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Books for Review should be sent to: Don D'Ammassa, 323 Dodge Street, East Providence, RI 02914

LAST UPDATE 4/29/11 

Kite by Bill Shears, InfinityBound, 2009, ISBN 978-1-60145-932-9  

Having never heard of this publisher, I suspected vanity press, but the plot involves a space station orbiting Earth and I hadn’t read one of those in a long time so I decided to give it a shot. The protagonist is a kind of high tech janitor who is minding his own business when he stumbles upon a criminal operation that leads to a political power play designed to gain control over all of the orbiting habitats. The first half of the novel isn’t bad at all, although I found the artificial intelligence character mildly irritating and the whole virtual reality plot could have been left out.  The second half gets a bit out of control with secret revelations, first contact with aliens, and a kind of ancient astronaut subplot. I think the author tried to cram too many diverse plot elements into what had started out as a fairly straightforward story. 4/29/11

All the Lives He Led by Frederik Pohl, Tor, 2011, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2176-3 

Many of my favorite authors became less impressive as their careers progressed. Part of that might be a change in my own tastes, but in the majority of cases the author either began repeating work previously published and successful, or descended into political polemics that were usually boring as well as pace killers.  There are a few exceptions, however, writers who never seem to get stale, who continue to improve even after most others would be ready to rest on their laurels. Fred Pohl is one of the latter and his latest is one of the best novels I’ve read in a good while, and the first serious Hugo contender I’ve encountered in 2011. The setting is a not too distant future after a supervolcano effectively turned the US into a third world country, and terrorism has become so pervasive that it’s almost not newsworthy. The protagonist is a young American who becomes an indentured laborer in Europe and inadvertently gets caught up in an insidious terrorist plot, impersonations, sabotage, and intrigue.  The novel moves so smoothly and logically that it appears effortless.  I’ve heard at least two newer writers in the genre insist that they have nothing to learn from the old guard. They couldn’t be more mistaken. 4/22/11

Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh, Night Shade, 4/11, $14.99, ISBN 978-1-59780-276-5  

This lies somewhere within a triangle of dystopia, disaster novel, and satire.  The drying up of resources leads to a collapse of life as we know it, not as sudden as in many similar efforts but just as inevitable and disheartening to the characters.  As many elements of the old way of life begin to disintegrate, a small group begins a trek across North America, which allows the author to show us a series of snapshots of what might be to come.  I had a very mixed reaction to the book.  Some sequences seem plausible, others do not.  Some sequences are entertaining; others are not.  The two sets aren’t entirely congruent either.  My guess is that most people will like something here but no one will like everything. 4/17/11

Alien in the Family by Gini Koch, DAW, 4/11, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0668-4   

Third in this series which crosses urban fantasy tropes with Men in Black humor as our heroes struggle to protect Earth from a succession of mostly clandestine alien invasions.  This time around they have a more mundane concern.  They’re getting married and the wedding plans are not going smoothly. One half of the happy couple has extraterrestrial connections, and that means a lot of guests – invited and otherwise – are going to have distinctly alien agendas. Although much of the plot actually sounds like a straightforward action story, the humor transcends everything and the tone is decidedly light.  Some amusing moments but I found this less satisfying than the first two books in the series. 4/16/11

Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell, Ace, 4/11, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-441-02037-9   

The end of the Lost Fleet series is just the beginning, apparently.  Captain John Geary is back in the opening volume of a new series, having been promoted to admiral following the completion of the war with the Syndics.  This time there’s a mysterious alien menace and Geary is tasked with the job of evaluating their military capacity and expansion plans. That’s plot number one.  There is also a political quagmire involving those parties who question the continuing loyalty of our hero, and there’s a degree of uncertainty following the collapse of their earlier opposition.  This one ends with a cliffhanger, I’m afraid, so be warned.  And we only begin to discover the nature of the aliens, enough to whet our appetites for the next.  Among the best military SF. 4/13/11

Www: Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer, Ace, 4/11, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01976-2  

Final volume in the trilogy about a sentient artificial intelligence which now appears to be ushering in a wonderful new age, curing diseases, mediating conflicts, and so forth. It all seems very benevolent, but some people are understandably suspicious including a Pentagon military officer who undertakes a covert operation to destroy the intelligence.  When his allies begin disappearing under mysterious circumstances, he has to determine whether the enemy is the AI or a more mundane alternative. As usual, Sawyer tells an engaging story and raises some interesting questions.  I found the ending a little too pat for my tastes, but I won’t spoil it here.  A worthy ending to a fine series. 4/12/11

Daybreak Zero by John Barnes, Ace, 3/11, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01975-5  

In Directive 51 John Barnes introduced us to a group of brilliant but warped people who intended to bring the modern world to a halt.  Well, they’ve done so and most of the population is dead, cities lie in ruins, and new nations have arisen from the ashes with their sometimes conflicting goals and methods.  The road to rebuilding isn’t as easy as it might have been, however, because the plot that led to the collapse hasn’t completely unfolded yet, and obviously I'm not going to reveal the secrets here. Disaster novels are frequently fun and this is no exception though it's darker than most. Not the kind of novel that will leave you with a fuzzy warm feeling, but an impressive one nonetheless. 4/11/11

After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn, Tor, 4/11, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2555-6  

The golden age of the title is a reference to comic books, since this is set in a world where comic book style heroes and villains actually exist.  The protagonist is a young woman trying to forget her childhood – her parents were superheroes – but it catches up with her when a new supervillain menaces the city.  Since she’s an accountant, she is recruited in an effort to indict him for tax fraud! But she uncovers more than simple bookkeeping larceny and has to return to her roots, sort of, when the city is threatened with chaos and violence.  A fun read, and not just a spoof either. As much fantasy as SF. 4/9/11

Ghost Country by Patrick Lee, Harper, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-158444-2  

Although the plot of this thriller is pure SF, you might not notice that from the cover, which just shows a portion of the Statue of Liberty.  The statue is actually in ruins in the not too distant future, a situation which the heroes of this adventure story discover by using one of several items of alien technology, one which allows them to peek at the future.  Unfortunately, when they tell the President, he takes action against them because he is one of those who will be responsible for the catastrophe.  The usual chasing around ensues.  The story is a sequel to the author’s The Breach, which explains how the artifacts were first discovered, a book I’ve never even seen. This one lies somewhere on the proper side of the border between mindless adventure/weapons porn/machismo and genuinely entertaining thriller.  Some of the clichés are there but the author is good enough to keep them in their proper perspective.  I thought the characters were a bit too flat, and the plot is basically The Terminator without robots, but all in all it was quite enjoyable. 4/6/11

The Ark by Boyd Morrison, Pocket Star, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-8180-5  

On my quest to find more readable borderline SF thriller writers, I picked this one up at Borders.  The premise is that a group of evil bigots have found Noah’s Ark, which contains a prion that dissolves flesh.  They modify it so that it only attacks human flesh – a major implausibility – and decide to wipe out the human race and start over with just Nordic superman types.  The villain, more of a caricature than a character, is named Ulrich.  The prion also defies the law of conservation of mass and energy since it leaves no residue, just clean picked skeletons, and within only a few minutes of infection.  That goes beyond implausibility into mind bogglingly bad science.  The writing isn’t actually all that bad and treads the border between testosterone dripping gun porn and actual suspense reasonably well.  There is another minor flaw that irritated me.  Early in the book, the bad guys decide to kill the female protagonist but they have to make it look like an accident so they don’t arouse the suspicion of the male protagonist.  But the latter isn’t aware of the former’s existence at that point.  They could have murdered her on national television and he wouldn’t have been stimulated to investigate an old acquaintance and find the beginning of the trail to the bad guys.  4/5/11

Up Against It by M.J. Locke, Tor, 3/11, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-1515-1  

I have a particular fondness for novels set in the asteroid belt, perhaps because it is so infrequently used.  This debut novel of Laura Mixon’s new byline is set on one such colony whose future is in jeopardy because of two threats.  The first is the more mundane one of organized criminals seeking to control things from behind the scenes.  The second is even more sinister, a rogue artificial intelligence whose agenda is unknown.  There are various other elements to the colony’s society as well and these are all interwoven to create an entirely credible artificial environment. The plot is fast paced – almost hectic – and I was thoroughly engrossed very quickly.  I liked the author’s earlier work and look forward to more of her new incarnation. 4/3/11

Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, Tor, 3/11, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2269-2 

Herbert and Anderson abandon, at least for a while, their expansion of the Dune saga to inaugurate a new series entirely of their own creation.  The setting is slightly similar, a decaying galactic civilization dominated by humans that functions as a kind of convoluted monarchy. What stability exists is a product of restrictions on expansion and growth, but internal pressures can be delayed but not indefinitely deferred and the imminent colonization of new worlds has introduced an element of uncertainty into the status quo. One of those planets is the hellhole of the title, and a local leader opposed to the current policy.  And in good old space opera tradition, the planet possesses a secret of alien technology that could alter the balance of power dramatically.  I found this much more interesting than the Dune continuations. Large scale space opera seems to be on the rise and these seasoned hands are obviously prepared to add to the trend. 3/28/11

The Gravity Pilot by M.M. Buckner, Tor, 3/11, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2286-9  

The hero in this not so distant future quasi-satire catapults to fame in the sporting world because of his death defying antics.  Unfortunately, his girlfriend is alienated from him in the process and moves away, falling into the clutches of a nasty businessman who is instrumental in getting her addicted to virtual reality.  So our hero has to descend in the VR creation in order to rescue the one he loves, in an obvious bow to Orpheus and the Underworld.  Although one seeks to find happiness in self absorbed fantasies and the other strives for public adulation, both turn out to have made very bad choices and the rescue mission is necessary for both of them.  Buckner’s best book to date. 3/27/11

Cyborg by Patricia C. McKissack, Frederick L. McKissack, and John McKissack, Scholastic, 2011, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-439-92985-1

Monkey See, Monkey Don’t by Chris Lynch, Scholastic, 2011, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-545-02797-7   

A couple of very short SF novels for young adults, still a far cry from the YA SF I enjoyed in my teens.  I confess that I find most contemporary books in this genre far inferior to Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Alan E. Nourse, and most of the Winston line from the 1950s.  Anyway, the first of these is the second in the Clone Codes series set in a dystopian future in which clones, cyborgs, and so forth are repressed by the government.  In the second volume, our heroes are on the run and have the usual round of adventures.  So lightweight that it felt like an outline rather than a novel.  Ditto for the second, part of the Cyberia series, originally published in hardcover in 2009.  An evil mad scientist and an heroic young boy battle over their rivalry to communicate with lower animals.  Not awful, but pretty ho hum. 3/25/11

The Universe of Things by Gwyneth Jones, Aqueduct, 2011, $18, ISBN 978-1-933500-44-7   

I have always thought of Gwyneth Jones as exclusively a novelist and until I saw this collection I could only think of one shorter piece I’d read by her, although there were actually three that I’d previously seen and enjoyed.  The rest, many of them from Interzone magazine, were all new to me.  My first overall reaction is to notice how remarkably intelligent and thoughtful they are.  They examine their subject matter in unusual depth without becoming plodding, slow moving, or self indulgent.  I particularly liked “Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland,” which was the story I remembered reading, “Grandmother’s Footsteps,” and “Collision.”  There were no stories that I didn’t enjoy, and that doesn’t happen very often.  This was a remarkable enough collection to make me wish she was more active at shorter length. 3/23/11

Welcome to the Greenhouse edited by Gordon Van Gelder, OR Books, 2011, $17, ISBN 978-1-935928-27-0   

Although the politicians continue to argue about the cause, cure, and severity of global warming, there is no question that our climate changes over time.  The premise of this collection of original short stories is that global warming leads to significant changes which have an impact on human society, and each story attempts to describe one possible outcome of that interaction.  Van Gelder has brought together a number of first rate talents including Brian W. Aldiss, Judith Moffett, Gregory Benford, and Paul Di Filippo to explore those possibilities and the result is far more varied than is the case with most theme anthologies.  There’s a good mix of styles and subject matter, and a blend of established and newer writers like M.J. Locke and Jeff Carlson.  3/23/11

Brain and Breakfast by Daniel Pearlman, Sam's Dot, 2011, around $6, no ISBN

This novella is a Detective Merkouros interdimensional mystery.  Merkouros, as you might guess, is an investigator in an alternate version of his world who is engaged in tracking down an interdimensional criminal who has stolen an experimental form of technology that allows personalities to be uploaded onto data chips. The thief is marketing the technique as a form of immortality, apparently unaware that there is a major flaw in the process and anyone who accepts the treatment is doomed to a near future, painful death.  Apprehending the guilty party is complicated by the fact that Merkouros doesn't have a good physical description, and he is under pressure to get things done quickly.  The story is a kind of blend of more contemporary literary techniques with a plot that would have felt comfortable in a 1950s SF magazine.  A touch of romance, clever wordplay, and a satisfying climax add to the pleasure.  3/16/11

Xombies: Apocalypso by Walter Greatshell, Ace, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-02013-3  

Third in the Xombies series, which straddles SF and horror.  It’s the familiar Living Dead scenario, a contagion that turns all infected into vicious, brutal killers, although Greatshell has a few surprises in store for us.  But the Xombification process isn’t an unadulterated evil.  A team of the infected is attempting to spread their own version throughout the population, convinced that it will be beneficial.  Just as it appears that the human race is headed toward extinction, a small group show up who are immune – where have I heard that before? – and the secret of their resistance could tip the balance and save us all.  Reasonably suspenseful, fast paced, and the clichés are well tested and usually, as in this case, entertaining despite their familiarity. 3/15/11

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories of the Year Volume V edited by Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade, 2011, $19.99, ISBN 978-1-59780-172-0   

There was a time when I used to read every SF prozine from cover to cover.  Now I read more selectively at shorter length in order to keep up – or try to keep up – to novels.  Short fiction appears in so many places – small press, original collections and anthologies, on line, and elsewhere – that I probably could not keep up if I tried, and I’m thankful that people like Gardner Dozois, Ellen Datlow, David Hartwell, and Jonathan Strahan attempt to do so for me and put out annual “best” collections. There is some overlap, of course, but there’s still enough to fill several volumes.  This largish collection – over 500 pages – tends slightly toward the literary end of the spectrum, but not dramatically so.  Authors as diverse as Cory Doctorow, Elizabeth Hand, Neil Gaiman, Robert Reed, and Margo Lanagan all find room here, and there’s considerable diversion in plot, treatment, and tone as well.  Strahan also includes promising work from a variety of newcomers as well as established writers.  He also draws from a variety of unusual sources.  Worth looking out for, or more likely, ordering on line. 

Revolution World by Katy Stauber, Night Shade, 2011, $14.99, ISBN 978-1-59780-233-8   

There is a subset of SF, often overlapping cyberpunk, set in a quasi-near future in which technology has advanced in often bizarre ways, sometimes humorously so as, in this case, ninja Pomeranians.  These novels often resemble the satires of the 1950s and 1960s, although the tone is generally much different.  Stauber’s presumably first novel falls into that category, set after a limited ecological and financial collapse, and its protagonists are computer wise but otherwise limited fugitives when they discover a government conspiracy and a gasping corporation that wants to steal their discoveries. This gets mixed up with a plan by a group of young Texans to secede from what’s left of the US.  It has a few good moments and is not bad overall, but I was never really emotionally committed to the story or the characters so it came across as a bit flat. 3/14/11

Savage Scars by Andy Hoare, Black Library, 2011, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-565-0

Blood Gorgons by Henry Zou, Black Library, 2011, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-007-8

I probably should have burnt out on military SF set in the Warhammer universe by now.  There are only a handful of plots spread among the scores of books in the series, and while the writing is almost always competent it is rarely inspired.  But there are times when I’m in the mood for them and occasionally I’m even surprised by an exceptionally good example.  The first of these is quite typical.  The space marines are called upon to invade an alien planet to overthrow the alien political and military establishment, which they do after a series of advances and setbacks that don’t break any new territory but cover the old nicely enough.  The second title is considerably above average.  This time the marines are on the defensive, a defense that breaks down when a plague of what is essentially a form of zombieism thins there ranks.  A lone survivor has to discover the truth and save the day, which he also manages to do after a series of adventures.  The dialogue could have used some work – it’s too sparse – but otherwise I liked this one. 3/13/11

Scratch Monkey by Charles Stross, NESFA, 2011, $27, ISBN 978-1-886778-95-5   

This year’s Boskone book is a short novel by Charles Stross, accompanied by two essays on the story and on publishing in general.  The novel is a very distant future space opera in which humans have spread through the galaxy, not always in the same physical form, encountering alien races and creating one of their own, a self aware AI species.  The protagonist is an agent sent to meddle in the affairs of other planets at the apparent whim of her employer, who is virtually her owner. Except that the AIs humans know about aren’t the only ones; there’s another brand with even greater intelligence, and our protagonist is tasked with the job of finding out about them in order to gain her freedom. For some reason, most of the best space opera appearing nowadays is by writers from the UK.  This is a prime example. 3/11/11

The Raven by Patrick Carman, Scholastic, 2011, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-545-24095-9

Shantorian by Patrick Carman, Scholastic, 2011, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-545-16501-3 4180-1 

Both of these novels are parts of series and both require the reader to have access to the internet in order to watch videos that provide clues about what’s happening in the story.  Although this seems like a clever idea, I wondered from the outset what happens a few years from now when those links are in all likelihood no longer active.  Are we seeing the creation of books which by their very nature have limited lifespans?  That cavil – and it’s a big one – aside, these are both fairly good YA adventures by an author who has produced some enjoyable books in the past.  The first is part of the Skeleton Creek series and is somewhat suspenseful, involving a shadowy figure who seems to have extraordinary powers.  The second is in the Trackers series, much more overtly SF although I didn’t care for it as much.  The Trackers are teens who in this case are trying to find a criminal who operates in virtual reality.  Because of the reliance on the online link, the stories seem fragmentary and incomplete and in fact they take about a half hour each to read if you skip the videos.  Pretty minor and not up to Carman’s usual level. 3/6/11

Lenny Zero and the Perps of Mega-City One by various, 2000 AD, 2011, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-907519-76-5

This is a collection of graphic stories using the same setting, each by different artist and writer combinations.  I believe Mega-City is also the location of the Judge Dredd stories, so not surprisingly these are pretty similar.  Each one follows part of the career of some master criminal, some interesting, some not so.  The art styles don't vary as much as I might have suspected, and about half of it is in full color.  "Slick on the Job" struck me as the best of these. They're not really my kind of story, but they were certainly readable. 2/27/11

Boiling Point by K.L. Dionne, Jove, 1/11, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-515-14880-0

This is the second thriller by this author, and I very much enjoyed the first, so not surprisingly I liked the second as well.  A reclusive scientist convinced that it is necessary to do something about global warming has initiated a program by means of which erupting volcanoes will seed the atmosphere with sulfuric acid and bring about cooling.  Since he’s doing this on his own, it’s necessarily secret and several of the other characters stumble into the plot, or the consequences of the eruption, for an exciting and sometimes fatal series of adventures.  My one complaint is the arrogance of almost every character involved, including the scientist who arbitrarily decides he has the right to use an experimental technique to change the world’s environment.  You’ll have trouble putting this one down even when you don’t like the characters. 2/24/11

Messiah by S. Andrew Swann, DAW, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0657-8  

Final volume of the Apotheosis trilogy, a space opera painted on a broad canvas.  Although much of the galaxy has been colonized, there’s a problem.  An artificial intelligence has decided that it is a god and, using nanotechnology, is spreading from system to system, absorbing or destroying everything it touches.  There appears to be no way that humans can resist the oncoming tide but, naturally, there is a way out, though not an obvious one.  Swann brings his inventive series to a rousing conclusion, a space opera with a strong religious undercurrent. Somewhat reminiscent of Peter F. Hamilton's work, but with its own perspective. 2/22/11

Rising Tides by Taylor Anderson, Roc, 2011, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46388-3  

Another installment in the saga of the Destroyermen, a ship and crew swept into an alternate version of Earth.  In this reality, the equivalent of the British India Company is actually plotting to overthrow the government and seize control themselves.  Against this backdrop, our hero is involved in an effort to track down a villain who kidnapped two women. This time there’s less naval conflict and more political intrigue, but never fear there’s enough overt military conflict to maintain the tone of the series.  The problem with series like this is that their authors must constantly devise new dangers and after a while repetition begins to set in.  I think the Destroymen is approaching that point. 2/18/11

Leviathans of Jupiter by Ben Bova, Tor, 2011, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-1788-9   

There used to be a good deal of what we called hard SF years ago, but a lot of it was comparatively soft given how little we actually knew about other worlds and the life that might evolve on them.  A few stories that were much heavier on the science were, alas, not nearly as entertaining as fiction, and certainly neither category was particularly convincing.  Ben Bova has found the formula, however.  During the last ten years or so he has emerged as the most consistent writer of realistic hard SF around, and he has managed to do so without sacrificing entertainment values.  The latest of his explorations of our solar system involves the strange beings that might exist in the oceanlike atmosphere of Jupiter. Following up on his ill fated first expedition – see Bova’s Jupiter – our protagonist returns with better equipment, this time determined to prove that the gigantic lifeforms are actually intelligent. The puzzle involving his attempts to do so is complemented by another plot, efforts to sabotage the mission for the usual nefarious reasons.  I knew this was going to be a treat even before I started, and it’s one of my favorite of the author’s novels. 2/15/11

Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge, Small Beer Press, 2011, $16, ISBN 978-193152010-2  

I’m pretty sure I read this novel when it first appeared back in 2002 from Eos, but I didn’t remember it at all.  Earth is more or less united under a single world government, but our protagonist – who is initially an ardent supporter – discovers that things are not as they appear and she is convicted of murder and sentenced to artificially enhanced solitary confinement, enhanced so that she experiences years of isolation in a relatively short time.  Eventually released, she struggles to reintegrate herself into a world that has been revealed as very different from her former assumptions.  This is a very well written but rather depressing book, a dystopia that suggests a united world might not be as desirable as some of us might think.  Good to see it back in print. 2/14/11

Mean Machine: Real Mean by John Wagner, Alan Grant, Gordon Rennie, Greg Staples, and Steve Dillon, Rebellion, 2011, $19.99, ISBN 978-1-907519-75-8  

Mean Machine Angel is a recurring villain in the Judge Dredd graphic series, and this is a collection of several of those adventures by different artists and writers, collected in a large format softcover edition.  As you might expect, these stories – set in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse – are heavy on violence and imagery.  Dredd is on the side of right, although it's not always obvious.  Some of it is quite striking, some not.  The stories are varied within the confines of the premise, and while not really to my taste, they are executed skillfully.  A pretty hefty book for the price as well. 2/12/11

Admiralty by Poul Anderson, NESFA, 2011, $29, ISBN 978-1-886778-94-8

When I reread most of Poul Anderson’s work a few years ago, I was surprised not so much because I still enjoyed them but because they were in fact better written than I remembered, and several are certainly classics of the field, if that term means anything at all.  Anderson was equally at ease at both novel and shorter length, and NESFA’s series of collections of his short fiction could not help being excellent. This is the fourth and contains several of his best tales including “Delenda Est,” “Quixote and the Windmill,” “Goat Song,” and “Sister Planet.”  Most are SF with a few fantasies, most serious adventure stories with some humor mixed in.  Every one of them is worth reading, and re-reading. 2/11/11

Engineering Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan, Solaris, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-907519-52-9

I hate to sound like an old fogey, but the kinds of SF story that originally attracted me to the field have become less and less in evidence, and although I like a lot of the new stuff that has taken its place, I still miss having my sense of wonder strummed on a regular basis.  Here, however, is a collection of original stories that are much more reminiscent of the days of Galaxy and If and Amazing Stories.  Damien Broderick, Stephen Baxter, Gregory Benford, Robert Reed, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and others provide a very good selection covering diverse topics and settings and writing styles, but all celebrating the grandeur of the natural universe in some fashion.  Benford, Charles Stross, and Karl Schroeder lead the way in a uniformly good selection. 2/3/11

Mad Skills by Walter Greatshell, Ace, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-02012-6  

The Bionic Woman meets Flowers for Algernon in this new thriller.  A woman wakens from a coma to discover that she has been the subject of a revolutionary new form of brain surgery that has sharpened her intellectual skills.  But the cutting edge is always dangerous.  She is sent to a small town to recover, supposedly, but unbeknownst to her, the experiment is not over and it has a more sinister purpose.  Fortunately, her exploiters aren’t aware of just how much more intelligent she has become.  The general outline of the plot is fairly obvious but the author takes us through a few detours and surprise side trips to reach its destination.  Less hectic but more convincing than his two previous novels, both of which involved rationalized zombies. 1/20/11

Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold, Baen, 2010, $25, ISBN 978-1-4391-3394-1

The first new Miles Vorkosigan novel in many years opens with a bang.  Miles has just escaped a group of kidnappers and is wandering, drug dazed, in a vast underground crypt of frozen bodies. From there we are led into revelations about a corporate conspiracy to conceal faults in their systems as well as a devious plot to seize control of an entire planet.  There are fire bombings, more kidnappings, and even moments of humor as he unravels the threads of a conspiracy, rescues a woman held incommunicado, befriends a pair of children, and frustrates his bodyguard, all without becoming officially involved in the affairs of another planet.  This was a lot of fun but I had a couple of problems with it.  For one thing, there is never a good reason offered for why he sends the young boy to his consulate rather than going himself, particularly since when the boy gets arrested, he ends up doing so anyway.  Second, the climax comes quite a bit before the ending with a bit too much explaining the consequences and showing what happens next to be dramatically effective.  Minor problems though, and this should please fans of the series as well as newcomers.  1/18/11

Prospero Burns by Dan Abnett, Black Library, 2010, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-777-7

The Purging of Kadillus by Gav Thorpe, Black Library, 2011, $11.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-897-2  

Military SF with a touch of fantasy in Abnett’s latest Warhammer novel.  The emperor of the human empire is understandable annoyed when his brother gets visions of grandeur and threatens to destabilize the empire.  A military force is sent to subdue him and his retinue of warships and wizards. Abnett manages to maintain some control over the conflicting reality systems and remains one of the two or three best working in the Warhammer universe.  Thorpe, another reliable series writer, is closer to pure SF. A military unit is under siege on a beleaguered planet where what was believed to be little more than a feint turns into a major invasion.  More action than story, reasonably well told, and pretty much typical of this series.  Despite a couple of good scenes, this wasn’t one of Thorpe’s best. 1/17/11

Dead Men Walking by Steve Lyons, Black Library, 2010, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-84970-012-2

Thunder & Steel by Dan Abnett, Black Library, 2011, $15, ISBN 978-1-84970-023-8  

Zombies come to the world of Warhammer, sort of, in the first of these.  The setting is a mining planet of no particular note, except that deep underground dwells a kind of comatose army of the living dead who wait for the right moment to rise to the surface and overwhelm the current colonists. The authorities send in a crack unit of space marines to destroy the attackers, and from that point on the story resembles most of the other similar novels in the Warhammer universe.  A slightly novel approach and not badly written, but without straying too far from the formula.  The second title is an omnibus of three complete, previously published novels, and some short items including an entire graphic story.  Abnett is probably the best author of military SF working in the Warhammer universe and this is a lot of book for the fifteen bucks. 1/13/11

The Enemy by Charlie Higson, Hyperion, 2010, $16.99, ISBN 978-142313175-5

A plague has killed almost everyone over sixteen and the survivors are not exactly zombies but close enough.  Against that backdrop, we have a group of kids desperately trying to reach what is supposed to be a safe haven at Buckingham Palace.  There are subplots involving one child who gets separated from the rest, and some inevitable political maneuvering for leadership roles among the unaffected survivors.  This is surprisingly violent for a YA novel but is also one of the most frenetically paced I’ve read in a while.  It’s not a happy book though and the depressing setting and overtones may dissuade some readers. 1/8/11

The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies by H.G. Wells and Eric S. Brown, Gallery, 2010, $15, ISBN 978-1-4516-0975-2

I had hoped this trend was over.  Apparently not.  Another classic novel “enhanced” by the addition of scenes involving zombies.  Brown does a not awful job of imitating the style of Wells for his additions, which involve a horde of risen dead who prey on the living amidst the chaos of the Martian invasion.  The tone just doesn’t match though and the zombie scenes were incongruous rather than interesting, which I’ve found to be true of the other books of this type I’ve sampled.  A funny once has been, you should pardon the expression, done to death. 1/7/11

Guardians of the Phoenix by Eric Brown, Solaris, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-907519-15-4

Very quietly and without much fuss, Eric Brown has become one of those authors whose new books get shifted up to the top of the pile.  He provides a solid, reliably entertaining story every time and often provides some innovative approaches to old themes.  This one is a post apocalyptic novel set in crumbling Paris after global warming, nuclear conflict, and other disasters have left the Earth mostly in ruins. After some harrowing adventures, he joins as group who plan to travel into unknown regions in search of a more welcoming environment, but naturally we know that the journey is not going to be as simple as they might have hoped. But they will ultimately discover much more than just a temporary haven against the elements.  No great surprises here, just good writing and an exciting story.  1/1/11