Tag Archives: review

Halfskin – a review

Science fiction is supposed to be about pushing the boundaries, and coming up with new concepts, but much of the time it simply regurgitates old ideas. And we’re happy with that because those ideas are familiar and comfortable, like a well-worn pair of slippers. We don’t have to think about them, we can just enjoy the entertainment on offer.

And then there are the stories that challenge us too much. Here I’m thinking of China Mieville’s Embassy Town. I enjoyed it, sort of, but I certainly did not understand it, and that left me feeling inadequate.

Halfskin, however, is that happy medium all writers aspire to – a bright, shiny new idea wrapped in the comfort of characters we can relate to, characters who do not so much challenge as persuade. They are not Other, they are like us, and so we can understand their motivation. In fact, most of us would probably agree with their motivation. I know I do.

The story begins with a familiar enough scene – a bunch of young kids getting up to mischief and egging each other on. One of them, Nix, gets cut, and we realise that Nix isn’t bleeding blood, he’s bleeding biomites.

Biomites are the result of bionanotechnology, and act like stem cells, becoming whatever the body needs to function properly. In reality, however, biomites are microscopic computers, and they are all linked wirelessly to a massive computer system dubbed MOther. But MOther, standing for Mitochondria Terraforming Hierarchy of Record, does more than just receive data, it has the ability to monitor the level of biomites present in each and every human body. And when one of those bodies becomes a halfskin – i.e. half flesh, half biomite – MOther has the ability to switch the biomites off.

But if 50% of the functioning of a body is handled by biomites, and they’re suddenly switched off, what happens to the other 50%, the flesh percent?

It dies, that’s what. Enter the villain of the piece, Marcus Anderson.

Marcus Anderson, Chief of the Biomite Oversight Committee, and a ‘pure’ who has no biomites in his body, believes that Halfskins are not human any more. Furthermore, he believes that if biomites are allowed to proliferate unchecked, homo sapiens are doomed. Something will survive the biomite invasion, but it won’t be human any more.

And this is where the persuasion comes in. Because we know that biomites saved the life of young Nix, and make ordinary people ‘better’ than they would be naturally, it’s very easy to empathize with Cali, Nix’s sister as she moves heaven and earth to keep her baby brother from being switched off as a Halfskin. We see being switched off as cruel, and unnecessary. We want Cali and Nix to survive because they are the human face of Halfskins, and they’re still nice people, right?

The delicious thing about Halfskin is that with just a little change of perception, the story could easily become as scary as the old Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Imagine if the biomites were tech gone wrong. Imagine if they took over those they infected …and turned them into zombies!

No matter how much I may dislike Marcus Anderson as a character and a person, I can see the fear that motivates him. Self righteous he may be, but maybe, just maybe he has cause.

Halfskin is just the start of the story, and I for one am very, very curious to see where the author, Tony Bertauski, takes it next. Will he give us his answer? Or will he continue to gently push us to find our own?

Without a doubt, Halfskin is one of the best science fiction stories I’ve read this year, and I’ve read a lot. The writing is smooth and assured, with no awkward sentences or embarrassing typos. The characters too are perfect. As a mother myself, I have no trouble understanding Cali’s fierce protectiveness. Faced with the same circumstances, I know I’d do exactly the same. And even Marcus the Villain isn’t completely two dimensional. Nonetheless, for me, it’s the underlying ethical questions that truly make this story stand apart.

Halfskin – 5/5 and very highly recommended.


p.s. You can buy Halfskin from Amazon as a stand alone book for $3.50 or you can buy is as part of the eleven book Taste of Tomorrow bundle [for 99c].





You know someone’s ‘got’ your book when…

…that someone is fellow science fiction writer Chris James, and he compares you to Stanislaw Lem. 🙂 That’s a huge honour in my book, and modesty demands that I demure…but you know I’m dancing, right?

Okay, less of the happy-happy and more of the information. The book is Vokhtah, and the link to the review is :


I plan to write many more books before I become completely senile, but Vokhtah will always remain my special child because it was so hard to write. I’m a fairly passionate, emotional person by nature, but when writing about the Vokh and iVokh I have to keep a very tight rein on all of my softer, human emotions. That is soooooo tiring. But when someone gets what I’m trying to achieve, it feel like Christmas!

Thank you, Chris. Just… thank you.

-hugs to all-



2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens – a review

I first stumbled onto ‘Midnight at Spanish Gardens’ on a book review site, and was so intrigued I had to buy it there and then.  Now on with the review.

midnight at spanish gardensWritten by Alma Alexander, Midnight at Spanish Gardens is not the kind of story that fits neatly into a pigeon hole. The writing is beautiful, almost poetic,  yet it never forgets that it is meant to be prose, or that it has a story to tell. So based on the quality of the writing,  and the fact the story is set in modern times, I could easily describe Spanish Gardens as contemporary literature.

Yet as I read on,  I discovered that the mysterious bartender named Ariel is somehow sending the five main characters back in time to live the lives they might have lived if things had been… different.

How do I describe that? Contemporary metaphysical fantasy literature?

Yet even that convoluted category doesn’t accurately describe Midnight at Spanish Gardens, because how the main characters come to relive their lives is less important than what they do with those second chances. Or the choices they make when Ariel calls them back. Will they choose the first life? Or will they choose the new life they have made? Sadly, they cannot choose both.

For some of the characters, their new lives are better than the old, happier, more fulfilled. For others, their new lives turn out to be more successful in some ways, but ultimately devoid of meaning in others. Yet the story of these lives, and the choices the characters make is no morality play. Rather it is the tender exploration of what makes all of us human, without judgment, and without condemnation.

Whether the character is male or female, each one feels real and intensely believable. Some I liked more than others, but each one touched me deeply, and in my opinion, that is a psychological tour de force.

So what is Midnight at Spanish Gardens? Psychological metaphysical contemporary fantasy literature?

Nope. 😀 The book is much simpler than that – it is nothing more nor less than a work of art.

If Midnight at Spanish Gardens contained even a smidgeon of science fiction I’d give it 11/10. As it is I can only give it a 10.

Joking aside, I truly loved this book, and I promise, hand on heart, that if you read it you will not be disappointed.



Frog gives Vokhtah 1.5 out of 4

Some weeks back, I sent Vokhtah off to a reviewer called Frog. I’d found Frog on Goodreads, and was impressed with his reviews. In fact, I was so impressed with one of those reviews I bought the book and really loved it. So I respected Frog’s reviews before sending Vokhtah off, and I still do.

Frog’s review talks quite a bit about the world building in Vokhtah, and that made me happy. The fact that Frog couldn’t get into my characters at all made me sad, but I can understand why he made no emotional connection to them or with them. Every criticism he levels against the excessive otherness of Vokhtah is true, and I truly appreciate those of you who soldiered on through Vokhtah regardless.


I knew all this before I published Vokhtah. It was one reason why I decided to go straight to self-publishing in the first place. Vokhtah is not very accessible, I admit it. Maybe one day I’ll write a watered down story about Vokhtah and its people from the perspective of an outsider, and that story may be more accessible, but it will be a story about that outsider, that human being, and that is not the story I want to write. Not yet, at least.

I’d like to thank Frog formally for a reasoned, scrupulously fair review. No writer wants to get a 1.5 ‘star’ review, but if one is necessary then let it be like this one :




Lady in the Lazaretto and that tagline

Life has been so hectic lately that I have a to-do-list stretching for miles. Unfortunately, that to-do-list is only in my head, which means I forget things, a lot of things. As a result, my posts have been rather erratic, and based on whatever catches my attention at that moment. 😦

Yesterday, I began making amends. Today I want to talk about something close to my heart – a great science fiction novel.  Before I begin, however, I have to disclose that Jason Phillip Reeser, the author of ‘Lady in the Lazaretto’, is a friend of mine. I first met Jason on Goodreads, via an R4R [Read 4 Review]. The book in question was The Lazaretto, and you can read my original review here. In my not so humble opinion, Jason is one of the best science fiction writers around.

lady of lazaretto coverRight, so when Jason asked me to read the second book in the series I jumped at the chance.

Lady in the Lazaretto is set in the same, grim quarantine world as The Lazaretto, and includes some of the original characters, but the story is completely different, and can be read as a stand-alone novel.  That said, I’d strongly recommend reading the Lazaretto first because a) it’s a great story in its own right, and b) it will make reading the Lady a richer experience.

Like book 1, the plot of the Lady is a murder mystery, but the core question you will ask yourself is – ‘who is the Lady?’

Is it Della, the nurse whose memories begin the story?

Or is it the daughter of Kjarsta Zoltis?

Or is it perhaps Lilly, the woman Gregor Lepov loves but cannot commit to?

Or is it the woman referred to only as The Liar?

Or could it be Major Sun Uijong, the woman sent to make reparations to the survivors of the Lost Platoon who were marooned on the Lazaretto, and all but forgotten by their not so grateful government?

In unravelling the identity of the Lady, the author takes us on a thrilling but complex journey that weaves the past into the present.

In some ways, I enjoyed the Lady even more than the first book in the series because it delves deeper into the character of Gregor Lepov, and I love knowing what makes interesting characters ‘tick’. But, of course, Lepov is only one of the characters you will get to know and love. Lieutenant Ed MacNally is another, as is Della, a childless woman who grows to love her young charge with as much fierce protectiveness as any biological mother.

The Lady ticked all the right boxes for me, and I really do recommend it very highly.  This is science fiction at its best, and I was honoured to write the tagline for it. Of course I had no idea I was writing a ‘tagline’ until I came across this post on Yvonne Hertzberger’s blog this morning:


The post explains the difference between loglines [book blurbs to us plebs], and taglines. If you look at the cover of the Lady below, you will what I mean.


lazaretto 2 tagline

I can’t tell you how proud I am to be associated with the Lady.



Father and Son – by John Barlow

Let me start by saying that John Barlow is fast becoming one of my favourite authors, indie or otherwise, and he doesn’t write science fiction! What he writes is the thinking [wo]man’s crime.

Long before I ever read my first science fiction novel, I read a psychological ‘crime’ thriller by the famous Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The book was called ‘Crime and Punishment’ and has been my benchmark for character development ever since. Decades later I read Ian Rankin [Rebus] and Robert Wilson [Blindman of Seville], and added them to my pantheon. Now I am adding John Barlow as well. He really is that good.

father and son coverIf you follow my reviews you will know that I loved John Barlow’s first book – Hope Road. In it, Barlow introduces us to a wonderfully flawed character by the name of John Ray, but we are only given hints as to why the character is so flawed. In Father and Son we find out.

As the title suggests, the relationship between father and son is at the heart of the character’s ambivalence towards his life, and the mess he has made of it. He always wanted to be the white sheep of the family, the one who got away from the culture of crime, the one who could make it without lying or cheating or stealing or killing. But escape from a family of successful criminals is never just a case of doing something else.

How can you sever ties with your family when so many of your childhood memories are good? And you still love them?

That is a question we all have to answer to some degree because we are all products of our environments, cultures, and most especially, families. Learning to see all those elements for what they really are is an integral part of growing up. Making conscious decisions is not enough. To truly come of age, we have to shed the comforting illusions of childhood as well.

For John Ray, this coming of age does not happen until his forties. Despite his background and obvious intelligence, he is still strangely naive, seeing his father as a good man at heart. Yet the fact remains that his father built a highly successful criminal empire that only ended with his stroke. Can anyone ‘do the crime’, and still retain some basic integrity?

To me, that is the core question of the novel, for both father and son. To discover the answer, we have to follow John Ray on a brutal journey that begins in the past, with a bomb and a dead baby, and ends in the present, with a series of gruesome murders. Along the way, this child of crime discovers that the sins of the fathers really do pass down from one generation to the next. But can that cycle ever be broken?

I have my own ideas about redemption, but they may be different to yours, so all I will say is that ‘Father and Son’ is even better than ‘Hope Road’. In fact, if you’ll allow me to make a foodie analogy, ‘Father and Son’ is the main course to Hope Road’s appetizer. I really can’t recommend this novel enough, and I sincerely hope there is a dessert in the pipeline.

Before I finish I’d like to make a request on behalf of the author. I know many readers shy away from leaving reviews because the word sounds so formal, and forbidding. I really wish Amazon would just call it ‘feedback’ instead. Anyway… I know John would kill for feedback, especially from UK readers, so if you read Father and Son, please leave a few words, literally,  about why you did or did not enjoy it.

Seriously,  a few words of encouragement can light up an author’s day, not to mention keep them in bread and water a little longer. 😉



Because We Are – a novel of Haiti

David Gaughran’s blog – Let’s Get Digital – is probably best known for his posts on self-publishing, and the publishing industry in general. I admit, David is one of my favourite go-to people when it comes to most things technical or financial.

However David also reads and writes fiction, and the other day he wrote a post about ‘good books’, asking if we could recommend any. In that post he named two books he had read and greatly admired. ‘Because We Are – a novel of Haiti’ was one of them.

because we are coverI have just finished reading ‘Because We Are’ by Ted Oswald, and I have to say David was right – this is an exceptional novel. It’s not perfect, but it worked in all the ways a good story should : it created memorable, well-rounded characters, transported me to a place I have never seen, and made me care about both.

The story is set in modern day Haiti, and follows the lives of two children  living in the slums of Haiti just before the big earthquake that took the lives of so many.  Libète is a girl of ten. Her best friend Jak, a boy stunted by chronic malnutrition, is also ten. They are out, playing in the marshes when they stumble across the bodies of a young woman and her baby.

The young woman has been ritually mutilated, raising the spectre of Voudou, but this is not some lurid, sensationalist story about the practices we in the West call voodoo. This is a story about murder for gain. It is a story about poverty and politics, degradation and courage. It is a story about real people living their lives as best they can in a world where smart phones and abject poverty exist side by side. But most of all it is an uplifting story about honour and honesty as told through the eyes of children. In many ways, their growth parallels the growth of a nation.

On a more mechanical level, the writing is lyrical, and evocative without being at all self-indulgent. The dialogue is excellent, peppered with just enough Kreyol [Haitian version of French] to feel authentic without making the reader work too hard, and the characters are vivid.  Even the minor characters seem to leap off the page, and there is nothing two dimensional about them. These are all the great things about the story. Sadly there are also a couple of  mechanical issues I found quite confusing, and both relate to the way the author handled flashbacks.

I have no inherent problem with flashbacks, so long as it’s clear what is current and what is not. In ‘Because We Are’,  the flashbacks to Libète’s earlier life are not immediately recognizable as flashbacks. This led to a lot of  ‘oh this is another flashback’ moments on my part. Each time this happened I lost my connection to the story.

The reason the flashbacks were so jarring was because the author often told them in the present tense – “The small girl takes a step down from the large rock.” This is not the conventional way of writing flashbacks, however I could have gotten used to it if only the cues had been consistent. But they were not. Sometimes the flashbacks would not be in the present tense but the current storyline would be.

These inconsistencies made the story harder to follow than it should have been. And yet… despite getting a bit annoyed at times, the story itself was so good, so compelling, it never occurred to me to stop reading. That, to me, is the mark of an exceptional story, and that is why I am reviewing it – because it is too damn good to dismiss for a few mechanical faults.

It’s not often I criticize a novel and then turn around and tell you to read it, but this is one of those times. ‘Because We Are’ is a gem. Read it!



The Lazaretto – a Goodreads R4R

I posted this review on Goodreads, on a thread devoted to R4R [Read-for-Review] where readers receive a free copy of a novel in exchange for a review.

The novel I chose to review was The Lazaretto, a science fiction thriller by Jason Phillip Reeser. I began by being apprehensive – what would I do if the novel was a stinker? – and ended up being impressed.  See what you think.

* * *

The first thing I noticed about The Lazaretto was its size. At 2,650KB, it is a big ebook. Luckily I adore big books. Once I become seduced by a world or setting, I never want to leave, and I was seduced by the Lazaretto.

Imagine a moon with a breathable atmosphere where it rains a lot, and the clouds never part to allow the sun to shine through.  I cannot think of anything more physically bleak. Now imagine a city on this moon, a city built for the sole purpose of quarantining travellers passing through to other worlds. In such a city, fear of contagion would underlie all social interactions, amongst both travellers and permanent residents. In such a city, people do not shake hands.

But the Lazaretto is more than just a quarantine station, it is also a prison without walls where the sick languish until they die. You see, the only purpose of the Lazaretto is to stop contagion from spreading. Finding cures is not part of the protocol.

As readers, we are introduced to the Lazaretto through the eyes of Gregor Lepov, a private investigator looking for a missing person last seen living and working in the city. Lepov is an interesting character, but he is only one of the main characters populating the story, and that is both one of the strengths and weaknesses of the novel.  All of the main characters are well drawn, but none of them captivated me, except perhaps for the villain of the piece – The Collector.

Having so many main characters also had the effect of slowing the pace.  And that is really the only criticism I would level at The Lazaretto – the story just moves a little too slowly.

In essence, the plot revolves around a number of mysterious deaths that are classified as murders, but leave the police baffled as to means and motive.  Finding the ‘murderer’ involves the coming together of a number of disparate characters and story arcs, including that of Gregor Lepov.

All of these characters and story arcs contain a piece of the puzzle, and how they are woven together is both organic and very clever. But it does happen slowly.

In some ways, the structure of The Lazaretto reminds me of Tad William’s Otherland. As in Otherland, the story revolves around an ensemble cast, rather than just one or two main characters. Unlike Otherland, however, The Lazaretto is not a series, and so has had to compromise between the needs of the individual story arcs and the plot.

As with any compromise, something has to give, and in the case of The Lazaretto, the pace suffered. But only a little. Overall, my enjoyment factor was very high, and I found myself thinking about the world and its culture long after I finished reading. For me, that is always indicative of a very good story.

I should also mention that the writing is excellent. This is a mature novel by a very good writer. I would recommend it to anyone who craves something more than just a quick read and light entertainment.

Shift – a promise fulfilled

shift picScience fiction author Hugh Howey has been a firm favourite of mine since I read, and reviewed, his novel ‘Half Way Home’. I subsequently read ‘Wool’, the serialized novel that first pushed this unassuming indie writer to stardom. I enjoyed Wool, but it left me feeling as if there should have been something… more.

Shift is that something more.

For those of you who have never read Wool, the story tells of a post-apocalyptic time in the US when the only survivors live in a mammoth silo buried deep underground. This upside-down skyscraper is the only world that generations of survivors have ever known because the world outside is still toxic.

The story is gripping, and fast paced, with strong, likable characters, but the hints about how this all came about, and how the silo really works, only explain the ‘how’ and the ‘now’. They do not go deeper into the ‘why’.

The three novels that together comprise the Shift Omnibus not only provide the historical context that Wool lacks, they provide a chilling glimpse into the political and cultural attitudes that can allow something like this to happen. They also make the reader wonder if something like this could ever happen in real life.

To put it simply, Shift is that rare beast, a series that makes you think. And that is exactly why I delayed this review for so long.

I crave novels that make me think, but I have learned that a lot of readers simply want to be entertained. They want to be taken out of the real world, not seduced into wondering if the world in which they live is really as ‘safe’ as they think it is.

These are the people who publicly objected to George R.R.Martin killing off some of their favourite characters in A Song of Fire and Ice. These are also the people who demand a happy ending no matter what.

Now George R.R.Martin is so big in the world of fantasy that his fans far out-weigh his detractors, but Hugh Howey is a young author with his feet still planted firmly in the indie world. And therein lies my problem. I truly believe Shift is the best thing Howey has written [so far] and the last thing I want to do is put readers off by making them think Shift is too philosophical, or  political, or literary. Or too much like ‘work’.

The hell of it is that Shift is philosophical, political, literary etc., but there is nothing inaccessible about it. Yes there were times when I literally re-read the same sentence again and again – just because the prose was so beautiful. But at the same time there was nothing  ‘arty farty’, or ‘see how many big words I know’ about it.

In the same way, a reader can choose to go deep into the philosophy, or simply enjoy the characters and the plot. This next bit will be a little bit of a spoiler,  but it illustrates my point :

Spoiler alert

There is a character called Solo in Shift. He has lived in a silo by himself for years, his only companion a little cat. But cats don’t live forever, and one day the cat dies. 

Now I love cats, so I was going to be affected no matter what, but I believe even someone who hated cats would be touched because of  Solo’s reaction.  The loneliness radiating from that scene is universal.  It really could make a stone weep. And yet there is not a word of melodrama from start to finish.

End spoiler alert

So to all those science fiction readers out there,  I’d like to say this –  no matter what you are looking for in a book, you will find it in Shift.

I rarely give out stars because they are so arbitrary, but if pressed I would give Shift a 6/5. It truly is a promise fulfilled.



Hope Road – a review

hope road smallI read somewhere recently that it takes about six or seven exposures to an author’s name for that name to register with readers. Well, I’m living proof that theory is correct!

John Barlow, the author of Hope Road, writes the odd post for Indies Unlimited, and I must have enjoyed those posts, because when I stumbled across his name in the Amazon ‘readers who bought X also bought Y‘ list, a little light bulb went off in my head.

Needless to say I bought Hope Road, and read it. What the theory did not predict, however, was that I would fall head over heels in love with the main character, John Ray!

Hope Road is a quasi police procedural, but told through the eyes of John Ray, a character who is definitely not a policeman. Hope Road is also a bit of a thriller,  a bit of a mystery, and a lovely character study of John Ray. In short, it is exactly the kind of book I love. And I did love it. 😀

The story is set in a seedy part of Leeds, [England] where John Ray, the prodigal son, has returned to take over the second-hand car business belonging to his family. But selling second-hand cars was only ever a front for the real family business, which was crime.

John’s father was a local crime-lord until his retirement due to ill-health, and John’s brother was murdered in an apparent gangland ‘hit’. But John has always been clean. He is the one who left, the one who went to university and became a solid citizen. So why has he returned? And why is he now selling used cars from the old showroom that used to be headquarters for his father’s criminal operations?

The natural suspicion surrounding John’s return is only exacerbated by the discovery of a dead girl in one of his cars, along with 50,000 pounds in counterfeit bills.

The police know the murderer could not have been John because he has a water-tight alibi – he was in bed with Detective Constable [DC] Denise Danson at the time. However the car was being driven by John’s protégé, and employee, Freddy, and the family business used to be in counterfeiting, so John is definitely a person-of-interest. But is he actually guilty of anything?

I was intrigued, to say the least, because right from the beginning, John Ray exudes the kind of charisma that is usually reserved for sexy villains, yet he also seems to be a genuinely caring person who puts himself at risk trying to prove that Freddy was not the murderer.

So how did Barlow create this charismatic character?

John Ray is not stereotypically handsome. He is described as a big man in his forties with a shock of black hair, and a physical ‘presence’, but he is not a James Bond, although it seems he is good in bed. Nor is he one of those angst-ridden types who introspects ad nauseum.

So what is it about John Ray that makes him so appealing?

I suspect the answer to that question lies in the character’s potential to be bad. In a sense, this potential is the mirror image of what makes a villain sexy – the potential to be good. A villain who is all bad generally comes across as boring. Most heroes suffer from the same 2D malaise. Sexy villains and heroes, however, have the potential to be both good and bad, or at least to swing between the two, so we are left wondering how they will end up.  That is my theory at any rate.

All theorizing aside, however, the one thing I am quite certain about is that I will be reading more about John Ray, and I hope you do too. Very highly recommended.



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