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Smashwords Reads 2014

In January 2012 I purchased my first ereader and entered the world of independent publishing. Following my summaries of 2012 and 2013 (further down this same page), below is what took my fancy in 2014. Once again, most of these are science-fiction, with my Goodreads ratings for good measure. As before, I've limited this list to Smashwords ebook titles for no other reason that the vast majority were bought from there. Reviews are obviously subjective and my tastes can be a little quirky at times.

There is a trend for self-published authors to pull books from Smashwords and make them exclusive on Amazon for marketing purposes. Therefore, some of the titles below may no longer be available at Smashwords (but might be again in the future). To those authors who’ve done this where this particular Kobo owner wanted to read the sequel: you’ve lost a sale! If you like science-fiction or just anything a bit out of the ordinary, I hope you'll find this list interesting and maybe even helpful! Steph.

Reads 2014

ebook There Goes The Galaxy (novel) by Jenn Thorson
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

Like everyone else on Earth, Bertram Ludlow hasn’t paid much attention to fluctuations in the intergalactic real estate market. Now he’s discovering space is a mad and mind-boggling place where interspecies communication rests on the power of a gumball. Where androids demand better work/life balance. Where crime is Art, technology still has its bugs, and lasers don’t go “pyew-pyew.” So with the weight of the world on his shoulders and the cosmic law on his tail, can Bertram outrun, outwit, and out-bid to save the Earthling squatters from one spaced-out redevelopment plan?

This was probably my favourite indie sci-fi book of the year: funny, witty and imaginative with characters I cared about (I wanted more of Rozz, though). Other reviews on Goodreads made the comparison with the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Stainless Steel Rat books and it is definitely in that vein. The ending seems a little abrupt, but I find that a lot in self-published books where it seems almost obligatory to start a series. (In this case, I am tempted by the sequel, but the last time I checked it wasn’t available on Smashwords.) Recommended for all those who like sci-fi with a smile!

* * *

ebook Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories (short stories) by Sandra McDonald
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

This collection of whimsical and evocative stories takes readers to distant lands and unforgettable characters. Meet Diana Comet, the beautiful adventuress with passion in her heart and secrets under her skirt. Travel to the West with a gay cowboy seeking to mend his broken heart and find the elusive poet Whit Waltman. Listen to the wisdom of talking statues, fairy firefighters, miniature musicians and lady devils. Your heart and imagination will both be inspired.

I really enjoyed this collection of tales, which all have LGBT themes and take place in a well-imagined fantasy version of our own world, with subtle nods to American culture throughout. The stories I liked best were those featuring the eponymous Diana Comet (no spoilers from me as to her secret, but the blurb above probably gives it away) and I can see why this collection was a Lambda Literary Award winner. Well worth reading if you're tired of straight white males grabbing all the action.

* * *

ebook The Szuiltan Alliance (novel) by Neil Davies
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

When Steve Drake, Space Trader, agreed to take on a trade to the Szuiltans, the only truly alien race ever discovered in man's expansion across the galaxy, he had no idea it would land him in the middle of murder, intrigue and an interplanetary war!

I've been searching Smashwords for decent indie space opera for a while and this is certainly one of the better ones. At heart, it is a political thriller, with overtones of military sci-fi, strange aliens, religious conflicts and a whole heap of complicated personal relationships. Most of the large number of cast are pleasingly well-rounded characters, though there were a few who were not particularly memorable, which led to a bit of head-scratching when they reappeared. The few improbable plot devices were resolved by the twist at the end, which though not entirely unexpected was nevertheless effective. I am tempted to read the rest of the trilogy, but I don't think it's written yet...!

* * *

ebook The Guardians of Karma (novel) by Mohan Vizhakat
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

An intriguing science fiction fantasy set during prehistoric times beyond the mists of vedic India - the forgotten era of ‘first wave’ civilisations. This thought-provoking story also reveals many fresh perspectives about the origins of Indian mythology and philosophy.

I liked this; an entertaining slice of pulp fantasy / sci-fi, Indian style. It's quite a mix - there's heroic warrior monks on dangerous quests, philosophy, ancient 'gods', sci-fi action and a warning about climate change to boot. It partly reminded of me Graham Hancock's Fingerprints Of The Gods with its ideas about ancient high-tech civilisations, though unlike the misguided Hancock, the author here has the grace to call it fiction. The writing was a bit clunky at times and were a fair few typos, but I'm guessing that's more down to the translation. This is exactly the type of book the ebook revolution is meant to serve. I'd never have come across anything like this in an average high-street bookshop.

* * *

ebook The Disappeared (novel) by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

His name: Miles Flint. His occupation: Retrieval Artist. His job: Hunt down the Disappeared - outlaws on the run, wanted for crimes against alien cultures. The catch: Flint isn't working on the side of the law.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is better-known to many indie writers for her excellent business blogs, but first and foremost she writes damn fine science fiction. This book has an interesting premise: each alien race has their own laws and all interstellar races (including humanity) agree to abide by them, only some laws are rather Draconian to humans. As a mystery novel, it doesn't quite work, as there's no head-scratching required from the reader at all, plus I had little sympathy for the runaway lawyer under duress, so the resolution of that plot strand didn't work for me. I was also unsure for a long while who was supposed to be the main character (I was routing for De Ricci, rather than Flint, and would gladly read more about her). But this novel is certainly innovative on the ideas front and there's some nice world-building with the lunar settlements. There was something about it that kept drawing me back into the story, hence the rating.

* * *

ebook Shining Star (novel) by Stephan Michael Loy
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

We killed Earth. Thousands of years later, the survivors eke out a tenuous existence among the local group of stars. This could have been the end for the last dregs of humanity, but for the rise of a dictatorial church that draws humankind under its wing and flogs it to prosperity. Now, Miranda St. Billiart, a soldier for the Community of God, seeks to escape the power that made her in the first place. With her sister Ilyanya, she uncovers the corruption that made the Church possible.

One of the best indie space opera / military sci-fi novels I've read for a while. The first half was a cracking, highly-original read and I really rooted for Miranda, the soldier plagued with doubts. The rest of the novel suffered a little from playing with the comparisons to the Jedi from Star Wars, with even a blatant reference made at one point. I was also left thinking that the book was written for readers a lot less cynical about religion than myself. If you're looking for an action sci-fi adventure with Christian overtones, this is well worth a look.

* * *

ebook A Malevolent Manner (novel) by William Scott
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

After receiving a mysterious letter, public servant Patrick Pierce is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger. Invited to join the Black Tower Hunt Club, he quickly realizes that the luxurious grandeur of Ravenwood Manor belies a dark secret within. Meanwhile one of Ravenwood Manor’s maids finds herself caught in an internal power struggle for control of the Club. As the stakes become higher, both Patrick and Jane have to look inward for the strength to survive the perilous ordeals they’ve been pulled into.

This book has a somewhat unexpected plot device that probably should be mentioned in the blurb but isn't: Ravenwood Manor exists outside normal time and is home to a series of portals that lead to various places on Earth and points in history. You'd think with such a concept that this would be a wonderful sci-fi adventure of people meddling in history, but regrettably this central idea is never fully developed. The thing that nagged me throughout was that not only were the portals not described, but every character accepted their existence without question (and a minor character was a scientist). What the reader gets instead is a tale of outsider Pierce, thrown into a rather down-to-earth power struggle in a strange new world. There's plenty of heroic action in various locations and the storyline is solid enough, though the pace suffered at times from too much description. The ending wraps everything up nicely (almost), albeit with a cliffhanger which I guess is to set up a sequel.

* * *

ebook Red Gone Bad (short stories) by Lucy Pireel
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

A small collection of twisted fairy tales.

This is a rather mixed take on traditional fairy tales. The first sees Red seek a slice of the action after putting up with the boasts of her friends about their new male companions. The modern setting works well and I rather warmed to Red, which made the conclusion an uncomfortable read. The second story about a dark-hearted Cinderella was my favourite; although twisted, the ending wrapped up the moral message well. The Snow White tale with its not-so-subtle drug references was just odd. The final story saw Rumplestiltskin deal some canny justice, though I thought this tale was less effective than Cinderella. For those who like alternative takes on fairy tales (there's certainly a lot of people writing them), it's an interesting read.

* * *

ebook The Destiny of Shaitan (novel) by Laxmi Hariharan
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

When Yudi, Tiina & Rai embark on a mission to save the universe, they come up against the ruthless and powerful Shaitan, who is determined to stop them at any cost. But they soon realise they have a bigger enemy - themselves. Partially set in a dystopian Bombay of the future, 'The Destiny of Shaitan' is a coming-of-age story, painted against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic world. The stakes are high, the combatants are determined, and no matter what the outcome their lives will be changed for all time.

I am a big fan of science fiction and I'm always on the look out for something new and a bit different. I really wanted to love this Indian-influenced tale of interplanetary conflict. Unfortunately, this isn't really sci-fi. Yes, the action takes place on various planets in the Solar System (though none are described as they really are). There are spaceships, flying suits and other futuristic touches. But the story is firmly in fantasy territory with disgruntled half-gods, chosen ones, sword fights, heroic quests and the like. The writing is rather uneven, which may be forgiven (to a point) in a debut self-published work. Fantasy fans will like this.

* * *


Smashwords Reads 2013

In January 2012 I purchased my first dedicated ereader and entered the world of indie publishing as a reader: one where independent authors and small presses, for one reason or another, had turned away from the traditional ways of publishing.

Following my 2012 summary of what I found, below is what took my fancy in 2013. (See here for 2014.) Most of these are science-fiction (again!), with my Goodreads ratings for good measure. Reviews are obviously subjective and my tastes can be a little quirky at times. I've limited this list to Smashwords ebook titles for no other reason that the vast majority were bought from there. If you like science-fiction, I hope you find this list interesting and maybe even helpful! Steph.

Reads 2013

ebook The Creative Process (short story) by Amy Parker
Goodreads rating: (it was amazing)

"Where do you get your ideas?" A simple question, but when you blink and find yourself crouching in the Martian dust, or staggering under the weight of new-found wings, the answers are far from simple.

I really loved this! A delightful, slightly macabre, head-spinning tale of the fine line between inspiration and insanity (well, that's how I read it), all in just a dozen pages. I have a new favourite author. I don't give five stars lightly!

Other short stories I read by this author but did not review are Hundreth Year of the War and Bug House, both of which are well worth a read.

* * *

ebook Tritcheon Hash (novel) by Sue Lange
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

Tritcheon Hash froze in place. She'd seen air, vacuum, wild strange planets during the course of her training. She'd lived at times in atmospheres devoid of oxygen, in acidic wastelands, in highly radioactive dustbowls. She'd been confronted by higher-brain functioning species that were as like humans as turds are like flowers ... but nothing frightened her quite as much as the thought of meeting the parents of the most well-ordered collection of anything she'd ever encountered in her life.

This had mixed reviews on Goodreads but I enjoyed it a lot. The satirical swipe at the differences between men and women (here, living on totally different planets) was a little cliched but funny. The romance in the middle of the book was sweet and so well imagined. But the ending... what can I say? No spoilers, but I got quite emotional. My only gripe was that transitions from one scene to the next were often rather abrupt. However, this is well worth a read if you're looking for something a bit different and I can see me reading it again at some point. The ebook itself is well presented with no apparent typos.

* * *

ebook The Santa Claus Gang (short story) by Ian M Dudley
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

When all the Prussian Death Squad Robot Commandos (with Live Action Grappling Hooks!) disappear on Xmas Eve, it's Marlowe and Nina who ignore Call Waiting and answer the plea for help. Scrambling to rescue the defenseless commandos, they discover the mystery extends beyond mere grand theft. Failure to stop the Santa Claus Gang doesn't just mean non-payment from the client, but death.

I first discovered Marlowe and the Spacewoman in 2012; I've missed Marlowe and Nina. This is a very entertaining short story of a futuristic sleuth and his kick-ass spacewoman bodyguard and should be read by everyone who has a sense of humour and likes sci-fi. The author has promised that the new novel will hopefully see the light of day in 2014...

* * *

ebook Reality Challenged (novel) by Ubiquitous Bubba
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

Someone may have infiltrated the Prime Universe in order to conquor the Multiverse. It's up to a psionic girl and her bizarre companions to stop them. It might help if they knew what they were doing. This humorous sci-fi adventure is the first book of 'The Other Universes' series.

This book was certainly crammed with ideas. It read like something Terry Pratchett, Salvador Dali and Matt Groening may have concocted after a drunken night watching Time Bandits on a loop. I particularly liked the dialogue between Xorian and the Krazhdi (can I buy a book of the featured poetry anywhere?). The book does need a good editor to take it by the scruff of the neck and give it a shaking, particularly around point-of-view changes. However, Reality Challenged has some wonderfully-original ideas and characters; with a bit of tidying, this slice of the surreal could be something really special.

The author Ubiquitous Bubba has a short story in the Wyrd Worlds anthology.

* * *

ebook Interpretive Dance at 65 MPH (novella) by Tee Light
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

Hazel Hassenfeffer is faced with a dilemma. The dilemma of her own death. Follow her journey through the afterlife as she tries to deal with her past, her loved ones, the society that raised her, and the terrible novel she wrote.

I must admit it was the title that drew me in. Strange, oddly compelling and a little bit disjointed (it needs an editor's touch), but that sort-of works given the theme of transgender angst. There's quite a mix of themes in this short tale and I loved the bits about the writer character's relationship with her unloved novel.

* * *

ebook Jethabel (novel) by L.L. Watkin
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

Captain David Arman is worried. The fleet is falling back (again) and leaving Sheraton port in the hands of the Tren armada. Jayleigh Printer has charge of a science program with great potential for the war effort, but he too is abandoning Sheraton with whatever he can carry and as many test subjects as he can keep hold of. Between the two of them, and the Tren, first officer Greg Hawthorne finds himself questioning his loyalties and struggling just to stay alive.

I really liked this. The book blurb is deceptive: this is a story of survival, set upon a not-quite derelict alien spacecraft. And when I say alien, the eponymous ship Jethabel is one of the most intriguing settings I've come across in a while. (Imagine the ancient alien ship at the start of the movie Alien, only drifting in space and somehow organic and alive!) The book has lots of interesting touches and well-rounded characters, though it took me a while to get to grips with the numerous protagonists involved. The ending was a little abrupt and an obvious set-up for a sequel, but it wasn't an annoying cliff-hanger. Worth a read if you like military sci-fi, or even 'Big Dumb Object' tales. (UPDATE: I've since started watching the television series Farscape and can now see that the living starship Moya is a clear inspiration for Jethabel.)

The author L.L. Watkin has a short story in the Wyrd Worlds anthology.

* * *

ebook The Mermaid Variations (short stories) by Rhys Hughes
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

The adventures of an exceptional mermaid as she travels from a carnival in tropical Brazil to a country where it never stops raining, Wales; and from there to the moon, where the lunar mermaids are the wrong way around. A magical mystical miniature trilogy for adults who still believe in whimsy, romance and fables!

I really liked this. A bit of surrealism (okay, a lot) in a sweet love story works a treat. Having had many a holiday in Wales, the bit about the mermaid not being able to tell the sea from the rained-drenched sky had me in fits. This in turn amused the other passengers on the 09:52 to London Bridge tremendously.

* * *

ebook Green (short story) by Sara Zaske
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

An off-world trader and a green civil rights activist walk into a trendy restaurant on a desert planet... This unusual and provocative short story by Sara Zaske was shortlisted for The Reader's 2012 Short Story competition.

The best science-fiction acts as a mirror to current society and this was a nicely-written, thought-provoking sideways look at race and class issues.

* * *

ebook Walking a Fine Timeline (novel) by Jeanette M. Bennett
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

Sherman had no future, until he finds himself in the future, accidentally kidnapped by Dr. Serendipity Brown, inventor of time travel. Gallivanting about in an experimental time machine, they soon find themselves stranded in the year 1851. Can Dr. Wendell Howe, the unobtrusive Victorian gentleman who claims to be a Temporal Anthropologist from the twenty-seventh century, help them get back home? Will the Institute of Time Travel Enforcers find and arrest Wendell for breaking their rules if he does? Hardest of all, can Sherman keep man-crazy Serendipity out of trouble?

I fell in love with Dr Serendipity Brown from the start. It is a well-written and entertaining read, with very likeable protagonists. An awful lot of research has also gone into this (I gave a little squeal of delight at the Crystal Palace sequences, as I live just down the road from what's left at the Sydenham site). Dr Brown herself reminded me a lot of Doctor Who's River Song, whom I adore! However, I thought the story fell uneasily between adventure and romance, with the latter (in the second half of the book) working much better than the introductory time-travel escapades. Also, the plot is a little thin and took a long time to get going. What saved the book are the three main characters, who come to life in their different ways very effectively. The descriptions of the various eras, future techology and period attire are also all very well thought out. One last thing: the first half of the book left me thinking of the old LucasArts game The Day of the Tentacle for some reason (I blame Franklin).

* * *

ebook Shadow of the Wraith (novel) by Ross Harrison
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

It sounds like a simple assignment: track down the mysterious Star Wraith and put an end to its rampage. But when Travis Archer and his team of inept soldiers find themselves the most wanted people in the galaxy - hounded by assassins, terrorists and their own military - they realise the Wraith is just a symptom of a much larger problem... Finding war raging between one army intent on destroying an entire species, and another that will destroy the galaxy, Travis must put aside his fears and his past to uncover the truth behind it all. To become the hero he's always imagined.

In my original review, I wasn't sure what to make of this book. On one hand, it is a very entertaining read and clearly influenced by a whole host of popular sci-fi movies, from Star Wars and Star Trek to things like The Matrix. On the other, what started as a classic space-opera romp took an unexpected turn into fantasy territory half way through, which for me rather spoilt the ride. Juni was my favourite character until she teamed up with Travis, after which it all fell rather flat. I groaned twice when reading: when our hero Travis decided to use his 'special powers' (up until that point there had been no mention that he was half-alien and thus uniquely gifted); and when the Travis / Juni The Fifth Element plot device jumped out of nowhere to save the day. An entertaining read nonetheless.

The author Ross Harrison has a short story in the Wyrd Worlds anthology.

* * *

ebook The Warden Threat (novel) by D.L. Morrese
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

On a not so distant planet, a young, naive prince encounters reality and tries to prevent a war. Prince Donald, the idealistic third son of the king of Westgrove, believes he may be the only one able to protect his country from an invasion spearheaded by an ancient and massive magical stone warrior known as the Warden of Mystic Defiance. He also soon realizes that the real world can be much more confusing than fictional ones, and that the hero is not necessarily predestined to save the day.

I picked this up on the grounds it was hyped as humorous sci-fi; in space, it's good to have a chuckle. Unfortunately, the science-fiction content isn't even hinted at until over halfway through. It is humorous in a lot of places, but not 'laugh out loud'. However, the story is very well written and presented, the references to threats from foreign powers and their 'WMD' is a clever parody and the characters are likeable. I felt the tale lacked pace at times (I was expecting the heroes to endure far more trials and tribulations on their journey than they did) and it was irritating that the story was left hanging at the end, in so much it felt like half a novel. This is more for fantasy fans, I think.

* * *

ebook Sub Rosa (novella) by Mia Darien
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

Everyone knows the stories, but what if they went a little differently? Beau Merchant is your average twenty-something college kid, living at home with two obnoxious brothers and a quietly grieving mother. That is until a simple favor for Mom turns into a broken leg and an extended stay at a castle out of time and place, first patient and then prisoner of a strange female creature...

I liked it: this was a quick, light-hearted read. The modern touches to the traditional Beauty and the Beast storyline were nice (I liked the audio book), as was the small twist around the expected gender roles. However, I couldn't thinking that I expected something more. I blame the British pantomime tradition for that, which is madly inventive when it comes to retellings of classic fairy tales.

* * *


Smashwords Reads 2012

In January 2012 I purchased my first dedicated ereader, a Kobo Touch, which I chose on the rather mercenary basis that W.H. Smith (a UK retailer) had them on special offer. I had recently published my Christmas short story To Dance Amongst The Stars and 'indie' ebook publishing was a whole new world: one where independent authors and small presses, for one reason or another, had turned away from the traditional ways of publishing.

Since then, I have read a few Smashwords ebooks, mostly science-fiction with a few others thrown into the mix. Below is what took my fancy in 2012 (see also my summary for 2013 and 2014), with my Goodreads ratings for good measure... Steph.

Reads 2012

ebook Marlowe and the Spacewoman (novel) by Ian M Dudley
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

"For Marlowe, an over-worked and oft worked-over private eye recovering from yet another emergency resurrection, it's the start of a long day. He's murdered by a bar of sentient soap in the morning, and just when he's recovered enough to grab some lunch, a femme fatale crash-lands outside the City, causing a major political disturbance. Forced by the government to investigate her claims to be from outer space, Marlowe struggles to strike a balance between solving his own murder and resisting his attraction to the alleged yet alluring extraterrestrial."

This is a very funny science-fiction novel which put me in mind of the Stainless Steel Rat books of Harry Harrison. There is a lot to like, from the world-weary Marlowe to the feisty spacewoman Nina herself. The future technology portrayed often verges on the bizarre (the sentient soap communicates using soap bubbles) and there were lots of sneaky references to familiar science-fiction icons (HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey crops up in a computer expert's antique collection). The story rushes on at a cracking pace and there were lots of little details that linked together to become relevant later on. When I first read this, the ending came as a bit of a surprise, but on a second read several months later I realised all the clues were there and it was my fault for not spotting them. This is the only indie book so far I have read more than once, so on that basis Marlowe and the Spacewoman is my pick of 2012.

* * *

ebook Living Through Hope! (novel) by Chris Bullock
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

"In a land of poverty and deprivation, the Famine brought misery, devastation and death. One woman dared to dream of a better life. Forced to flee from the country of her birth, she finds love for the first time in England. Her religious convictions and loyalty to her hated husband prevent that love from blossoming, until her husband's criminal deeds and villainous activities eventually cause his demise. Living through Hope! is a story of survival through a catastrophe that affected millions and resulted in a mass migration from Ireland; of hope, belief and, most importantly, love."

This was a book I turned to because of its historical setting in my native Black Country. (To the unintiated, this is a coal-mining and iron-working region in the English Midlands, often credited as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.) The story is based upon a true story and though mainly set in the Black Country, it starts during the Irish Potato Famine in the 19th Century. I found this a real page-turner. Some of the historical details, such as the incredibly-lowly status of women in the nineteenth century, were quite sobering and I was enthralled by the descriptions of old Wednesbury and Walsall, the canals and the pits.The trials and tribulations of the main character Bridget brought on a whole raft of emotions (I was close to tears at one point) and I was so glad the story ended exactly the way I thought it deserved to.

* * *

ebook The Northronde Princess (novel) by Forrest Everett Kyle
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

"The epic story of nineteen year-old Kaelyn Alspeare is an explosive conflagration of empires, dragons, nanotechnology, romance, tragedy, plagues, kings, murder, torture, vengeance, true love and an amazing array of super-powered heroes and villains. When an alien spaceship crashes on this idyllic, pre-industrial world, a nanotechnological virus is unleashed that rewrites the DNA of everything that lives. While the inhabitants grasp for an explanation, be it magic, religion, or otherwise, some see their new-found power as a means of conquest and domination."

I really enjoyed this. As a fantasy, it had all the right elements: a strange new force threatening a kingdom; a good range of characters, from the good to the downright nasty; a well-described setting; and a thumping good story of conflict, loss, love and the odd friendly dragon. The different cultures of the mediaeval Northronde and its distinctly oriental neighbouring kingdom is a nice touch. The main plot device, though reminiscent of a certain TV programme (no spoilers) was handled in a fun way. I gave this four stars rather than the full five solely because I was expecting the science-fiction element to come out more, as the nanatechnology mentioned in the blurb is barely discussed nor investigated by the characters. The ending was a little unexpected but fitted the tone of the novel well; and so sad yet sweet!

* * *

ebook Timepiece (novel) by Heather Albano
Goodreads rating: (really liked it)

"Elizabeth Barton longs to escape the endless round of social ritual that defines life in the village of Hartwich during the Regency of Prince George. When an anonymous benefactor sends Elizabeth a pocket watch that is more than what it seems, she and her neighbour William are swept seventy years into the future. The London of 1885 is a steampunk dystopia where the streets are patrolled by Gatling-gun-wielding robots and the clockwork of the British Empire is slick with its subjects' blood. This future has its roots on the field of Waterloo - in the secret weapon Wellington employed there - and it will come true in seventy years' time unless Elizabeth and William find a way to stop it."

This was a good, fun read and another real page-turner. It took me a while to warm to the main characters, but once I got into the story it sucked me in; in one respect, this book can be seen as an interesting sequel to Frankenstein. A minor complaint is that the protagonists seemed to accept the concept of parallel realities a little too easily, nor did they seem too bothered about what was for me the main mystery - the origin of the eponymous timepiece - but this was one of the better time-travelling stories I've come across for a while. The descriptions of nineteenth-century London were atmospheric if a little vague, while the action at the battle of Waterloo felt much more researched. This novel was priced at just $0.99, which to me seemed unfairly cheap!

* * *

ebook The Rock Star in the Mirror (short story) by Sharon E. Cathcart
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

"Joe is a small-town Oregon guy. He's madly in love with Lynnie... who has a huge crush on David Bowie. Joe will do almost anything to get Lynnie's attention, but there are always consequences."

The subtitle of this short story, 'How David Bowie Ruined My Life', was the hook that drew me into trying this whilst it was on offer. Joe's transformation into a facsimile of Lynnie's hero was well-written and on the whole is was an entertaining little read, with a premise somewhat reminiscent of the Woody Allen film Play It Again, Sam. I expected the second half of the story to develop further than it did, but it provided a fun distraction during a particularly tedious train journey to Sheffield.

* * *

ebook Flash Gold (novella) by Lindsay Buroker
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

"Eighteen-year-old Kali McAlister enters her steam-powered 'dogless sled' in a race, intending to win the thousand-dollar prize and escape remote Moose Hollow forever. The problem? Fortune seekers and airship pirates are after her for the secret to flash gold, her late father's alchemical masterpiece. The other racers won't assist her - they're too busy scheming ways to sabotage her unorthodox sled. When a sword-slinging stranger shows up, wanting to hire on as her protector, she's sure he has ulterior motives, but he's the only one interested in helping her. The question is...why?"

Flash Gold is the first volume of a series of novellas (the Flash Gold Chronicles) and at the time I read this was available for free. I picked this up as part of my ongoing quest to find a good steampunk book and Flash Gold is a quick, entertaining read in the genre. I liked the spanner-wielding lead character of Kali (though did wonder how she managed to establish a well-equipped workshop with so many people out to cause her grief); Cedar, on the other hand, remained a bit of an enigma. The brief introduction hints that it is set in an alternative nineteenth-century but there was little to say how history was different - having an airships and a steam-powered sled doesn't automatically make it a steampunk story, as according to the ancient encyclopaedia on my bookshelf those things really existed at the time. This book does seem mighty popular however, so it's probably me being far too fussy.

* * *

ebook The Waggoner (novel) by Chris Bullock
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

"Set in the Nineteenth Century, and based on factual family history, the story follows James as he makes his way through the trials and tribulations of his life. As his family grows, he is torn between his Worcestershire home and his business in Staffordshire. But the relative peace and quiet of his home has to compete with the hard labour, dirt and disease that abound in the Black Country. The Waggoner is a family saga built upon the abilities of one man and how he deals with the problems of life as he encounters them."

This is another book I picked out of nostalgia for the English Midlands, by the same author as Living Through Hope! (see above). This too was an entertaining read and is clearly written on the back of a lot of research; though this often resulted in some paragraphs reading like encyclopaedia entries. The episodic story has a nice pace and the book offers an interesting glimpse into life in the industrial Midlands during the canal-building mania (and later the railways) of the Industrial Revolution. It is however somewhat lacking in drama, as the family the story follows ultimate enjoy a fairly cosy existence considering the harsh reality of life for the working class at that time.

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ebook Smallworld (novel) by Dominic Green
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

"Smallworld: A Science Fiction Adventure Comedy is a showcase for Green's bone-dry satire. Mount Ararat, a world the size of an asteroid yet with Earth-standard gravity, plays host to an oddball community whose children are protected by the Devil, a mechanical killing machine. But who placed the robot there, and who - or what - is really in need of protection?"

This was a witty read, albeit not the all-out comedy I'd expected from reading the blurb. Nor does it really work as a novel, as it reads more like a collection of shorter stories strung together and linked by virtue of a shared cast and setting. The writing is good and there are moments of very clever (and often bizarre) humour - I particularly liked the escape from the penitentiary through psychoanalysis and Helen of Troy's personality inside a killing-machine robot (both of which appeared in the final story) - yet many of the supporting cast were too one-dimensional to care about and I frequently forgot who was who. However, the science-fiction setting was fun and obviously well thought-out; I just wish the author had done the same with more of the myriad of characters involved along the way.

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ebook The Garden Wall (novel) by Lichfield Dean
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

"When Prof. Hughes accidentally vaporised the University of Birmingham School of Metallurgy and Materials Science and couldn't be found afterwards, his students thought the only consequence would be the cancellation of his notoriously hard end-of-year exams. For first year astrophysics student Eradani, this is just the start of a fantastic science-fiction caper involving alien worlds, reversing spaceships, invisible trees and an annoying geographer called Andrew. And as if that weren't enough, it also turns out that the fate of the entire Galaxy rests on her shoulders..."

On the whole The Garden Wall is a pleasing and entertaining story. It felt like two books in parallel for a good two-thirds of the way and while the scenes at Birmingham University with the physicists were enjoyable, I wished the novel had stayed more in that arena and not kept jumping to the 'other' place, the latter being much more of a typical fantasy setting than the comic science-fiction I was looking for. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments and a good mix of characters in this book. The big reveal at the end however is an old science-fiction trope done to death so many tim

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ebook The Navigator (novel) by Steve Merrick
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

"A superbly dark, funny and entertaining romp through the universe with the last survivor of a viral epidemic as our guide and an unnamed virus as our narrator. The Munich Virus has wiped out every known population of humanity across the universe, leaving Kego, our schizophrenic nine year old navigator, to fend for himself and return to Earth with the Frozen, those who were lucky enough to be in stasis when the virus struck. Somehow this book manages to cover every subject from religion to politics, using life, death, peace, war, love, hate and humanity as its stepping stones, without burying the story or bombarding the reader with endless details."

This was a very interesting read indeed and one of the more unusual novels I've come across, full of ideas and with a highly-unusual narrator figure to provide a god-like point of view. The main character Kego was imagined well, with an unusual setting of an asteroid colony ship (the one similarity to Hollow Moon that attracted me to the story). Some of the humour was a bit hit and miss (the 'comical' names of some of the people mentioned didn't fit well with the general style) and it did often seem as if the robots had more personalty than the humans - though the author did deliberately play on this theme at times. When I first reviewed this book I criticised it for not being properly edited, polished and proofed; the author has since published an updated version so hopefully these issues have been resolved. Nevertheless, the story and the philosophies within were strong enough to keep me reading despite distracting errors and I hope to read the new version at some point in the future.

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ebook One Last Quest (novel) by Michael P. Clemens
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

"In a far-off time, in a far-off place, there was Thistledew, home to a number of farmers, their beloved goats, and one Hero (retired.) Rosalind finds herself forced to undertake a quest for a fantastic treasure, said to be lost in the heart of a vanished kingdom. Accompanied by Francis, her unlikely and inexperienced squire, Rosalind sets off into the wilds and deeper into peril at every turn. Will they survive the mortal dangers that lurk in wood and valley, and worse yet, can they withstand the horrors of bad theatre, shady grog, and gnome-owners associations?"

One Last Quest is a well-written comic novel that is very funny in places and contains some clever parodies on the fantasy genre (plus some non-too subtle digs at capitalism). I hovered between giving this three or four stars, but in the end I felt the story glossed over why the main villain was acting the way he was, plus the conclusion of the tale came about far too quickly. This is nonetheless an entertaining read that brought forth more than a few smiles.

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ebook Turnkey (novel) by Christopher Dunkle
Goodreads rating: (liked it)

"When the Watchmaker's Doll is found and accidentally awakened by Pocket and the fox-like cutpurse Kitt Sunner, they inadvertently spark a series of great troubles for not only the three of them, but for those whose paths they eventually cross: from sky-sailing pirates and medicine peddlers to a teahouse mystic and a bulletproof gambler. A backward and booze-soaked steampunk blend of self-deprecating humor, silly wit, white-knuckle adventure, old-fashioned romance, and bittersweet tragedy, 'Turnkey' begins The Gaslight Volumes of Will Pocket with a resounding bang!"

Turnkey is essentially a rolicking adventure-cum-romance, with the former handled better than the latter. There are some wonderfully bizarre characters in the mix, plus the usual steampunk airships and other weird and wonderful devices. The alternate history to explain the steampunk elements was convincing and once I'd got used to the interesting framing device for the first-person narrative the story flowed well, albeit with some rather odd dream sequences. Unfortunately, I failed to warm to Pocket, the 'hero' of the story, who acted the selfish cowardly idiot through much of the book and it felt odd that such a character would have so many far more able people falling over themselves and risking their lives to help him at every turn. Another disappointment was that the descriptions of 'New London' bore no relation to the real London at all. Yet there are some fun adventures and some genuinely-hilarious moments in this book, so steampunk fans will find a lot to like.

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All content (c) Steph Bennion, WyrdStar and Danse Macabre 2007-2017.

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