Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Speck by L. Marshall James

book cover for SpeckA dark speck slips from dormancy, where it has been trapped for millennia. It is utterly alien, singularly enthralling, and devastatingly lethal. What follows in its wake are chaos and death.

There will be no escape.

The opening strikes me as a mashup of the first third of King's Dreamcatcher (the good part) and an incident that took place near the end of Koontz's Watchers. James offers us a lovely picture of an idyllic natural setting and then unleashes his "speck" upon a hapless marmot. The speck has the ability to control minds in close proximity through suggestion at the most primal level. As the speck grows in size, it gains strength and sophistication. Things spiral out of control, leaving the reader to hope that someone can get the speck under control before its destruction reaches catastrophic proportions.

The story starts with a universal omniscient narrator but switches to third person subjective once humans get involved in the story. The narrative is relayed through several characters, primarily those that encounter the speck. Characters are only given a chapter to carry the narrative, but James has them make the most of it. I never got the impression that these were disposable characters. James invests the time to develop them, although their appearance on stage is brief. If the book had been a novel instead of a novella, I don't see any reason why the characters wouldn't be any to carry the story further.

But the length of the story is also something of a negative. The story reaches a point where the reader says, "Oh crap! What now?" The fast pace of the story comes to an abrupt halt. The ending comes as a bit of unsatisfying diabolus ex machina, which is followed by an epilogue that struck me as an outline for how the story could've carried on from novella to novel. I feel like the author hit a wall and either couldn't think of a way to continue or didn't want to (hence the epilogue).

Although only a novella, Speck demonstrates an author with a talent for creating believable characters, setting a good narrative pace, and establishing a realistic setting. He understands King's idiom that "bad things happen to good people" and handles it well. As James continues to develop his craft, I have no doubt that his potential will be realized.

For more information about Speck, please visit Goodreads.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Interview by Damian Bruce

book cover for The InterviewIn a city racked by poverty and discontent, twelve people arrive for an interview with the all powerful Frontline Corporation. The successful candidate will trade hunger and hardship for a life of luxury and excess. However, it quickly becomes clear that the interview is nothing like they expected. Who will survive the brutal waiting game that unfolds? To what lengths are the candidates willing to go to secure the job? And what secrets are they hiding from one another?

Let me deal with the obvious: This is a terrible book cover. If I saw this in a book store or it came up on one of my recommendation feeds, I'd chuckle and move on (fortunately, I don't look at the covers for submissions). And that's too bad, because Bruce has written a good story. But this cover does nothing to support the blurb or hint at the content within. Please, Mr. Bruce, check out our list of book cover designers and invest in your cover.

Now onto the review.

There are two threads running through this book: the narrative of the interview and backstory chapters. The chapters alternate. First we have Edgar's narrative of the interview as it happens, and then the next chapter details the backstory of the interviewee that was just eliminated. But only the reader is aware of these backstories; Edgar is ignorant, free to reflect on his insecurity and low self-esteem. Tension is low at first, but as the more timid interviewees give up and depart, people come to realize that their odds of winning have improved and tensions rise. The longer the interview carries on, the more desperate everyone becomes.

One prize not mentioned in the blurb is that the winner of the interview will get to meet the "company alpha", Elise Villette, who has succeeded her recently deceased father as leader of the Frontline Corportation. Meeting Villette is more than just a formality; it becomes the goal of those involved.

We learn through the first few character backstory chapters about the background of this city-state that Frontline controls. Initially, I felt that these chapters were a distraction from the interview narrative. But over time, as more interesting characters were eliminated, they revealed that more is going on in this city than plain vanilla oppression. A revolt is brewing, born from the ashes of a failed one years ago. But the old leaders have split into two factions. One believes that the security forces can be defeated if the seemingly omniscient leader of Frontline is assassinated.

The other faction believes that peace is the answer. This faction is aware of an assassin but not his/her identity. The company already provides essential, albeit meager, services, and this infrastructure needs to be preserved. Villette just needs to change her tack from the oppressive stance of her father to benevolent leader. The peaceful faction attempts to contact interviewees to persuade them of the importance of their mission. They even try to get put their own people in place for the interview.

While I only found a handful of typos, comma punctuation was lacking. The book needs a lot more commas. They were left out of dialogue the majority of the times. Too often a sentence like this: "Where are you going, Harry?" was written as "Where are you going Harry?" If that doesn't bother you, then ignore me.

The Interview proves the adage that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I know people will, and that's a shame. This is a well-crafted story with an assortment of characters with hidden agendas. Whether their goal is to escape poverty or transform the city from the top, the stakes couldn't be higher for the twelve assembled. What starts out as a simple dystopia gradually evolves into an intriguing game of "guess the assassin." Just when I thought I had it figured out, Bruce surprised me. So if you think you've got this book figured out from the cover, you're in for a pleasant surprise.

For more information about The Interview, please visit its page on Goodreads.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A Sickness in Time by MF Thomas and Nicholas Thurkettle

Cover: A Sickness in Time

In 2038, the human race is in a death spiral, and most people do not even know it yet. Technology that was supposed to make us better and stronger instead is birthing a strange and terrible plague we may not be able to stop. When the young daughter of Josh Scribner, a wealthy tech entrepreneur, starts to succumb to the illness, he dedicates his fortune in a desperate effort to save her life. Working with a friend & celebrated physicist, Josh develops the ability to send objects back through time. Their goal to recruit an agent in the past who might change our fatal path.

In our present day, a broken and traumatized Air Force veteran finds a strange message in the woods, drawing her into an adventure spanning decades. All humanity is at stake, as she and her small group of friends become the unlikely heroes taking up the secret fight against our future doom.

MF Thomas and Nicholas Thurkettle, authors of the acclaimed sci-fi thriller,
Seeing by Moonlight, are back with this time-twisting adventure that asks if our own destiny can be healed.

A Sickness in Time, by MF Thomas and Nicholas Thurkettle, is set in two time periods: one in the present day and one in 2039. It is a time travel plot with carefully defined limitations around what can be sent and how far back. The constraints are, of course, what makes the plot interesting. There can be no free-for-all in which the timeline gets increasingly muddied, but the various characters have to plan out very precisely what they intend to do. And the nearness of the two time periods—under twenty years—is very intriguing. There is no grandfather paradox here: the overlaps are much more immediate.

But before you reach the time travel elements of this story, and running along in parallel with it, is a plot dealing with the crossover between human and artificial intelligence. In this case, the artificial part takes the form of augments to human capability, rather than alternatives. The book's title refers to the discovery that the augments have a shadow side, the extent of which is largely unknown. They are not the unequivocal benefit first assumed, though puzzling out what the problems are takes a lot of time.

This story really worked for me. I liked the interplay between the different periods and the gradual alteration of the future line in response to successive changes. It's hard to tie up all the loose ends once you invoke time travel, but the authors do a convincing job. Inevitably, well before the halfway mark, you find yourself wondering how the tangle is going to resolve. Without giving anything away, the resolution had a clever twist. Every reader will—like me—wonder if that was the best choice to make, but it has certainly been done creatively.

There are two pairs of main characters, one pair in each of the two periods. But the pairs are contrasting in several ways rather than parallel. The authors do a good job of exploiting these contrasts. I found all four of the protagonists very credible, and quite individual.

In short, A Sickness in Time is well thought out, well planned, and well executed. If you like science fiction which doesn't just tell a story, but probes the difficult interface between scientific, social and ethical areas, this could be the book for you. I certainly really enjoyed it.

The book's website can be found here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Kingdom's End by Charles D. Blanchard

book cover for Kingdom's EndIndio, a wise blind mole rat, has led a prosperous colony of sighted rats in the ruins of an old, abandoned movie theater for most of his thirty years. But the head of colony security, an ambitious Norway rat named Matthias, thinks he can do a better job and schemes to make a power grab. Meanwhile, the city recognizes that it has a rat infestation problem and decides to wage war on them, ultimately setting its sights on the theater.

Blanchard dedicates this novel to Richard Adams for writing Watership Down. While that book got people to look at cuddly rabbits in a new light, Kingdom's End attempts to take an animal often looked upon as vile and detestable and shine a more favorable light upon it. He makes no attempt to gloss over the rats' culinary preferences or nesting habits, but through anthropomorphization he imbues some of them with more admirable qualities of honor and service to community.

The story starts off with a group of rats out on a foraging mission. We start with one rat, then segue over to another rat, who then meets up with another rat, and so on. The focus of the story shifts from one rat to the next as Blanchard introduces us to parts of their world. Some rats that appear early in the story don't re-appear until much later. It's a bit dizzying as I wasn't sure which rats were important to the overall story and which weren't.

The story is told from a universal omniscient POV, which goes above and beyond third-person omniscient. Not only do we know what all of the rats are up to, but the nameless humans they encounter as well. Blanchard tells us everything, relevant or not to the adventures of the rats. I found it odd that we would be told a human character's backstory but not their name. And there's a lot of telling that goes on with this form of narration. The foreshadowing comes in the form of prophesies from an old rat that lives near the river. We know what's going to happen, it's just a question of when. I realize that this is a more traditional form of storytelling, but I find that it goes too far and leaves less for the reader to discover on their own.

I don't know if many people will get past the ick factor to follow Blanchard down into the grimy world that the rats live in. When I described the book as "Watership Down for rats" to my wife, that's how she replied. We like rabbits; they're soft, cuddly, and cute. It isn't hard to make your reader care about their fate. That's far from an easy thing to do with rats. Blanchard succeeds to some extent; I felt pity for the rats that were cruelly struck down by the hazards of urban living, and I rooted for the good and honorable rats. But too often a misapplied narrative focus and the deafening foreshadowing cut into my entertainment of the story.

To learn more about Kingdom's End, please visit the book's website.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Quest for Kriya by Rahul Deokar

Cover image - Quest for Kriya (Goodreads)
Haunted by tragic loss in the 1993 India earthquake, a broken Shakti with a tenuous hold on life is sheltered by her soul-sister Kriya. But when Kriya vanishes without a trace, Shakti is unwittingly swept into a cataclysmic vortex of greed, lust and betrayal. Shakti meets Shiva, a struggling Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and discovers that love is an enigmatic cosmic force.

Shakti and Shiva are thrust on a frantic race against time through the dark Mumbai underbelly, forbidden Thailand islands, and treacherous cliffs in the Andaman Sea, where danger lurks in every shadow. As they get closer to the truth, they realize that millions of innocent lives are at stake.

Quest for Kriya is an epic saga of love, friendship and sacrifice. The journey is incredible. The emotions are real. The transformation is eternal.

I was drawn to The Quest for Kriya by the names of some of the protagonists—Shiva, Shakti, and so on. I had imagined that it would explore deep issues, and make interesting mythological or religious connections. The preview passage that you get to see on Amazon and elsewhere tends to support this idea. The opening chapter, set around one person's terrible experiences of the 1993 Latur earthquake in India, was very successful at drawing me in and built up a lot of promise.

But we then jump to what might vaguely be called an earthquake-like change in another character's life in the United States. The parallel was loose, seeing as how the person concerned only lost their job, and was therefore motivated to start something new. Compared to losing one's home, family, friends and neighbours, suffering betrayal, and having to relocate to Mumbai, this seemed kind of lightweight, but I think the purpose was to set up friendships and enmities which would persist through the rest of the book.

From here on, though, the story suddenly diverted into a long, complex plot all about crime syndicates and drug dealers in India and nearby countries. Our two protagonists manage to break all this up almost without meaning to, by successfully threading their way through a series of amazing coincidences. Their rather bumbling approach to the whole affair mysteriously carries the day, aided by timely intervention from friends and well-wishers.

The plot is suspended between two cataclysms—the above-mentioned Latur earthquake and the 2004 Asian tsunami—and this basic device worked very well. But I got a bit lost in the intervening drug dealer story and didn't find the rather gooey romance between the male and female leads very believable. They seemed never able to get beyond a kind of adolescent idealisation of each other into a more credible and adult relationship. Insofar as the characters developed at all, they basically learned to conform to a set of behaviours and expectations set up by others. This is not a story of individuation or self-actualisation, but rather it is one of submission to external norms. As a result, everyone's emotional responses are very muted, as they increasingly take on board the philosophical position that nothing should disturb one's equanimity, and in the long run over many lifetimes everything will pan out for the best.

On the plus side, the book has been extremely well and carefully prepared, and for all of its heavy reliance on coincidence, the plot does keep moving along. I couldn't say if it accurately reflects police practice in the various countries, but to a casual reader it seems credible. And the basic structural device of hanging the story between two Asian natural disasters was a really compelling feature.

I guess my main difficulty was the mismatch of expectations. If there are parallels with any of the original tales of Shiva and Shakti, they are extremely well veiled. You will find little of the lively and authentic passion of the Khumarasambhavam, for example. The protagonists' potential for spirituality or real emotional engagement seems to be increasingly marginalised through the story, rather than liberated. I felt let down by the ways in which these two protagonists conducted themselves, given that their names hold so much mythological weight.

So, if you go in expecting a pacy crime plot set mostly in Asia, you will probably enjoy Quest for Kriya. If, like me, you were looking for something with more cosmic depths and resonances, it is best to revise your expectations and just go with the flow of what's there.

The author's website can be found here.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Human and the Hunted by R.A. Burg

book cover for The Human and the HuntedEarth. 11,000 BCE.

A galaxy wide war between sentient machines rages and Earth is in the crossfire. Oblivious to the deadly peril above, Far Runner and his tribe face their own struggles. An unstable climate forces the group to migrate south and into the sights of a ruthless human foe.

A merciless attack tears Runner away from his family and friends.

A wounded alien cyborg soldier is stranded on Earth. Her views and identity are challenged when she finds herself face to face with a determined human named Far Runner.

As if there weren't enough problems, Moorr, a radioactive four-legged freighter pilot, prospector, and drug smuggler, is displaced by a relic of the war. Lost, he searches for his kin, but finds Earth instead. The defenseless planet is ripe for exploitation.

There's only one way for Far Runner to save his People. There's only one way for the stranded soldier to return home. And only one way Moorr's dangerous presence can be dealt with.

Earth is in peril. Time is running out...

Yeah, the cover isn't so good, but the story is. Rather than depicting an alien over a galactic backdrop, it would've been better if it had portrayed a scene from the book that included the alien.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Runner (human), En (alien #1), and Moorr (alien #2). Each brings a unique perspective to the story, and Burg gets points for how she handles them. The people of 11,000 BCE strike me as realistic, and the aliens are definitely alien. The humans are in transition from Paleolithic to Mesolithic—given to spirit worship and demonstrating a limited understanding for how the world works. En, the cyborg, is pictured on the cover. "Her" species was saved from extinction by a faction of sentient machines who don't believe that organic life sucks and has to die. Moorr's species are guided by taste and odor, and that's been built into the instrumentation of their spaceships. Moorr expresses surprise that life arose in water on Earth, but I don't recall if it was explained what Moorr expected. And Moorr's biology functions with radioisotopes. Yes, they're radioactive. That sets up an obvious problem when Moorr encounters humans.

Neither Moorr nor En is the omnipotent alien that is often portrayed in non-invasive human-alien encounters. Both aliens stumble in their attempts to understand human language and behavior, not to mention Earth's other native life. En even attempts to dispel Runner's belief that she is a sky spirit. The misunderstandings aren't limited to human-alien interactions, but alien-alien behavior as well. The confusion makes for some light humor when it's harmless, but when it turns serious the tension rises.

A good deal of the novel is centered on En helping Runner find the members of his tribe that were kidnapped by raiders. In the process, Burg showcases how Runner's hunter gatherer tribe's ways are losing out to those that have settled down and built villages. The rise of agriculture and the prospect of a steady food supply has a strong allure towards those who wake up each morning wondering where they'll find their next meal, or if they will at all. While this has some appeal from an anthropological perspective, it slows the pace down. One village is interesting; three becomes a bit tedious.

As for the technicals, the manuscript could've used another round of proofreading. Unfortunately I found plenty of spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, and punctuation errors. At times, Burg is guilty of too much telling and not enough showing. The end of the book had a couple of chapters that would've been better suited for the next novel in the series. It takes away from the feeling of closure for this book. But if these things don't bother you, then ignore me.

Despite these flaws, The Human and the Hunted is a good story and makes for a solid debut. Burg avoids first contact clichés and delivers two interesting aliens and believable prehistoric humans during a time of major sociological change.

For more information, please visit the author's website.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Blogger Issue

It would seem that ours is one of several blogs that were damaged overnight. All of our links to our book reviews are gone. All of our links to other book review blogs are gone. Still trying to get a handle on this. I'm hoping that they can be restored from a backup as restoring all of them on my own would be exceedingly difficult.

UPDATE 9:25 AM EST: Used one of those archive websites to salvage the links just in case Google can't restore them. That knocks the task down from "Herculean" to a "slog."

UPDATE 9/30 12:00 PM EST: I received this message:
Restoring the gadgets may take up several days. You can add and fill the gadgets yourself, or wait for Blogger engineering to restore the repaired gadgets.
With no immediate resolution to this problem, I suppose I'll have to restore them myself when I find the time.

UPDATE 10/21 8:00 AM EST: I have finished restoring all of our blogrolls and book review link lists.


Monday, August 29, 2016

100 by 100: Stories in 100 Words by M.L. Kennedy

Book cover for 100 by 100100 by 100 is a collection of 100 stories that are each 100 words long. Mathematically, that makes each worth 1/10 of a picture. Some of these 0.1 pictures are scary, some are funny, some are funny and scary, while others are just odd.

Reading this book reminds me of beer (or wine) tastings. When you finish sampling one and wish to try another, it is recommended that you cleanse your palate with some water. Your resetting your taste buds so that your new taste experience won't be unduly influenced by the previous sample. This book is like that. When switching from one novel to another, this book would serve as a great literary palate cleanser. It's refreshes your brain and has the bonus side effect of entertaining it as well.

Most of the stories have a twist at the end. But as I think about it, how else can one neatly wrap up a story that's only one hundred words long? The author quickly sets up the premise and then (bam!) there's the ending. I found that 93% of the stories worked (I kept track), and most of them relied on that format. It didn't matter if the twist was spooky, ironic, or humorous. That's what worked. Those that didn't just trailed off.

The stories cover the gamut from quirky sci-fi, suspense & horror, bizarre fantasy, and conversational satire. Santa Claus, vampires, clowns, ghosts, interdimensional travel, and alien invasions all make appearances. With a few exceptions, the stories remain light-hearted.

If you've just finished some 500-page behemoth and you're not ready to start the next one, but you need to read something, then consider 100 by 100. It's light and refreshing, and you'll be done with it in no time.

To learn more about 100 by 100 or M.L. Kennedy, please visit his website.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Madam Tulip by David Ahern

“All the world’s a stage” would be an apt subtitle for David Ahern’s madcap thriller/mystery novel Madam Tulip. Several characters are struggling actors, but even the non-thespians engage in performances of varying degrees of desperation. They include a steely businessman trying to disguise shady dealings, undercover police posing as wealthy socialites, and a murderous international criminal who assumes a more mundane persona to avoid detection.

Into this unfolding intrigue inadvertently stumbles 27-year-old out-of-work Dublin actor Derry O’Donnell. Prompted by her chronically poor finances, she decides to capitalize on the psychic abilities that run in her family by setting herself up as a fortune teller under the moniker “Madam Tulip.” She lands a gig at a glamorous charity event hosted by supermodel Marlene Doyle, wife of Peter Doyle, the aforementioned shady businessman. As Derry plies her new trade amidst the beautiful, the famous, the wealthy, and the venal, a promising pop star in attendance dies suddenly. Derry, by dint of information gleaned during fortune-telling sessions, begins piecing together the tragedy’s antecedents.  The well-meaning Derry also fears for Marlene’s safety, and in trying to avert another tragedy, she becomes drawn into an increasingly dangerous mystery.

Madam Tulip sets off at a brisk pace that accelerates as the book progresses. In the early chapters, Ahern deftly sets to the stage for the mayhem to come by hinting at secrets and questionable motives. On meeting Marlene and Peter Doyle at a racetrack, Derry’s immediately detects that they are not what they seem.
Doyle is an actor, thought Derry. He’s playing the rich and successful host, a man in control. He’s having an off-day for some reason, but he doesn’t forget his lines, and he stays in character no matter what.
Very quickly, Derry’s relatively uneventful life is upended. Following the death of the pop star Mojo, Derry’s friend Bella is unjustly detained by the police, collateral damage from the plot that Derry is investigating. Derry herself becomes a target. With the help of her friend Bruce, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, she embarks on a series of maneuvers to unmask a deadly conspiracy. Like many characters who are suddenly catapulted into an adventure for which they are ill prepared, Derry faces strange and sometimes comical dilemmas, such trying to figure out how to dispose of planted drug money without leaving forensic traces.
…Derry hadn’t got a shredder.
How do you get rid of money? Never in her life had Derry imagined she’d be asking herself that question. “I know,” she said, jumping up and rooting in a kitchen cupboard. She pulled out a blender, plugged it into the socket and poured in a little water from the tap.
“I guess if it’ll turn cabbage into a smoothie it can do it to twenties.”
Derry proves to be a perceptive observer, and her impressions effectively draw the reader into the story.  She quickly spots incongruities in the behavior of the Doyles’ chauffeur Paulo.  On one occasion when Peter summons Paulo, his response to his employer is unusual.
The chauffeur of a rich man might have been expected to jump to attention and follow his master meekly across the lobby. To Derry’s surprise, Paulo did nothing of the kind. He put his hands in his pockets, walked backwards towards the door and, as he had done once before, blew Derry a kiss.
Her instincts are unerring. Several times in the book, she must decide whom to trust without having all the facts. Her training as an actor stands her in good stead in these situations, enabling her to identify subterfuge and sincerity. After the pop singer Mojo’s death, suspicion falls on his girlfriend Sonya, but Derry is confident that she is innocent.
She couldn’t even begin to imagine Sonya killing Mojo. Nobody, not even the best actress in the world, could fake the feelings Sonya had shown.
Madam Tulip’s overall tone is light-hearted, with comic relief provided by a feud between Derry’s divorced parents – her mother Vanessa, a flamboyant art dealer, and her father Jacko, a raffish painter perpetually one step ahead of trouble of his own making. Ahern’s wry observations like the following also contribute to the book’s wittiness.
The phalanx of policemen now fanned out around the offending car as though the driver inside were a terrorist or a wanted gangster. Meanwhile, the helmeted motorcyclists tried to disperse the watching crowd, shouting, “Nothing to see here, nothing to see! Move on!”
No crowd of Dubliners promised the delightful spectacle of raised voices, shouted obscenities and discommoded policemen will willingly accept an instruction to disperse, especially if accompanied by the ludicrous statement that there is nothing to see. Plainly, there was lots to see. The mood was turning ugly.
The novel has a couple of minor weaknesses. One subplot explores Derry’s potential rekindling of a past romance; however, the interactions between Derry and her former boyfriend lack any spark, and his character is woodenly unappealing. Another flaw, in light of the fact that this is the first in a planned series, is that Madam Tulip does not introduce any compelling character or story arcs that would span multiple installments. Because the novel is very competently written and succeeds on many levels, this is not strictly necessary. But to keep readers strongly engaged with a series, a novel should leave interesting questions and conflicts unresolved.

On the whole, though, Madam Tulip is pure entertainment, striking an ideal balance of comedy and suspense, with a cast of delightful eccentrics flailing their way through a gripping adventure that culminates in a satisfyingly cataclysmic conclusion.

For more information, please visit the author's website.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Guns, Gods & Robots by Brady Koch

Book cover for Guns, Gods, and RobotsBrady Koch's Guns, Gods & Robots is a short story collection whose tales fall into one of those three categories. Three out of the seven stories had been released as standalones, but now they've been combined into one collection.

The collection opens with "Numbers 16:32", which was originally released as a standalone story, and I reviewed it here. The original blurb: Joseph's Sunday morning routine of church, beer and solitude is interrupted by a ragged screaming coming from the far side of his farm land. What he finds there will challenge his resolve in ways he hasn't faced since losing his wife or facing the horrors of the Korean War. I re-read the story and discovered that it had been slightly re-worked and edited. There was a definite improvement which increased my enjoyment of the tale. It makes for a solid opening to the collection.

"X-mas for a Half-Life": The story starts off with a typical "Dear Santa" letter, but the kicker is that it was written by a little girl living in an underground bunker after a nuclear war. So how do you make a child's Christmas wish come true what day-to-day survival is a struggle? A charming story in the face of grim circumstances.

"Popular Mechanics for Young Widows": A dying engineer builds a robot butler for his wife. Years later, she struggles to cope with his death and what the robot represents. I wasn't sure where this one was headed, but I suspected it would end tragically. Koch deftly resolves the situation.

"Fighting Weight": A son reflects upon the ritual of his mother cutting his hair. That doesn't sound like much of a story, but it actually provides a window into a destructive co-dependent relationship. I was so focused on the obvious developments that Koch presented that I didn't see the end coming.

"Sangrimal": A girl’s birthday wish comes true when she gets to spend an afternoon on a manhunt with her lawman father. I found this one to be the weakest in the group. The story is told from Katie's POV, so when events transpired, I didn't understand why. I don't recall there being any clues that the reader should've picked up on that Katie wouldn't because of her age.

"Timothy": In a world beset by a plague, human missionaries of all faiths have been replaced by robots. Something goes wrong with a robot named Timothy, and it is up to a pair of human engineers to figure it out before its malady spreads to the other robots. It's a story that explores faith in an interesting way. Tied with "X-mas for a Half-Life" for favorite story in this collection.

"3rd Flight": A marathon runner sets out for the third run of his life—tradition says it will be last. To say anything more would give too much away.

There's a Bradbury current running through the sci-fi stories. I don't know if the author is a fan, but I sense the vibe in his writing, enough to say there's an influence. The horror feels a bit more like King (short story King, not bloated novel King). He lacks Bradbury's poetic flourish, but Koch definitely has his own voice, which I imagine will grow stronger over time. But it's how everyday people deal with extraordinary circumstances, be they wonderful or horrific.

Unfortunately, I found a bunch of typos. I didn't let them distract me from my enjoyment of the stories, but they could've easily been caught by a proofreader. Other than that, the composition of the stories was sound.

Guns, Gods & Robots is a delightful collection of short stories by an author who's truly emerging in his own right. Any of these stories could've been sold to a zine for publication (after some tweaking for length). If you appreciate older sci-fi (and horror) that focuses on upheavals in the lives of everyday people (rather than grand galactic sagas or dystopian dramas), then check out Guns, Gods & Robots.

For more information, please visit the author's website.