emotion, and relationships. This last part I liked as Milani is never one to shy away from delving deep into her characters, but at times, I felt Kat was curious enough by nature to question events without romantic entanglements muddling her motivation.
That said, I’m really grasping at straws here to find any bone to pick, just so I can present a better balanced review. Milani is a first-rate story-teller who can leave you breathless in the space between the pages. The characters are people you care about, are real and fleshed out, and the pacing and action make this a fast read that will leave you looking for more of this Universe.

AI rating: 5/5

Review by Brent A. Harris

Greatest Anthology Written, by Celenic Earth Publications
It's not often I review a world record attempt. But here we have the Greatest Anthology Written, a bold claim indeed!
The greatness the book aspires to is to be a Guinness World Record holder for the biggest anthology published. There are more criteria than just size, however - it must achieve a certain quantity of sales in order to be considered.
But it's not just a case of never mind the quality, feel the width! Indeed, there are some delightful tales in here. One aspect of the book is that it gathers up very different genres, so here you'll find romance and sci-fi, fantasy and thrillers all rubbing shoulders with one another - although all neatly organised into sections so genre fans can find the tales they love.
One nice side effect of this is to lead you to read stories outside the genre you might ordinarily read, though. Indeed, the romance section - which I'd normally skip straight past - included some great stories, such as An Heirloom Spirit by Molly Neely, and the delightfully enchanting Only Improbably by Leonie Harris.
So godspeed, anthology, go nab that record. And readers? Think of this as a great chance to discover a whole host of new writers.

AI rating: 4/5

Stephen Hunt

Blackbow, by Greg Ramsay

This is a post-apocalyptic novel, which starts off with a cryogenically-frozen abusive rapist warrior knight Prime Minister of Canada. Yup, you read that right. The PM is inside a vault, Fallout-style, to survive the nuclear armageddon. You can tell it's Fallout-style because the author tells us that it's like the vaults in Fallout. Yes, it's a bit on the nose.
When the PM emerges from cryosleep, his thoughts turn straight away to rape, and so is conceived the hero of the story.
This is a grim, graphic and relentlessly angry novel, to the extent that the dialogue is ripe with swearing and frequently conducted IN ALL CAPS SO YOU REALLY KNOW THEY'RE ANGRY. I don't mind guts and gore in my stories, being a reader of splatterpunk at times, but this is just gratuitous.
The plot is underdeveloped and the hero implausibly capable yet routinely makes foolish decisions in this world of rundown settlements and menacing mutants. Throw in the occasional lurch in tenses and the whole thing becomes something of a trudge.

AI rating: 1/5

Stephen Hunt

Editor's note - the book appears to no longer be on Amazon, so here is the link to it on Goodreads

Apostate, by Brian Q Webb

Just a short story this one, but boy does Brian Q Webb pack in the atmosphere of a film noir version of the old West. The lead character is on the trail of a Pinkerton detective, who is himself on the trail of the main character's wife, snatched away by a shady ranch-hand. That trail passes through a world of Mormon missionaries, bribeable barkeeps and saloon prostitutes.
The atmosphere of the story is great, hinting at gothic horror in the mix, and coating every silver lining with the grime of gold miners' dreams and the dust of the road.
My only complaint is that it all wraps up a bit too quickly - it would have been nice to spend some more time in this world.

AI rating: 4/5

Stephen Hunt

Moon Knight volumes 1-3, written by Jeff Lemire

I must not start another comic book review by saying that I've always been a fan of the character.
...I've always been a fan of Moon Knight, especially harking back to the days when Bill Sienkiewicz was the artist. The character, it's probably fair to say, has long had an uneasy time of things, with his multiple identities - and sometimes personalities - muddying the waters of his stories at times.
Jeff Lemire comes at this head-on, with Marc Spector trapped inside an asylum, where he struggles to work out what is real - and who.
He faces friends from the past, and comes head-to-head with his own identities - the taxi driver Jake, the movie producer Steven, the warrior battling werewolves on the moon. Reality is fluid here, and it would be easy to get lost in where the story was going - but Lemire's storytelling is expert.
The story has no major connection with the rest of the Marvel Universe, so it can be read as a standalone, and it's a rare superhero saga that grapples with mental illness, the nature of sacrifice, and, perhaps, redemption.

AI rating: 5/5

Stephen Hunt

Saturday, 13 January 2018

BOOK REVIEWS: Elvira Wonders, by Sanna Hines; Monkey's Luck, by Bonnie Milani; Just A Minor Malfunction issue 3; Bloodchild, by Octavia Butler; Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A new year, a new selection of books up for review. First up, regular guest Brent A. Harris reviews Elvira Wonders, by Sanna Hines, before I hop in with my latest round-up - including two Black Panther graphic novels as the countdown is on to the new Marvel movie. 

Elvira Wonders, by Sanna Hines

Elvira Wonders is, at times, an unfocused entangling of the lives of too many characters overstuffed into a disarray of storylines. It doesn’t know what story it wants to tell, so it instead tells all of them. I got the sense in reading this, that perhaps Hines had hoped to create a TV series out of the town of Elvira. If so, that makes sense. There’s a loose thread involving a murdered fairy that could connect the pilot to the end of the first season, with subsequent chapters/episodes producing their own mini-threads and soap-opera antics before stumbling back to the murder mystery bits.
Now that it’s been quite a few years since True Blood has left the air, this book may quench the thirst of those looking for more Sookie Stackhouse. And make no mistake, Elvira Wonders takes its cue from the series: Fae, Werewolves, Vampires, Ghosts all exists as obstacles to each other on the streets and entangle in the sheets. Fans of the former who’ve run out of mystical material may wish to sink their teeth into Sanna’s story.
However, where True Blood takes its time developing the monsters, mayhem, and ahem – romantic encounters, Elvira Wonders takes everything at once and plunges it into the first book. Every fae and fable that exists in stories lives in the sleepy town of Elvira – whose residents decide to capitalise on the mythic creatures by opening sightseeing tours. However, not all of these creatures get along, and the tourism is threatened by infighting and murder.
It’s therefore up to Josh, car mechanic, ghost hunter, and Fae investigator (nobody is just one thing in this town, it’s an odd mixture for sure) and full-time leer-er of Elviran women, to solve the murder of a Red Fairy. Why the police are unconcerned over the death is a bit odd, nor do the Fae themselves lend a hand. So, it’s not surprising Josh gets distracted by relationships, as do all the other denizens of the city, while the story dissolves into a dozen characters, toys around with different genres (romance, horror, family drama, etc) until Josh basically stumbles onto the murderer. At no times are the characters tasked with providing reasons or motivations behind any of their actions, nor is the reader asked to consider any deep themes or dwell on any subject matter. It’s Vampire Diaries for the page.
Elvira Wonders isn’t a deep look into social strata, nor does it take time to flesh out any of its characters like the Stackhouse novels do. However, Elvira reads briskly, the characters function as quick go-to figures that are easily distinguishable from one another, and the world-building is fun and at times a good type of campy. It’s not a serious book – one of the most consistent storylines is the continued destruction of a Hummer and another features a writer who constantly complains about her critics. It’s a book that could be read through in one or two sittings. If you’re missing some Sookie, and you want something fast and light, I would check out the Wonders Elvira has to offer. 3.5 Stars, rounded to 4.

AI Rating: 4/5
Brent A. Harris 

Monkey's Luck, by Bonnie Milani

Bonnie Milani is a smashing writer. If you haven't discovered her before, then really, you have a treat awaiting you. I still say the best place to start to discover the universe she has created is her novel Home World, but Monkey's Luck is a rollicking bit of action to jump into too.
Kat is a wayward refugee, survivor of torture and space marine, caught up in a whole new world of hurt when the spaceship she's serving on gets blasted to hell and pitches her into an uneasy alliance with the ship's only other remaining crew member and a menacing Lupan named Romeo.
Lupans recur regularly in Bonnie's tales - an offshoot of humanity with wolf DNA wrapped in the mix. Both Kat and the other crew member have their own altered DNA cocktails going on, each bringing with it certain behaviour patterns and strengths - or weaknesses.
This is one of the nicest things about this tale - in that, despite rattling on at a fair old pace with explosions aplenty, there's a consideration at the heart of it of what makes us who we are, and what drives us to fight, or to love.
There's romance, betrayal, drama and stakes that grow increasingly higher as the story goes on - all told, my only complaint is that I wish it was longer so we could spend more time with this intriguing trio.

AI Rating: 5/5

Just A Minor Malfunction, issue three

Twitter's a wonderful place for connecting with authors - and it was out in that digital playground that I discovered the Just A Minor Malfunction magazine.
It's reached its third issue, and it's bristling with tales from contributors. Now, as devotees of short stories anthologies know - and goodness knows I'm one - some stories you'll love more than others, but there's a good mix in here.
The opening tale is a cracker, Left To Her Own Devices, by James Armer, about an expedition to a planet where the ship's AI is perhaps more adventurous than the crew. I really liked this one, pulling together some neat character work in its short span and doing what good sci-fi should do, making you ponder wider horizons.
Editor Michael S Alter has two tales of his own here - both good, but the pick of them is The Disappearing Cube, a story of a science experiment into folding space that has unexpected consequences for the scientists involved.
If you're looking for light-hearted tales, then Kim M Watt's Anatidaephobia, which certainly fits the bill.
A couple of the stories feel a little underdeveloped, but all told this is a nice addition to the magazine landscape. I'll certainly be looking to go back and check out issues one and two, so look for reviews of those in the future as I play catch-up.

AI Rating: 4/5 

Bloodchild and other stories, by Octavia E Butler

I feel it is a terrible sin of omission on my part that until now I have never read any works by Octavia Butler.
I mean, sure, everyone has their gaps in their reading history, where there's an author here or there who you've always meant to get round to reading but just haven't. But Butler has been a glaring hole in my reading - until now.
She freely admits in her introduction to this short story collection that novels are where her heart truly belongs, but this is a good way to delve into her writing, a gentle starter with the main course ready and waiting to follow, if you will.
There are seven stories and two essays in this collection, kicking off with the award-winning title story. Bloodchild is a complex story of interdependent relationships, with humans being used as hosts to nurse the infants of an alien species, but at a cost. There are questions of what one is willing to exchange in order to survive, issues of abusive relationships and personal sacrifice, all heady topics swirling within the confines of a short story.
Award-winner that it is, though, personally I prefer another story in the collection, The Evening and the Morning and the Night. It's a story of a society where a drug created to cure ailments such as cancer has after-effects, with the descendants of those who took the drug affected by a condition which can cause them to "drift", losing touch with the society around them and slipping into dangerous psychosis. Told from the perspective of the children affected by this disorder, as they face a future which seems inevitably to slip towards madness and death, it's a deeply poignant tale of how society deals with those it cannot cope with, and what happens to those individuals themselves - whether they can carve out their own future in a world that offers them none.
These two stories stand out above the others, but there's still plenty of great reading to be had in the collection. There's no binding theme - though a recurring focus is on issues of biology and illness. One nice feature is that each story has notes after it with the author detailing her thoughts on the tale. For example, she addresses the fact that many think Bloodchild is about slavery - it isn't, though talk in the story of selling people hints that way. It's more complex than that, though, and very much worth discovering if, like me, you've been lagging behind on exploring Butler's work.

AI Rating: 5/5


Black Panther, A Nation Under Our Feet, books one and two, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

With the new Black Panther movie looking astonishingly good from its trailers, a timely Amazon sale sent some of the recent comics starring the King of Wakanda tumbling my way. 
Well, I suppose from 2016, so not the most recent - but the run by Ta-Nehisi Coates has been raved about by fellow fans of T'Challa so it was about time I took a look. 
I've long been a fan of Black Panther - I tend to gravitate towards heroes who aren't mighty gods or universe-menacing Phoenixes - and so the combination of genius scientist and stealthy warrior has long appealed. 
I'll confess, though, that I'm awfully glad that I bought book two at the same time as book one. Coates takes his time to find his feet with his story - or rather, more to the point, he has a big story to tell but sometimes in volume one rushes through the actual telling, and you end up piecing a couple of the parts of the tale together in your head rather than reading it on the page. He's much more in his stride by the second volume, so if you find yourself put off a little by the opening collection, stick with it, it comes together much better as the issues go by. 
The story itself tackles the tale of Black Panther as king, fighting to hold together his kingdom from threats within and without. He isn't all-seeing or all-wise, rather he's a man underneath the legend, making political choices that might not always be for the best, but are mostly made with the best intentions. 
The tale tackles issues of nationalism, identity, monarchism and democracy - weighty matters that go beyond the usual supervillain hokum of many comics. Sometimes, that strays into territory of infodumping, but as I say, the method of telling the story keeps improving. 
I'm not terribly sure it will serve as a great introduction to readers for the Black Panther movie - but it's a powerful look at the world the comics character inhabits - with a wider landscape than his stories are often afforded. 

AI Ratings
Book one: 3/5
Book two: 4/5