Monday, December 30, 2019

Best Reads of 2019

What a year it's been! For a moment there I didn't think we'll ever make it to the end. Yet, here we are in the last days of 2019. Finally...

As the year draws to a close it's time to look back and share some of my best reads of the year.  Despite all the challenges the year brought, it was an exceptionally good reading year for me. In total I read 81 books (52 novels, 23 graphic novels, 4 novellas and 2 anthologies).

In no particular order these are the best books I read in 2019...

The Shadows of the Apt Series by Adrian Tchaikovsky

2019 has pretty much been the year of Tchaikovsky. My entire list could very easily be filled by the entirety of the books in the The Shadows of the Apt series. Tchaikovsky manages to add a unique spin to familiar fantasy tropes with a world that blurs the lines of what we've come to expect from fantasy. It has a little bit of everything, the sheer scope of the world and all it has in play is just mind-blowing. A worthy addition to the ranks of the great fantasy series of our time. Up there with The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire.

Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Another Tchaikovsky novel. I simply adored Children of Time (who wouldn't love intelligent space spiders?)  Children of Ruin is a worthy sequel to the groundbreaking Children of Time. Tchaikovsky once again excels at portraying and exploring inhuman intelligence in its varied forms. This is one adventure you definitely don’t want to miss out on!

Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky

What do we have here? Yes, it's yet another Tchaikovsky. This time round in novella format. Walking to Aldebaran is a science fiction novella which takes some very unexpected twists and turns and brings new meaning to the the term unreliable narrator. You never quite know what to expect and it’s only in later contemplation that you manage to glimpse everything that’s really in play - a decline into madness, something truly alien, a deftly executed literary allusion or all of the above? Wonderfully weird, this story will have you puzzling over it long after the last page has been turned.

The Institute by Stephen King

Stephen King has yet another winner on his hands. The Institute is a fast-paced read which takes real-world events, gives it that unique Stephen King spin and converts it into a captivating and heartbreaking story of stolen childhood. While it might not offer any surprises it's still a great read exploring the cost of what is done in the name of the greater good. If you are new to Stephen King and a fan of Stranger Things this would be a great starting point.

Ravencry by Ed McDonald

It's hard to do Ravencry justice in a review. It's both a touching emotional journey and a bloody, unstoppable delight. The ending will destroy you and leave you wanting more. McDonald has exceeded all my expectations and I can't wait to discover the wonders the third book brings. Highly recommended!

Irredeemable by Mark Waid

The Irredeemable comic series explores the cataclysmic effect of a superhero going bad. Can someone be so evil that they become irredeemable? This is a superb comic series and the very last panel simply raises this to an entirely different level. Physical copies are nearly impossible to find, but even if you have to resort to getting it in digital format it is WELL worth it! (Seems there is an omnibus edition of Irredeemable scheduled to come out in June 2020 which will be an absolute must have!)

There were so many (SO MANY) books I really wanted to read, but didn't manage to get to. My TBR pile of 2019 releases have developed into a mini-mount of staggering proportions all on its own. I can neither confirm nor deny that the stack is taller than I am!

I'm sure I'll be distracted by all the new shinies that 2020 will bring, but I'll get to them eventually. Thankfully there's no expiration dates on good books!

I wish you all an amazing 2020. May your year be filled with fantastical worlds to escape to when the pressures of reality gets too much!

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Review: The Uplift Series by David Brin

I had a vague recollection of reading one of David Brin’s Uplift novels as a teen and loving it. Since Goodreads didn’t exist back then I wasn’t sure which one it might have been. All I knew was that it had dolphins in it. Since I had bought the entire Uplift series some years ago I thought it was about time to finally find out if teenage me had good taste.

The Uplift series by David Brin consists of six books which are divided into two separate trilogies. The main premise revolves around the idea of uplifting species into sapience. The normal course of events in the universe is that a patron race uplifts a client race into sapience, bringing them into the fold of galactic society. The client race is indentured to their patron race for a period of 100,000 years, thereafter they are allowed to uplift client races of their own. Uplifting a species brings prestige not only to their patron but also to the race that originally uplifted the patron race. Humanity is an anomaly, having not only seemingly uplifted themselves without the aid of a patron, but also uplifting chimpanzees and dolphins by the time they first encounter galactic society.

The books in the first trilogy are only loosely related and you can pretty much read them as standalone novels.

Sundiver - Humanity explores the sun and the strange lifeforms they find there.

This was a long and ponderous read. I came in with high expectations and it didn't manage to fulfill on any of the promise it had. Only in the last 100 pages does the pacing pick up, and the focus on Uplift simply isn't there. This is more akin to a golden age space adventure which turns into a whodunnit in space. You might want to just skip this entirely. ⭐⭐

Startide Rising - An EarthClan exploratory vessel crewed by dolphins and humans make a discovery that could change galactic civilization forever. Pursued by fanatic races, the Streaker’s crew must protect their discovery at all cost.

A far better read than Sundiver. Startide Rising still suffers from slow pacing and Brin’s tendency to go off on tangents that don’t progress the main plot. You also don’t get any real resolution by the end. Having read the entire series I think Startide Rising might be the best book of the lot. It also turns out that this is the book teenage me loved. ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Uplift War - An EarthClan colony is invaded and held hostage in order to force Earth to give up Streaker’s discovery. Isolated the colony must resort to guerrilla warfare to save themselves

I started reading this to try to find out what finally happens to Streaker and their discovery. Turns out Streaker doesn’t make an appearance at all. An enjoyable enough read, but all the problems and issues of the prior books remains. ⭐⭐⭐

The three novels of the second trilogy, Brightness Reef, Infinity’s Shore and Heaven’s Reach follow on from each other.

Brightness Reef - The planet Jijo is forbidden to settlers, its ecology protected by guardians of the Five Galaxies. But over the centuries it has been resettled, populated by refugees of six intelligent races. Together they have woven a new society in the wilderness, drawn together by their fear of Judgment Day, when the Five Galaxies will discover their illegal colony. Then a strange starship arrives on Jijo. Does it bring the long-dreaded judgment, or worse--a band of criminals willing to destroy the six races of Jijo in order to cover their own crimes?

I have a love/hate relationship with the book. I found the six diverse alien races inhabiting Jijo fascinating. Their community and way of life drew me in and, while not apparent at first, it picks up threads linking to Streaker again. The downside is that it still suffers from some excruciating slow pacing and just stops abruptly without any real resolution. ⭐⭐⭐

Infinity’s Shore - For the fugitive settlers of Jijo, it is truly the beginning of the end. As starships fill the skies, the threat of genocide hangs over the planet that once peacefully sheltered six bands of sapient beings. Now the human settlers of Jijo and their alien neighbors must make heroic—and terrifying—choices.

This picks up where the previous novel left off. At some stage I think this is where I started to rage read. I wanted to know what happens to Streaker and what the implications of their discovery was. While I loved the characters of Alvin, Ur-ronn, Pincer and Huck as they join in on an even greater adventure the pacing of this book was still too slow. ⭐⭐⭐

Heaven’s Reach - The brutal enemy that has relentlessly pursued them for centuries has arrived. Now the fugitive settlers of Jijo - both human and alien - brace for a final confrontation. The Jijoans' only hope is the Earthship Streaker, crewed by uplifted dolphins and commanded by an untested human. Yet more than just the fate of Jijo hangs in the balance. For Streaker carries a cargo of ancient artifacts that may unlock the secret of those who first brought intelligent life to the Galaxies. Many believe a dire prophecy has come to pass: an age of terrifying changes that could end Galactic civilization.

It is very seldom that I read a book and just wish that it would just end. This was a slog to get through. The conclusion doesn't satisfy at all and once again it goes off on a weird tangent. The only thing that kept me reading was trying to find a resolution to what happens to the Streaker’s crew and their supposed galactic shattering discovery. It turns out that it doesn’t matter all that much. We still don’t get a definite resolution why this discovery was so important and all the trials and tribulations the crew and the Jijo youngsters underwent are rendered pretty much pointless by events. This is how it all ends? ⭐⭐

The Verdict:
I should have loved the Uplift series. It has everything that normally sets my brain abuzz - questions about sentience, fascinating alien creatures, galactic society and a truly intriguing universe. Yet Brin doesn’t deliver on any of the promise this series held. Instead of exploring and diving into the most captivating aspects of his universe he goes off on tangents and instead offers up a pretty mundane adventure instead. The biggest thing that irks me is that Streaker’s discovery is built up as this galactic-shattering revelation which other races are willing to kill to control, yet it never amounts to much. Even by the last book there is no real resolution and it’s seemingly discarded in favor of a weird transcendence mechanic rendering it pointless.

The series just didn’t work for me. The writing is clunky, the pacing is ponderous, the characters blur into each other and the conclusion just doesn’t satisfy at all.

The Rating: 5/10 (Average)

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Review: The Institute by Stephen King

Title: The Institute
Author: Stephen King
Pages: 482
ISBN: 9781529355406
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Published: 10 September 2019
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy from publisher

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

Luke Ellis, a super-smart twelve-year-old with an exceptional gift, is the latest in a long line of kids abducted and taken to a secret government facility, hidden deep in the forest in Maine.

Here, kids who can read minds or make objects move are subjected to a series of experiments. There seems to be no hope of escape. Until Luke teams up with an even younger boy whose powers of telepathy are off the scale, and they create a plan.

Meanwhile, far away in a small town in South Carolina, former cop Tim Jamieson has taken a job working for the local sheriff. Tim is just walking the beat. The quiet life. He doesn't know he's about to take on the biggest case of his career...

Stephen King is a master of his craft and his latest novel, The Institute, makes that perfectly clear. Take the horrific treatment of immigrant children by the US, give it that unique Stephen King spin and you end up with an enthralling story bound to send chills down your spine.

King has this wonderful ability to conjure a vibrant and distinct sense of place and character. Within just a single paragraph he manages to convey everything you need to know, bringing characters to life and setting the stage for the story that follows.
“Nicky Wilholm was tall and blue-eyed, with a head of unkempt hair that was blacker than black and cried out for a double dose of shampoo. He was wearing a wrinkled button-up shirt over a pair of wrinkled shorts, his white athletic socks were at half-mast, and his sneakers were dirty.” (p 75).
The main protagonist is Luke Ellis a gifted (in more ways than one) 12-year-old boy who finds himself torn away from his family. Held captive inside the mysterious Institute he must discover what their intentions are and somehow find a way to free himself and the other children held there.
“Luke Ellis was the guy who went out of his way to be social so people wouldn't think he was a weirdo as well as a brainiac. He checked all the correct interaction boxes and then went back to his books. Because there was an abyss, and books contained magical incantations to raise what was hidden there: all the great mysteries.” (p 172)
What Luke experiences is truly harrowing, but it is the compassion and determination from the other children he meets inside the Institute that pulls at your heartstrings. Together they fight to regain hope and freedom. It’s even more poignant when considering the inspiration behind it all.
“No regret. Zero empathy. Nothing. Luke realised he wasn’t a child to her at all. She had made some crucial separation in her mind.” (p 143)
The pacing of The Institute is flawless, the story pulls you along and the ending is heart-wrenching in so many ways. Stephen King definitely has yet another winner on his hands! Constant readers will fall in love with his work all over again and for those new to his work this would be a great starting point.

The Verdict:
Stephen King has yet another winner on his hands. The Institute is a fast-paced read which takes real-world events, gives it that unique Stephen King spin and converts it into a captivating and heartbreaking story of stolen childhood. While it might not offer any surprises it's still a great read exploring the cost of what is done in the name of the greater good. If you are new to Stephen King and a fan of Stranger Things this would be a great starting point. Highly recommended!

The Rating: 8 (Great!)

Thanks to Charlene from Jonathan Ball Publishers for the review copy.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

New Arrivals: Halloween Edition

While I haven't been buying all that many books recently I simply couldn't resist ordering a Halloween treat for myself.

The new Halloween editions of Stephen King's novels are simply gorgeous. A throwback to pulpy horror covers of the 80's and 90's I love the distressed look of them.  When I found out there was a boxed set (strangely called the Stephen King Classic Collection) I knew I HAD to have it.

My boxed set is still sealed (saving it for Christmas vacation) and my photos won't do them justice in any case, so here are the covers of the books collected in the boxed set.

All the Stephen King goodness...

Monday, October 7, 2019

New Arrivals: A Package Full of Awesome!

Last week was a truly hectic week at work. Half of the staff were on sick leave, month-end returns needed to be in and on top of that even more work seemed to arrive on an hourly basis for URGENT attention. Just when I was at my lowest point, ready to give up and go sulk somewhere this awesome package from the wonderful folks at Jonathan Ball Publishers arrived.

Picture of Wanderers, The Institute and Kingdom of Souls

To say that my day was made would be a gross understatement. My energy levels immediately went up and I couldn't stop smiling for the entire day. It had two of my most anticipated books, Wanderers by Chuck Wendig (the hardcover is simply beautiful to behold) and The Institute by Stephen King. I'm not even sure which one to read first. Who am I kidding? It's going to be the King. It must be the King.

There is absolutely nothing better than receiving a package full of books. Nothing! Especially when it's an awesome selection like this. A huge thank you to Charlene and the team from Jonathan Ball Publishers, you made my entire week and saved me from total despair!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Review: Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Walking to Aldebaran
Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Pages: 140
ISBN: 9781781087060
Publisher: Solaris
Published: 28 May 2019
Genre: Science Fiction / Novella
Source: Review copy from publisher

Buy it from:
The Rebellion Store


My name is Gary Rendell. I’m an astronaut. When they asked me as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “astronaut, please!” I dreamed astronaut, I worked astronaut, I studied astronaut. I got lucky; when a probe exploring the Oort Cloud found a strange alien rock and an international team of scientists was put together to go and look at it, I made the draw.

I got even luckier. When disaster hit and our team was split up, scattered through the endless cold tunnels, I somehow survived.

Now I’m lost, and alone, and scared, and there’s something horrible in here.

Lucky me.

Lucky, lucky, lucky.

Walking to Aldebaran is a dark, twisting novella which manages to take unreliable narration to the next level. The narrative voice of the protagonist, Gary Rendell, is distinctive and compelling as he alternates between recounting the history of his expedition and his current, seemingly unending journey, lost and alone inside the maze of the alien artifact he came to study. He starts out as having a sarcastic and self-deprecating sense of humour, but as the story progresses it deteriorates into something much darker.
“It looks as though it got into God’s desk after school and nicked off with every single nasty toy confiscated from the fallen angels. It writhes towards me along the ceiling, various spiked parts of it clicking and clattering against the stone. It’s in no hurry. It’s probably waited a thousand years for some dumbass Earthman to come along and wake it up.”

“And I still have the food bar. I eat the rest of it, enjoying nutrition that my microbiome doesn’t have to dismantle with the care of a bomb disposal technician.”

“I awoke, no less lost or alone, and knew the choice wasn’t move or die at all. It was move or stay still, and either menu option came with a side order of die.”
Walking to Aldebaran takes some very unexpected twists and turns. You never quite know what to expect and it’s only in later contemplation that you manage to glimpse everything that’s really in play - a decline into madness, something truly alien, a deftly executed literary allusion or all of the above? Wonderfully weird, this story will have you puzzling over it long after the last page has been turned.

The Rating: 7.5 (Very Good)

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Review: Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Cover for Children of Ruin
Title: Children of Ruin
Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Series: Children of Time #2
Pages: 565
ISBN: 9781509865871
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Published: 14 May 2019
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

Thousands of years ago, Earth’s terraforming program took to the stars. On the world they called Nod, scientists discovered alien life – but it was their mission to overwrite it with the memory of Earth. Then humanity’s great empire fell, and the program’s decisions were lost to time. Aeons later, humanity and its new spider allies detected fragmentary radio signals between the stars. They dispatched an exploration vessel, hoping to find cousins from old Earth.

But those ancient terraformers woke something on Nod better left undisturbed. And it’s been waiting for them.

Do you want to go on an adventure? Of course you do! I absolutely adored Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, it was a magnificent look into inhuman intelligence and changed the way I looked at spiders forever. Children of Ruin has some big shoes to fill and it doesn’t disappoint. What Children of Time did for spiders Children of Ruin does for octopuses, and then some!

The narrative is split into two story lines alternating between the past and present. The first, set in the past, follows a terraforming crew from Earth as they discover that the planet they were sent to terraform already plays host to alien lifeforms. In order to preserve and study these lifeforms they decide to terraform the neighbouring planet, Damascus instead. To aid in the terraforming process one of the crew decides to use the uplift virus on his pet octopuses in order to transform them into useful tools. Disaster strikes back home and things don’t go quite as planned...

In the present an exploration vessel, Voyager, crewed by Portiids and their Human allies arrive to investigate faint radio signals detected from the worlds where humanity once tread. They discover not only their distant cephalopod cousins, but also something truly alien and possibly lethal.

“We are going on an adventure”. Somehow Tchaikovsky manages to take such a simple phrase and turn it into something truly terrifying and sinister. At times the story verges into horror territory with a much darker tone than Children of Time, but by the end it shifts to a far more hopeful resolution.

Tchaikovsky once again excels in portraying inhuman intelligence and thought processes. While the uplifting of the cephalopods might seem similar to the events of Children of Time it is different enough to provide a captivating read. Children of Ruin manages to tick all the boxes. It has alien lifeforms, AI, space exploration, and a fascinating exploration of linguistics and communication in its many forms.
"The two species are still building that bridge between them, strand by strand, even two generations on." ( p 300)

"There had been a time when he had listened out for signals, abruptly convinced he was not alone, that other humans were out there and they wanted to talk to him. He had spent hours trying to sift gold dust from the clay of universal static." (p 358)
Ultimately Children of Ruin is a brilliant exploration of the burning need ingrained in intelligent life to know and to be known. The epilogue simply blew me away with its hopeful sense of wonder and exploration leaving that wonderful afterglow of an amazing story. Highly recommended!

The Verdict:
Children of Ruin is a worthy sequel to the groundbreaking Children of Time. Tchaikovsky once again excels at portraying and exploring inhuman intelligence in its varied forms. This is one adventure you definitely don’t want to miss out on!

The Rating: 8/10 (Great)

Thanks to Pan Macmillan SA for the review copy.

Addendum: If you are looking for some more spacefaring cephalopods I can also recommend Stephen Baxter's short story Sheena 5. Initially I thought Paul 5 might've been a nod to this short story, but it turns out it was just strange synchronicity at work.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Opening Lines: Steel Frame by Andrew Skinner

Some novels have the ability to draw you in from the start. A single line or paragraph can grab your attention in such a way that the novel just demands to be read. Opening Lines is a feature where I'll share some of the best opening lines that hooked me.

The air is heavy with sweat and moist with shipboard rot, mixed so thick that I’m starting to think I’d rather choke than keep on breathing. Hell, there are times I think I might try it just for the change of pace.

STEEL FRAME by Andrew Skinner


Rook is a jockey, a soldier trained and modified to fly ‘shells,’ huge robots that fight for the outer regions of settled space. When her shell is destroyed and her squad killed, Rook is imprisoned, left stranded, scarred and broken. Hollow and helpless without her steel frame, she’s ready to call it quits.

When her cohort of prisoners are sold into indenture to NorCol, a vast frontier corporation, Rook’s given another shell – a near-decrepit Juno, as broken as she is and decades older – and sent to a rusting bucket of a ship on the end of known space to patrol something called “the Eye,” a strange, unnerving permanent storm in space.

But they’re not alone.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Interview: Andrew Skinner

When I first came across the news that South African author, Andrew Skinner, had signed on with Solaris to publish his debut novel, Steel Frame, I immediately jotted down the details in my reading journal, circled it twice and wrote "ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR" in big red letters. That was a bit more than a year ago and Steel Frame is finally being released this month. I jumped at the opportunity to ask Andrew some questions about his work, inspiration and experience writing science fiction as a South African.

Hi Andrew, thanks for agreeing to this interrogation. Err... interview. I meant interview. Let's start with the obligatory life story. Could you tell us a little about yourself. Who are you really? What keeps you up in the dark of the night?

AS: Sure! Thanks for having me.

I am a nerd from smalltown South Africa; coalfire country, with huge mining headgear, chimney-tops and walking dragline machines always on the horizon. I’ve ended up in Johannesburg, somewhere a little madder and a lot bigger, but I don’t think I’ve ever lost my awe of industry.

I’m busy doing my PhD in archaeology, researching ancestral memory in places written histories don’t reach. Like any good grad student, that spiel about humans basically being cucumbers with anxiety resonates a little too closely for comfort.

You work as an archaeologist and anthropologist. How does that influence your writing?

AS: It’s tricky to say what seeps through and what doesn’t, but there were a few choices I made in Steel Frame that probably say a little about where I come from. You could call archaeology ‘object-orientated’ - we infer human behaviour from the material traces people leave behind, and I wanted to work that kind of logic in where I could, especially considering my chosen sub-genre.

Mecha is a great format to explore objects as characters, and you’ll see that in the machine called Juno, in some ways the titular ‘steel frame’. It’s old, and that means that it has a very different shape to the machines and environments around it – it comes from a different time and place, after all, intended to do things the characters in the present can only guess at. As the humans in the story begin to find themselves out of their depth, Juno shows itself to be the right kind of monster for the moment.

The threat in the story is similar; it’s slowly revealed by the shapes it takes, and by the objects the characters encounter in its wake.

Your debut novel, Steel Frame, is out this month. Can you tell us about it?

AS: It follows a small group of jockeys – each the heart and soul of a shell, the huge machines that wage corporate wars across battlefield skies on a hundred different worlds. Each of them disgraced, war criminals and deserters, now offered a shot at freedom.

But there’s a catch – they need to ply their trade in an endless sea of storms, somewhere on the fringes of settled space. A place NorCol, their new employer, barely understands. They’re here to wrestle the company’s competitors for whatever might be hidden in all the cloud and chaos.

They soon come to realise that the storms were made. That there’s a reason you can’t see past the wash and interference.

At the start, you meet Rook, one of the first to understand what the companies have gotten themselves into. Her shell is an ancient Juno, part of an abandoned experiment to see if machines could be made to think for themselves. It’s another prisoner, in a way, and something with scars just as deep as hers. Together, it’s all they can do to keep from being dragged into the dark.

The Steel Frame features giant war-machines duking it out. Where did you draw your inspiration from? Is it the influence of childhood cartoons or more modern blockbusters?

AS: The influences are all over the place. Obviously, Steel Frame has anime in its heritage; the weirder elements owe a lot to Evangelion, and the aesthetic was heavily shaped by Knights of Sidonia and Last Exile, among others.

At the same time, I wanted to capture some of the feel of Ridley Scott’s extended Alien/Blade Runner universe. I love that portrayal of frontier space, and humanity tripping over things in the dark; that bleak and relentless treatment of emergent AI.

Obviously, there’s no getting away from Pacific Rim..

If you had to sum up Steel Frame in just 5 words what would those be?

AS: The steel frame remembers (everything).

I'm always excited to see speculative fiction from South African authors. South Africa has such great genre talent, but it seems that it's extremely difficult to find a market locally. What was your experience with getting your work noticed?

AS: It was pretty obvious, early on, that I had no prospects with mainstream local imprints. I watched for open submission periods, checked websites and social media, but they always made it clear that they weren’t interested in genre. Whether or not that’s a ‘market’ thing, I really couldn’t say. If barely anyone’s publishing local genre, how do you speak to the state of the market?

On the indie side – my first submission was to a small press, but the company went under after ~18 months in operation, not even long enough to get back to me. A friend of mine had a similar experience with another press, not long after publishing their work.

(Shout out to Sera Blue, a small press here in Joburg, who are doing some spectacular work, hauling out new titles on a literally weekly basis. They’re carving themselves a niche, whatever the ‘market’ may say, and it’s pretty amazing.)

In my case, I decided to go the most traditional route possible. It was the process that I could research in most detail (there are plenty of articles on how to find an agent overseas, but next-to-nothing on navigating the local scene), and it worked out for me. In Jamie Cowen, my agent, I found someone who was willing to deal with the distance, the grainy Skype calls, and fleshing out details over email. He’s also been massively understanding about my general anxiety at the whole process happening in another hemisphere, completely out of reach and sight.

What's next for you after Steel Frame? Anything else in the works?

AS: There’s more from the Steel Frame universe in the works (hopefully more news on this soon!). Rook’s story is fairly self-contained, but there’s a lot that you don’t see, plenty of secrets still to be revealed.

In the long run, I’d like to emulate Iain M. Banks’ habit of writing (mostly) disconnected stories against a common background. Mythology is a powerful tool, and I’d like the opportunity to develop one of my own.

Are there any authors that influenced your work or acted as inspiration?

AS: I owe debts to more writers than I’ll remember right now, but writing Steel Frame involved learning a couple of lessons that are really clear to me in retrospect.

I set out aiming for the hardest SF I could manage, but the more I kept the scientific details in focus, the less satisfying the story became. There’s an art to it, I’m sure, but that’s a skill that’s still very much in development for me.

What I realised, though, was that I also didn’t really want something meticulously scientific. In fact, my favourite stories were by people like China Mieville, Yoon Ha Lee, Cassandra Khaw, and Jeff Vandermeer. Not to say that their writing is implausible – rather the opposite. They maintain a kind of essential logic and plausibility behind everything, while going places that are fundamentally, delightfully strange.

Dan Abnett taught me that conflict should always come with loss, and I really tried to reflect that in Steel Frame. It’d be easy to have my jockeys hurling themselves into the fray, over and over, and come out with little more than scratched paint and empty magazines. Too easy, in fact. But I didn’t set out to write an unmitigated power fantasy – I wanted these people to be like the rest of us; often scared, nearly always uncertain. More importantly, they always lose something in contact.

What's your favourite science fiction read? That one book you'd take with you on a trip around the Moon and back.

AS: Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit tickles a really particular place in my brain.

Pick your poison: Robotech, Voltron or Transformers?

AS: Macross.

(And it’s not as much of a copout as it sounds.)

Thank you so much for taking the time. Steel Frame sounds kwaai (amazing) and I'm sure it's going to kick some serious metallic butt!

Order your copy of Steel Frame now!

More about the author:
Andrew Skinner grew up in South Africa’s coal-mining heartland, amidst orange dust and giant machinery. He now works as an archaeologist and anthropologist, interested in folklore, rain-making arts, and resistance; but the machines aren’t done with him yet. Steel Frame is his first novel. You can follow him on Twitter @apocrobot.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Book Packaging Quality Showdown

The biggest tragedy in my life is that I live in an area where there are no bookstores located near me. As a result I have to order all my books online. Over the past couple of years I've tried most of the South African online retailers and narrowed things down to those that offer free shipping if a minimum order threshold is reached. Not only does that give you an excuse to order more books, but it just makes way more economical sense.

When it comes to ordering books online the quality of the packaging used plays a critical role. It can mean the difference between a happy, satisfied customer or the shopping experience from hell. To a book lover there is nothing as disappointing as opening a package only to discover a damaged book inside.

I've put three of South Africa's online retailers to the test and this was my experience based on multiple orders from these retailers. (referral link) is my absolute top pick when it comes to ordering new releases. They take extreme care with the packaging of items. Batches of books are carefully packaged in such a way that they won't damage each other, covered with bubble wrap and then, depending on the size of the box used, more protective packaging material is placed around them to prevent the books from shifting around. Single books are wrapped in bubble wrap and securely packaged in a box.

In the past year I've placed 12 book orders from them and only 1 order had an issue. The book in question arrived with 4 pages damaged by a 1cm tear. The book was still sealed in cellophane and it was clear that this was due to a printing issue and not due to poor packaging. The return process was easy and the replacement book arrived without any problems.

Packaging quality: 5/5

Reader's Warehouse offers the best prices on older books. While their selection is somewhat limited the often have the best deals around and since most of the books are in stock they are able to ship your order very quickly. The quickest I've received an order was within 2 days, which is quite an achievement since I'm located in an outlaying area. Reader's Warehouse is the only retailer that sometimes includes extras like bookmarks with your order.

Books are packaged securely and protected with bubble wrap and other protective materials. The only negative is that the company doesn't have standard boxes. They use whichever box is available and this can sometimes lead to slight damage.

In the past year and a half I've placed 5 orders with them. One order arrived with slight dings to the corners of the books due to the fact that they were shipped in a makeshift box which had rounded corners. I was offered a discount voucher as recompense for the damage.

Packaging quality:  4/5

Before the merger between and Takealot I ordered all my books from Kalahari. Sadly the great service and packaging I grew accustomed to from Kalahari did not transfer during the merger. I love Takelot for electronics, but they do not handle books well. Not at all.

Books are shipped inside a box without any protective packaging whatsoever. Multiple books are stacked on top of each other, and allowed to tumble around inside the box without any protection. In one instance (picture on top) the books were thrown into the box and some of those protective air cushions were placed on top. Of course since their was no padding on the sides this provided no protection whatsoever.

Every couple of months I'm enticed with discount codes/vouchers into ordering from them and most of the time it results in disappointment. My latest order arrived with the corners of the (very expensive) hardcover smashed to hell due to the fact that it was placed in the bottom of a too large box without any protection. I've returned the item and I'm still awaiting a replacement.

In the past 2 years I've placed 8 book orders with them. 2 of these orders had books damaged to such an extend that I requested replacements. 4 of the orders had books with minor damage to the corners of the books/paperbacks. I didn't want to wait for replacements on those so had to live with the damage. 1 order arrived unscathed. Complaints resulted in promises that they will look into improving their book packaging, but since this is a reoccurring problem nothing seems to have been done.

If you order from them it's a gamble whether your book will arrive undamaged. It's best to order a single book at a time since that provides the best chance of success. If Takealot wants to remain a viable option in the online book marketplace they seriously need to take a look at their shipping practices. I'm sure it would cost far less to take more time in packaging books using adequate packaging materials rather than have to deal with returns.

Addendum: A little fiasco
Today I received the replacement package for the book mentioned above. My heart sank when I saw the packaging. Once again the book was jammed into a box that was way too big and some brown paper was thrown on top. No brown paper to the sides where it really needed protection. My immediate thought was "Here we go again". A bit prophetic as it turns out. Same damage to the book and upon further investigation I noticed that the cellophane was cut in the exact way I did with the original damaged book in order to inspect the damage under the dust jacket. It turns out that Takealot sent me the exact same damaged book I returned as the replacement for the damaged book. I can't even...

Now I have to return it to them again and hope for the best. If they'll refund me in full I think I'll just order it elsewhere... 

Packaging quality: 2/5

I would love to hear your experiences with these retailers. Could it be that I'm just extremely unlucky with Takealot?

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

New Arrivals: The Epic Loot Book Haul

A local online retailer,, had a truly amazing book sale recently. You could get 3 books for the princely sum of R99 (around $6.70 total or $2.25 each). Needless to say I went a bit crazy and emptied their entire speculative fiction section of any books I didn't already own. The end result is an epic haul of 23 books. I think that makes this the biggest book haul I've had in ages.

Behold my precious, precious treasures!

Picture of stacks of 23 speculative fiction novels and comics

I was particularly excited and extremely lucky to be able to grab some comics too. Comics, especially hardcover collections, are extremely expensive over here and they rarely, if ever, go on sale. While these took longer to get here, they were well worth the wait. The two Justice League Omnibus editions wouldn't be something I'd normally pick up since it features work from the 1960's and I'm not sure I'll enjoy the older stuff. But heck, at that price I couldn't resist - it was an absolute steal!

Picture showing the Juste League of America Omnibus and Hellboy Volume 3

Picture showing the front covers of the JLA omnibus and Hellboy editions

Monday, August 5, 2019

Getting Graphic: Die, Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker

Title: Die, Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker
Author: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Stephanie Hans
Pages: 478
ISBN: 9781534312708
Publisher: Image
Published: 5 June 2019
Genre: Graphic Novel
Source: Purchased

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

writer KIERON GILLEN teams up with artist supernova STEPHANIE HANS (THE WICKED + THE DIVINE, Journey Into Mystery) for her first ongoing comic! DIE is a pitch-black fantasy where a group of forty-something adults have to deal with the returning, unearthly horror they only just survived as teenage role-players. If KIERON’s in a rush, he describes it as “Goth Jumanji”, but that's only the tip of this critically acclaimed obsidian iceberg. Collects DIE #1-5
When I first heard the premise of Die I just knew I had to get it. The wait for the trade paperback was excruciating, but so worth it. The art by Stephanie Hans is simply amazing, there are times where you turn the page and just have to go "Wow, that's beautiful". Kieran Gillen takes the world of Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs and fantasy lore and uses those well-known mechanics to create a world and characters that are both interesting and unique.  The story is emotionally harrowing and at times verges into horror territory.

The easiest thing would be to call Die a dark Jumanji for adults, but that description doesn't quite do it justice. There are nuances at work which will delight veteran D&D players and goes so much deeper than is first apparent. Gillen manages to explore the emotional scars of his characters both as angsty teens and jaded adults, the impact of the fantasy world, the consequences of their actions and the very act of playing the game itself.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Die. My only complaint is that the story felt quite rushed and that it was over far too quickly. There is so much at play here, so much depth and history to delve into. I want to experience it all, but in this first volume we barely get to scratch the surface. I can't wait to see what comes next.  

Die is definitely a series to keep your eye on!

The Rating: 7/10 (Very good)

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Cover Reveal: Steel Frame

Just look at this stunning cover for Steel Frame the debut novel from South African writer Andrew Skinner with cover art by Gemma Sheldrake. If that helmet is done in foil I'm absolutely sold*. Heck I was sold at "giant-robot battles". Slated for release this August from Solaris, this looks like it's going to be a blast!

* I have been informed that there is indeed foil involved and that the back cover looks awesome too!

STEEL FRAME by Andrew Skinner
ISBN: 9781781087053
Release date: 22 August 2019

Epic tale of giant-robot battles, built around a personal story of redemption and healing.

Rook is a jockey, a soldier trained and modified to fly ‘shells,’ huge robots that fight for the outer regions of settled space. When her shell is destroyed and her squad killed, Rook is imprisoned, left stranded, scarred and broken. Hollow and helpless without her steel frame, she’s ready to call it quits.

When her cohort of prisoners are sold into indenture to NorCol, a vast frontier corporation, Rook’s given another shell – a near-decrepit Juno, as broken as she is and decades older – and sent to a rusting bucket of a ship on the end of known space to patrol something called “the Eye,” a strange, unnerving permanent storm in space.

But they’re not alone.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Reading Rush 2019

This past week I took part in my first ever Reading Rush (previously Booktubeathon). For those not familiar with Reading Rush it's an annual readathon which lasts 7 days and has some fun challenges you can try to do.

Since I would be working the entire week I opted to read a book which would be able to meet the requirements for the most number of challenges. The book I picked was The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. le Guin which fulfilled 4 of the challenges. I made the mistake of using "curled up in bed" as my reading spot which resulted in me falling asleep after hectic days at work with barely anything read.

After The Left Hand of Darkness I picked up Dodger by Terry Pratchett. This was a much faster read and by Saturday I moved on to Stephen King's novella, 1922. I watched the Netflix adaptation of 1922 and was absolutely blown away with it. It's one of the best movie adaptations of King's work I've seen in a long time and captures the tone and psychological horror of the story perfectly.

In the end I managed to read a total of 792 pages, finished 2 books and 1 novella and completed 6 of the challenges. Not bad, but not great either.

It was fun, but I realised that a full-time job and readathons don't quite mix...

Did you participate in Reading Rush? How did you fare?

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Review: The Shadows of the Apt Series

Fantasy novels can start to feel the same after a while - medieval setting, sword fights, magic, war and political intrigue.. Been there done that. So when something different comes along you have to sit up and take notice. Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series manages to bring a unique edge to the genre and deserves far more acclaim than it receives. Imagine the party dynamics of The Wheel of Time, mix in the political intrigue of A Song of Ice and Fire and add that to a world peopled with kinden, a blend of human and insect which imbues them with special traits and abilities, and you have the makings of something truly special.

The world Tchaikovsky has created draws you in from the start and once it has sunk its claws into you it keeps getting more intricate and compelling with each turn of the page. Fantasy fans know that the quality and scope of a fantasy series is directly proportional to the amount of maps it has. The Shadows of the Apt starts out with a single map and by the end the world has expanded so far beyond the boundaries that it requires not two, not three, but four pages of maps with whole regions still left uncharted.

'By believing yourself a hero all your actions become heroic, no matter what they are.' (War Master's Gate, p 489)

The series starts out focused on a small band of friends as they struggle to fight against agents of an encroaching war. With each book the scope and cast of characters expands revealing new facets to a world of  dazzling brilliance and intricacy. Even tangential characters become pivotal as the story unfolds. The series truly has it all: brilliantly dynamic sword duels where you can feel the blood and sweat splatter off of the combatants, large battlefield confrontations with war machines and clashing armies, aerial dogfights and magical battles of the mind. It sets the machinery of Empire against personal freedoms, loyalty against betrayal, progress against tradition, and the powers of artifice against arcane arts. A poignant reminder of the toll of war, the cost of freedom and the inevitable march of progress for good and bad.

'Like all your Apt things... it makes your lives easier and more comfortable, and at the same time it robs you of something of worth that you do not know enough to miss.' (Seal of the Worm, p 444)

The Shadows of the Apt series takes you on a fantastical journey filled with a compelling cast of characters that burrow into your heart and will have you frantically devouring book after book hoping for their continued survival and ultimate redemption. The last book, Seal of the Worm brings the series to an aptly satisfying close. I'm still basking in the afterglow of an amazing story brilliantly told.

Shadows of the Apt deserves to be listed right alongside the great fantasy series of our time. It has better fight scenes than the The Wheel of Time, political intrigue to rival A Song of Ice and Fire, no boring filler to slog through and best of all the series is complete. Plus it has way more insects than any of those!

If the thought of committing to a ten book series seems too daunting you can just read the first four novels, Empire in Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis and Salute the Dark as they act as a self-contained story arc with a satisfying ending.

The Verdict:
If you are looking for a fantasy series with something different then the Shadows of the Apt is just the thing. Tchaikovsky manages to add a unique spin to familiar fantasy tropes with a world that blurs the lines of what we've come to expect from fantasy. It has a little bit of everything, the sheer scope of everything at play is just mind-blowing. A worthy addition to the ranks of the great fantasy series of our time. Up there with The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire. This deserves to be read!

The Rating: 9/10 (Excellent)

Star Trek: Picard Trailer

The newest trailer for the Picard series on Amazon Prime is a thing of sublime beauty. Can't we just skip to 2020 already?

And Seven of Nine is back too. Sold!!!

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

New Arrivals: Huge Book Haul Edition

The problem with Winter is that it gets dark way too early. By the time I get back from work it's already dark outside making my already gloomy apartment even less suitable for taking photos of all the bookish goodness. I've been meaning to post some pictures of the latest book arrivals, but kept on postponing it in hopes of having better lighting for better photos. That was two months ago, so I guess it's time to bite the bullet and just post what I have.


I seem to have caught the comic book bug badly. I'm slowly amassing quite a collection of collected editions. First up I picked up Superman Rebirth Book 4 which ends the Tomasi and Gleason run on Superman. I also got the Batman by Grant Morrison Volume Two which I need for some more backstory on Damian. Once Volume 3 is out I can finally read the Batman and Robin Omnibus and then I can move onto the Supersons omnibus where this whole mad adventure got started.

I've been dying to read Die ever since I read the synopsis of the first issue. Think Jumanji mixed with DnD. It feels like an age, but the first trade is finally out and I can't wait to dive in. I did pick up some novels in the form of Gareth L. Powell's Fleet of Knives and Adrian Tchaikovsky's The Hyena and the Hawk. Both of these are part of series I want to get into.

For Review

The folks at Jonathan Ball Publishers have been extremely kind and have overloaded me with review copies. I'm not quite sure where to start.

New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl, The Redemption of Time by Baoshu, Hateful Things by Terry Goodkind, 

While not my usual fare, The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger and This Life: Why Mortality makes us Free sounds extremely interesting. And then there's the absolutely beautiful The Mysterious Mansion by Daria Song. An activity book that will keep you busy for hours.

Then there's some gothic horror in the from of Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver, fantasy in Broken Throne by Victoria Aveyard and science fiction in Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Last, but certainly not least Pan Macmillan South Africa sent me a copy of my most anticipated read of the year Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Ruin. This will most definitely be my next read, I can't wait to go on this adventure!

As an aside: Is it purely a coincidence that a treasure trove of Tchaikovsky's work has arrived or has fate noticed that I'm almost done with his Shadows of the Apt series and in need of more? I'm definitely not complaining...

Thursday, May 16, 2019

On My Radar: The Calculating Stars

Today sees the UK release of The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. It has received huge acclaim and has been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. I can't wait to get my hands on this alternate history take on space exploration!

THE CALCULATING STARS by Mary Robinette Kowal
ISBN: 9781781087312
Release date: 16 May 2019


It's 1952, and the world as we know it is gone. A meteorite has destroyed Washington DC, triggering extinction-level global warming. To save humanity, the world unites to form the International Aerospace Coalition. Its mission: to colonise first the Moon, then Mars.

Elma York, World War Two pilot and mathematician, dreams of becoming an astronaut--but prejudice has kept her grounded.

Now nothing--and no man--will stop her from reaching for the stars.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Review: The Complete Aliens Omnibus Volume 7

Title: The Complete Aliens Omnibus Volume 7
Author: S.D. Perry and B.K. Evenson
Pages: 573
ISBN: 9781783299133
Publisher: Titan Books
Published: 24 December 2018
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

Thomas Chase wakes up from cryosleep to his first day at a new job - as a pilot for a contraband drug company dropping a shipment on Fantasia, a planet hiding an elaborate drug manufacturing operation. Everything from synthetic heroin to MX7 is cooked here, in protected caves guarded by the savage Aliens. When Chase touches down on Fantasia, a chain of events begins that cannot be stopped. As criminals and competitors try to take over the drug empire from the dangerous kingpin, Chase and his brother Pete are caught in the crossfire... with the Aliens adding blood to the mix.

NO EXIT by B. K. Evenson
After thirty years of cryosleep, Detective Anders Kramm awakens to a changed world. The Alien threat has been subdued. Company interests dominate universal trade, with powerful men willing to do anything to assure dominance over other worlds. But Kramm has a secret. He knows why the Company killed its top scientists. He knows why the Aliens have been let loose on the surface of a contested planet. He knows that the Company will do everything it can to stop him from telling his secret to the world. Haunted by the brutal murder of his family, Kramm is set adrift amid billion-dollar stakes... with Aliens waiting around every corner.

This was my first foray into the world of Alien tie-in novels and it turned out to be a largely mixed experience. This omnibus contains two novels, Criminal Enterprise by S.D. Perry and No Exit by B.K. Evenson.

Criminal Enterprise by S.D. Perry tells the story of two brothers, Thomas and Pete Chase, who get forced into the seedy world of drug dealing. In order to save his brother’s life Thomas has to act as pilot, transporting drugs and personnel to and from an illicit drug manufacturing plant hidden on a barely terraformed world overrun with aliens. The xenomorphs are purposefully used as a security measure and when the manufacturing plant is attacked all chaos ensues.

Criminal Enterprise just didn’t work for me. I never connected with any of the characters, they all felt disposable and their inevitable deaths seemed certain. The pacing is uneven, mostly due to the odd focus on the sex lives of the plant’s ragtag crew consisting mostly of sex workers. When the action starts, people start to die by droves and everything happens too fast. The aliens are largely used as an afterthought and plays only a small role in the story The ending is predictable and while there is a redemption arc, it left me cold. An average read at best.

No Exit by B.K. Evenson delivered the goods in more ways than one. It drew me in from the start and had me engaged until the very end. When you think of the Alien franchise you think about the horrific experience of being trapped in confined spaces with the xenomorphs and No Exit manages to deliver on that traumatic, claustrophobic horror in unexpected ways. You actually care about the main protagonist, Anders Kramm, and the traumatic experiences he has gone through. The story takes unexpected twists and turns which will have you on the edge of your seat. While there are some rough spots towards the end Evenson delivers a captivating ride that remains true to the franchise with some truly horrific moments. Recommended!

The Verdict:
The Complete Aliens Omnibus Volume 7 is quite a mixed bag. I didn’t much care for the first novel, Criminal Enterprise, but the second story, No Exit, single-handedly redeems the omnibus. Evenson provides the claustrophobic horror you’d expect from the Alien franchise and then some!

The Rating: 6.5/10 (Good)

Thanks to Charlene from Jonathan Ball Publishers for the review copy.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

On My Radar: The New Voices of Science Fiction

There's nothing better than finding a brand new author whose work you can fall in love with from the very start. Short story anthologies are great for discovering new authors and The New Voices of Science Fiction from Tachyon Publications looks like it will be the perfect gateway to some of the newest, most vibrant voices in science fiction. (Plus who could resist a cute robot cover like that?!)

Edited by Hannu Rajaniemi and Jacob Weisman
ISBN: 9781616962913
Release date: November 2019

What would you do if your collective of tiny bots suddenly decide to mutiny? Would you find bioprinted steak delicious, even after it was signed by the artist? Is an 11 second attention-span long enough to bond with a cryogenically-revived tourist? Would you sell your native language to send your daughter to college?

The avant garde of science fiction has appeared, arriving via time machines and portals that may (or may not) work properly. In this space-age sequel to award-winning anthology, The New Voices of Fantasy, The New Voices of Science Fiction has launched the rising stars of the last five years of science fiction, including Rebecca Roanhorse, Amal El-Mohtar, Alice Sola Kim, Sam J. Miller, E. Lily Yu, Rich Larson, Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker, Darcie Little Badger, S. Qiouyi Lu, Kelly Robson, Suzanne Palmer, Nino Cipri, and more. Their wide-ranging tales were hand-selected by cutting-edge author Hannu Rajaniemi (The Quantum Thief) and genre expert Jacob Weisman (Invaders).

So go ahead, join the starship revolution. The new kids hotwired the AI

Cover art by Matt Dixon
Cover design by Elizabeth Story


I'm definitely going to add this one to my wishlist!