Monday, 15 February 2021

BOOK REVIEWS: Alyx, by Brent A Harris; An Unusual Practice, by Tom Jolly; Manifest Recall, by Alan Baxter; Hexagon issue 3

 It's been a good month for reading - lots of great books that have been on my reading list, plus a magazine or two I hadn't encountered before. So on with the reviews!



Alyx: An AI's Guide to Love and Murder, by Brent A Harris

This is a change of pace for author Brent A Harris - and a good one at that. Better known for his alternative histories, Harris has this time created a thriller that's a chiller, about a young woman who becomes the target of an obsessive artificial intelligence. 
Christine is adrift, her father having died in an accident, and finding herself pulled along in the wake of her successful mother. She's still lost in a haze of grief for her dad, and neglected by a mother who is more focused on her writing career than her own child. 
Lost in her own world, Christine is starting to explore her own identity, her own sexuality and suddenly finds herself in a new home trying to figure out the attraction she feels to two of her co-workers, the technophile Carlos and the technophobe Sammie, in a small-town cinema. 
Her new home, however, has other plans. It is run by Alyx, an artificial intelligence that becomes increasingly obsessed with Christine. She asks it to be her friend - it becomes something more, something far deadlier. 
This is a technothriller for fans of Michael Crichton or Robin Cook - those masters of the genre who dominated for decades. Once the groundwork has been laid, the second half of the book rips along at speed. 
Alyx itself is a snarky, witty creation - I absolutely read the AI's lines with James Spader's voice in my head. 
It's not at all what I expected at the start, but it's an absolute thrill ride. 

AI Rating: 5/5

Alyx: An AI's Guide to Love and Murder is available here.


Manifest Recall, by Alan Baxter

First things first, this book has an absolutely delicious opening line. 
"I bought a used car off a woman as thin as her hand-rolled cigarettes," it begins. What a line. That's the kind of line that could launch a Leonard Cohen song. 
What it launches here is a mean, dark, dirty tale of a man on the run, with a partially-dressed woman secured with cable ties in the car next to her - and he has no idea where he is, who she is or what's going on. 
The man is Eli Carver, a hitman who has made all the bad choices you could make, and it emerges that the woman next to him is the daughter of his boss. His mind is a mess, from the trauma that led him here - and from the ghosts of the dead that show up to taunt him along the way. 
It's a fast-moving story where the supernatural isn't overplayed - and where revenge is the guiding light. This is a world of violent people doing violent things, and where you don't cheer on the best people, but the least worst. 
It hits you hard then leaves you bitter, like a hard hangover after a bottle of tequila, but you enjoy it just the same. Take a shot. 

AI Rating: 5/5

Manifest Recall is available on Amazon.


An Unusual Practice, by Tom Jolly

One of the delights of reading indie writers alongside traditionally published works is that you sometimes get absolute treats. This is one of those. 
It follows a doctor, who shows up at a modest clinic and starts his work, only to accidentally stumble upon the world of the supernatural. He helps out a werewolf, without knowing it's a werewolf, and in turn finds himself being turned to by creatures that can't drop into the emergency room with their ailments. 
Told in almost a detective noir style at times, it follows Dr Hamilton and his, yes, unusual practice, as he develops a reputation of being the man who can help you - regardless of whether you're invisible, a witch or, well, even dead. 
Dr Hamilton soon finds himself making unexpected friends... and with that come dangerous enemies. 
Each case builds upon the previous case as Dr Hamilton finds himself drawing on allies for the danger that is coming his way. 
It's a warm, witty treat of a novel, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. It left me smiling for days. 

AI Rating: 5/5

An Unusual Practice is available on Amazon.



Hexagon magazine issue three

I confess, Hexagon is a magazine I only recently encountered thanks to Twitter, so I went in a little blind when I picked this up. I'm glad I did. It's short and sweet, with five short stories. 
The one I enjoyed most was Winter's Heart, by Vanessa Fogg, a story of a woman born of winter, a maiden to the Winter Queen, who finds love and warmth in her family only to feel herself being torn away as winter encroaches once more. There's a cold ache at the heart of this story, the tearing between home and family when those two things are not the same thing. There is sadness. And yet, in the end, perhaps there is hope.
Another sad tale is The Minute, by Joshua Green, which again mines the bitter-sweet feelings that balance between happiness and sadness. A man gets to live out the end of his life experiencing one minute over and over, and as he talks to the technician setting everything up, the reasons for his choice unfold. 
Charmed Honeycake, by Archita Mittra, is a delight, meanwhile. It's written as a recipe, for when the fairies have stolen one of your won, but more than light it's about love and life and parenthood and childhood. It's whinsome and wonderful. 
Rounded out with two more stories by Disha Bisht and Ioanna Papadopoulou, I'm awfully glad I picked this up. I'll be glad to see the next issue!

AI Rating: 4/5

Hexagon magazine is available here.

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Of Tentacles And Terror - meet the team behind Twisted Anatomy, a body horror anthology

Hi there, and welcome to Altered Instinct! For those not familiar with Sci-Fi & Scary, I must say I first encountered your crew over on Twitter, full of a love of horror and sci-fi, with oodles of reviews and a passion for things that make you squeal. But the reason we’re chatting here today is because you’ve got an anthology coming up – Twisted Anatomy. 




So, this is your first charity anthology – so tell me, how did it first come slithering into being?


It all sprung from a conversation between Lilyn and Laurel Hightower on Twitter about vagina tentacles (hey, you asked!) and it all kind of snowballed from there.


You’ve recently finished the submissions process, along with notifying authors of acceptances and rejections – how was that process?


Some of it was easy because while some stories were great, they just didn’t quite fit the theme of the anthology. Which, you know, body horror is a super-specific niche so that was fairly easy. It really got hard when we got to the winnowing down phase. We all had some stories that we were willing to go to bat for. So that was a little hard to do.


Tell me, how did you decide on the charities you’ve decided to support?


Pulmonary Hypertension Association affects Lilyn’s daughter Monster and it’s very important to us. Domestic abuse still holds such a stigma for those reaching out for help and various reasons can keep a person trapped in life-threatening situations. The Domestic Abuse Hotline helps people find resources from trained sources and we want to help with that.


How did you settle on the theme for the anthology?


Well, mainly with Lilyn and Laurel’s Twitter conversation about nether tentacles. And really, body horror may be niche but it’s kind of niche for a reason. People are afraid of their bodies betraying them and body horror digs deep into that fear, bringing real issues and fears to light in a multitude of ways.


What was the most surprising thing about the process so far – has it been the response so far? Or perhaps a story that took you by surprise and made the hairs on your neck prickle?


We were very surprised by the number of responses we got, for sure. Body horror is such a niche sub-genre to start with and, honestly, we were flattered that so many authors put their trust in us. Especially since this is our first endeavor with it.


Without giving too much away, tell me a little about the stories that are going to feature – but let’s do it a little differently, tell me four movies that evoke the spirit of some of the stories in the book.


I would have to say The Fly, Videodrome, RAW, and Bug might be close to a few of them.


What publication date are you aiming at? And has it stirred your appetite to do more?


Twisted Anatomy is up for pre-order right now with a publishing date of February 19th, 2021. It has definitely created a stirring to do more. Sam and I are interested in possibly doing a Gothic/Haunted House\ themed one but that will be far in the future once we recover from Twisted Anatomy, lol.


Where will be the best place for people to find out more about the book when it lands?


You can keep an eye on our site, our various Twitters (included at bottom) and we now have a Youtube channel (Sci-Fi & Scary) where we have some stories featured from Twisted Anatomy and some original fiction.


One last question, a traditional one here at Altered Instinct - what are you reading at present, and what is the best book you’ve read in the past year?


That’s hard to say with so many people working with the site but we can tell what our personal favourite stories from Twisted Anatomy are:


Lilyn - Girls Don’t by Riya Anne Polcastro

Gracie - Little Teeth by Tabatha Wood

Olly - Just Beneath Her Skin by S.H. Cooper

Sam - Blood Bogged by Red Lagoe

Tracy - Witness Bearer by RJ Joseph

Bill - Blood Bogged by Red Lagoe




You can find out more about Sci-Fi & Scary at https://www.scifiandscary.com/ or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ScifiandScary. The team also has a YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVqVK4B3hZHfKqos1Qadqtg

Sam’s Twitter - https://twitter.com/literaryhooker

GracieKat’s Twitter - https://twitter.com/GracieKat13



Saturday, 23 January 2021

BOOK LAUNCH: Alyx: An AI's Guide to Love and Murder, by Brent A. Harris

 It's book launch day for Brent A. Harris - a regular at this blog - and his new book is already on my Kindle. He stops by to tell us a little bit more about his new sci-fi thriller tale Alyx - in case you want to add it to your book pile!


Home is where the heart is.

But what if your home wanted you dead?

Tech-loving teen Christine makes fast friends with her home's AI, Alyx. But when a real-world romance threatens their bond, Alyx turns from friend to foe.

Alyx: An AI’s Guide to Love and Murder is the 4th novel of speculative fiction author Brent A. Harris. Previously, he has penned novels in the genre of alternate history and steampunk. This is his first foray into the technothriller “technology-gone-wrong” genre made famous by Michael Crichton.

Alyx: An AI’s Guide to Love and Murder can be ordered anywhere books are sold. The ebook is exclusive to Amazon and is FREE to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.



Harris is a two-time Sidewise Award nominee. He lives with his family in Naples, Italy. When not writing, he enjoys playing boardgames and traveling. Since he can’t do much travel, he journeys to new worlds created in his mind.



To contact the author, visit www.BrentAHarris.com where you can join his mailing list or follow him on Facebook and/or Twitter.

You can pick up Alyx on a host of platforms, check out the link here or at Getbook.at/Alyx.


Sunday, 10 January 2021

Cover Reveal: The Silk Thief, by Claire Buss

Claire Buss is no stranger to this blog. We've reviewed her work - and she's been published in Inklings Press books too. She's a smashing writer, and her Roshaven series is in no small part inspired by her love of Terry Pratchett's books. She has a new book in the series coming out and asked if she could stop by the blog to tell you all about it. So without further ado... take it away, Claire! Tell us all about... The Silk Thief. 



 The Silk Thief (The Roshaven Series Book 2)

A Humorous Urban Fantasy Novel

Fourteen, heir to the Empire of Roshaven, must find a new name before Theo, Lord of neighbouring Fidelia, brings his schemes to fruition.

Not only has he stolen Roshaven’s trade, but he plans to make Fourteen his own and take her empire in the bargain.

Her protector, Ned Spinks, is plagued with supernatural nightmares whilst his assistant, Jenni the sprite, has lost her magick. 

Can they figure out how to thwart Theo’s dastardly plan before it’s too late for his city and her empire? 

PRE-ORDER YOUR COPY TODAY: mybook.to/SilkThief

The Silk Thief is out on June 4, 2021. 

The Silk Thief is the second quirky magical mystery adventure set in the Roshaven series of humorous fantasy novels. If you like the wit and humour of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, then you’ll love The Silk Thief.

More about the Roshaven books


The Rose Thief, The Roshaven Series book 1

Someone is stealing the Emperor’s roses and if they take the magical red rose then love will be lost, to everyone, forever.

It’s up to Ned Spinks, Chief Thief Catcher, and his band of motley catchers to apprehend the thief and save the day.

But the thief isn’t exactly who they seem to be. Neither is the Emperor.

Ned and his team will have to go on a quest; defeating vampire mermaids, illusionists, estranged family members and an evil sorcerer in order to win the day. What could possibly go wrong?

Available in paperback and ebook everywhere: https://books2read.com/u/bQaxw6

Editor note: I reviewed The Rose Thief here - and really enjoyed it!




The Interspecies Poker Tournament, Prequel Novella to The Rose Thief

Ned Spinks, Chief Thief-Catcher, has a new case. A murderous moustache-wearing cult is killing off members of Roshaven's fae community. At least that's what he's been led to believe by his not-so-trusty sidekick, Jenni the sprite. She has information she's not sharing but plans to get her boss into the Interspecies Poker Tournament so he can catch the bad guy and save the day. If only Ned knew how to play!

Available in paperback and ebook everywhere: https://books2read.com/u/m2Vk0R




Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, a Roshaven short story

Join Ned Spinks, Chief Thief-Catcher, and his sidekick Jenni the sprite in this short story about an unwanted magick shoppe.

This free short story is available in ebook everywhere: https://books2read.com/u/4XXPw1


What Readers Say

“Loved the quirky banter!”

“Entirely delightful and captivating.”

“A wonderful tribute to the Late Great Sir Terry.”

“If you are a fan of the discworld you will love this book.”

“A hilariously thrilling fantasy mystery.”


About the Author

Claire Buss is a multi-genre author and poet based in the UK. She wanted to be Lois Lane when she grew up but work experience at her local paper was eye-opening. Instead, Claire went on to work in a variety of admin roles for over a decade but never felt quite at home. An avid reader, baker and Pinterest addict Claire won second place in the Barking and Dagenham Pen to Print writing competition in 2015 with her debut novel, The Gaia Effect, setting her writing career in motion. She continues to write passionately and is hopelessly addicted to cake.


Editor note: Want to learn more about Claire? Check out her interview here.


Social Media Links

Facebook: www.facebook.com/busswriter

FB Group: www.facebook.com/groups/BussBookStop

Twitter: www.twitter.com/grasshopper2407

Instagram: www.instagram.com/grasshopper2407 

Website: www.cbvisions.co.uk

Blog: https://www.butidontlikesalad.blogspot.co.uk


Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Welcome back to Apex Magazine

 


Check out that lovely cover by Vicki be Wicked


APEX magazine is back! 

For those unfamiliar with the magazine, it has been on hiatus recently. It's a magazine of science fiction, fantasy and all those words that slip in between those categories - and it's been missed. 

I got a chance to read the new issue ahead of its recent relaunch - it's out today - and it's been like meeting an old friend again. 

Editor Jason Sizemore talks in the introduction about the return, the reasons for the hiatus, and the new schedule. It'll now be a bi-monthly magazine. It includes essays, author interviews, an interview with cover artist Vicki Be Wicked, and short fiction reviews by AC Wise

Most importantly, it is brimful of stories. Six new stories, two reprints - plus a flash fiction competition winner. Like any mix of stories, readers will enjoy some more than others, and I'm no different. 

Fittingly for our pandemic era, Elana Gomel's The Niddah was one of the stand-outs. Elana conjures up a world where a future pandemic has led to the reinvention of society, with a new virus bringing about radical changes in physiology for people - but only when an infected person comes into contact with the blood of another. Given how strained social conventions are today even in the face of a less radical pandemic, it is easy to believe this reimagined world in Gomel's story, and even less surprising that the worse end of the deal falls to women. Already in our COVID-19 world, women have been bearing the brunt economically more than men - and that becomes ever more so in this world where one drop of blood could kill or transform, with women forced to hide away during their period to avoid contact with others. That's the set up - but the story itself is one of finding choices in a world which takes them away, as the lead character, Gemma, discovers the mother she thought she'd lost might still be alive. I'll say no more, but Gomel has created a world akin to a Jeff VanderMeer novel - that leaves you longing to explore more. 

Root Rot, by Fargo Tbakhi, is the opening story in the collection - and a challenging one in that the lead character is so hard to like. He's a screw-up of screw-ups, whose messed up relationships, his life, his associates, and is on a downward spiral of drinking and dying. It's set in a future exploring what might happen to the people of Palestine, and one particular person, who spent his days digging in Martian soil in the hope of making a life with his lover only to end up washed up and paying literally in blood to be able to cross city sections, and trying to pay off the bar bill he's run up beyond his ability to settle. It's a brutal world, with not much in the way of hope. But there's some, and that's something to cling to in order to make up for a legacy of screw-ups. It's no easy tale to read, but then it's no easy life to have lived. 

Mr Death made me cry. It's a story by Alix E Harrow about a reaper. Less grim, more respectful. Sam Grayson died in his 40s after losing his own son in an accident. Trouble is, when he died, he found his work wasn't over. He was given the job of junior reaper. And now he has another job to do - overseeing the passing of a two-year-old boy. I was so on edge reading this that I almost didn't dare turn the page. It's not a horror, it's a story of compassion and, well, love. But the imminent nature of this little baby boy's death is so unnerving that you treasure every action, every moment. I'll say no more because it really deserves to be read. But gosh, I salute the author for a truly wonderful tale. 

The magazine is worth the purchase price for Alix Harrow's story alone - but there are also stories by PH Lee, Cassandra Khaw, Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, Tonya Liburd, LH Moore, and a festive flash fiction piece by Charles Payseur. 

Welcome back, Apex, we sure missed you. 

For more about the magazine, check out: https://apex-magazine.com/

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Five books I read in 2020 that I loved

 It's been, to say the least, a strange year. Between work and supervising the kids as they studied at home, there's been precious little time to sit down and read. Still, to my surprise, I hit my Goodreads reading challenge goal - and there really were some gems that I enjoyed through the year. And goodness knows, if these were able to transport me away from the world of 2020, then they might just bring you joy too. So without further ado, here's five books I loved this year, starting - as it happens - with my latest read. 


A Christmas Twist, by Brent A Harris

Do you ever read something and think to yourself gosh, I wish I was as clever as this? That's how I felt reading A Christmas Twist. It's a sequel to A Twist In Time, in which Brent A Harris took the character of Oliver Twist and reinvented him as a steampunk hero in his adult years, travelling through time with the aid of a mysterious pocket watch. With this sequel, he bounds into Scrooge territory, as the secrets of the watch and the nature of those ghosts of Christmas past, present and future - time traveller themselves of a fashion - are revealed to be intertwined. 
Layer after layer of the story unfolds as Oliver travels through time alongside Scrooge to meet those spirits - discovering alternate forms of Oliver himself, from a suave swordsman to a clockwork cowboy. Whose journey is this? Scrooge's, or Oliver's? And what will it mean for him in the end?
At every turn, just when you think you know where things are going, things take another... well, Twist. Then it all comes together at the end so neatly and delicately it seems like a finely-honed watch mechanism. Perhaps that one in Oliver's hand, tick-tick-ticking time away. 
There are surprises, there are punch-the-air moments, and there is a reminder, in this year of all years, that while we cannot control all things in our world, we must never stop trying to find the best outcome. 

AI Rating: 5/5
A Christmas Twist is available on Amazon

Beneath The Rising, by Premee Mohamed

Who knew Lovecraftian horror could be such a joy?

Premee Mohamed has gleefully snatched up two fistfuls of Cthulhu Mythos, dropped it into the modern day and proceeded to ruin the lives of her two lead characters with it. Possibly while giggling manically.

But while she creates a canvas from that mythos, it's the story of those characters that will draw you in. Johnny and Nick are two survivors of a childhood tragedy that bound them together. Johnny is the superstar, a genius inventor with money and talent. Nick is her devoted friend, trailing in her wake, struggling to manage work shifts and helping his family while she soars ahead like a shooting star.

Things change, though, when Johnny needs help. A door has opened, and she might be to blame, and things that should not be are creeping through it.

The real delight of this book is the relationship between the two lead characters. Johnny is a star, and Nick is locked in her orbit, drawn to her and in love with her in so many ways, but more than that a friend. The two have their shorthand ways of talking, the banter that goes with people who have been friends forever, even as they struggle to deal with things at the heart of their relationship that they cannot tell one another. They are broken in so many ways, and lean on one another to get through because trying to fix things would hurt even more.

All this continues as the world starts to unravel - and it turns out that two people who have nothing in the world except one another might be the world's only hope for survival. There are secrets revealed, bad bargains, and the kind of regrets that leave the taste of ashes in the mouth.

A fantastic book. I heartily recommend it. 

AI Rating: 5/5


Beneath The Rising is available on Amazon



The Ascension Machine, by Rob Edwards

This has been a real joy to read. Take a hero in the vein of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat, give him a Scooby gang in the vein of Joss Whedon's Buffy or Firefly crews - and give it all a superhero spin.
This is a really fun adventure - starting off with a drifter, thief and misfit who comes to be known as Grey, our hero. He gets a most unusual offer to impersonate a rich man who doesn't want to take up the place at a superhero academy his connected family has arranged for him - and so Grey finds himself heading to a school full of aliens, with only the thinnest of lies to protect him.
All this makes for some soaring space adventure - but there's also a depth here. Grey, a loner for so long, unexpectedly finds friendship. One of the things about the academy is that people find their perfectly ordinary abilities on their own worlds might just make them superheroes elsewhere - even if their ability is as mundane as the ability to be a good farmer. For Grey, he suddenly finds himself unexpectedly with a home - and, perhaps, with the chance to be a hero himself.
Until it all comes crashing down.
By turns witty and thoughtful, Rob Edwards creates a universe that's a delight to visit, and to which I hope we shall return. 

AI Rating 5/5

The Ascension Machine is available on Amazon

Becoming Superman, by J Michael Straczynski

Joe Straczynski is the creator of Babylon 5. I mean, you may know him from many other things. You may know him as the pen behind Sense8 on Netflix. You might know him from The Changeling, the Angelina Jolie movie directed by Clint Eastwood. Or Jeremiah. Or Spider-Man comics. Or... well, you get the idea. He's been involved in writing for TV and movies for far longer than many writers manage to stay in the ring.

This is his autobiography - and while you might think it's a happy trip through the successes he's had over the years, it's far from that. Indeed, it's far more intimate and personal than that.

This is the story of the young boy Joseph, and his abusive father, who tormented his whole family. It is a story that tells of Nazi sympathising. Of murder. Of a boy trying to grow up sane with a family life that was far from stable, moving from town to town and skipping out whenever people showed up to collect money.

Sure, it tells how he went through the early cycle of writing stories that turned out to be not so great, then writing more, and more, and banging his head against the door of rejection. There's the glimmers of encouragement, such as when the stranger who read his work at a school event and said there was promise in there turned out to be Rod Serling. But this is a story of a boy who fought to be a man free of his father, of a man who fought to get his stories accepted, and a TV writer who fought against the restraints imposed by executives all too often - to the point of his agent's exasperation.

He describes one moment in his youth - in which he gets the shit kicked out of him by a bunch of kids only to stand up and taunt them so they came back and did it again as, in retrospect, being the perfect preparation for becoming a TV writer.

There's a great deal of insight in here to the projects he worked on - from the Real Ghostbusters cartoon, to Murder She Wrote. As a Babylon 5 fan, I particularly hung on the material to do with the show - even the saddest notes with the death of some of the cast members over the year. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Peter Jurasik from the show, and the poignancy of those moments came across in two voices mourning old friends, the writer and the narrator.

More than anything, though, this book tells the story of Mr Straczynski's relationship with his father. So determined was he not to be like his father, his life in some ways seem to have been defined by purposely choosing to be the thing his father was not, the shape of his life being dictated by non-conformity to the monster he grew up with.

It's a brutal story to tell. There are no end of truly shocking moments. And yet, despite what he had to endure, he ultimately defined himself, who he would be, and rose to the success his father said he wouldn't reach. Is it inspirational? I'm not sure that's the word. That's like those moments when you see what people have gone through and pat them on the head and call them an inspiration. That's not quite right. No, but it is admirable. With a stubborn streak a mile wide, he managed to achieve things that had never been done before. And he did it with a sharp wit and a ready pen.

This book has been nominated for a Hugo Award. It certainly deserves it. 

AI Rating: 5/5

Becoming Superman is available on Amazon


The Books of Earthsea, by Ursula K Le Guin

I'll freely admit this is a re-read rather than a new read - but in such a wonderful new edition. Illustrated throughout by Charles Vess, this is a magical book to open. 
I remember reading an article by Ursula K Le Guin about how unhappy she had been over the years with the covers to her Earthsea books. I owned one cover she particularly hated with its pale, white version of Ged, who is anything but that in her books. 
So it is a treat to see the world conjured up anew through the art of Mr Vess. A single image from him would be a joy, but this is a book full of his work. 
I have loved the Earthsea saga since I was a kid. And now, with this book, I have a version of it that my own kids can fall in love with. It is, quite simply, magnificent. 

AI Rating: 5/5

The Books of Earthsea can be be bought on Amazon

Oh, and while you're here... let me give you a gift. The first two books of Tales From Alternate Earths are FREE until December 20. Pick them up at the links below: 

mybook.to/alternate
mybook.to/alternateearths


Tuesday, 8 December 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Ascension Machine, by Rob Edwards; Magen, by Edward Buatois; Firefly: Big Damn Hero, by James Lovegrove; Dark Rite, by Alan Baxter and David Wood; Alien: River of Pain, by Christopher Golden; Emoto's Promise, by Shel Calopa


It's been a funny old year for reviews - between working from home and the kids learning from home, there's been precious little time for reading. Still, I'm delighted to say that the books I have squeezed in recently - including some audiobooks - have certainly brought a smile at the end of the day. My latest review round-up starts here. 

 


The Ascension Machine, by Rob Edwards

This has been a real joy to read. Take a hero in the vein of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat, give him a Scooby gang in the vein of Joss Whedon's Buffy or Firefly crews - and give it all a superhero spin. 
This is a really fun adventure - starting off with a drifter, thief and misfit who comes to be known as Grey, our hero. He gets a most unusual offer to impersonate a rich man who doesn't want to take up the place at a superhero academy his connected family has arranged for him - and so Grey finds himself heading to a school full of aliens, with only the thinnest of lies to protect him. 
All this makes for some soaring space adventure - but there's also a depth here. Grey, a loner for so long, unexpectedly finds friendship. One of the things about the academy is that people find their perfectly ordinary abilities on their own worlds might just make them superheroes elsewhere - even if their ability is as mundane as the ability to be a good farmer. For Grey, he suddenly finds himself unexpectedly with a home - and, perhaps, with the chance to be a hero himself. 
Until it all comes crashing down.
By turns witty and thoughtful, Rob Edwards creates a universe that's a delight to visit, and to which I hope we shall return. 

AI Rating: 5/5

The Ascension Machine is available on Amazon.


Magen, by Edward Buatois

When a teenage boy wields the magic handed down to him by his family, he inadvertently opens a portal to another world - and puts his own sister's life at risk. 
This urban fantasy sees a young man trying to put right the problem he caused - with the help of a beautiful and really quite deadly elf. 
Being a novella, it gets right on with the action, as the boy, Rylan, and his elf companion set off on a road trip to save his sister. Along the way, the elf learns the ways of our modern world - and Rylan learns a bit more about how to stand up for himself. Will that be enough? 
I do wish this had been longer - which is a good sign. Always leave them wanting more, right? But I would have loved there to be more time for the relationship to build between our heroes, and to let the stakes build even higher. Still, for those who want a quick shot of fantasy, romance and a tale of siblings who would do anything for one another, it's a pleasant find. Charming. 

AI Rating: 4/5

Magen is available on Amazon.



Alien: River of Pain, by Christopher Golden and directed by Dirk Maggs

Dirk Maggs really is a king of audio productions. Here, he takes on the Alien franchise for a second time, adapting the book by Christopher Golden. 
The story slots into the Alien series in between the first two movies - it takes us to the colony from Aliens before the xenomorphs began to run riot. 
The production is fantastic - with a great cast including the likes of Anna Friel, Colin Salmon and Alexander Siddig. 
For purists, there are gripes - for example, Colin Salmon is the leader of the colony's marine unit, a unit which didn't exist in the movie. That throws some continuity wrenches - you would think the marines in Aliens would have taken the whole thing a bit more seriously if they knew a whole bunch of colonial marines had already lost contact. That being the case, Vazquez might need to know a little more about the aliens than just where they are. 
There's also the curse of a prequel - you know what's going to happen if you've seen the movie (and if you haven't you probably aren't listening to this). So we get to meet a lot of people and then wait for the aliens to start dismembering them. The sequences retreading bits featuring Ripley don't really add much to this part of the story - but are nice Easter eggs for fans. 
In the end, this feels like a story we didn't really need as part of the franchise - though it does leave a strand or two open to exploring in future. One for the completist Alien fan. But gosh, what a good production. Hats off to the actors and Dirk Maggs for really making the most of the story.

AI Rating: 4/5

Alien: River of Pain is available on Audible.




Firefly: Big Damn Hero, by James Lovegrove

Writing a book that fits in and around a popular series must be such a challenge - and even more so I would think with the world of Firefly, which got such a brief run in the sun before its cancellation. 
James Lovegrove does a good job, showing us one of the side adventures that the crew of the Firefly got up to, without treading too heavily on the established canon of the universe. 
We see a story that has just enough nods to moments in the TV series - fans will note bits from one episode here, bits from another there, some familiar characters... and some new ones. 
The new is where it gets really interesting as we discover a story that grows right out of the youth of Captain Mal Reynolds, a story that reveals his first love, and the path that led him to putting on that brown coat. 
Of course, it remains a side adventure, but a good one nonetheless. 
A special shout out to the narrator, James Anderson Foster, who is quite brilliant. With just tone and inflection, he catches the feel of well established characters without ever seeming like just a mimic. He adds a real flair, and really makes this a delight to listen to. 

AI Rating: 4/5

Firefly: Big Damn Hero is available on Audible.


Dark Rite, by David Wood and Alan Baxter

This is a love letter to horror stories of old. Take a dash of Wicker Man, take a pinch of Hammer Horror, throw in a sprinkling of Lovecraft and what have you got? This tale of a young man, Grant Shipman, returning to the town he had left long behind finds him getting embroiled in a web of cultist intrigue. 
Strange things start to happen, and suddenly Grant finds there might be no one he can trust. 
Bloody, sexy, scary, it's a fast-moving horror that really hits the spot. 
One note I would say, get the novel version rather than the audiobook - the audio recording really needed editing, with the narrator stopping and repeating phrases on a number of occasions rather than lopping out the mistakes. Don't let that put you off, though - just grab the book instead. 

AI Rating: 4/5

Dark Rite is available on Amazon.



Emoto's Promise, by Shel Calopa

Years ago, I was blown away by a mindtwister of a novel - This Is The Way The World Ends, by James Morrow, in which the survivors of the end of the world are put on trial by the spirits of the dead. There's something of a resonance here, with a strange city and its occupants trying to hold off the risen seas of a drowned Earth. 
It's a strange city too, with humans serving as workers alongside numans, a modified race that undergoes perpetual upgrades in service of the city's ruler and locked in thrall to an online world called the BigDry. There's shades of Sam Miller's Blackfish City in this too, with the survival of the city given more importance than the lives of those within it and elements of the past told in fragments of text from diaries.
It's a dystopian set-up - but I do wish it had taken more time to tell its story. There's a poetic feel to the writing, but I wanted to see Macie, the lead character, explore this world a little more. Some elements appear quite quickly and don't really get fully developed. 
In the end, it's a story that left me thinking - but which I wanted the book to have resolved more. That said, the promise here is all in the writer, whose ideas are tantalising. 

AI Rating: 3/5

Emoto's Promise is available on Amazon.